He walks the talk.
Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (Last King of Scotland) is a man of intellect, charm, integrity and talent– evidenced by an enviable Hollywood career–undisputable on any level.
Armed with the chops to act, direct, produce and sing, Whitaker is a multi-hyphenate whose reputation serves many in Hollywood: one who not only undergirds marquis value but also commands universal praise.
The 6’2” native Texan (born in Longview) is simultaneously generous, yet modest, a rare balancing act.
During press rounds in Los Angeles, I sat down with Whitaker, devoted husband and father, who many project, will receive additional statuettes for his film works in 2013, including Fruitvale Station and The Butler.
We discussed what his career has yielded, most recently, the spirited musical, BLACK NATIVITY from FOX Searchlight Pictures, directed by Kasi Lemmons, opening November 27.
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: Forest, it seems when actors ascend to the ranks of Oscar winner, their career trajectory is oft times short changed;
for whatever reason, the work doesn’t come as it once did. For you, it seems that your “post-Oscar” ascension has not been halted. What do you make of it?
Whitaker: I don’t know, I think I’ve been really pushing myself to keep growing, as an artist and working with diverse filmmakers, not just American filmmakers but many international filmmakers. My desire to continue to grow as an artist let’s me be able to play some really interesting characters.
I was very comfortable with the roles that I was playing before I received an Academy Award; I mean, I had done The Crying Game, Bird, Ghost Dog…a number of films that I was very proud of and it wasn’t like I wanted to shift that, maybe that was the point of view. Perhaps with some, their expectation is once they receive an award like that, now they are going to shift their career.
The fact is, I just wanted to continue my career in the same manner that I was doing before [receiving an Oscar] which was choosing roles that were interesting to me. Choosing roles that were complicated and different to me; roles that would make me grow and make me understand my connection to the human condition. That’s what I continue to do and I’ve been really fortunate and blessed.
I think the last number of films I’ve played; I’ve felt were some of the strong characters I was allowed to play. And, I feel that I learned something, as an artist, that I’m applying to my work now. Now I’m looking to see what the next progression of my work can be; I want to be better, that’s my goal, get better, be more connected.
Talk2SV: I see you as a sort of avatar, guiding others as you are guided, in some ways. If I were to liken you to a ball player, a basketball player, in what role do you see yourself on the team?
Whitaker: I don’t know…
Talk2SV: If I were to compare you to Michael Jordan or to Magic Johnson, which one are you most like?
Whitaker: Oh, anybody would want to be compared to either one of those two. I mean, when I was a kid, I watched Magic on the court a lot. I think there was something I would aspire to be like a Michael Jordan in the sense that he took flight; it seemed like the laws of gravity disappeared when he reached up, almost flying. I keep trying to do that in my work; I’m not saying I’ve accomplished that level yet but there’s something very spiritual about that ascension that I like. I think it’s interesting too because he was pushing
himself and pushing himself always trying something that would allow him to continually grow. I think, as an artist, I’ve always believed that, ‘if I can’t do this to get stronger then I have to look for what else I’m going to do.’
Talk2SV: I ask about a comparison to those particular players [Magic and Michael] because they are both unique. Both made their teams better but, for me, I think Magic made everyone around him better.
Whitaker: There’s a difference, there is the flight and the ascension, and you watch both. As a kid, I watched the Lakers, Magic and Kareem, one of the few times where I’ve seen a team, truly. I’ve seen it happen a little bit maybe with the Suns, a couple of times, because they play as a team. But the difference was that Magic, Kareem and those guys of that era also had their individual strengths, their individuality, yet they were playing completely as a team. As a kid I was very inspired and I think it taught me a lot. That’s why I say it’s hard to compare. They are two different things; one is the ascension of trying to reach as far as you can to the divine and one is like finding the divine within the ordinary. In essence, to find the divine within the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
Talk2SV: I just love the extraordinary year you’re having for a number of reasons; one, 2013 has allowed us to again see your multi-layered abilities. It would seem that this is a portfolio year; do you agree?
Whitaker: I think so. I’m allowed, as an artist, to play roles that are extending and deepening my connection with the heart of the people and my own understanding of my craft. I also think movies like Fruitvale Station, for me, have allowed a marriage of my belief structures with my work. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, align them, and I feel like they’ve started aligning themselves this year.
The Butler and Fruitvale Station are truly about what I believe which is oneness in human rights, about human dignity; the connection that those things have and being able to move that into my focus. I have a number of films coming out that are totally different but still reflect that focus.
I did Zulu; it closed the Cannes Film Festival this year. It’s a movie about post-apartheid and about humanity. I play a Zulu police officer in Capetown (South Africa) who runs a serious violent crime unit. He struggles with his past from apartheid, from the pain, but is moving forward to pass through it. Again, it’s like aligning beliefs with my work.
I worked with a French filmmaker on The Enemy Way, which will probably have another title. I play a character who becomes a Muslim in
prison in New Mexico. When he’s released, he’s oppressed by the police, by society; by everything…it’s what profiling means. It’s somewhat about what Ryan Coogler (director of Fruitvale Station) explored, to be able to show the human face around a social issue as he did with (the late) Oscar Grant. I think this year, in a general sense, has been that for me; I feel like I’m finding an alignment.
Talk2SV: People in the chair [that] I sit have the responsibility of describing people like you. How do you describe Forest Whitaker in your own words?
Whitaker: Um…, I’m a father, I’m a humanist, an artist, in some ways I’m a social activist. I’m a student, someone who is trying to deepen my connection with the universe, with people, with God, the divine.
Talk2SV: In BLACK NATIVITY, the roles that you and Angela (Bassett) play as Reverend Cornell and First Lady Aretha Cobb are quintessentially classical in how we have viewed black preachers. Present day, we are witnessing a paradigm shift with the lifestyles of high profile clergy and whatever else may emerge from that depiction. Did you reference a particular minister or pastor for your role in this film?
Whitaker: That’s interesting; I would have to say, he’s not famous, he was my grandma’s preacher, Reverend Williams, and I remember him so well. He was bald headed, so passionate, always wiping off sweat when he preached. As a young boy, I would always go and talk to him after church service because (at that time) I was questioning beliefs in God and things like that. I would ask him a question, week after week. Each time, the next Sunday, he would say, ‘Will you stand up young man?’
I would stand up and he’d do the sermon based on some question I had asked him. He did it so many times. My grandma thought I was going to be a preacher. She was sure of it. I’ll never forget him for that reason.There are many preachers I’ve seen afterwards but my memories or images of the church; I could only see his church. I saw the women get the spirit and fall backwards; people picking them up, carrying them out. I remember him and the way he did it. I remember his golden robe.
Talk2SV: Indelible images…