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Denzel gets real

The art of acting is so peculiar that even its most skilful practitioners can’t quite explain how they do what they do. When you watch a performance like Denzel Washington’s in Robert Zemeckis’s Flight (opening November 2), you want to get under the hood of it somehow, to understand what this remarkable thing is made of and what keeps it, improbably, aloft for two perilous hours. But when you ask Washington or his co-stars how it’s done, they’re mostly at a loss for words, or rather, they talk around it, trying to get at its mysterious workings by way of metaphors, anecdotes and the odd sweeping generality.

John Goodman, who has shared the screen with Washington twice (in Flight and the 1998 thriller Fallen), said of him, “He’s one of those cats who does a lot of preparation, which makes him very easy to work with.”

In the new film, Washington plays an airline pilot whom we see first struggling to wake up on the morning of a flight: he rolls over in bed, groggily, takes a swig from one of many open cans of beer, mumbles a few bleary words to the flight attendant who has just risen from his bed, snorts a couple of lines of cocaine, and he is (more or less) good to go.

That’s not the sort of preparation Goodman was talking about, obviously. Washington, pressed, spoke about the hours he spent in a flight simulator, getting ready for the harrowing cockpit scenes, when his character, Whip Whitlock, has to fight his way to an emergency landing. “You just need to feel comfortable in there,” he said, “need to know what the routine is. One of the pilots I was working with let me use his flight bag in the movie, so I carried that old, beat-up thing. I always say the universal comes from the specific.”

An immersion actor

But how much does that research explain, really, about the wild intensity he brings to the scene, about the way he manages to make the audience aware simultaneously of both Whip’s chemical impairment and his amazing seat-of-the-pants proficiency in guiding the plane out of a nose-dive and back to earth?

Jonathan Demme, who directed Washington in Philadelphia (1993) and The Manchurian Candidate (2004), tried on several different formulations when he attempted to characterise his work. “I’d call him an immersion actor. In Philadelphia, he stayed loose on the set, wisecracking, just being normal. But Denzel was a little depressed when we were shooting Manchurian Candidate, because the character was depressed. It was two different guys that showed up for those movies.”

Later Demme said: “I think of him as an architect. When he arrives on the set, he’s ready to start building the scene. It was Denzel who made me realise, ‘Oh yeah, it’s the actors who are the final storytellers, really.’”

What does an actor like Denzel Washington do, and how does he do it? Washington, 57, said, “It’s a process. I don’t know if a character is a destination you reach on Day 1 or Day 15 or ever, but you’re always working at it. I never go, ‘This guy, I can turn him on whenever I want.’ If you go into a scene knowing too much, you’re probably not going to come out with much.”

Norman Jewison, who gave Washington his first significant film role in A Soldier’s Story (1984) and later directed him in The Hurricane (1999), said, “I noticed rightaway that he had tremendous concentration. He’s very analytical. On Soldiers Story, I could see how curious he was about the relationship between the actor and the camera. He’d played the part onstage, and as the filming went along, I saw him start to take the performance down, to make it subtler.”

Calculation and spontaneity

When he was young, “being a movie actor wasn’t on my radar at all,” Washington said. “When I started out, I was just thinking about the stage; it was never my goal to get to Hollywood. But here I am.”

In his first television movie (Wilma, 1977), he said, “I was really nervous. There was a scene where the camera had to push in on me, and I started recoiling, trying to get out of the way. I wasn’t used to this big machine and all these people creeping toward me. I got over that.”

Over the next decade or so Washington learnt how to make the big machine his friend. More than a friend: he developed the kind of intimacy with the camera that makes a good actor something else — a movie star. He spent six years playing a young doctor on the 1980s series St. Elsewhere. By the end of the ’80s, he had an Oscar statuette for his supporting role in Edward Zwick’s stirring Civil War drama Glory (1989).

That film, along with Richard Attenborough’s 1987 Cry Freedom, about the South African activist Steve Biko, gave evidence of his unusual ability to project himself into characters from earlier eras, with the result that he has become over the years a go-to actor for worthy period dramas. He played Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, the imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter in Jewison’s Hurricane and other less famous historic personages: the high school football coach Herman Boone in Boaz Yakin’s Remember the Titans (2000), the Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) and the writer and teacher Melvin Tolson in The Great Debaters (2007), in which he directed himself. (A task he characterised, succinctly, as “a pain in the neck”.) Along the way — in part, he said, to avoid being typecast as “Mr Biography” — he has also taken the lead in a fair number of thrillers and action pictures, five of them directed by the late Tony Scott. “You need mindless entertainment too,” he said.

Watching him in all those disparate incarnations or in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day (2001), in which he plays the worst cop imaginable and for which he won the Academy Award as best actor, you may notice a few recurring techniques. Washington has two smiles; for example, a big open one that he uncorks when his character is genuinely delighted and a small tight one that signifies something considerably more sinister. He’ll widen his eyes or — slightly — narrow them, to similar purpose. When he plays a military man, as he often has, his bearing becomes a bit more rigid, more wilfully correct. The more mysterious moments in his performances, of which there are many in Flight, depend less on pure technique than on a kind of educated instinct, some strange mixture of calculation and spontaneity.

EXPLOSION OF REALITY

Jewison cited a scene in The Hurricane in which Washington, whose character is talking to his lawyers in a prison visiting room, “all of a sudden — and I didn’t know he was going to do this — picked up the microphone he’d been talking into and just smashed it against the glass, with such fury that it actually scared the other actors.” And Demme, chuckling, remembered a similarly unplanned moment from Philadelphia in which Washington played a homophobic small-time lawyer: “His character, Joe Miller, is approached by a young man in a store, and they’re having a pleasant conversation, when suddenly Joe realises that he’s being hit on, and he grabs the guy by the shirt, spins him around and slams him into the wall. That’s the kind of thing that can happen with Denzel on the set. An explosion of reality.”

When Washington tried, one last time, to explain how he makes moments like that happen — or at least creates the conditions for them to happen — he wound up resorting to aviation metaphors. “The time to worry about flying is when you’re on the ground,” he said. “If you don’t trust the pilot — the director — don’t go. When I’m shooting a scene, I can’t be outside myself, critiquing. Like I said, I have to trust the pilot.”

Terrence Rafferty
(The New York Times News Service)

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