Evan Smith: I’m not normally affected by characters in movies, but your portrayal of Idi Amin in T he 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, everybody around me was Ugandan. Half the actors, if not more, were Ugandan. My ministers were Ugandan, my head of security was Ugandan, three of my wives were Ugandan. Everywhere I turned I could do research: going to hang out at coffee shops, going to a mosque at the top of the hill, eating a particular type of food. Sitting around with people and watching where they choose to sit, how they choose to sit, how they deal with their kids—it’s different, culturally, in Uganda than it is in South Africa.
ES: You say you did a fair amount of accent coaching in Los Angeles before you started shooting.
FW: It was really essential. We broke down all of the dialogue as well as Idi Amin’s speech patterns; it was like a bible for pronunciation. I took that with me to Uganda. Even while I was working there, I was adding things. They were surprised at how much of the accent I was able to acquire from doing that work.
ES: I’m not old enough to remember Amin except in myth and as the answer to a crossword puzzle question, so I was surprised, I guess, to learn how well he and everyone else spoke English.
FW: Idi Amin was the one who implemented Kiswahili, and that’s why so many people speak it. But there are so many tribes in Uganda that English is a unifying language. What I tried to do in playing the character was speak Kiswahili when I was talking to Africans and speak English if Nicholas [Garrigan, the fictional Scottish doctor played by James McAvoy] was there, for his benefit.
ES: Was there any question in your mind about whether this was a good part to play? It’s meaty, but he was a really awful person. It can have a depressing effect, I suspect.
FW: I think that it’s important to see how these kinds of charismatic figures can rise in our culture, you know? How we can be seduced by them. So playing a quote-unquote monster wasn’t a problem because I never really saw him as a monster. I saw him as a man who did monstrous things, which is completely different.
ES: That’s a generous view.
FW: All of us have our flaws, and all of us are capable of doing horrible things, although we want to believe we won’t do them. When I was working on Platoon, we were in basic training, and we were deprived of food and sleep. By the end, there were guys who tried to kill each other. Well, what does that say about us as human beings? What does it say about us as human beings when we follow leaders who