Unstoppable - Denzel Washington and Chris Pine
Train engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) and young train conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine) race the clock to prevent disaster in a highly populated area © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox

Unstoppable marks the fifth movie Denzel Washington has done with director Tony Scott. Based on a true story, he plays veteran train engineer Frank Barnes who, along with his young conductor, Will Colson (Chris Pine), are aboard the 1206, a tough older 6-axel engine train with a lot of miles behind it.

In another rail yard in Pennsylvania, a modern, computerized, unmanned train, numbered 777, is to be moved to a different track. When the workers make a horrible mistake it takes off on its own, carrying 39 cars, transforming it into a missile the size of a skyscraper. Racing against the clock, Frank and Will must stop it before it destroys a heavily populated area.

At the press junket for the movie, the actor spoke of his longtime relationship with Tony Scott, and running across the top of a train going 50 miles an hour.

Can you talk about playing average guys who get pushed to do heroic things?

Unstoppable - Denzel Washington
Veteran locomotive engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) helps devise an incredible plan to try and stop a runaway train – and prevent certain disaster in a heavily populated area © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox

I’ve been asked that before, about playing an average guy. What’s a not-average guy?

An average guy works 9 to 5.

Like most people in the world? I don’t know what playing an average guy means, so I don’t worry about that. There’s nothing average about someone who can control a 100 thousand ton machine or make it stop, or risk his life to do it. I’m the average guy, definitely they weren’t average, what they did was not average. But again just to answer your question, I don’t look at it that way, like you put them in a slot before you start, ‘He’s slightly above average.’

Can you talk about the fact that there’s so much more going on in this movie than a runaway train?

This is also a story about an age gap, how many businesses today are caught in an economic downturn, and running the old guys out to bring in younger, cheaper labor to take the place of more experienced personnel. Basically Frank is teaching the new guy how to do his job so that he can take his place. Needless to say, Frank’s not too happy about that.

Frank doesn’t even acknowledge the new guys. He doesn’t see them, they don’t exist. But as it happens, on this particular day, Frank is assigned a new kid to be his conductor. As the engineer, Frank’s just the driver, but he feels like the 1206 is his train.

Did you actually get to drive a train?

Unstoppable - Denzel Washington
Train engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox

It was great to get the drive the train. But everything on them hurts, you step on it, you hit your knee. I think Tony was saying earlier it was dangerous all the time. But I couldn’t imagine making this movie on green screen, it wouldn’t have worked.

You’ve done a lot of action movies, but in this you were asked to run on top of a moving train – was that you?

I must be insane (he laughs). The train is going down the track at 50 miles an hour, I’m running across the top, a helicopter is hovering ten feet above me, I’m hanging off the side; it was crazy! I was very happy when my stuntman left town because I knew Tony wouldn’t be asking me to do this job anymore.

We had very experienced stunt men. They were the guys that did Casino Royale where they knew how to jump from thing to thing. And Chris pissed me off because he was doing a lot of his own stunts, punk!

I remember early on I was reading the script, way back in the day, (thinking), ‘Why does the other guy get to jump on the train and be the hero? I want to be the guy,’ and as we kept working on the material and I started looking it, I said, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be the guy that jumps on the train. Chris should be the guy; I can see why he’s the guy that jumps.’ (he laughs)

You and Tony have worked together five times. Are you learning something from him about the craft of filmmaking?

Unstoppable - Denzel Washington
Everyday working man Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) becomes an extraordinary hero when he attempts to avert a disaster © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox

Definitely I’ve learned and I know that I cannot do what he does. He makes films; I’ve directed a couple of films. I’ve just gotten into doing what he’s doing. I’ve learned so much from him.

Do you have a shorthand on the set?

There’s obviously a shorthand (when we work). He knows how I like to work and I know what he likes to do. He knows I like to research so he’s going to have a ton of stuff long before we start (shooting), things like that.

I trust Tony, who’s a great filmmaker and I enjoy working with him. We leave each other alone to do our work. Tony’s very enthusiastic and his team loves working for him, so with him, it’s easy.

Is it hard playing opposite a runaway train?

The 777 is the real star of the movie. It’s the shark in Jaws. It’s the monster in the room that’s going to destroy people, towns – anything and everything in its path. Chris Pine and I are just side men. It’s all about the train, that’s way it’s called Unstoppable!


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.