An amazing portrayal of the ruthless president of Uganda
Forest Whitaker has been amazing us with his performances for years - but his latest role, we'll be talking about forever.
He plays former Ugandan president, Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland. Getting prepared for the portrayal, Forest traveled to Uganda to meet with Amin's family, friends, and people who knew him. He also immersed himself into the culture of the African nation by learning the customs, their behaviors, and most importantly, their language.
We sat down with Forest to talk about the film, and to find out how he feels about the Oscar talk already surrounding him. Here's what he had to say:
What do you think about all the Oscar buzz?
Forest Whitaker: If it happened it would be important, it could help my career; I'm really happy that people are liking my work, that's a great thing, I worked hard on the character. Hopefully, it's going to get people into movie theaters; this is a little movie, it was made for like $8 million. Hopefully, if people are talking positively about the movie, they'll open it up wider; as far as the reality of that, I've done a lot movies where people have talked about the work, the performances and stuff, and this has not been the case. Earlier this year, when I was doing The Shield last year, reporters were talking about me being nominated or winning an Emmy, but I wasn't even nominated, and I felt like my work was strong in the show. If something like that happens it would be a great thing but I'm trying to live right now; I feel proud of the movie and people are receiving it well, and I hope people continue to go see it.
Do you evaluate and study your performances?
Forest Whitaker: Sometimes, when I see the work I don't feel comfortable. But I felt alright with this and that's unusual for me; I'm always looking at what I didn't do right, maybe because its because I felt I did everything I could do when I was there in Uganda to play the character. When I left I don't know what else I could have done; if it worked, cool, and if it didn't, I have to face myself - that's all.
How does it feel to put it all out there?
Forest Whitaker: I try to serve the character all the time; this one took a lot of work and was consuming. It's like climbing up a ladder and sometimes you're afraid to face yourself so you make excuses; you avoid going to the top of the ladder and look in the mirror. I did everything I could to give myself no excuse; I have to look in the mirror and I feel proud of the work.
How would you describe Idi Amin?
Forest Whitaker: First and foremost, he's a soldier; a lot of the choices he makes is because he's a soldier. Even in the end, when things become chaotic, he's behaving as a soldier; he was trying to defend himself from his enemies and trying to destroy his enemies. When he was a general, people were dictating who his enemies were; as president, he can decide who his enemies are and it caused problems.
Actors don't think of their villainous characters as bad guys. Did you have to come up with some internal logic why he was so brutal to his people?
Forest Whitaker: I started playing through my head all the stories that were told to me, and the paranoia and fear. I saw this one image of him where it seemed like he was cornered, that played in my head a lot - what does it feel like when you feel you're being attacked from all sides. What it feels like when you think the people around you are trying to destroy you. I even had that thought at the end when I'm dealing with Nicolas (James McAvoy) and I'm looking around at the guys and I'm trying to figure out who do I trust. It was a way of thinking in my head.
Do you like to play dark characters?
Forest Whitaker: I like to play complex characters and the duality, and trying to reach for the light, it's more interesting really. I've gotten to play so many types of guys and I just try to find the humanity in each one of them the best I can.
Can you switch to a comedy?
Forest Whitaker: I was playing a character recently that was really subservient. He was beat down; it's nicer to play stronger in a way. It was almost tougher for me to get rid of it because some of that energy stays in my life; my wife is like, get a backbone.
Did you meet any relatives of Amin?
Forest Whitaker: Yes, I went to Aru up in the north and met his brother and sister and Moses Ali, who was one of his generals. I met with a couple of his ministers and a girlfriend, people had little stories about him; everybody had a story. I also met with these Indians and what happened to him; it was surprising because he had some complimentary things to say about him.
How did the experience change you?
Forest Whitaker: One guy said he drove Idi Amin here and the road was closed and I got him there on time so he made him a general; I started creating my own memories. I was tricking my mind into believing that Swahili is my first language, and English is my second. I'm tricking my mind into believing that these moments are actually mine because I'm doing everything with them, I'm eating the food, I'm listening to the music, I'm sitting in someone's house; they're treating you as a guest. That feeds into trying to understand what it is being Idi Amin - the kids are going to dance for you, and they start boogieing. Then you understand what the moments mean, they're your memories and you start combining them in a way; I know how to eat the food, at first I didn't know. After a while, it's my natural inclination to sit on the floor.
What draws you to complex characters?
Forest Whitaker: Mostly my guts - I look at acting as this opportunity to keep learning and studying and growing as a person. It's not that I'm trying to purposely not play the same character, what I'm doing is trying to continue to learn; it turns out that I have a more interesting career.
Are there historical figures you'd like to play or role to play?
Forest Whitaker: I wanted to direct a movie about Hannibal. I read a script the other day about a southern preacher and I'd like to do that; I want to play a true southern preacher because my grandfather was a southern preacher, so many people on my dad's side of the family were preachers. If it comes my way and it's right, I'll do it.
Forest has two more episodes left on The Shield on FX. But you have to see him in The Last King of Scotland open in LA and New York now, and wider next Friday, October 6th; it's rated R.