Bruce Greenwood (Rex Features)


Before we get into the discussion of the movie we’re supposed to be talking about, I have to ask Bruce Greenwood a couple of questions about his involvement in this summer’s Star Trek Into Darkness. (You’re welcome, fellow nerds.)

First: Is that his voice in the teaser as Admiral Pike? “Yes.”

Second: Is Admiral Pike out of the chair?

“These are questions that cannot be answered until the 17th of May,” he grins. And that’s okay, really; I don’t want the movie spoiled, and he doesn’t want to spoil it. Bruce Greenwood is a decent guy.

The very model of a working actor, Greenwood moves easily between big studio projects like Dinner for Schmucks, Super 8 and the Star Trek movies and smaller indie productions like Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. He’s a semi-regular presence on television, most recently in Oren Peli’s mystery series The River.

We’re meeting today to talk about one of the studio pictures, Flight. Producer-director Robert Zemeckis cast Greenwood as Charlie Anderson, one of a handful of people desperately trying to help Denzel Washington’s alcoholic, self-destructive pilot Whip Whitaker hold himself together in the face of constant public pressure after a heroic emergency landing.

Flight is a tricky story to explain in simple terms, and Greenwood’s happy about that, crediting John Gatins’ script with a depth and complexity he doesn’t often encounter.

“John has this tremendous ability to write characters who aren’t morally conflicted, but in situations that are ethically really challenging,” Greenwood explains. “And it gives you, the viewer, a chance to assess whether or not those ethical [and] moral challenges are really being addressed by the character.”

That level of complexity isn’t something we often see in big studio movies, and Greenwood knows how lucky he is to have been a part of it.

“The script was 140 pages long when I read it,” Greenwood recalls. “I just thought, ‘What’s gonna go? Something’s gonna have to hit the floor.’ And I read it and thought, ‘Well, Charlie Anderson can’t hit the floor, they need him.’ But then we started shooting it, and the tempo was such that we shot it all, and they used virtually all of it. It kinda goes without saying, but the story can’t be as layered and as deep as it is when you remove things.”

Greenwood was delighted to work with Washington again; the two co-starred in Tony Scott’s Deja Vu in 2006, and in the final seasons of the landmark ’80s TV series St. Elsewhere. (Flight is structured as a series of Washington reunions, with Fallen’s John Goodman and Devil in a Blue Dress’ Don Cheadle also turning up in key roles.)

“Denzel has this tremendous ability to play a character who you’d think you wouldn’t be rooting for,” Greenwood says. “But you are – we’re waiting for him to make the right choice. You want him to save himself.”

That concern was at the core of his performance as Charlie, who’s charged with keeping Washington on the “functional” side of “functional alcoholic” long enough to get him through a high-stakes hearing.

“We’ve got this terrible challenge,” Greenwood says. “If I help save my friend from himself, then five, six, eight thousand people who are directly and indirectly related to the airline will lose their livelihoods. So my character’s rationale is: ‘Let me walk him through this fakery, clean him up just long enough.’ And at the same time, [Charlie] can be forgiven for hoping that [Whip] will clean himself up. But you have to ask yourself why we haven’t seen each other in 10 or 15 years. What happened to their friendship?”

Like any working actor, Greenwood will be all over the place this year. In addition whatever role Admiral Pike plays in Star Trek Into Darkness, the actor will be seen in the Alaskan drama WildLike and in Atom Egoyan’s West Memphis Three dramatization Devil’s Knot, which marks Greenwood’s first movie with the director since 2002’s Ararat. They’ll be working together again on Queen of the Night, which starts shooting in Sudbury this month.

“Yeah, I’m just a bad penny,” he laughs. “It’s my fifth outing with him.”

I ask if he’s been getting more television offers than usual, now that the new wave of TV shows seem bent on competing with cinema for complexity of narrative and dramatic reach.

“You want to kind of be careful,” he says. “The River, I thought, was a really interesting concept … and then it evolved in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. And as fun as it was living in Hawaii, I was having a hard time imagining myself doing that for a lot of years. All of the people were great, and I liked everybody involved with it, but it was just one of those things where you go, ‘Wow, it got really crazy really fast.’”

Shooting Flight at the same time as The River gave him some much-needed perspective.

“It was fun for me to actually be off in the boonies, and only come in a couple days a week,” Greenwood says of his River duties. “But that’s such a far cry from the kind of character exploration that Flight was. I remember calling my wife after the first day on set and going, ‘Oh my god, I’m just in heaven.’ Denzel was just firing on all cylinders, Cheadle was great, and Goodman, as usual, just came in with all guns blazing. So it was like one of those things where you’re just in a room with a bunch of good actors, really good material, a director who’s very comfortable, and you just kinda go, ‘Wow, I’m much happier here.’”

Flight is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.