Actor Bruce Greenwood, who soared in the pivotal role of Captain Christopher Pike in 2009’s “Star Trek,” is grounded in “Flight” — but that doesn’t mean he can’t have a commanding presence in the film.
Opening in theaters Friday, “Flight” stars Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, a seasoned pilot who spectacularly lands a jetliner after it suffers mechanical failure en route from Atlanta to Orlando. Greenwood stars as Charlie Anderson, a pilot’s union representative and former Navy pilot and colleague of Whip’s who on behalf of the union brings in a powerful attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) to try to clear Whip of criminal negligence.
The sobering reality is, Whip has a serious substance abuse problem and was drinking and using drugs before the flight, and Charlie knows no matter how miraculous the landing was, six of the “102 souls” on board did not make it — meaning that Whip will ultimately be the one that has to take responsibility.
In a recent interview, Greenwood told me that he absolutely had to be a part director Robert Zemeckis’ new dramatic thriller after reading John Gatins’ screenplay, even if it required him to put in a lot of flying back and forth to do it.
“I read the script and I thought, ‘How the hell can I get myself into this?’ So we sent up a couple flares and I got a chance to show Bob what I thought the character was all about and fortunately, he felt it was going to work,” Greenwood recalled. “But I was also working on a television show called ‘The River’ at the time, so I was commuting from Oahu to Atlanta. It was nice to be working on both coasts at the same time.”
Still, Greenwood insists, the sacrifice was worth the extra flight time.
“The script is so strong. It asks way more questions than it answers,” Greenwood said. “It has these tremendous ethical dilemmas for every character, and there are a handful of characters that you’re invited as an audience member to enlist with earlier on in the movie, only to be asking yourself later, ‘Do I dare to continue to like this character?’ and ‘What would I have done in the same circumstances?'”
For Charlie, the dilemma could be life-altering. Charlie knows everything for the airline is at stake because of Whip’s recklessness — no matter how incredible the maneuver was to save as many lives as he did — and he’s forced to lie because of it.
“If Charlie allows his friend to tell his truth, it means the airline goes down and 1,500 pilots, 3,000 flight attendants and thousands of mechanics and other employees are out of work,” Greenwood said. “There are 10,000 people depending on Charlie helping his friend lie. What do you do? Do you sacrifice 10,000 people and their livelihoods to do the right thing by a friend, or do what’s right?”
Because of Whip’s heroic actions in the film, Greenwood thinks the dilemma won’t be an easy one for audiences to contemplate, either.
“You find yourself in the position every now and then where you say to yourself, ‘I know what the right thing is to do’ if I think about it for an instant, but if I think about it for five minutes it’s not so clear what the right thing to do is,” Greenwood observed.
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Of course, it was clearly no dilemma for Greenwood when it came to signing on the dotted line to play Charlie. On top of the fact that he was working with Zemeckis — who’s demonstrated over and over again that he’s clearly as much a master at drawing out raw, human emotion as he is creating stunning visuals — he had an stellar cast to work with, to boot.
“Emotionally, the journey of the movie is compelling,” Greenwood said. “Then you pair Zemeckis with Denzel, Cheadle, (and co-stars) John Goodman and Kelly Reilly, and you know it’s going to be tumultuous and active.”
Greenwood, who shares almost all of his scenes with Washington, said he was electrified being on the set with the veteran Oscar-winner.
“It’s so much fun playing with a guy that has a bunch of pitches,” Greenwood enthused. “He’s totally present and totally involved. All you have to do is listen with him because he’s a great listener. Whatever the vibe is, he picks up on it. It feels alive right away.”
Of course, the launching pad for the actors in “Flight” is the film’s riveting crash scene, which takes off minutes after the film begins.
“If you’re not a big fan of flying — or even if you are — you’re going to spend the first 15 minutes of the film cringing,” Greenwood said.
And while Greenwood isn’t a part of the scene, he doesn’t need to be involved in the footage to know what it’s like to be party to a catastrophe.
“Many years ago, and I hadn’t told this story until a week ago, I was in a plane crash,” Greenwood, 56, recalled. “It was a small plane that crashed and sank, but we all swam away and survived. It was quite dramatic and the crash itself was dramatic. It took me a little while to get comfy with flying again, but I now look out the window of a plane — because I fly all the time — and I see the wings flexing and I tell myself, ‘No, they’re meant to be bending like that. If they weren’t bending in half, they’d be breaking.'”
That’s not to say Greenwood doesn’t have his moments.
“The only time I get a little weirded out is when I go to the back to use the restroom or something and I see the fuselage flex,” Greenwood added. “That doesn’t do my stomach any good.”
Look for Greenwood to be all calm, cool and collected again when he takes flight with the crew of the Starship Enterprise and director J.J. Abrams again with “Star Trek: Into the Darkness,” which has been pegged for a May 17 release.
“The new movie, I gather, is already cut together and by all accounts is working pretty well,” Greenwood said. “I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to see it, but I’m really looking forward to it.”
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