Forest Finally Finds Long-Overdue Oscar Buzz
Forest Whitaker The Last King of Scotland Interview with Kam Williams
Born on July 15, 1961 in Longview, Texas, Forest Steven Whitaker was originally an athlete who played football in college at Cal-State Fullerton. But a back injury led to his transferring to USC where he trained as a tenor for the opera. This endeavor whetted Forest's interest in the acting, which he pursued at Berkeley.
Next, the 6’2’ teddy bear ventured to England where he proceeded to perfect his craft onstage at the Drama Studio London before returning to the states to make a modest screen debut in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He followed that up with bit parts on such TV series as Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey and Different Strokes before landing back on the big screen in The Color of Money, Platoon, and Good Morning, Vietnam.
But his big break arrived in 1988 when he handled the title role in Bird, the Clint Eastwood bio-pic chronicling the troubled life and times of jazz legend Charlie Parker. Still, Whitaker earned even more critical acclaim for The Crying Game, although two other actors in the movie earned Academy Award nominations.
Since then, Forest has done phenomenal work in films like Panic Room, Ghost Dog, Jason's Lyric and American Gun, but he's never managed to garner any serious Oscar consideration. All that might change after The Last King of Scotland, where he delivers another mesmerizing performance, this, as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Here, Forest reflects on this latest role, a fitting capstone on a magnificent career.
Kam Williams (KW): How did you become attached to this project?
Forest Whitaker (FW): [Producers] Lisa Bryer and Andrea Calderwood first gave me the book about five or six years ago. Then, the movie kind of fell apart. I don't know what happened. I just went on about my thing. About a year and a half ago, Kevin [director Kevin Macdonald] became involved. I met with him, and ultimately, he decided for me to go ahead and play the part.
KW: What interested you in the role?
FW: As an artist, it's a great opportunity to play a character like this. And then, as a person, I had never been to the African continent. So, I knew, personally, it would reshape me.
KW: And how did it reshape you?
FW: It reshaped my point-of-view of colonialism. It reshaped my point-of-view of my own sense of source, and my own place of birth. It made it more organic inside of me, because it placed me in a position where my job was to understand and to become more African. That was an unbelievable opportunity. I could never have gone to Africa another way and had the same experience. It was my job and my joy at the same time.
KW: Was it a life-transforming experience?
FW: It touched something really deep inside of me, really. It changed my matrix, my insides. My blood even feels kinda different. I don't know how to describe it. It's really kind of Eucharistic. I feel like I ate the place and now it's part of my system, part of my being. I'm not claiming that now I know what it's like to be African, but that now I have a deeper understanding of myself.
KW: What measures did you take to prepare yourself for this role?
FW: Well, I started by studying Kiswahili to learn the dialect. Then, I studied tapes, documentaries, footage, and audio cassettes of Idi Amin's speeches. And I met with his brothers, his sisters, his ministers, his generals' all kinds of people, in order to try to understand him.
KW: You also seem to have undergone a significant physical transformation for the role.
FW: Yeah, Kevin wanted him to be bigger, so definitely, I did gain some more weight for the character. And since Idi Amin was from the Sudanese section in the north of Uganda, he was darker skinned. He had more of a blue undertone. So, we did change the coloring of my skin to be closer to his. But otherwise, there were no transformations besides acting.
KW: Did it help to shoot the film in Africa?
FW: I certainly don’ think I could've played the character the same way without being in Uganda. I loved working in Uganda.
KW: What did you loved about the country?
FW: I found the people to be very kind and generous. It was unique because the crew was mainly Ugandan. They had never done a film before. So, they were learning the process of making films, but at the same time they were also helping with the authenticity of the film.
KW: How so?
FW: By making sure that things were accurate. They would speak up about things in rooms or places that wouldn’t be that way. So it became like a cool sort of give-and-take situation, with them working more in films, and us learning more about Uganda.
KW: How did you find yourself affected by being in Uganda?
FW: I think the place fed me completely. Not only was I in Uganda, but I was around many people who had a personal relationship with Idi Amin. I was eating the food constantly. I was culturally hanging out with the people. You can't help but absorb the energy, and try to get inside the culture.
KW: Would you say, then, that making the movie in Africa was critical?
FW: Really trying to understand, inside, what it is to be Ugandan was crucial to the character, because there are Ugandan ways of doing things that I was trying to capture. Even if I had made this movie in South Africa, it would not have been the same, because it is so specific to Uganda.
KW: How do the people of Uganda feel about Amin today?
FW: It's kind of a duality. There are people who hate him, a small amount. And then there are the people who really admire him, like a hero. And then there's a large group who say, ’We know that all these murders and atrocities occurred, but he did all these great things.’
KW: What do you see as the movie's message?
FW: There's a couple. One has to do with the corruption of power, because it deals with friendship, betrayal, and how power corrupts. Then, also, more importantly, I think it deals with the foreign powers coming into a country and dictating the way the people should live and what they should believe, putting leaders into positions, and what kind of monsters are created from that type of behavior.
KW: How do you anticipate audiences responding to the movie?
FW: I hope that audiences respond really positively. I think it's a very intense, entertaining film, because you're brought in on a fun ride, and slowly you fall into it as James [actor James McAvoy's character, Dr. Nicholas Garrigan] does. Nicholas is like the audience. I think it's a good ride for people. And you learn something, as well.
KW: How do you feel about your performance generating some early Oscar buzz?
FW: I'm really excited that people are receiving my performance like this. It makes me feel good, because I've been working really hard. And this character, I worked particularly hard on. But I don't want to get too caught up in it, because first of all, it could lead to a great disappointment. You never know what's going to happen. In my career, I've had people talking about different things many times, but then not get nominated. So, I think it's great to enjoy the moment, and that's what I'm trying to right now. I'm just hoping people are going to see the movie, because it's a unique film.
KW: In this role, we get to see a more explosive side of your acting range. Most of the characters you've portrayed in the past have been more measured and relatively subdued. Why do you think that is?
FW: I think it's the character, though there's a little transition, because I think I'm marrying my internal and external life a little more lately. But I was trying to capture this man's energy, and I did a lot of research in studying him. I tried to capture his ’Warrior King’ energy inside of me as much as possible.
KW: To what extent do you have to channel all your energies with a laser-like focus to deliver an inspired performance like this?
FW: Well, you have to commit yourself and know that, for that time frame, you have to commit to this character. But I did call home and speak to my family. Otherwise, I was pretty much consumed by this character. Even when I was off, I was continually searching to find something else new about Amin, and to embed myself deeper into the culture to the point that, in the end, I was so entrenched that I could tell what tribe someone was from just by looking at them.
KW: After all the work you did to become Amin, how hard was it to decompress and get him out of your system to return to yourself, when you finished filming?
FW: On the very last day of shooting, I remember wanting to get the character out of me right away, as much as I could. You literally take a bath to wash him off you. And you try to get your voice back, because my speaking range for the role was a lot lower. Luckily, I went into another part not so long afterwards, so I was kind of able to push it away a little bit. But speech patterns, and little sounds, particularly colloquial things, like the way you ask questions or might respond, were sticking with me, probably because I'd worked so hard to make it a part of my everyday way of expressing myself. It also took a little longer for me to stop talking about him in the first person.
KW: Amin died in exile in 2003. Was he aware that this movie was being made?
FW: That's a really interesting question. I don't know. They've been trying to get this movie made for about six years. So, I would've thought that they might call him and talk to him. But I don't know if he was aware.
KW: Thanks for the time, and I expect you're finally going to get that Oscar nomination for this performance.
Cool, thank you. Take care.