OSCARS Q&A: Denzel Washington

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor.

With a lean budget of $30 million, Flight is an action film that could not afford a big movie star like Denzel Washington. Then again, this morally ambivalent character study of an alcoholic pilot flying under the influence couldn’t afford not to have a big movie star like Denzel Washington if it had a shot at getting made at all. Washington, 57, sat down with AwardsLine to talk about how and why he got involved, and how the numbers added up to make the role of troubled Captain Whip Whitaker a gamble worth taking.

AwardsLine: Industry observers have said this film wouldn’t have been made without you. It has so many of what Hollywood would call negatives — it’s both an action film and a character study, and that character is not a straight-up hero, he’s an alcoholic.
Denzel Washington: It was not a struggle to get it made, but the studio wanted to do it for a price, and we ended up with (about) $28 million, and (director) Robert Zemeckis made it look like $100 million, especially the plane sequence. So he and I threw our money back in the pot, took a tenth of our salaries.

AwardsLine: May I ask?
Washington: It’s a tenth of my salary. You do the math.
[Editor’s note: According to industry trade sources, Washington’s fee recent years for several major Hollywood releases was $20 million].

AwardsLine: Does that come off the back end at some point?
Washington: Let’s hope so. (Laughs). I keep hearing the buzz from people who say, “Man, I want to see that.”

AwardsLine: Your agent, the late Ed Limato, brought you the script, right?
Washington: I don’t know how long it had been kicking around before it came to me. It must have been somewhere in 2009. He brought me two scripts: He brought me Safe House first (and said), “These are two very different films,” and I agreed we should do Safe House first. This was a real change of pace.

AwardsLine: Why did you want to do it?
Washington: The script. As simple as that. Good scripts are hard to find, and this was one that was not a black-and-white kind of story. There was a lot of gray in there.

AwardsLine: There are character actors, and there are movie stars. I think it’s fair to say you are the latter. Did you worry that playing such an unattractive, raw character would tarnish your image?
Washington: (Laughs). I get that — “Denzel, don’t do that!” I remember we were doing (August Wilson’s drama) Fences on Broadway a couple of years ago, and we were doing a scene where my character is discussing with his friend that he’s seeing another girl, and he’s like, “Man, you’d better tell your wife!” And (in a later scene) I say to her, “There’s something I’ve got to tell you,” and the audience is expecting him to say, “I’ve got another girl,” and instead he says, “I’m going to be somebody’s daddy,” and somebody yelled out, “Oh, Denzel, thank you, sweetheart!” It’s a play, and she’s saying, “Oooh, Denzel!”

AwardsLine: Did Ed Limato have those same concerns for you?
Washington: I said to him: “What do you think about it?” And he said, “You know, all that drinking and drugging!” And I said, “Ed, it’s a good story.” I’m not afraid of (the movie audience) saying, “Oh, Denzel!” And if they do, I won’t be there anyway. That’s what it’s all about for me. Especially in the last 10 years I’ve started really opening up, doing what I want to do — some small films, the stage.

AwardsLine: Are movies in the $30 million range a dying breed?
Washington: What I think has changed a bit is maybe five or six years ago they might have given us a $50 million, $60 million budget, or more, but nowadays the studios are tightening their belts, and they knew it was a project we wanted to do. And I think they were smart, they said, “Look, we don’t want to spend more than, whatever it was, $28 million, $30 million.” And neither of us wanted to walk away from it, so we did it.

AwardsLine: It must be nice to prove you can make a commercial movie for that.
Washington: And there’s a market for it, I believe. And the actors, at least the big actors, will have to make a decision: Do you want to cut your fee and do something good, or are you just in it for the ($20 million salary)? And then also there’s the agent side of it, they are not exactly looking for the smaller films, they’re looking for big payouts, too, because they get 10%. Nobody wants 10% of nothing.

AwardsLine: For someone who already has a couple of Oscars, is it still exciting to contemplate that this might be an Academy-nominated role?
Washington: I try not to think about that ahead of time. You just try to do the best work you can, and then you get the movie out there, and we’ve been hearing good things. But you never know, you don’t want to get too high, and you don’t want to get too low.

AwardsLine: What’s it like doing an Oscar campaign? Is it fun to talk about the film?
Washington: Not after the 395th interview.

AwardsLine: I hope this is 394.
Washington: (Laughs). You are 392. You’re fine. But look, it’s part of the job, too. I want people to see it.

    1. If the studios and actors worked toward a mutual reward on the budgets where everyone has financial skin in the game for potential back end reward…

      there would be a lot more of these excellent films at workable budgets….

      let’s hope this obvious trend continues!!

    1. Not for me. Denzel is a really good actor. DDL is one of the few GREAT actors working today (Meryl) is another. He was amazing as Lincoln.

      1. Yes, both DDL and Denzel are amazing artists, but before pronouncing judgment, you should watch “Glory” again and tell me if if you think that Denzel’s just “really good”…

        (Btw, deep insight from an A-lister about how to get better movies made.)

  1. i have to say he delivers every single time as an actor. He was great in this film. The scene with him in the hotel room in the 3rd act is one of the best scenes I have seen in a long time.

  2. “Flight” is one of those rarities–an adult film with no neat and pat conclusion. It was made for grown-ups BY grown-ups. Denzel, Robert Zemeckis and the entire cast and crew should be proud.

  3. Is that not the point of filmmaking, taking a budget and transforming it into something wonderful via acting, cinematography, editing, fx, sound, production and wardrobe at any budget. In reality most films – if you subtract the salaries of actors – is not so overwhelming. Good job Denzel and Zemeckis.

  4. Denzel rocks. He brings his A game to every flick and has a career resume other touted movie actors/actresses can only envy. Every time I see the Hollywood publicity machine try to create “stars” out of ho-hum thesps like Gerald Butler or Seth Rogen or Jennifer Anniston, I walk away shaking my head, thinking these folks could not even carry Denzel’s water bottle. He picks creatively daring choices and executes (“Malcolm X” and “Flight” are but two examples) and his Box Office record is stellar. Oh yeah — ahd he’s got an Oscar, to boot. If Hollywood had a Hall of Fame, he’d be a first-ballot selection.

    (I second the poster who said “Flight” is such a wonderfully ambiguous story for adults, a rarity in flicks these days! But I can’t seem to find Gatins’ smart script for “Flight” anywhere. Anyone know if one is floating around or available?)

  5. I feel sorry for the other actors. Denzel is just the best. There is no Oscar race. He should win every frickin time.

    1. i have to agree to disgree with uou. he is one of the all time great actors. what about marlon, brad clint ect others. hey who can be michael jordan, look at kobe, lebron ect. give me a break person let’s not racialisnsize this topic. be honest with your self. think and you will learn.

  6. This should have been given a higher budget and Bob and Denzel deserve all the credit for making it for the lowest amount possible. Well done gentlemen. You all deserve Oscars. Flight should sweep all the major categories. Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay. I wish I was a member of the Academy so I could vote for it.

  7. Nobody’s done that compelling of a job playing an addict since Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, but even his charachter knows he an addict and wants to die. The strength and agony of this film is that Denzel’s charachter has classic addict’s denial. It is a heartbreaking and, ultimately, triumphant acting job. Oscar number three for Mr. Washington…very well deserved. As a recovering person, I could not speak for ten minutes after leaving the theatre, I was so effected. It was that powerful. Agree that Denzel is an acting treasure. Short but compelling scene with James Badge Dale (unrecognizable) is one of the highlights. Exceptional cast. Best movie of the year.

  8. Denzel is true Hollywood Gold. He harks back to a different time and place in Hollywood, and occupies a rarefied space. Denzel, America LOVES YOU! And “Flight” was a great, non-formulaic film. AMPAS, How about a tie and give an Oscar to him and DDL?

  9. Let’s get real here/ Denzel is utter perfection in this role. But the movie fails in its characterization because we don’t know anything about Denzel’s personal character. Yes, he’s a drunk. But why? Was it the Vietnam thing, or military thing that’s alluded to with Bruce G? Was he a drunk before then? Did shit happen on that farm with his dad and grandad? Why is he the way he is? Just because he delivers a great performance don’t say the script is great. It’s not. It’s underdeveloped and shallow. The movie sets itself up as a character study and instead becomes a soaper. A good one, but still. Not what it could’ve been. You’ve got a good crash sequence and a good lead. That’s not a Best Picture.

  10. If he gets 20 million per movie and the director Zemeckis also is well paid , why do they even need a studio to finance the movie ? I am sure both of them put together could have easily come up with the 30 million and made the movie themselves ..why go begging to the tudios ? The movie has already done almost 100 million at the box office and more to come in the coming days . Plus add to it the dvd and satellite ( TV ) revenues and both of them could have earned a very good pay cheque.

    I think the movie will do 200 million worldwide and uually you get 55 % of the gross revenue as 45 % is kept by the theatres ..rest i.e 55 % goes to the studio. So get rid of the studio and make the movie yourself , you have the money to do it and the potential payout is huge :) , instead of taking a pay cut.

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