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Flight Manifest - The Cast
Academy Award winner Denzel Washington stars in the dramatic lead role of Whip Whitaker, a deeply flawed yet remarkably skilled pilot who successfully lands a doomed plane, saving 96 of the 102 lives on board. To the media and American people, Whip is a hero. Yet his life is a mess of contradictions, vices and poor judgment. One of the most esteemed actors of his generation, Washington has convincingly portrayed police officers, detectives, lawyers, nuclear submarine officers, and train conductors. With "Flight," he adds commercial airline pilot to his resume.

"It was just so much fun watching Denzel. I mean, you can't believe what you're seeing when you're watching him perform. The genius of Denzel is when he can do something that I like to call 'performing behind the eyes.' There are many scenes where you can just feel his misery and it's breathtaking to see. He's truly one of the greatest actors that we have working today. It was a dream come true to be able to work with him in this part," Zemeckis says.

"We were so lucky to be working with Denzel," producer Starkey adds. "When you see him in character you can't imagine anybody else doing it.

Upon first reading the script, Washington immediately knew that the character and story of Whip Whitaker had all of the underpinnings of emotions and character traits that appealed to him. "Before the movie fully came together," recalls John Gatins," I sat down with Denzel for two hours and he told me his reaction to the script. "It struck many notes for him. He said, 'You know, this is dangerous material,' with a kind of smile - with that kind of Denzel smile. I could tell that it really fascinated him."

Gatins notes that Washington was also very interested in his personal connection to the film. "The first time I sat down with Denzel to talk about the script, he immediately went to "that" place because he's an actor who needs to know it all," Gatins says. "He has a process by which he immediately zeroed in on me and said, 'Tell me that story. I get that you did research about every plane that's ever crashed, and what could happen to the plane in our movie, but I really want to know about your personal story -- how did you come to this, and where are you at with your own disease as far as addiction is concerned.' We had a very wide-open conversation. He was amazing in that way."

Washington actually read the script long before Zemeckis was attached to the movie but was thrilled when he heard that Zemeckis was interested in directing "Flight."

"I thought he was just perfect for it - that's when the film really took off for me," Washington says.

Early in the process, Starkey asked Washington what he, as a producer, could do to help him prepare for the role of Whit Whitaker. "He said the most important thing for me is learning how to be a pilot," Starkey recalls. Starkey notes that Washington wanted to work with a flight instructor and go through serious training so that portraying a pilot would become second nature, notably for the scenes that placed him in the cockpit and behind the plane's control. Starkey continues, "So we hooked him up with a pilot in Atlanta and he went into a simulator and spent many hours training so he could become well-versed in flying an aircraft. It's very believable when you listen to him communicating with the control tower, speaking with his co-pilot, and just piloting in general." Washington also took great pains to let the pilots know that the movie wasn't an indictment of them.

"I wanted them to know that the movie was not trying to knock airlines or pilots. It's not so much about flying as it is about addiction, at least as it relates to my character. So he could work in a post office but flying a plane is the most heightened dramatic situation. But it's really about a man who has issues and he could be a filmmaker, a pilot or a plumber. The addiction and denial is the same and hopefully the recovery is too. But being a pilot is a tough, high-pressure job. You fly from LA to NY to Hong Kong, spend 24 hours there, turn around and come back and then do it again. That's hard on the body, you're alone in these hotels with strangers and your flight attendants become your family. But it could be anyone who spends that lonely night in a hotel room wrestling with demons," Washington notes.

Washington, Zemeckis and Gatins also poured through the script together, discussing, analyzing and internalizing it. It is an extremely naturalistic process that allows the team to understand the character from the inside out.

"It's not really rehearsal in the classic sense, but we got into a conference room and for hours and hours we just talked through the scenes, to ensure we were all making the same move. We ask all the key questions then, we go into the script and discuss whether a line would be better one way or the other. It allows us to get into the deep psychology of the character and understand what he is feeling at any given moment. And then a great actor like Denzel can take all that and make it happen through his extraordinary performance," Zemeckis says.

It was during these conversations, Washington says, that Whip began to materialize for him - an ineffable creative process that Washington embraces but doesn't like to dissect too much.

"John Gatins and Bob Zemeckis thoroughly understood this character … every now and then, that kind of collaboration works. You can have the same great people in a room with a great script and still screw it up. In this case, I think Bob fashioned a terrific film, and I was just a part of that process. There's no magic pill but I got a lot of the character work done just sitting in that room with Bob and John, working on the script," Washington says.

Producer Walter Parkes adds that part of Zemeckis' gift as a filmmaker is his ability to handle both the technical and the human aspects of the creative process.

"In one scene, he is not wearing his brace or using a cane and in the next he walks in with his brace. He puts it on when he needs it but not necessarily because of his physical problems. He's trying to save his behind. He's a great liar. He's in denial and trying to save himself through lies," Washington says

For a character as complicated and nuanced as Whip, this proved invaluable. In a way, Whip is "acting" all the time. Washington conveys Whip's consummate ability to deceive everyone, including himself, through Whip's confident charm but also via smaller but significant details. Post-crash, Whip recovers in the hospital but his injuries - or lack thereof - reveals something deeper about his personality.

"I don't ever ask an actor where he goes to get his performance. My job as director is to throttle that performance - allowing the actor to understand how happy or sad he might be at a certain moment, for example. Where the actor goes to get that emotion, that's his gift and I don't ever want to know where he goes for that stuff," Zemeckis offers.

"There is just a level of pure cinematic mastery in watching Bob work. He is completely knowledgeable in every aspect of the technology of filmmaking - there isn't a job on the set that he does not understand or couldn't do himself. And yet, when it comes to the actors, he is completely protective of their work and approach and creates a supportive and safe atmosphere for them at all times."

For a character as complicated and nuanced as Whip, this proved invaluable. In a way, Whip is "acting" all the time. Washington conveys Whip's consummate ability to deceive everyone, including himself, through Whip's confident charm but also via smaller but significant details. Post-crash, Whip recovers in the hospital but his injuries - or lack thereof - reveals something deeper about his personality.

Rising British actress Kelly Reilly is Nicole Maggen, a beautiful but troubled young Atlanta woman struggling with her own issues of substance abuse, who befriends Whip.

"She has her own personal kind of plane crash that kind of interweaves with Whip's story," Gatins notes. "They meet in a fascinating way at the hospital, at a really low point in both of their lives, and that becomes the genesis of their relationship which carries us through a fair amount of the story."

The filmmakers conducted an extensive talent search and audition process to cast this emotionally charged role. Reilly, best known for numerous television and film roles in her native England and who was most recently seen opposite Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law in the blockbuster "Sherlock Holmes" series, auditioned for the role the old fashioned way.

"Finding Kelly was one of those great Hollywood stories. She knew I was casting the part and happened to be in Texas on vacation. She put herself on tape and sent it to our casting director. I saw this performance, and said, 'Wow! Bring her in!.' I knew her from the 'Sherlock Holmes' movies but because she's an English actress, it didn't occur to us at first. I had to meet her. And once she read with Denzel, it was clear they had such great chemistry. We all felt it, including Denzel. We never actually had to do a traditional screen test, she had such a presence and completely understood Nicole's vulnerability and quiet resolve," Zemeckis says.

"Kelly kind of stopped us all in our tracks," Starkey enthuses. "We were riveted by what she did."

Parkes add that she brought a critical, intrinsic truth to the role.

"Nicole starts out as a life preserver for Whip. He thinks maybe he can't control his life but he could possibly save her. But what surprises him - and the audience - is that Kelly brought such an honesty to it - she refuses to be brought down by him, to give up on her own survival," Parkes says.

The movie and role was very much on Reilly's radar, but for her, just meeting the creative team was reward enough.

"I had been very passionate about this script for quite a few weeks. Lots of people have input into a decision like this but suddenly I was in L.A. to meet Bob. And it was an amazing day actually. I was very nervous, but I knew I was in a room full of people who I really wanted to work with because they were so professional and heartfelt and intelligent about the film and the characters. They made me feel extremely comfortable and welcome. When I walked out, I thought, well you know what, this meeting is a gift in itself. I thought it was a privilege just to experience that and if I got the job, it was a bonus. Then I got the job!" Reilly relates.

"Flight" marks Reilly's first movie to film in America and her first occasion to play an American. As such, she worked diligently with a dialect coach to perfect her Georgia accent, but it was the film's more universal themes of recovery and redemption that appealed to her. When Nicole meets Whip, she is struggling with serious drug addiction. Their chance encounter in the hospital where he is recuperating from the crash and she is recovering from an overdose ultimately puts her on a life saving path to recovery.

"This story is also about the people you sometimes need at certain times in your life and how they can change you. And Nicole is somebody who is trying to change, but she is chained to her addiction. Whip saves her in a way. He takes her out of the world that she's in and gives her a place where she can try to heal herself. And then she also becomes very much part of AA, a program that helps people recover once they're ready to ask for some help. But she wouldn't have done that on her own. Bob had this thought that once Nicole survives her O.D., she realizes how beautiful life is and she doesn't want to be a slave to this drug. As she's trying to get back into the light, she tries to help Whip find that place too, but, he's still very embedded in his denial. As she gets better, she starts to put up a mirror to him," Reilly says.

Reilly describes Nicole as "alone and broken" before she meets Whip.

"When we meet her, she's on her own journey as an addict. Her drug of choice is heroin. We realize why later on in the film. With the loss of her mother and an alcoholic father, she just made wrong decisions, she took some bad roads, and ended up very lost," Reilly says.

Gatins describes Nicole and Whip as " … two people who are damaged - and damaged in the same way - they are immediately drawn to each other he says. "Although they couldn't be more different people in their everyday lives - he's a pilot and she's a photographer junkie - it didn't matter. They're immediately swept into each other's lives.

Describing the experience of working with Denzel Washington, Reilly says it was like "being a boxer in a ring with a heavyweight champion." She continues: "He's so intense, brilliant, and heartbreaking. In nearly every scene he moved me tremendously with the truth of where he goes with his character. It's really humbling to watch somebody be that truthful to a character going on quite an ugly kind of journey."

To assist Reilly in preparing her character, the filmmakers enlisted Mitchell Riley, a local Atlanta street artist and former addict himself, who worked with her on the techniques and physical sensations inherent to shooting up heroin and familiarized her with drug paraphernalia such as syringes and spoons. They met several time prior to filming and Riley was on set to monitor the action during filming.

"The real gift he gave me," Reilly continues, "is that he talked with me about his addiction and journey into recovery. And that psychology is what was interesting for me to apply into my character, how one can pull themselves out of that emotional prison."

Acclaimed actor Don Cheadle plays Chicago-based defense attorney Hugh Lang, who is brought in to counsel Whip Whitaker on the possible criminal negligence charges he may face for his involvement in the plane crash. For Cheadle, "Flight" marks the first time he has worked alongside Denzel Washington since his own breakout co-starring performance as Mouse in Carl Franklin's 1995 crime drama "Devil in A Blue Dress."

"It comes to light during the investigation that Captain Whitaker has taken drugs and is drunk prior to the flight," says Cheadle. "It comes through in the toxicology report. This is a huge deal for me as I've got to figure out some way to deal with it, to try and keep him in his job, and keep the airline solvent, and really protect everybody."

Theirs is a rocky relationship, neither man is fond of the other and the trust required between lawyer and client is tenuous at best.

"The way Denzel and I talked about their relationship is that Whip does not like Hugh and yet he is there to save Whip. For obvious reasons, Hugh feels likewise about Whip. Through their very interesting relationship, you can see into the deep psychology of Whip's character. He cannot stand the idea that this is where he is in his life, that he needs somebody like Hugh to help him. He doesn't quite understand how he got to this place and all he can do is lash out yet he needs him because he's going to save him from having to go to prison. It's a very complicated, very magnificent relationship," Zemeckis says.

It was clear to Cheadle in discussions with Zemeckis that the director wanted to explore the film's deeper meanings and to probe what is going on with Whip and each character. Cheadle explains, "My character is trying to help Whip, but he's also trying to help him avoid responsibility in a way. And that's really the struggle: me acting in the capacity of a defense attorney trying to protect him, and him trying to figure out what protection really means."

Cheadle notes also that often Whip is not the most likable character and is especially disparaging of Lang. Cheadle adds that this aspect was a critical part of Whip's psyche and emotional journey and, he says, it is a testament to Washington that he was prepared to explore the darker qualities of Whip Whitaker.

"I think when you cast somebody like Denzel in a part like this you can expect to see a real willingness on his part to go to some pretty uncomfortable places. Everyone wants to be liked, to be thought of as the good guy, but Whip's got to unleash some demons to let this happen and in the process, let the audience see the uglier side," Cheadle says.

Ultimately, Cheadle adds, Whip's travails lead to something redemptive.

"It's mostly about a person confronting who he really is, where he allows himself to be pulled under by those parts that are less buoyant, or will he fight and struggle to find some sort of a peace and release that may actually turn out to be spiritual at the end of the day?"

Award-winning veteran film and television actor John Goodman, previously appeared with Denzel Washington in the 1998 thriller "Fallen." In "Flight," Goodman stars as Whip's spirited best friend, Harling Mays, a man who is an anchor to his friend in his darkest moments. "Harling is Whip's confidante, friend, and party buddy, who, despite everything else, is his great supporter," Gatins says. "Despite the fact that he's a guy who maybe sells drugs and lives on the fringe of what people consider normal society, I think he's incredibly honest with, and loves, his best friend." Gatins adds that Whip's frenetic friend has a great affection for Whip and thus becomes the one person he can call in his time of need - "the guy Whip knows he can rely on."

He also becomes the character the audience can rely on for a laugh, even if his isn't the trustworthiest sort. It is a tightrope that Goodman walks with aplomb.

"John Goodman's character is the classic enabler and also the movie's comic release. You might consider him the most dangerous character in the movie; there's a truth to him and that's where comedy comes from. And John of course, is just a great actor, who has great comic timing and great ability to ad-lib and he just knew exactly what he needed to do for this character. To me, the great irony of the character is that he is so magnetic, you just can't get enough of him, but, in the end, he's Whip's pusher. He's the devil. And you can't wait to see him on screen." Zemeckis says.

The friendship between Whip and Harling is real but also co-dependent. Harling does genuinely take care of Whip but keeps them both on a Moebius strip of addiction and denial.

"They rely on each other and understand one another. Harling is the guy who provides what Whip needs and wants, and knows when to do it, he knows how low Whip is but he doesn't judge, he just provides," Washington says.

Versatile Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood plays Whip's old friend, Charlie Anderson - a former military and commercial pilot who has known Whip since their days in the Navy and who is now the Pilot's Union rep assigned to work as Whip's contact and point person in the crash investigation of SouthJet 227. He last paired with Denzel Washington in the 2006 thriller, "Deja Vu,"

Greenwood, says that Charlie and the union he represents are not as concerned about Whip's celebrity hero status following the flight as they are in protecting their own jobs. "It's a moral and ethical slippery slope," he says. "Their choice is to either protect somebody who did something horribly wrong, but in exchange allow an airline to survive and two thousand people to keep their jobs, or to sacrifice this guy and let him deal with his own demons. It's tricky. It's not easy to answer."

Zemeckis calls Charlie the "everyman" of the movie.

"He's the guy who represents truth and justice and the right thing. Yet everyone around him seems to have so much more power, overwhelming what he's trying to do. His character just wants to help a good friend, someone who he knew all through his youth. They came up together in the Navy and he truly understands that Whip was put in a defective plane and still managed to save all those lives," Zemeckis says.

Screenwriter Gatins adds that Greenwood's character is "the guy who bridges the gap between Whip's former self as a younger pilot and the guy he is today. Charlie knew Whip as a younger pilot when they flew together and then had their respective careers in the airline industry as pilots. And now he is a rep for the union and is given the assignment of trying to help Whip through this [post-crash] experience." Charlie has the agenda of his employer in trying to get Whip through the process cleanly and make sure he stays the hero America wants him to be."

Greenwood had a little experience with flying and even with crashing …

"My Grandpa was an instructor and he had a Dual Control Luskim Tail Dragger so I few lessons with him. I never actually took off or landed. I just did a lot of controlled turns and descents. I've crashed in a small plane and sunk. Everyone survived but now I have a little different connotation with flying," Greenwood relates.

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