On bringing Idi Amin to life.
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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, 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 kill six million people? What does it say about us as human beings when we listen to leaders who lie to us and, as a result, thousands of people are killed? What makes [Amin] worse than us, than Americans, who decimated the Indians on the plains? The natives here were destroyed, scalped, killed, and burned by our generals, by our culture. So, understand, I’m not trying to say they’re right or that we’re right. I’m just saying that we always have to keep vigil on ourselves and recognize that we’re capable of monstrous things.
EW: Let’s talk about your career. Your first film was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and in the 24 years since, you’ve taken a wide spectrum of parts.
FW: I feel really fortunate, honestly, as an actor. I’ve been able to play so many different kinds of characters, and that doesn’t seem to be changing. I’ve played a samurai in New York City [ Ghost Dog]. A thief [ Panic Room]. In one of my next movies [ The Air I Breathe] I’m this odd sort of banker-introvert. And here you have me playing Idi Amin.
ES: You’ve played a gay fashion designer in Prêt-à-Porter. An alien hunter in Species.
FW: A homosexual in The Crying Game. I’ve really gotten a chance to run the gamut, from murderers to little wimps who would be frightened to cross the street.
ES: Which of the films that you’ve made represent your best work? Which are you proudest of?
FW: If I were to mark three, I’d mark Bird, because I grew immensely as an artist—I learned a lot—and also, I think, it was when people started to take me more seriously. I’d also mark Ghost Dog, because I started to understand something about myself in silence, how I’m capable of communicating certain things without doing much. And then I’d probably mark The Last King of Scotland, which marries the internal and the external in a strong way and brings together all of the things I’ve learned about my work into one character.
ES: You’ve played a lot of bad guys. The fact that you can find the inherent humanity in them is quite remarkable.
FW: I know that inside there’s a little pilot light, but it’s covered up by darkness; it’s covered up so that maybe you can’t see it anymore. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. I’ve been able to find that quality in a lot of my characters, even those characters who were murderers. Ghost Dog is a very spiritual character, but I must’ve killed ten or twelve people in the movie. I come in and I just start shooting people, and yet he has an inherent light.
ES: You’re trying to be at least understanding, if not forgiving.
FW: Certainly I don’t think it’s right that 300,000 people were killed in Uganda. I’m looking out right now at a street corner—there are probably 10 people there. Multiply that by 10 and that’s 100, and multiply that by another 10 and that’s 1,000. We’re talking about 300,000. I can’t comprehend it. Obviously that’s horrific. But my job is to try to make us understand. If you don’t get inside of it, you won’t help people understand it in the future and you won’t help people stop it in the future. We’re talking about magnifying charisma, seducing a nation and a world. We have to be able to recognize these kinds of figures so that we won’t allow them to happen again.
ES: I’ll say this about Amin, at least as you play him: There’s quite a bit about him that’s very charismatic and even sympathetic. I’m thinking of the scene near the beginning of the movie when Nicholas Garrigan shows you that his T-shirt says “Scotland” and your mood totally shifts.
FW: Whether you agree with [Amin] or not, he loves the Scots. He sees Nicholas’ shirt, he realizes he’s Scottish, and he thinks, “Oh, I never get to talk to Scottish people!” And so that charisma happens. Nicholas feels enveloped. I say, “Can you please give me your T-shirt, and would you mind taking my dirty little shirt with all the medals on it, the kind only the president of the country can have?” Come on, talk about a seducer!
ES: Now that you’ve named your favorite films, tell me which actors have been the most interesting to work with.
FW: Mickey Rourke, I thought, was really interesting. I did a movie called Johnny Handsome that Walter Hill directed. I had a scene with Mickey in which he says good-bye to me, and I learned something very powerful. He didn’t say anything. I don’t know if his thoughts were so powerful or my imagination was so large, but I could swear I could hear him speaking to me. It was like he was saying, “I want to tell you thanks—you know, I’m about to disappoint you, but you did a good job.” And then, finally, he says, “Thank you.” I was just like, “Whoa!” He’s an amazing actor.
ES: Who else?
FW: I was impressed with Diane Venora [who played Charlie Parker’s wife, Chan] when I did Bird, because she would make choices that were totally contradictory. I remember one time I was lying on the floor, writhing around, and she walks in, kind of tired, and she says, “Aw, great. I gotta call the hospital.” And I’m thinking, “What a poignant choice. How many times did she probably have to deal with that?”
ES: Is there anything you wanted to do in Hollywood that you haven’t been able to do?
FW: It’s been a while since I’ve done a comedy. I think it would be kind of fun to do another one.
ES: Are you interested in directing again?
FW: Well, you know, I’ve directed four movies [Strapped, Waiting to Exhale, Hope Floats, and First Daughter]. I love directing! I’m excited about the next time around, but I’m going to take my time deciding what to direct next. I think it won’t happen for another year or so.
ES: Have you found it hard, as some of your contemporaries have, to be an African American in Hollywood?
FW: I have friends, African American actors, who’ve had more of a struggle; hopefully they’re starting to see some air and light now. But in my directing career, in my acting career, in my producing career, I haven’t been bound by a lot of limitations. When I first started doing these kinds of unique characters, these diverse characters, there was hardly anybody doing them. So I had this open road.
ES: Let’s end by talking about Texas. A lot of people don’t realize that you’re from here.
FW: I’m from Longview.
ES: What do you remember about growing up there?
FW: My parents moved to Los Angeles when I was really young, but I spent every summer with my grandparents, and I’d stay with my grandfather on the farm in Longview. He was retired from the railroad, and he had a small farm with some cows and some pigs. I remember part of my youth was feeding hogs and plowing fields and stuff, so that’s a part of me. And my parents raised me [to say] “sir” and “ma’am,” to open doors, things like that. That’s the way I was brought up. Also, unfortunately, I was taught not to question too much. I didn’t really question my mom and dad. That’s usually what they told me to do.
ES: Been to Texas recently?
FW: Yeah. I have a lot of relatives in Longview and Nacogdoches; the Whitakers always have big reunions down there. I also have a lot of relatives in Houston. My aunts and a lot of my cousins live down there.
ES: When you come to Texas, is there anything in particular that you like to do?
FW: You know what? I always like to get some fireworks.
FW: Because we don’t have the same kinds of fireworks that they have in Texas. My dad was always getting fireworks, and we used to shoot them off. I have this thing for them. Even though I live in L.A., I like to light my own fireworks. I don’t know if I can get them on a plane now, but my dad is talking about driving back this time, so I’ll definitely go get some.
ES: If you’re willing to drive back to Los Angeles so you can have fireworks, you must want fireworks badly.
FW: When I was a kid, that was the only way we went to Texas. My dad drove so fast. We never slept. We didn’t stop.