The Ritz Carlton was a beehive of activity this morning with frazzled publicists, frustrated hotel staff and famous talent buzzing around the lobby and elevators. Press junkets for both The Last King of Scotland and Babel were competing for attention. It was quite the mess of people. After the Toronto International I can now handle just about anything—cool as a cucumber on a plate of hot tomatoes—I guess you could say these are my salad days.
Though structured as a one-on-one, this interview is constructed from a frenetic slightly uncivil 15-minute roundtable session with Forest Whitaker. I've done my best to make sense of it so that it flows conversationally.
Michael Guillén: I'm an admittedly shallow person, Forest, and I want to know what you're going to wear to the Oscars. [Forest laughs, groans, buries his head in his arms.] Because yours is a riveting performance, one of your finest to date, and I think you're going!
Forest Whitaker: Thank you! Thank you. From your lips to the universe to God's ears to everything. I hope you're right. It would be a great thing. I'm really happy that people are receiving the work like that and that the talk is hopefully going to get people into the theater. And then we'll see because—you know what?—I've been doing this for a long time and I think I have a pretty strong sense of balance, level-headedness, so I'm okay.
MG: Well, that's my true question: within the body of your work, where do you place this performance among the projects that you've done?
Whitaker: There are projects that I'm really proud of. But in this case, I haven't left too many movies where—when I left—I felt like, "I've done everything that I can do." And in this case, I felt like, "There's nothing else I can do. So let's see what happens. Let's see what happens when it comes out." I gave my entire being to try to play the character and so I'm very proud of it. And it's one of the ones that I feel is the most complete. Because it's so technically difficult. Other characters are complete. Crying Game, I liked the character. Ghost Dog, I liked the character. They're all honest to what they were. In this case this is a bigger-than-life mythic figure, you know what I mean? Moreso than like Charlie Parker—even though Bird was a mythic figure in a way—Idi Amin represents a continent, you know what I mean? To try to fill that kind of energy and I feel it worked. In that way I feel good because it was a lot to do.
MG: What did you do to get into the role? I've heard you say that it's the most research you've ever done and I know you research extensively for all your roles.
Whitaker: I do.
MG: What did you find most useful in helping you get in touch with the essence of Idi Amin?
Whitaker: Language helps you figure out how to touch the world in a way. One of the big things was understanding his accent and the way the words are used because it helps you understand his humor. When you understand the humor of a culture sometimes, then you really understand the culture itself. Sometimes it's the one thing that escapes you even though you may understand. Do you know what I mean? Kiswahili. Kiswahili put me into the conflict that I think he was in too because I wanted Kiswahili to be my first language and English my second so I was tricking my imagination into believing that. That conflict was always present when I was trying to understand and trying to communicate.
MG: Idi Amin's humor is quite pronounced in all the public footage we have of him like in Barbet Schroeder's 1974 documentary Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait. How did you decide to represent his private demeanor that maybe you could not see from those sources?
Whitaker: I did a lot of research on just what it's like to be African, in the sense of what it's like to be Ugandan, what it's like to be the patriarch of a family, what it's like to be Kakwa—which is from the north of Uganda—and so I started putting all these things together, I mean how I eat, how I sit, what I want. It would influence me in little ways. It could be just as simple as when we're doing the scene in my bedroom. All around the whole room there's clearly a big long couch but I'm like, "No, no, sit, sit here, join me on the floor." You know what I mean? Because that was the experience I would have with people at times when I'd go in and I'd say, "Oh, can I talk to you?" and they'd finally say, "Yeah, come here, come sit down here, we sit here, we eat here." So [becoming informed] about a culture helps you inform those private moments.
The paranoia I understood. You can see the paranoia even in the Barbet Schroeder documentary. You can see like—when he's cornered, when he's talking to the doctors—in the beginning he's really nervous. He's looking around. He doesn't know what's going to go on, what's going to happen. And then slowly he tells a joke and they laugh. He's like, "Ah." [Whitaker acts out Idi Amin gaining confidence.] You know what I mean? You can see it happening. But you can see in his eyes; Schroeder ended the movie with those eyes. [Again, Whitaker shows me the way a shifting, increasing awareness comes into Idi Amin's eyes.] His eyes are doing that scene with the doctors, when he's just about to talk to them, and that was a big key into my understanding some of the paranoia. I accentuated that, based on the scenes themselves like the one where he says, "Cannibal. They call me the cannibal."
MG: Can you talk about your personal experience of shooting in Uganda? As I understand, this was your first trip to any part of Africa?
MG: How did that change your view? Because, obviously, that adds more to your view of the world.
Whitaker: I was given this unbelievable amazing opportunity as an African-American, because I'd never been to the African continent, to go there and—really, like I said—for it to be my job to understand what it's like to be African. I have every excuse to ask any question I want. I get to go into any situation I want. I get to repeat all my bad mistakes. Slowly people were taking me into their confidence and bringing me into their homes.
Daniel Ssettaba was my personal assistant and Colin Sendaula was my driver. I became really close friends with them; they helped me a lot. I remember Colin had invited me to go to his dad's house. I went in the house and we're there and we're eating. There's this one thing, I go and we're going to have dinner, and we're outside, I'm talking to his father and everybody. He takes me into the garden and shows me all these plants he's planting. We're talking. So we go inside. We're going to have dinner. We go sit. The men are sitting over here. They bring this thing and I wash my hands and then the next person washes. We eat the food.
Then I go into the room with his mother after dinner and they said, "The children would like to present something to you." Okay. So the kids all come in and they start doing this crazy boogie dance, this really crazy dance. I'm like, "Thank you" and his mother says, "Thank you for being close with my son." Then Colin comes in with this paper and everyone in the entire house has signed this paper. And they said, "This is for you." This was profoundly beautiful. "We wanted you to remember and never forget this moment with us here in our home." It teaches you so much about the people and the culture and it's that that helped me get into the character in those private moments, as you said.
It's the difference between the way you shake a person's hand. You know how they always talk about how in some Masonic way like, oh, the President he shakes this hand and Clinton then he shakes the elbow and that means something and he shakes this, that means something else. Well, it really is like that when you're in Uganda. Because you shake one hand it's like this, you shake with two hands it's a certain sign of respect, you prostrate yourself it's another thing.
MG: In the midst of trying to develop the role, how did you check yourself to satisfy yourself that you were on the right track? Was there an "Aha!" moment where you went, "Yes, I've got it now!"
Whitaker: There was never an "Aha!" moment really. There [were] moments where I felt it was starting to work but I was consumed with continuing to get information. Up until the very last day, I was still like—like I could be like … I was like a month in and I'm still going to visit some person in the bush, or going to some mosque at the top of the hill where [Idi Amin] went into. Every time I would go some place, the next time I would do the scene it would feel like it was the perfect thing I had just done! I would go to the source of the Nile and I'd be sitting there and Colin would say, "Here, we have this shirt for you." They'd give me this shirt and so when I'd go back is when they do something in the movie that feels almost identical.
I never would go on the safari. I just wanted to be with the people. So finally at the very end—like right before 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. So I went and I was standing up at the top of the thing, they were indulging me, letting me say my lines to these giraffes that were there [laughs] and I went back, and when I went back we had to do the first scene where I walk upon the stage. I felt like, "This is my country." You know what I mean? And I think it was because of that last moment [at Murchison Falls]. I'd got everything else. There was nothing else for me to grab. I'd squeezed out all the juices.
I don't talk a lot about the internal work, but a lot of the work is internal work. It's like meditating and getting yourself to a space where you're in that energy. All the other stuff becomes peripheral. It forms itself without you trying to make it form itself. You try to get the right energy and then you walk. I'm always talking about [acting] like it's such a technical [process] but—I have to be honest—working as an actor is really much more of a spiritual experience for me than it is a technical one.
MG: Given that, how difficult was this role? Because this is a dark character.
Whitaker: Yeah. You know, I think the character really still affects me in a lot of ways. Because when people talk about how dark he is, I get kind of defensive inside. I get kind of like, "What?" I do. "What do you mean?" I remember my wife was saying to me once, it was a while back, and she was like, "You have to stop talking in the first person by the time you do these interviews." It does become a part of your make-up a little bit in the way you look at the situation. I think now I have a separation, a stronger one, than when I first finished the movie, which was about a year and two months ago. Luckily, I've done about three movies since so then it makes me get more and more separated. But now that I've started talking about it again, with interviews, and I went to about four different screenings and I see it and I'm like, "Okay" and I remember. And I'm thinking, "Are other people feeling this or is just me because I played him?" When I watch it, I get this feeling, you know what I mean? I think it's just because that's the way I was feeling then.
MG: Having worked on both sides of the camera, what's the most useful thing that a director can give you and that you can give actors?
Whitaker: Acting helps me as a director. It helps me understand the process. The more I keep working on my acting, the more I think a better filmmaker I will be. 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. You don't want to think about problems and things that are going on and why this and why that. In some way you have to be a little more hermitized and a little bit more selfish.