Becoming Amin brings Oscar buzz to Forest Whitaker

Steven Rea [The Philadelphia Inquirer]

TORONTO -- Like it or not, Forest Whitaker's got Oscar buzz.

At the Toronto International Film Festival, where a movie called "The Last King of Scotland" played to wildly appreciative audiences, the actor's name kept coming up. And in New York and Los Angeles, on the early cusp of the hype-a-thon known as awards season, critics have been prognosticating, and publicists have been readying their money quotes for the "For Your Consideration" campaigns.

Even a shy and self-deprecating soul -- which is what, and who, Whitaker is -- can't help but notice.

"I'm happy that people like my work enough to say that. That's a great thing," says the actor, who is eerily charming and then drop-dead horrifying as the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland."

"But I can't count on it, I can't think about it too much," he says. "I've had a 25-year career now, and when I did `Bird,' I was nominated for a Golden Globe, but I wasn't nominated for an Oscar. When I did `The Crying Game' -- I've done so many films, so many characters, where people kept talking like that.

"When I did `The Shield' (the hit FX series), everybody kept saying I'd be nominated for an Emmy. And I wasn't. Everyone thought conclusively that I was going to win! So I better take it with a bit of salt."

This time, though, it's hard to imagine Academy voters looking past Whitaker's performance. The story of a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) who meets Amin by accident, becomes his personal physician and close adviser, complicit in Amin's corrupt, genocidal `70s reign, "The Last King" is riveting every second that Whitaker is on screen.

Jovial, cunning, beguiling and then, increasingly paranoid and rageful, Whitaker's Amin is rich, Shakespearean stuff -- a larger-than-life character that the actor brings down to human scale with discipline, restraint and inner fire.

"Villains aren't like villains in Hollywood movies," explains "The Last King's" director, Kevin Macdonald. "They are real people, damaged people, who have reasons within their heads -- reasons they can't articulate, necessarily -- but they have reasons why they're doing what they're doing.

"And that's what Forest captured. That's why it's such a great performance."

Macdonald, a British book editor turned documentary-maker who is making his feature directing bow with "The Last King," offers a telling story.

"For about three months, I actually thought that there wasn't anybody to play this part," he says. "It's too big and difficult. I looked in South Africa, I looked in Kenya, and then I came to Los Angeles. The casting director had set up meetings with some African-American actors, and Forest was on the list. I thought, well, I love his work but he is so wrong. He's so gentle, he's so sweet. And he's very internal as an actor."

Nevertheless, the two met, and Whitaker gave Macdonald his take on the script. "He really related to Amin in a weird way," the director recalls. "And I thought, hmm, that's a bit strange -- I was seeing inside his head in a way that was a bit disturbing and unusual.

"And then he looked me in the eye and said: `You don't think I've got the anger in me to do this part, do you?'

"Awkward silence. Then I said: `Well, actually, I've never seen you do anything like this,' and he said: `OK, I'm going to prepare a scene.' And he came in, and he was terrifying. He had that unhinged quality right then and there that he has in the film. You felt in danger being in the room, because you weren't sure -- is he actually going insane before me? Is he having a nervous breakdown? What's happening?

"So that was it, yeah."

Whitaker, Texas-born, is 45 now. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Keisha, and four kids, ages 6 to 16. He made his big-screen debut in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," the same 1982 flick that put Sean Penn on the map. He has directed three studio films -- the Terry McMillan adaptation "Waiting to Exhale," the Sandra Bullock romancer "Hope Floats," and the Katie Holmes-in-the-White-House girl-flick, "First Daughter."

He's had an acting career that includes box-office hits and little indies. He's worked for Martin Scorsese ("The Color of Money"), Oliver Stone ("Platoon"), Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game") and John Travolta (the sci-fi debacle "Battlefield: Earth") -- but says only three pictures have been, for him, "monumental."

One is "Bird," the 1988 biopic of jazz legend Charlie Parker, directed by Clint Eastwood. The second is "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," Jim Jarmusch's 1999 meditation on Zen and murder. The third: "The Last King of Scotland."

"The fact that Clint cast me as Bird was monumental in my career," Whitaker says. "Not just in the fact that people started to look at me differently, but the fact that I was able to see myself as an artist. ... I didn't know if I could do a role that complicated. But afterwards, I started thinking, definitely. Just dive in, do your best, and we'll see what happens. And if you fall, you fall.

"'Ghost Dog' taught me something very instrumental: It taught me to trust myself in silence, because I hardly say anything at all in the movie. That's a big lesson to learn, that my thoughts are strong enough, even without showing anything on my face, to maybe hold it together. ...

"From Clint Eastwood and Jim Jarmusch, from those films, I learned how to commit myself to this film completely."

Whitaker, says Macdonald, arrived in Uganda a month before shooting was to start, having read, and seen, every book and interview about the African dictator he could get his hands on, including Barbet Schroeder's 1974 doc, "General Idi Amin Dada." Total immersion.

"At times, towards the end, I was slightly worried for his sanity, to be honest," Macdonald says. "He really became Amin for three months. He was eating Ugandan food, he was hanging out with Amin's friends and relations, he was just doing everything he could to absorb and internalize this person and try to understand him -- and that's a disturbing character to try to get inside of.

"I remember the last night of shooting, the wrap party, I went up to him and said: `How are you feeling?' And he said: `I'm so relieved I can start getting rid of this guy. He's colonized me.'"

Lately, Whitaker's been on a serious employment jag. He did a voice in the just-out kiddie cartoon "Everybody's Hero." He's in the fashion-world indie "Ripple Effect." There's a gambling pic with Kim Basinger and Ray Liotta called "Even Money," a "Rashomon-like presidential assassination drama "Vantage Point," and more voice-work, in Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's children's classic "Where the Wild Things Are."

"I'm at a stage where it's, like, whatever, I'm just going to work, and do, and enjoy, I'm going to trust myself, and whatever I do is going to be fine," he says with a laugh. At the same time, though, he says he's staying away from "soft guys" right now. Soft guys?

"Yeah, I don't want to play guys that are confused, because I tend to take on a bit of the character in my real life. And right now I want to feel a little more secure."


© 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.






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