Interview: Forest Whitaker

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(Whitaker as Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada).

Most actors would kill for Forest Whitaker’ success; his acting career has spanned such great performances in films like The Crying Game’, Jason’s Lyric, Light it Up and Phone Booth to his film directorial debut with Waiting to Exhale.

Forest Whitaker returns to the silver screen with The Last King of Scotland, a portrait of the late Uganda dictator Idi Amin. Based on the award-winning novel of the same name, The Last King of Scotland reveals the story of an ordinary man who’s poor past is a far cry from his later life of power and wealth, filled with fast cars, fast women and fast times---By the time he was deposed 300,000 of his countrymen were dead. Whitaker breathes the role of Idi Amin. His powerful performance is strikingly similar to that of the charming once powerful Uganda president.

BSN: What confirmed your character wasn’t  the caricature he seemed to be?
Forest Whitaker: I knew he wasn’t the caricature he seemed to be. I just only had this image of what was given to me. And I have to take things like that with a grain of salt. When you start to discover he only eats this food or only takes cold showers--once you get to that then you start feeling more complete. For me it was kind of like a great opportunity to explore it and understand it. And that’s what I did.

BSN: How did you begin to prepare for your role?
Forest Whitaker: I started on Swahili because I wanted to believe in my head that English was my second language. I started working on the dialect and the accordion and then I just started studying all the books. There was so much footage—he loved the press so you could get so much material. Then when I started in Uganda, I met with his brothers, sisters, generals, his ministers, friends; everybody in Uganda was like 20 and 30 above so they have like a personal experience with him. They’ve seen him on the streets. They know him. This is like 1979 when he left power. You talk to everyone and their explaining their views and opinions of the man. And then you travel around, you’re eating and understanding the customs.

BSN: What was the most difficult aspect of his life that you had to grasp?
Forest Whitaker: It’s a lot of work because I wanted to believe that everything I’d do was the way this man behaved. It’s really like accessing the spirit of the person. For me acting is pretty much like a spiritual experience. For me I’m deeply searching for a connection inside of myself and then I’m also looking outside myself to pull to play the character. That’s a process.

BSN: What was it like meeting his actual family?
Forest Whitaker:  I met his brother and sister in Arua. They were really apprehensive at first. I mean the brother was. Finally I pulled out this letter that I had in my pocket from the President’s office saying we had permission to shoot a film there. And he thought that was for him. We finally sat underneath this tree and he started telling me stories about them growing up. He was extremely poor; him and his sister. The house was full of mortar holes. It had been blown up by those who came in after. And he was trying to survive really.

BSN: How’d you make him likeable at times?
Forest Whitaker: I wasn’t trying to make him likable. If you look at all the tapes—he was an extremely charming guy. The reason why they were trying to destroy him was because he was becoming so popular with the people. They wanted him away. As the atrocities and the paranoia started to happen, even with the press, he was popular. And they were more interested in reporting on his antics than they were with what was going on with the country.

BSN: What was it that you learned about the culture and the man that most people don’t understand?
Forest Whitaker: I think that most people see him as this sort of savage who had nothing to offer. But if you talk to Ugandans they have a very mixed point of view about him. One could say he killed my cousin while another would say if it wasn’t for Idi Amin I wouldn’t have this job. And this is what I was trying to struggle to understand.

Copyright 2006 Tonisha Johnson

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