Forest Whitaker is learning to take the `I' out of `obsessive'
TORONTO -- Forest Whitaker insists he doesn't like the "O" word. "Obsessive." He gets called it a lot, by critics trying to describe his intense performances in films like Clint Eastwood's "Bird" and on TV shows like "The Shield." He gets called it by fellow actors, too, because of his ultra Method-y tendencies to spend months preparing for each part and to stay in character even when the cameras aren't rolling.
Yet here's Whitaker, in a hotel room at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he has come to promote "The Last King of Scotland," a drama set in 1970s Uganda. And he's using the "O"-word to describe himself and, particularly, how he went about preparing for his role as the notorious dictator Idi Amin.
"I was learning Swahili," he says of the weeks leading up to the film's shoot in Uganda. "I was learning the dialect. I was studying the accordion. I was studying books that were written about Amin, and watching all the documentaries and listening to the audiotapes of him. I went to meet with his brother and sister and saw where he was born. I met with generals and ministers. His girlfriend. I went all over Uganda to understand the place."
Is that all?
"As the film went along, I would change what I was doing," adds Whitaker. "I never wanted to go on safari, because I would say, 'I'm not here to look at the animals.' But (safari) is a big part of Africa -- I needed to understand it. So I went, and I'm standing in the truck with head out of the hole in the top. And I'm saying my lines to these giraffes, and I'm telling you, man, it changed my next day of work."
A psychologist might think that Whitaker's full immersion in his parts isn't the healthiest thing in the world. But let's not be too hard on him. The exhilarating result of that work is on the screen.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald ("Touching the Void") and based on Giles Foden's novel, "The Last King of Scotland" is a gripping mixture of fact and fiction, about an idealistic but naive young doctor (James McAvoy) who is unwittingly drawn into Amin's inner circle. The film has a great deal to recommend it: McDonald vividly brings alive Uganda at a moment when many international observers were still holding out hope that Amin would restore order to his country. Even more impressive is the way the episodic narrative gradually gives way to a white-knuckled, nobody-gets-out-of-here-alive thriller.
But it's Whitaker's gleeful, larger-than-life turn as Amin that raises "The Last King" to a different level. He conceives the ruthless Amin as a kind of sandbox bully -- tall and jelly-bellied, with both a charismatic laugh and vacant stare. It's hardly your typical sociopath performance, where moments of playfulness instantly give way to terror. Whitaker, instead, holds the playfulness and the terror in exquisite balance -- he shows us how Amin's guilelessness was a direct function of his evil (and vice versa). He makes us understand why so many people believed Amin's intentions were noble, despite widespread evidence to the contrary. Straight through to the end of "The Last King," even as Amin is ordering his closest advisers to be murdered, you look at this cheerful, bearish fellow and think, "Maybe he's not that bad."
This would be a standout performance in any year. But thus far 2006 has delivered surprisingly few Best Actor Oscar contenders. At the Toronto Film Festival, Whitaker's name came up over and over again -- his was one of the few performances that critics believed could go the awards-season distance. After two-plus decades of stellar work in underseen movies -- and nearly twenty years after he played tortured jazz legend Charlie Parker in "Bird," a performance many critics thought should have earned him more awards than it did -- Whitaker finally seems to be getting his due.
"It's great because I'm at a place where I can enjoy it," he says. "There were other times in my career where I wouldn't be able to enjoy what's going on. Where I wouldn't feel comfortable with my work."
In person, Whitaker is soft-spoken and polite -- traits, he says, that come from the childhood summers he spent with his grandparents in West Texas. He's 45 now, but doesn't look all that different than he did in 1982, when he made his first big-screen impression as one of the high school football players in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." After spending much of the 1990s in the director's chair, helming such ho-hum chick flicks as "Waiting to Exhale" and "Hope Floats," and running his own production company, Whitaker says he was eager to get back to acting -- and to learn to loosen up a little.
"I had my company in L.A., an office in London," he says. "All these concerns, all these people, it was too much. So I shut it down. ... I needed to be an artist again."
Does he think he's been loosening up onscreen as well -- you know, becoming a little less "obsessive" in his acting?
For his acclaimed turn last season on "The Shield," in which he played an out-of-control Internal Affairs officer, Whitaker decided purposely to not do preparation.
"I couldn't know what was going to happen every week on that show," he says. "I (had to) trust the people around me. And I was able to continue to explore myself and see where my instincts took me."
In the next few months, we'll see Whitaker on a five-episode guest appearance on "ER." The 2005 indie film "Mary," in which he plays the host of a religious-themed talk show host, has just been picked up for distribution. He also recently finished a heavily improvised comedy film called The Ripple Effect," co-starring Minnie Driver and Virginia Madsen, which will likely begin turning up at film festivals early next year.
Oh, and there's the small matter of seeing "The Last King" through to the Golden Globes and the Oscars.
To that end, the actor has a plan for insulating himself from the hype. He's going to obsess about something else.
"I may start a movie in November," he says. "This character, he kind of gets a little drunk, he starts gambling, and losing himself. So I'll be in the casinos. I'll be in the really bad casinos in Gardena and Carson, Calif., because we're shooting (there). I won't be thinking about the Oscars. I'll be sitting in those casinos, hopefully not losing too much money."
© 2006, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.