Forest Whitaker first garnered notice in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but his film career took off four years later, when he appeared in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money and Oliver Stone's Platoon. Other highlights include Stakeout, Good Morning, Vietnam, The Crying Game, Smoke, Phenomenon, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Panic Room, Phone Booth, and Clint Eastwood's Bird, in which he starred as Charlie Parker. TV stints have included acclaimed roles on ER and The Shield; Whitaker also hosted the most recent reincarnation of The Twilight Zone. As a director, Whitaker helmed the features Waiting to Exhale, Hope Floats, and First Daughter. His latest role—as Idi Amin in Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland—has achieved the coveted "Oscar buzz" for the actor. Whitaker spoke to me at San Francisco's Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Groucho:: So I guess the first big question that everyone wants to know about is the research that you did for the role.
Forest Whitaker: Mm-hm!
G: I've heard you say that it's the most research you've ever done. I know you do that extensively—
FW: I did.
G: For all your roles. What did you find most useful in getting into—
FW: To Idi Amin?
FW: I think a language really helps you figure out how you touch the world, in a way. So I think one of the big things was like understanding his accent and the way the words are used, because it helps you understand his humor. I think when you. I think when you can understand the humor of a culture sometimes, then you really understand the culture itself. Sometimes, you know, that's the one thing that escapes you, even though you may understand—you know? (Chuckles.) And Kiswahili. Because Kiswahili put me in the conflict that I think he was into, which is—I wanted Kiswahili to be my first language and English to be my second. So I like was tricking my imagination into believing that. And that conflict was always present when I was trying to understand, trying to communicate, how I was trying to communicate.
G: His humor really comes out in all the public footage we have of him, like in the Barbet Schroeder documentary.
G: How did you decide to represent his private demeanor, which maybe you could not see from those films?
FW: Well, I mean I did a lot of research on just what it's like to be African—in a sense, what it's like to be Ugandan. What it's like to be the patriarch of a family. Which is really important. And what it's like to be Kakwa, which is North Ugandan. And so I started putting all these things together: how I eat, how I sit, what I want. And it would influence me in little ways. It could be just as simple as—when we're doing this scene that's in my bedroom, instead of sitting on the—where there's clearly a big, long—it's around the whole room—there's this big, long couch. But no, I'm like, "No, no, sit. Sit here. Join me." On the floor. You know what I mean? Because that was the experience that I would have with people at times. When I'm going in, I'd say, "Yo, now can I talk to you?" and finally they'd say, "Yeah, come here. Come sit down here. We eat here." So informing about a culture helps you inform those private moments. And the paranoia I understood because you can see the paranoia even in the Barbet Schroeder documentary. You can see when he's cornered, when he's talking to the doctors. In the beginning, he's really nervous. He's looking around, and he doesn't know what's going on, what's going to happen. And then slowly he tells a joke. And they laugh. He's like, "Ah. I got—I got you" (Laughs.) You know what I mean?! You can see it happening! But you can see, you know, in his eyes—you know, Kevin ended the movie with those eyes, the way he does. And those eyes are during that scene with the doctors. When he's about to just talk to them. And that's a big key into me understanding some of the paranoia. And I accentuate that based on the scenes themselves, like "Cannibal, they call me a cannibal"—you know, he just kept growing—
G: When you're in the midst of playing that role and maybe don't have the perspective, it plays head games with where you are in the development of the role—how did you check yourself and satisfy yourself "I'm on the right track," or was there kind of an "Aha!" moment where you said, "Yes, I've got it now."
FW: There was never an "Aha!' moment, really. There were moments where I feel like it was starting to work, but I was consumed with continuing to get information. So up until the very last day I was still—I could be like—I was a month in, I'm still going to visit some person in the bush, or going to like the top of some mosque at the top of the hill where he went. I was continually—and I every time I would go someplace, the next time I would do the scene, it felt like it was the perfect thing that I had just done. You know, I go to the source of the Nile, I'm sitting there, and Col [Ed. Colin Sendaula, Whitaker's driver on the picture] and them say, "Here, here, we have this shirt for you." (Chuckles.) And they give me this shirt, and so when I go back, it's when they do something in the movie that feels almost identical, you know? I would never go on the safari; I just wanted to be with the people (laughs), you know what I mean? And so finally at the very—you know, like right before—like almost the last few days of the shoot, I said, "Okay, I saw him on that tape. He was talking about the crocodiles. He was at Murchison Falls, I'm going to go." (Chuckles.) And so I went, I went, and I was like standing up, and I'm standing out of the top of the thing. And they're indulging me and letting me say my lines to these like giraffes or whatever. (Laughs.) You know what I mean? And I'm out there, and I went back, and when I went back we had to do a scene, I think it was almost like the first scene, when I walk up on the stage, and I tell ya, I felt like it was my place. "This is my country," you know what I mean? And I think it was because that last moment, it was like I got everything else. There was nothing else for me to grab. You know, it's like you squeeze the juice! (Laughs.)
G: Was that the day, too, when some were convinced that you were Amin?
FW: Um, they were in that—I mean, Kevin Macdonald, the director, talks about the fact that there were these people talking about—'cause it's 3,500 people, and you don't understand Idi Amin died three years ago. We're not in the main city, so they don't necessarily have TVs; they don't even have toilets. So they don't know, you know what I mean? So then Kevin recounts this story where they were like, "Why does Idi keep repeating himself? We've heard him. We know. We believe in him," you know what I mean? And then he's like, "No, it's a movie, don't you know, it's a movie. We're paying you." And he says, "They pay us for political rallies. And we understand he's back." This is what Kevin—(laughs) this is Kevin's story! So it's like, luckily I don't have to tell that story as myself saying it. (Laughs.) It's Kevin Macdonald's story! (Laughs.) You know?
G: Was there a particular photo or clip that was emblematic to you or that you kept coming back to, to remind yourself?
FW: I think it would have to just be some of the stuff in the Barbet Schroeder documentary—there was a lot of things in that documentary. But at a certain point, it started to become like—it's like—you know, I don't really talk much about the internal work. But a lot of the work is internal work, you know? It really is kinda like meditating and getting into, get yourself to a space where you're like in that energy. That's really—all the other stuff kind of becomes peripheral. And it forms itself without you trying to make it form itself. You just kinda get the right energy, and then you just walk. And then you know, it's not—because I keep—whenever I talk about it, I'm think I'm always talking about it in such a technical way, but I have to be honest: it's really much more of a spiritual experience for me than it is a technical one, working as an actor.
G: Having worked on both sides of the camera, what's most useful that a director can give you, and that you can give actors?
FW: I think acting really helps me as a director. Because it really helps me understand the process and the more I keep working on my acting, the more, I think, better a filmmaker I will be. You know? Directing doesn't really help me as an actor. At all. In fact, I think sometimes it's a little bit of a hindrance, a little bit of a problem, because you—
G: It's analytical.
FW: Yeah, you don't want to think about problems and things that are going on and why this and why that. In some ways you have to be a little more hermitized and a little more selfish. You know. Or you're not really doing the job that they brought you there to do. You know. (Pause.) And I see people—
G: Hovering. You're in trouble. [Ed. The publicist has arrived to end the interview.]
G: Thank you.
FW: My pleasure.
[For Groucho's review of The Last King of Scotland, click here.]