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Flight uncontrolled dive clip

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The Oscar-nominated star of plane crash drama Flight talked to Nuts about the challenges of playing an alcoholic airline pilot facing a tough road to redemption in the new film from Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis.

The Nuts Interview: Denzel Washington

Hi Denzel! Flight features a breath-taking sequence where your character takes manual control of a nose diving passenger plane. How tough was that to film?

Even on set this had it’s dangers. They put a real aircraft on a rig to simulate what could happen, so we’re shaking and moving. And then eventually, because my character crash-lands the plane upside down, they put us in another simulator - which was like a giant rotisserie rig - and turned us 360 degrees! Combined with the visual effects of what you see through the cockpit windows it looks amazing. And terrifying. It’s tough because you’ve got to figure out how to brace yourself and act!

How did you prepare to play an airline pilot?

Delta Airlines allowed us to use their flight simulators - the same ones that pilots practice on. It gave me a sense of how these guys do their job so in the movie I might not be pushing the right buttons but at least I look like I know what I’m doing!

As a man who’s racked up millions of air miles you must have had a few close shaves. What was your worst flight like?

I’ve been on planes that have been struck by lightning or fallen hundreds of feet during severe turbulence. But you know something? The time to worry about flying is when you’re on the ground. There’s no point worrying about it when you’re in the air. It’s too late because there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. There was one time when I was on a private plane and the flight attendant was so freaked out I had to calm her down. I’m thinking: Isn’t this supposed to be the other way round?

What made you choose to do something so radically different to your previous roles and play an alcoholic?

When I got the script it was such a good read. A real page-turner… So I called my agent right away and said I’m doing this. I didn’t have to find this character. It was all on the page. He’s a morally messed up guy but I’m not worrying about whether the audience will love me or not, I just play the part.

Do you have sympathy for that kind of addictive personality? Does that make it a tougher role to play?

It’s sad for anyone living with those kind of issues but I just had to go for it and if I fall down then that’s who I am.

How do you get yourself into the headspace to play drunk without going method and actually getting sozzled?

I did some research on Youtube and you see a lot of guys blind drunk but defiantly continuing what they’re doing because it’s a normal state of mind for them. So I used that idea of someone convinced they could function by being very deliberate. But I didn’t really have to mentally prepare to feel his addiction because Whip Whitaker is a guy who doesn’t think he has a problem. He just likes to drink. Every day. And every night.

It’s a fictional airline in the film. Was there ever talk of using a real one?

I don’t think the producers had deep enough pockets! The airlines don’t want to see an alcoholic pilot in the cockpit high on cocaine!

What’s the reaction to the film been like from real airline staff?

I’ve had some odd looks from pilots! But when they previewed the film the comments cards would always have something like, “I’ve been in the airline industry 25 years and thank you for making this movie.” We portrayed the good and the bad honestly so I guess we did something right.

You’re in with a chance of winning your third Oscar. Does it feel like you really nailed it in Flight?

It’s nice to be nominated but I’ve been down this road before - you don’t get too high, you don’t get too low. But with acting you never really know whether you’ve nailed it - If you feel too good about a scene then you haven’t done anything because you were too busy watching yourself!

With your level of fame can you do everyday stuff or does the cult of celebrity take its toll?

I can go to the store - but not for long. You could wear a hat and shades and look down at the floor but it’s not natural to live that way and you start missing life. When you pray for rain you gotta deal with the mud too! An old West Indian woman told me that…

Flight is in cinemas now.

Interview by Dan Brightmore