Forest Whitaker

GQ, Jan 2007

Playing a notorious despot may not be the obvious path to cinematic stardom. But Forest Whitaker’s incendiary turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is the crowning glory of a 25 year career – and the role that might just land him an Oscar.

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(Portrait by Gavin Bond)

He’s in his fifties and graying. His sweat shirt is tucked into his jeans. And he can’t stop talking. “I got a script to your assistant, it’s called ‘Christmas Cop’, pretty snappy title. Seriously, there’s a great part for you in there, look out for it – ‘Christmas Cop’…”

This is how it is for Whitaker now – even at an out-of-the-way café buried deep in the San Fernando Valley. It’s the day after the opening of The Last King of Scotland and everybody wants a piece of its star. As we walk to our table, other strangers get up to shake his hand and pat him on the shoulder like a returning hero. Whitaker just waves and smiles his way through. A friendly smile, not the Kevlar kind.

“I think it’s OK now for this to be happening,” he says, when we finally sit down. “You know, for people to be enjoying my performance? Because a couple years ago, I wouldn’t have felt worthy. And you have to feel worthy otherwise you sabotage yourself. Do you know what I mean?”

Sabotage? I don’t understand. It does seem odd, though, that an actor of his stature and experience should have had a problem receiving compliments all these years. After The Colour of Money, Platoon, Good Morning Vietnam, Bird, The Crying Game, Ghost Dog, Panic Room and Phone Booth, you’d have thought he’d be used to it. Still, he’s getting over it now, so that’s good. And not a second too late. His portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland might have ruined him.

The film follows Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor who goes to Africa in search of adventure and finds himself in Idi Amin’s inner circle, as the despot’s personal physician and confidante. Clearly a metaphor for the West’s forays into Africa, Garrigan is exploitative, myopic and self-deluding – far from a conventional hero. Seduced by the good life and by his boss’s infectious charm, he wilfully ignores the atrocities that Amin is perpetrating outside the palace gates until they finally invade his own cosseted existence. Finally he struggles to escape with his life.

There’s no question that Last King is a thrilling ride through the reign of Africa’s most notorious dictator – as is the excellent novel on which it’s based, by English author, Giles Foden. But neither quite reaches the heights of Whitaker’s turn as the self-proclaimed Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea. His Amin is a wonderfully subtle creation – a cunning manipulator of his ministers and the media; an affable bear who can be riled in a snap, just as Whitaker’s boyish smile drops cold to a blank and deadly, droop-eyed stare. He is as jocular as he is cruel, as infantile as he is murderous, and so overwhelmingly charismatic that you wish the film were about him and not James McAvoy’s Scottish doctor. If he doesn’t at least get nominated for an Oscar, the fix is in.

Whitaker spent a month in Uganda coming to grips with his character, before shooting began there in June 2005. He hired an assistant, Daniel, and they traveled around the country collecting experiences for him to absorb. “We ate on the streets, in the coffee shops, the little huts and stuff,” he says. “I went to parliament, up to the falls and the game reserve. Dude, I visited Amin’s brothers and sisters, his generals, ministers. And I learned a lot, man. I learned there’s a big difference between the way the West perceives him and the way Ugandans do.”

For the West, Amin was always a monster whose legend preceded him – an alleged cannibal who kept body parts in the fridge and slaughtered 300,000 of his own people. He ruined Uganda’s economy – his expulsion of the Asian community threw the country into chaos. And he was certifiably nuts – a chilling combination of buffoonery and brutality, as seen in the extraordinary 1974 documentary, Idi Amin Dada, by Barbet Schroeder (Barfly, Single White Female).

(The Schroeder documentary is a treat, by the way. During a cabinet meeting, as he haranges his ministers for the cameras, telling them “you must not be like a woman who is just weak”, Amin singles out his foreign minister for not publicising Uganda’s triumphs loud enough. Two weeks later, as the voiceover says, the minister’s body was found floating in the Nile).

“That image I had as a kid of Idi Amin, the monster, I have to question it,” says Whitaker. “Particularly of a person of colour. A lot of leaders have killed more than Amin – from Genghis Khan, to Alexander, to Napoleon, to the Crusades and so on. So why is he singled out? It’s probably because he told the West to get the heck out.”

It’s true that the West liked to hold Amin up as an example of how black Africa wasn’t ready for independence, how Africans could not govern themselves.

“Yes, because ‘Africans are like children’, that’s what they said!” Whitaker laughs. “So of course the perspective in Uganda is more complicated. On the one hand he killed many of their people, but on the other he gave them national pride. Without Amin they wouldn’t have the businesses they have. When he kicked out the Asians, people started their own radio stations, their own theater. There was no Ugandan theater before Idi Amin. Some people still see him as a pan-African hero.”

The Last King of Scotland captures this complexity, embracing the Ugandan view of the tyrant – a demon but also a human being. While it lacks the chilling veritas of Schroeder’s film, in which we see Amin in a cabinet meeting haranguing his foreign minister for not publicising Uganda’s triumphs loud enough – two weeks later, as the voiceover says, the minister’s body was found floating in the Nile – Last King makes sure to mine the documentary for material. The dictator’s fondness for the accordion, for example, or his comical swimming races in which he always had a head start… and always won. But the film’s power derives from Whitaker’s faceted portrayal of Amin’s emotional life – his attention to detail is obsessive. He not only learned Kiswahili for the role, but he also became a passable accordionist. For one brief scene in which Amin regales party guests with a song, Whitaker learned 10 songs. “We wrote the lyrics ourselves, me and my assistant Daniel,” he says. “They were all originals. The one they picked is a lullaby about a bird who comes to eat all the seeds – it’s an anti-colonialist song.”

If learning ten songs when one would do seems a tad overenthusiastic, it’s because Whitaker had never been to Africa before. This was his headlong plunge. “It was a big deal for me,” he says. “Big deal.” For the past 3 years he’d been working on his family’s genealogy, going back 5 generations on all four sides of his family – not the simplest task for an African American. He got his DNA tested to find out which tribes he descended from – “on my dad’s side the Ibo of Nigeria, and on my mother’s, the Ekon tribe in Ghana”. Then he tracked shipping logs for the passage of slaves from those regions. And then he got the job of playing Amin.

“This movie came at a perfect time. It gave me a sense of myself,” he says. “It helped me understand colonialism in a more organic way, and it helped me explore my ancestry.” It didn’t matter that his descendants hail from West Africa, while Uganda is in the East. “I was still going back to the source. Because scientifically, Uganda is where the first man is from. And I actually visited the cave of the first man – he’s called Kintu, in the Ugandan myths.”

He thinks for a minute. “This is going to sound weird, but at times, playing Amin, I felt like my blood was different. If you took a sample and did a test, it would look different under the microscope. Because I ate Africa like the Eucharist, something you take inside of you. And I embedded memories inside of me to be deeper memories. When I heard a song again, I’d remember it as if it was a lullaby from my childhood. So some of my memories of living in Africa became almost as if I had experienced them as an African.”

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It’s not often an actor speaks of his method in such personal and unguarded terms. But Whitaker is nothing if not open. A self-described Gnostic whose “quest is to develop as a spiritual being”, he doesn’t shy from speaking his mind, even if it involves using the kind of vocabulary that some might mock. He believes that “we live in a world of duality” and that no matter how many people Amin killed, he “has the light of divinity within him.” A vegetarian of 27 years, he has studied Ayurvedic medicine, alternative healing and Feng Shui. But he’s neither preachy nor patronising in the least. Rather he listens intently to my questions and asks several of his own. And he is generous to a fault, even to the woman who clatters over to our table, barging into his thoughts about Africa. “I saw the trailer and oh my God, it was unbelievable, truly,” she giggles. “I’m sure you’re going to win prizes. Trust me, I can tell. Here’s my card – when you get the notice, let me frame it for you. We do a lot of Academy Stuff.” The way Whitaker thanks her, he really seems to mean it.

Whitaker’s politeness speaks volumes. So often when celebrities sit down for interviews the mask slips with a gesture or a glance – a look at a watch, a roll of the eyes, a rictus smile. These instants are seldom reported. Rudeness is accepted in Hollywood. But Whitaker wears no mask. While some say success changes people, I believe it only reveals them. And Whitaker’s humility is real. Quite where it comes from, however, is hard to tell. He has lead a charmed life on paper.

He grew up in South Central before the place got its reputation. It was “an idyllic childhood”, he says, as one of four children of a teacher mother and an insurance salesman father. He inherited his drooping eye from his father. “It’s called ptosis,” he says. “My dad’s corrected itself. Mine didn’t.”

The sixties in South Central was a politically charged time – “at the corner of my street was a Panther office. They blew that up. Must have been the FBI or whoever.” But Whitaker wasn’t an angry young man. He had his sights set on a pro-football career at first. Then he turned to music. “I had a singing scholarship, I was studying to be an opera singer. But I realized it wasn’t going to touch the people that I grew up with. So I switched to acting.” And success came quickly. He was still at college when he starred in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

In the 25 years since, he has run a successful production company, directed a hit movie (Waiting To Exhale) and won the Best Actor award at Cannes. But as he looks back, Whitaker finds precious few highlights. “Ghost Dog,” he says, “taught me to trust myself.” It’s the film with which he most closely identifies besides Last King of Scotland. Jim Jarmusch wrote it especially for him. It’s artful, quiet and cerebral. “I used to meditate three hours a day before filming,” he says. “That character needed to vibrate a certain way.” He plays a Mafia hitman obsessed with the Samurai code of bushido. “Most of the time he’s not talking and as a samurai, he’s not allowed to show much expression. So the energy has to come from inside.”

The other high point – there are only two – is Bird, the Charlie Parker biopic. Bird and Ghost Dog – two roles shrouded in solitude and contemplation. He makes no mention of Panic Room or Phone Booth. “Waiting To Exhale was an exciting time, I guess – it was the number one Christmas movie and I directed it. But not long after that, I was having a hard time.”

A hard time?

“As a person, I’ve struggled socially – not necessarily parties, but you know. Press, things like that. Twice, I just imploded.”

Why – because the press treated you badly?

“No, no, nothing like that. I was just a hermit. I used to do my work and go back to my room. I’m still a person who’s best at directed conversation – conversation with a purpose. I don’t gossip or chit chat. I don’t know how.”

It turns out Whitaker’s implosions were wrapped up in this idea of sabotage that he was talking about before. “This is what I fight against,” he says, getting ready to show me something with his hands. “Imagine a ladder and you’re trying to get to the top, OK, but you have setbacks and each time you take a step back down. Maybe it’s a bad relationship, an argument at work, a drink problem. Whatever. What if you’re creating the setbacks because you’re afraid that if you get to the top you’ll have to look in the mirror and see who you really are? You’re hoping it’s not that demon of mediocrity, but what if you get there and realize that you’ve been trying to do this all your life, but you know what? You can’t. You’re not good enough.”

You can see the self-doubt in Whitaker, it’s there in person, quivering behind his doleful eyes. It’s there in some of his best performances – as the tortured jazz pioneer (Bird), the conflicted hitman (Ghost Dog), the paranoid dictator (Last King). And he makes no attempt to hide his vulnerability in person. One of the most exhilarating things about playing Amin, he says, was being able to embody such confidence. “I’ve noticed, when I play characters that are all beat down, I feel worse than when I play him,” he says. “With Bird, I moved to this loft, played the sax all day and wandered around. Charlie Parker was a loner. A drug addict, you know? Some days, I would get out of bed, and I felt like I didn’t want to go on. With Idi Amin, it was different. Even though I can’t walk into a room the way he could, I’m hoping that with each year I’ll be a little more confident moving into space.” It doesn’t occur to him, that he can walk into a room like Amin. He already did.

“Even now, I have keep myself in check,” he says. “What are you depressed about? Everything is great, you got a great family, you’re finally expressing yourself on a deeper level. Be happy, dude! Don’t take that step back on the ladder. Keep going. It’s OK.”

“Hey Forest, yeah, I just called, your assistant has it.” It’s that guy again, hovering over our table, making sure he passed our table on the way back from the toilet. “’Christmas Cop’. Snappy title. And seriously, it’s something I’d like you to look at to direct too. There’s a great role in there for you with Dennis and Harvey and Michael and everyone…” Whitaker beams at the man and promises to check with his assistant first thing. There aren’t many who would be so gracious.

When the man eventually leaves, Whitaker smiles. “That guy probably doesn’t realize it, but I’m really open about that stuff. You literally can stop me and tell me something and I will remember it and I might just do it. It’s happened like, a number of times.”

So there’s a real chance you’ll make a movie called Christmas Cop?

He laughs. “Well, it is a snappy title!”