Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
February 25, 2007.
For Forest Whitaker,
it's been a long strange ride from the start, creating the character of Idi
Amin for his last film, The Last King of Scotland. With this year's
Best Actor nomination, he's favored to win – something he never expected
upon taking on this role.
But like Idi Amin,
Whitaker has always defied expectations, especially when he co-starred in
the award-winning The Crying Game – where he played a man in love
with a pre-op transsexual, much to everyone’s surprise. Whitaker has been an
actor that has defied such concerns and racial stereotypes as well.
How did this project
Producers Lisa Bryer
and Andrea Calderwood gave me the book about five years ago. I liked it and
we talked about it, but there wasn't a director. It wasn't until years later
that Kevin [MacDonald] became involved, and when Kevin became involved I met
with him and worked with him and he decided that he wanted me to play the
What kind of research
did you do?
I started first in LA,
because I started working on the key Swahili, which I thought was really
important, because I wanted to really start to believe in my head that
English was my second language. Then I start working on my dialect and the
accordion. Then I started studying all the books – so many books about him.
The documentaries, the tapes – there's so much film footage, because he was
a showman. He loved the press, so you can get so much material.
Then when I got to
Uganda, I met with his brother, his sisters, his generals, his ministers,
his girlfriends. Everybody in Uganda who's like 20-30 or above, they have a
personal experience with Idi Amin. They've seen him. They watched him on the
streets. They knew him. It was just 1979 when he left power. You talk to
everyone and they're explaining their views and opinions of the man, and
you're traveling around and eating and understanding the customs. I had a
Ugandan assistant, Daniel, who was helping me get into the culture and try
to make it my own.
your research process, what helped you round out the character?
I knew he wasn't the
caricature I had seen him be. I knew he was a complete human being. I had
seen an image of what they projected to me. I had to take things like that
with a grain of salt. The minute you start to define the guy, the minute you
decide, “Oh, you know, when he comes in the room he likes to use the
bathroom first. He likes to take showers in the cold. He doesn't like to go
to this theater.” Then al of a sudden the person becomes more complete. I
knew that I didn't have any impressions like that, so for me it was kind of
an opportunity to try to explore it and understand that.
What was your reaction
to playing the part of Idi Amin?
I didn't have an image
of him other than a sort of poster stamp image of this sort of mad
dictator/general or whatever. So, when I was looking at the project, it was
an opportunity to kind of explore. As an artist it was a great opportunity
to get to play a character like that and to explore him as a person would
help me grow. So I thought it was a great opportunity.
What was the most
difficult part to becoming Idi Amin and what do you think ultimately turned
him into the person he became?
Trying to find the
spirit of this guy took a lot of work. I worked really hard trying to figure
it out. I wanted to make it like anything I do. The way I believe this man
would behave. It's really like accessing the spirit of the person.
For me, acting is a
little bit of a spiritual experience, so for me I'm deeply searching for a
connection inside of myself to look for the places. I'm also looking outside
of myself to pull down energy inside of myself to play the character. So
that's a process that takes work.
Was there a
particularly difficult element you had to wrangle with?
There were so many
technical things that I had to master. I was lowering my voice to his
register. I was trying to understand the dialect. Actually I think all that
stuff helped me to figure out the character. It was an aid. At least I had a
direction I knew I was trying to go in. I'm trying to think what I felt the
most difficult… It was just a process. I was just continually searching, so
I never stopped for a concern.
Even while we were
shooting, if we were off and we would go to the top of the hill, I would
say, “Oh, I want to go to that mosque, because he used to go to that
mosque,” or “I'm going to go meet this guy because he knows him,” or “I'm
going to go call his son, and maybe he'll meet me.” Up until the very last
day of the shoot, I was still doing work and research. So that difficulty
problem, it was something I was continually searching for throughout the
whole entire process.
was it like meeting his family?
I met his brother and
sister in Arua. I flew up there. They were really apprehensive at first.
First we had to go meet with this minister, and I met the guy. I didn't know
he was a minister at the time, but he was going to bring me to him, and then
finally he decided that we were okay to bring us there. Then his brother
wouldn't talk to us, and then finally I pulled out this letter that I had in
my pocket that was from the president's office saying we have permission to
shoot a film there, and for him that was the most important.
Then finally, we sat
underneath this tree and he started telling me stories about Idi Amin
growing up. He was extremely poor, his sister, the house they lived in was
full of mortar holes. It had been blown up by the troops that came in after,
and he was just trying to survive, but he helped me a lot, figuring the man
What do you think made
him so likeable at times?
I wasn't trying to
make him likeable. If you look at all those tapes he's an extremely charming
guy. He was extremely well liked. The reason they were trying to destroy
him, the reason he made the coup, was because he was getting so popular with
the people. Obote, the president, wanted him out, wanted him away. He was so
popular. He was popular with the British. The British brought him to
Sanhurst to train him, the Israelis taught him paratrooping. He was very
I think even as the
atrocities started to happen, as the paranoia started to happen, he was
extremely popular, even still with the press. They were more interested on
reporting on his antics, his partying, his behavior, or his costumes, rather
than reporting on what was going on in the country until it was really deep
into the horrors of his reign.
are the most important things you learned about the culture and the man that
most Americans don't understand?
I think that most
people see him as this sort of savage who had nothing to offer, but if you
talk to Ugandans, they have a very mixed point of view on Idi Amin. One
person can acknowledge, even say that he killed his cousin, and then on the
other hand say, “I wouldn't be in this hotel. I wouldn't be in this chair. I
wouldn't have this job if Idi Amin hadn't been here.”
This was something I
was trying to struggle and understand, something I didn't know. I didn't
know the details. I didn't know what the behind-the-scenes issues were. I
spoke to an East Indian man, he was a scholar actually, and he had amazingly
positive things to say about Idi Amin. He was third generation Ugandan. He
thought he had helped the country immensely. So that was confusing to me
too, because he did kick the Asians out of Uganda, he gave them like 90
days. But they did control like 80-90% of the economy.
When they were kicked
out, the Ugandans had to scurry around and figure out how to run their
businesses, and they were floundering for quite some time. But today, they
are businessmen, and they really weren't before. So, as he explained these
things to me, and people explained things to me… Like even theater. It was
all run by the ex-patriots. When he kicked the English out, he started a
radio station and auditioned plays and then he took the plays and put them
into theaters, and so Ugandan theater began to flourish. They have a lot of
mixed feelings, at the same time knowing that hundreds of thousands of
people were killed.
And what about the way
their society functions?
For me Uganda exists
inside the people. It's a very green, lush place, and as a result there's
not a whole lot of old, ancient buildings. Because of the climate itself –
it destroys them. You find it by going to people's homes, eating with them
and listening to them. Watching them interact with their children, and the
generosity that they have, trying to be friends and open their lives to you.
For me that's what I got the most.
The fact that they
took me around to so many places and they took so much care, it was really
important to them that I understand as much as I could the place and the
people. I left there with a deep feeling of love. Other things I didn't know
much about the resistance army in the north, I didn't know a lot about Coney
and the problems there. They've worked through more than other countries in
Africa. The issue with AIDS; UNICEF has done a program that's really helped
it out. It's a budding economy of people who are striving. The Ugandans are
really into education and trying to educate and move forward. I wish I could
summarize it all perfectly.
did you feel about inserting a real person into an otherwise fictional story
that centers around a white protagonist?
The Idi Amin story is
very complicated. He's a product of western intervention. He's a product of
it because he was trained by the British as a soldier. They brought him to
different places and advanced him in the country and even put him into the
presidency, so it's very difficult to put him into this story without
dealing with that. I think that Nicholas represents the west, the ravaging
west that just comes in. As Idi Amin says, “Did you just come in here to
screw and to take away? Is that what you came here for?”
Idi Amin's legacy, and
the reason he lives in people's minds, because there are other people who
have killed more people, there are others in Africa as well as western parts
of the world, I think the fact that this man, this black man stood up and
said, “British, get out, Israelis get out,” is why people are so fascinated.
I think as a result it's important to take this character and move him in
and understand what he was toying with. He was brought up in Africa, but he
was embracing certain traits from the west, certain hedonistic features from
the west, and it's a lot about this clash of cultures.
There was a lot of
criticism of films that came out about South Africa in the late 80s and
early 90s that they were only through the point of view of white characters.
Did you have any feeling about this?
Obviously it's based
on a book, but I think in this case the story is about foreign culture and
the clash of culture and about cultures coming in and imposing their
thoughts and their wills and what kind of monsters are created from that. In
this case I think that Nicholas is not brought in as a hero. He's a very
flawed character. And I think that what it does do is that you do go into
the intimate side of Idi Amin.
There have been maybe
three other movies made about Idi Amin, but I think in this case you
actually get to go inside and listen to him. Nicholas's character in some
ways has to react to the world that he walks into. So in some respects it's
not just about Nicholas's point of view, many times in the scenes it's about
Idi Amin and what he's trying to accomplish and do and feeling, his own
fears, his own paranoia, his own issues.
Once at a film
festival you said that you wanted to speak to the director of
that you were a little shy to do it. As a filmmaker yourself, do you
consider yourself a shy person?
I think I'm a little
more an internal person. I don't really know him, and I really admire his
work, but I felt a little awkward just going up and shooting on whatever is
going on and stuff. I went to that movie because the actor had asked me to
come see it. I thought he was brilliant, actually, and to come talk to him
afterwards. So it was great.
you speak about your longevity and some of the things that may have helped
with your career?
Yeah, it's been a
while, and I've been going for a long time, it's cool. I think I've always
been trying to do stuff that I believed in and that affected me. I was lucky
that the things that I chose did well. Because some of them were kind of
risky choices. No one wanted to do The Crying Game when I was doing
it. Nobody financed it. Nobody wanted to be involved with it. People were
trying to get me not to go to Manila to do Platoon. Nobody wanted us
to go. I think it was chancy. I love Jim Jarmusch, but with a character
where you don't speak? I don't speak for most of the movie [Ghost Dog:
The Way of the Samurai]. With Idi Amin, the question's a very relevant
question. People would ask me, “Why would you want to play this character?
People could look at it as why are you showing this monster from the African
continent?” But I have my point of view on it, and it could ultimately be a
good thing, so I just made my choices by my heart, really.
After consuming such
an extreme character, how do you come down and become Forest Whitaker again?
At the end of the
movie the last day, I had a little bit of a ritual. I kind of take a shower,
try to wash the character away. I try to yell his voice out of me. I try to
get my voice back. I think in this case I was lucky. I don't remember what
movie I did, but I had another movie I had to go do, so when I got home I
started working on another character, and so that helped me get rid of him.
That was really important.
Is it hard to find
parts that give you this kind of richness?
This kind of
character, he's so unique, you don't find a character like this too often.
I've had about four movies come out. I'd stopped acting for about four
years. I was just directing [and] producing, and so then I started about two
years ago to start acting again, I did all different kinds of movies. I did
an animated thing with Spike Jonze, Where the Wild Things Are, based
on the book. I did this movie in Mexico just recently which is kind of an
action thriller with William Hurt and Dennis Quaid. It's about an
assassination attempt on the president, told through the point of view of
five different people in the same fifteen minutes. I did a Chinese parable
with this young filmmaker, Jieho Lee. I play Happiness and Kevin Bacon plays
Love and Brendan Fraser plays Pleasure and Sarah Michelle Gellar plays
Sorrow. It's about how our lives all interact when Happiness meets Pleasure
and then meets Sorrow and what happens in our lives. So I've been just kind
of doing whatever I feel. Hopefully they'll do okay.
So there is a kind of
spiritual thread in the characters you pick…
I think that we're all
people on a journey, so every character I play is going to have some sort of
do you feel about the Oscar buzz for you for this film?
I'm happy that people
like my work enough to say that, and I hope it makes people go and see the
movie, but other than that I have to let it be. I was working on The
Shield earlier this year, and everyone was saying that I'd be nominated
for an Emmy or win an Emmy. Everybody would say, “Oh, if this doesn't, I'm
going to be so upset.” I wasn't even nominated.
Were you upset?
No, that wasn't me.
That was a press person. No, I was off doing a movie somewhere, I think I
was in Mexico.
What made you leave
the acting and go to directing and then go back to acting?
When I left college I
started directing my friends on stage, and then I started directing music
videos. Originally when I first left college my first professional job was I
wrote a script in college. The first thing I was offered professionally, so
it's a part of me. So, when it happens it happens. I'm just telling stories
Do you feel that
you've become a better actor as a result of making your own films or vice
I think you're right,
I think that acting helps me as a director because it helps me understand
the actor and the acting process. I think directing can be detrimental to
acting for me. I'm already kind of a considerate artist. When I'm working on
a movie as an actor and there are problems on the set, I think you can
become too reasonable. I think people want you to at least know when to
stand strong. Sometimes you say, “Now I've got to get the day. Now I've got
to move the location. The lights are gone, oh, I understand,” instead of
being like, “We need to go one more time,” because they don't know that that
one more time happens, it could be something extraordinary. So I can lose
sight and be like, oh, okay, well, I'll be in my trailer, when you guys work
it out, just call me.
You mentioned being a
spiritual actor. Do you see Idi Amin as someone who was spiritual or just as
someone who considered himself to be spiritual?
I think Idi Amin in
the classic sense of spirituality became more in touch with his belief
system when he went to Saudi Arabia when he left Uganda. He became much more
of a practicing Muslim then. The legend is that his father was a Christian
preacher; he converted to Islam when he went to a menthe plantation and so
did his father. Idi Amin all through his reign referenced spiritual things.
Idi Amin would always say “I had a dream. I had a dream they told me to get
rid of the Asians, I had a dream they told me they needed to name all the
all through his reign he was always saying things like that, just like, “I
know the moment of my death. No one can kill me.” And that's true, he
believed that. You'd see him saying that in the David Cross interview. He
truly did believe that, I don't think it was something he was just making
up. He believed that he could see his death. He believed in his dreams and
he believed in his destiny. Sometimes I think he made up certain things but
that I think was the key to his personality and his spirit.
Anything to share
about working with William Hurt again?
Yeah, I had a great
time. William's good in this movie, too. We didn't get to do a lot,
especially in this movie. The stories were so separate. I play a tourist
who's there and sort of tapes this event and has this tape…
Are you going to be
No, I haven't figured
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