Evan Smith: I’m not normally affected by characters in movies, but your portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland scared the hell out of me.
Forest Whitaker: I knew that I was playing a really intense character. He was brutal at times. I guess I didn’t know what the effect would be on other people, or how it would be in the film. The other actors were uneasy and frightened, not knowing what was going to happen inside a scene, you know? And I think it really fed the movie.
ES: How much of the part was on the page and how much of it did you pull together yourself?
FW: When we were in Uganda, I talked to Kevin [Macdonald, the director] about incorporating some of the things [Amin] had said into my speeches. I also wanted to incorporate more Kiswahili into the playing of the character. Kevin was open to my doing that, so I just started adding in more and more Kiswahili phrases and colloquialisms. I worked on the accent in L.A., but being in Uganda, being with the Ugandan people, you find out the uses of words. It could be something as simple as “uh-huh,” but when and why it’s said really define who the character is.
ES: How long did you shoot the movie in Uganda?
FW: The actual shooting of the film there was two months, but I was there for three and a half months.
ES: Had you been there before?
FW: No, that was my first visit to the African continent.
ES: What did you think of it? It looked just gorgeous.
FW: It’s so clean. The earth itself is so beautiful. The city of Kampala has kind of, like, a seventies retro vibe. And the people are so open and generous. They really invited us in and gave a lot of themselves in working on the movie.
ES: A lot of people in Uganda today are old enough to have been around while Amin was in office.
FW: [He was deposed] in 1979, so if you’re in your thirties or forties or older, you had personal contact with him, because he was running the country. Even if you’re a little kid, you’re aware of the myth of the man. If you’re Ugandan, you know who Idi Amin is. So it was important to them that this be played correctly, that it tell something about what they thought was the honest story of the country, its politics, and Idi Amin. We got complete support from the president all the way down, and everyone helped me figure out how to play the part. I interviewed [Amin’s] brothers and sisters, his generals, his ministers, his girlfriends. People on the street told me their stories of what happened. And then there was this whole other level of preparation: absorbing what it’s like to live in Uganda. So many things were wrapped up in being in that particular place. The movie couldn’t possibly have been the same if we had shot it somewhere else.
ES: You mean, if you’d shot it on a backlot in Vancouver?
FW: No, it wouldn’t have been the same movie if we shot it in South Africa.
FW: Because, first of all,