Whitaker Makes the Ground Shake

Maui Time | September 30, 2006
Forest Whitaker Makes the Ground Shake as Idi Amin

Forest Whitaker

By Cole Smithey (1462 words)

The buzz is strong for a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Forest Whitaker for his profoundly nuanced and fearless performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in director Kevin Macdonald’s (“Touching The Void”) filmic adaptation of Giles Foden’s historical novel “The Last King of Scotland.”

In the film, James McAvoy (“Starter For Ten”) plays Nicholas Garrigan, a recent medical school graduate who randomly takes off for Uganda with no idea of its volatile political atmosphere. Nicholas enjoys the luck of the devil when he incidentally encounters Idi Amin on a road where the recently installed dictator has smashed his car into a cow, and provides medical attention to Amin. The Ugandan ruler is so pleased with Nicholas’ take-charge demeanor that he offers the cavalier doctor a position as his personal physician. However, even as Nicholas gains the dictator’s loyalty and trust, he woefully underestimates Amin’s unstable nature, and commits acts of betrayal that he must pay for dearly.

Forest Whitaker, who made his mark with a molten portrayal of jazz great Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood’s “Bird,” has worked with such formidable directors as Martin Scorsese (“The Color of Money”), Oliver Stone (“Platoon”), Abel Ferrara (“Body Snatchers”), Robert Altman (“Ready to Wear”), Jim Jarmusch (“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”) and Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”). He is an everyman actor capable of creating complex characters that are immediately recognizable for the humanity that boils beneath the surface of their skin. In person he is soft-spoken, articulate, and somehow smaller than he appears onscreen.

CS: What do you think about everybody saying, ‘Forest Whitaker will be up for an Oscar nomination’?

FW: I think it’s great if people like my work enough to say stuff like that. I think it’s great if it makes people go to the movie theater. The other part I can't really say because I've done a lot of movies and people have talked that kind of stuff before and I haven't been nominated. So you've got to take these things with a grain of salt.

CS: How much research did you do, and how familiar were you with Idi Amin prior to filming?

FW: Well, as a kid, I remember only two things about Idi Amin. I guess he wasn't on a [postage] stamp, but in my mind he was on a stamp with this general's outfit with all these epaulets, his hands raised and kind of growling. Everybody used to say he was a savage. Then I kind of remember being in a drive-in theater and looking out the back window to the other movie, and seeing, I think it was, Yaphet Kotto playing Idi Amin. Those are my two images of Idi Amin. So really it was a long journey, and in the end it was a journey that took me about five to six months to play this character. In L.A. first I read the book and the script, but then I started working on Kiswahili [the Swahili word for the Swahili language] because it was really important. So I worked with this woman who taught me Kiswahili and then I worked on the dialect. I started to work on [playing] the accordion. I started studying all the tapes and documentaries. There is so much footage because he was a showman and really liked the press. So then when I got to Uganda I met with his brother and sister in his hometown of Arua. I met with his generals, I met with ministers, and I met with his girlfriend. I met with so many people to talk to them. Everyone in Uganda has a personal experience about Idi Amin. Whether it’s, ‘he killed my cousin,’ or it’s, ‘I wouldn't have this job if it weren't for him.’ Uganda has a very mixed point of view. It's not the way people look at him in the west.

CS: When did you feel like you finally had a grip on the character and could say, “O.K. I feel like I've got a handle on him”?

FW: I don't know because I was continually driven throughout, even all the way through the shooting to keep doing stuff to figure him out. Even up to the very last few days I was still searching. I would still say, “Maybe if I go out here I can learn something else that will help me out.” And every time I would go, it would give me something, and it would change something. It would be like going up to the Mosque on the top of Kampala, or it could be like going out to a country road and hanging out with the villagers there, or riding through the streets. I mean I rode on bikes, I drove cars. I did so many things--sit in people’s homes eating, and the experience would change a line. It would even change some of the lines in my script. Like my driver Colin, he would always take me to his house and make dinner and there were all these things going on and he would say, “Are you happy now, eh? Are you happy? I would say, “Yeah, yeah.” So every time we would go somewhere and when there was something great going on he would say, “Are you happy?”

Colin and I became friends. Daniel Sataabo was my assistant and we became friends. Those guys took me to every park, from the cave of the first man to the palaces of the Ugandans, to parliament, everywhere. They brought me all over the place and into their homes and with their families, and so that process just kept going on. It wasn't until it was over that I went, “Oh, O.K., I did everything I could.”

CS: Do you have to like a character like this to play him?

FW: I don't think I can necessarily dislike him. I didn't approach it like trying to like him or dislike him. I approached it like trying to figure him out. I tried to figure out how he felt about things and how he like did things, about his passions and his pains. I Created stories in my head about his youth, 'cause I had a lot of people telling me about the way he behaved as a kid and his leadership abilities as a child. Then they were talking about when he was finally leaving, and he was in exile. He drove and he stopped off at different places and said, “O.K., I'll see you later.” You start to accumulate these different things. The memories start to become your own in a way because you are experiencing them too. You're eating this food and it becomes a part of you, it becomes a part of your system. I think even the chemicals in your blood change.

CS: Was this your first trip to Africa, and did you have any preconceived notions about Africa?

FW: It was my first time. I always thought that I would go to West Africa first because that is where my ancestors are from. So when I went to East Africa it was different. I had no idea that Kampala is such a modern town. It is really unique. Then you go out into the sides and the villages and I don't think my imagination had played on me enough to be able to imagine sitting overlooking the Nile with my friends. My guides would bring me to the source of the Nile and they would pull out a shirt and say, “This is for you.” It's my badge. There is no way I could have imagined it the way it was.

CS: What kind of delicacies did you eat?

FW: I just ate the normal staple food like matoki, which is boiled banana, and bean sauce and bosho, which is a wheat food, and greens. That is pretty much what I ate the entire time because I really didn't eat in the hotels. I ate on the sides of the roads and stuff.

CS: Where do you go from playing Idi Amin?

FW: I have a couple of movies coming out—“Where the Wild Things Are.” I did a thing called “The Air I Breathe,” which I think is going to be good, with Kevin Bacon and Brendan Fraser. I just finished something with Dennis Quaid and William Hurt called “Vantage Point.”

CS: Where is your home?

FW: I was born in Texas, but I was raised in Los Angles where I still live today.

CS: What CD are you listening to right now?

FW: Um, I'm listening to T.I. [Clifford 'Tip' Harris]. T.I. is a great rapper. I like the southern rappers.


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