The Forest Whitaker sitting, unassumingly in a corner of Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel, is quietly spoken, as befits his persona. That is, until the actor showed off his dominant side as a ferociously ambitious anti-corruption cop in The Shield which he concedes turned a new page in his career. It is this more showy side to the actor that audiences will continue to see through his extraordinary portrayal of African dictator Idi Amin, in The Last King of Scotland, whose rise and fall are seen through the eyes of an initially naïve Scottish doctor.
While the perception of Whitaker is the quiet, gentle soul, the actor says he was not that surprised when he was offered Amin, a process that began almost six years ago. “I’ve been playing bigger guys at different times and I guess I didn’t question it. Now everyone brings it up to me so much, because I see myself as playing the characters as they are,” Whitaker explains. “People talk about the gentleness and stuff, but yet I don’t think the character in Ghost Dog in any way is a soft character. I’ve played generals and hit men before, so it’s interesting to me to watch the way people perceive my work, which is different than me because I see myself as playing different characters all the time.”
But unlike Amin or Kavanaugh in The Shield, many of these characters retained a quiet intensity, a fact the actor does concede. “You know what, I am like in a phase in my work right now where I’m taking some of my internal characters and making them more external. I think Kavanaugh is an example of that, in that he’s out there, and so that may be the shift that’s going on with people.”
That perception began to change with The Shield, but will be well and truly cemented as he dons Amin’s garb, totally immersing himself as one of the more colourful and brutal dictators since World War 2. Whitaker, of course, was able to enjoy the luxury of full on research, from Amin’s physicality, to the voice. “I did a massive amount to prepare for this,” Whitaker recalls, beginning in Los Angeles.. “First of all I started learning Swahili, learning the accent, then I had to do study all the recording as well as all the books, tapes, documentaries.”
The research extended when he discovered the film would be shot on location in Uganda, not some other similar looking African nation. “When I went to Uganda I met with his brother, sister, his ministers, his generals and even to the Ugandan king. I did more research for this role than any other character I’ve probably ever played.” And shooting on location enhanced the actor’s understanding of the character and his world. “First of all I think there’s an exotic quality to Uganda that nobody’s ever seen this close,” the actor says.
“It’s green, lush and so alive. I think that for me as an actor there’s no way I could have played the character the same way, because all the time while I’m shooting the character I’m also still working on him, I’m still doing research and all the people around me are speaking in an Ugandan accent, speaking Swahili. I can leave there and say to a guy, hey, take me up to the mosque where Idi Amin used to go, I want to see what it’s like, so we’d leave work and go up there. I can go and visit he grew up while I’m shooting. I’m also a person who believes that things have their own energy, spirit and power, and to me the movie is infused with the power of Uganda, including its colours, and feelings. That vibration is inside the movie, so for me it couldn’t possibly be as good a movie, nor would we have gotten the kind of help that we ultimately ended up getting.”
Already, there is talk of Whitaker being a shoe in for an Oscar nod, but the actor is taking such talk in his stride. “I’m happy if people like the work and I just hope people go see the movie.” After all, it was assumed that Whitaker would win an Emmy Award for his performance in The Shield, but not even a nomination was forthcoming, a fact about which he is genuinely disappointed, as his Lt. Jon Kavanaugh was one of televisions high points last year. “I really loved playing that character,” he says smilingly, who has two more episodes left on the series which resumes early next year.
Already having been a successful film actor of nearly 30 years, Whitaker had no need to do a television series, but The Shield was clearly irresistible. “I liked the description of him, but Kavanaugh grew as they told me what they wanted to do with his arc. They told me they were going to write some great things, and Kavanaugh grew for the writers, so they started writing for the character as they started to see the obsessiveness of the way I was playing it, and then they started writing episodes just for Kavanaugh.”
Without revealing what becomes of the character in his remaining episodes, Whitaker admits they needed to end the character, but feels that “he ends a little abruptly. I think he does some things that are hard for me to accept that maybe Kavanaugh might do.” Whitaker says that always saw “Kavanaugh as like an arc angel, designed for a purpose. They say angels have no will, they do what they’re supposed to do, and I kind of like saw him that way. Even though they kind of let me end a little bit that way, I think it would have served them better if it had gone on a little longer.”
Whitaker – who made an auspicious feature film debut in 1986’s The Color of Money – is embarking on a new phase in his career. Now reflective and self-assured, the actor says he has changed somewhat in the past few years, which accounts for his bolder choices of late. “I think that there’s an awakening inside of me really honestly, and I honestly believe that the best work of my life is about to happen. I’m finding a balance in myself as an artist from the external and the internal, and so as a result the characters I play are going to be quite different. So what’s going to happen is that it’s going to lift up the characters I play, we’re going to start to see it and I think it’s going to change the face of my career.”
In addition to his final remaining episodes of the final season of The Shield, the actor will have a 5-episode stint on the somewhat popular decade-old ER. “I play an artist who does word work, and I go into the hospital where Kovac is my doctor. I have pneumonia, my boss made me go and they can’t get an IV in me so Kovac decides to put this catheter up here and I end up having a stroke. Then I become paralysed on one side of my body, ultimately end up paralysed in my arm. I lose my wife, my children, and so I take him to court.” More mainstream than The Shield, Whitaker took it on because “It’s a fascinating character and they let me do some great stuff.”
As for his next movie, Whitaker confirmed that the as yet untitled film, which is scheduled for a November start date, will be directed by Australia’s Rowan Woods [Little Fish]. “It’s a movie that deals with posttraumatic stress after someone shoots these people inside of a Denny’s, and it’s about the survivors.” The actor also hopes to return to Uganda – as a director. “I’m developing a film about north Uganda’s Resistance Army. This guy named Greg Howard, who wrote Remember the Titans, is writing it for me, and hopefully it’ll come out strong and I’ll tell this story. I think it would be good to let the world know what’s going on there.”
It seems that a new chapter in the life and times of Forest Whitaker is about to be written!