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September 2006
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND: An Interview with Forest Whitaker

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND: An Interview with Forest Whitaker
By Wilson Morales

September 25, 2006

For every actor out there, the chance to get a part in a film is great. It’s work, but the chance to the part of a real life figure, not only is it work, but it’s also challenging. They have to be good enough to capture the essence of the character that they are playing and not just an actor playing a role. So far, it has been rewarding for Denzel (Malcom X), Will Smith (Muhammad Ali), and recently Jamie Foxx (Ray Charles). It lucky keeps coming, it will also be rewarding for Forest Whitaker. With the exception of Clint Eastwood, who stars in the films he directs these days, there aren’t that many actor-director individuals who can switch the roles back and forth and get critical reviews. As an actor, Whitaker’s work has amassed some critical raves for his performance in “Platoon”, “Smoke”, “Ghost Dog”, and ‘The Crying Game”; and as a director, he helmed the box-office hit, “Waiting to Exhale”, as well as “Hope Floats” and “First Daughter”. More recently, Whitaker received many praises for his performance on the FX TV series, “The Shield”. In his latest role as an actor, Whitaker tackles probably his biggest role to date, playing the evil dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”. While playing at the Toronto Film Festival, the buzz has started already about a possible Oscar nomination. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Whitaker talks about the role as Idi Amin, the Oscar buzz, and his forthcoming on TV’s ER.

Can you talk about how you were approached for this role?

Forest Whitaker: The first thing was that (Producers) Andrea Calderwood and Lisa Bryer met me first like about five years ago and they gave me the book, “The Last King of Scotland”. I don’t think they gave me the script and they talked to me about it. About a year ago, they came back and (Director) Kevin (Macdonald) was involved. So then I had to meet with Kevin and talk to him about the character and whether he saw me as the character, which he didn’t at first, and we talked at our work session and finally he decided that I could play the part.

Kevin had said that you had a take on Idi Amin that he didn’t think about that much. Could you talk about that?

FW: No, because I don’t know what I said. I think I definitely looked at the character in a different way, as a complete person, and maybe the one scene he was talking about he wasn’t seeing it that way; so the conversations were like that in the beginning, and I was very passionate about what I thought were his motivations and stuff.

Did he eat people?

FW: You know, I never met anyone who said he did; and I did meet with his brothers and sisters, his ministers, his generals, his girlfriends, and all these people in Uganda who know him, met him, and had experiences with him, and I could not find that to be the case. It’s just western propaganda.

Had you seen the Barbet Schroeder documentary on Idi Amin or other documentaries?

FW: Oh yeah, I know that documentary backwards and forwards. I can probably quote it to you. It was a really great tool for me to be able to try to understand because in the Barbet Schroeder documentary, you see him in every single situation. You see him with his cabinet, you see him with his children, you see him dancing, you see him doing speeches, you see him talking to his doctors, so that documentary was very important. David Frost’s interviews were important. He’s like a showman. For the press, he embraced them. There’s so much footage of Idi Amin. There are so many tapes. They have tapes of him in different dialects, when he’s talking in different languages. He spoke like maybe 10 different dialects. Sometimes I would just listen to them. I may not understand it, but I would just listen to his tone and his voice; the way he phrased things.

Can you talk about how you got into his mindset and how you left the character behind once you finished shooting the film?

FW: I think the language was important, trying to believe that English was my second language. I spent so much time when I was in Uganda trying to understand the customs and the eating. I don’t know if there any place I didn’t try to visit when I was in Uganda and people I didn’t try to talk to. Slowly, I started to assimilate like something that you eat, like a food. It becomes a part of your system, my blood; and slowly by the end, and I kept on the character all the way until the very last day. I’m always still thinking there’s something else I could find out; maybe there some other place I can go visit. By the end, I finally figure this is it and I felt I did everything I could do. There’s like one moment where I was trying to put in the movie that I couldn’t get right. I tried but the other actor wanted to use the “cockwell” language. He’s Swahili in the movie, but I wanted for just one minute to speak in the “cockwell” language when I’m talking to my security guy. I see he’s from my tribe and I really felt like he should speak to me in his tribal language. It would mean nothing because no one would know the difference but people in Africa would and it’s a big deal; it’s a statement. Then when it was over, I just tried to wash the character off and take a shower and scream it out, change my clothes, get rid of the guy, put on some comfortable shoes, and then I went and started doing another role, and that helped me put something else inside my mind and my body and stuff.

In some ways, you’re known as soft spoken person and Idi is a loud and rash. To play this part, how did you get your voice to project like his for a long period of time?

FW: Robert Easton worked with me in Los Angeles. We broke down the script technically and also looked at the tapes and tried to lower the voice, and then Daniel Ssettaba, my assistant in Uganda really helped me understand the dialect, because the dialect needs to be in your body. It changes the way you gesture, the way you do things, and the sounds can be done in so many different ways, and by being with Daniel and hanging out in Uganda, I started to get it. I tried to lower my voice when I was there. I think that’s the part that’s internal, like the way I would like to grow out the character. A lot of the characters I played are neither internal. “Ghost Dog” is an internal character, even though he’s an assassin, a hit man. In this case, this character is not like that. I just played the character the way he was broadened. When I was in ‘The Crying Game”, I don’t think my character was made internal. He wasn’t tied to a chair. He was talking and he’s got a mask over his head. I think it’s just a question of what the character requires, and people have cast me as certain kinds of characters.

James McAvoy said that you stayed in character for most of the shoot and I remember Martin Scorsese said that when he was shooting “Gangs of New York” that Daniel Day Lewis would stay in character, but be able to talk about the character. Was that similar to you?

FW: Yeah. It was pretty much the same. I still recognize that it is a movie and I’m talking to the director, and talking to the other actors and stuff, but it’s kind of difficult to just let the character go and then jump into scenes and most every other scene Idi Amin was doing is extremely intense and emotionally and viscerally, so I didn’t let the character go. In fact, I kept looking to make the character deeper; so I would keep what I had and just keep trying to add on what I had.

Were there be a time when you would get a phone call from family or someone close where you would have to be yourself?

FW: I tried to let go of it as much as I could. My daughter would be like, “Daddy, why are you talking like this?” I would say, “Just remember, I’m just make believing for a little while”. She understands.

Ethnic pride is a big issue with this movie and what Amin brings to Uganda. Can you talk a little bit about that?

FW: I think the Ugandas have a mixed point of view on Idi Amin. On one hand, they clearly know that he’s responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and on the other hand, they look at him as a leader; one of the few leaders of Africa that had spoken up and rose up against the British, the Israelis, against the Western powers, and said, “Get out!”. As a result, he ran the African union for quite a while. He was a spokesman for them. He went to the UN and spoke in Swahili, in his native dialect. They had to translate it, which is unusual for African leaders. It was a statement. I think that they also recognize that as tragic as it was when he kicked the Asians out of Uganda, they did control 80-90 percent of the economy, and once they were kicked out, they scramble around and the people were trying to figure how to work and survive and taking over these jobs and ultimately today, they have Uganda businessmen. They didn’t have Uganda businessmen then. There’s a lot of things that he did, implementing the constitution, there’s things he did; he started a radio station, he started to audition some plays there; he kicked out the British ex-patriots and all of a sudden, Uganda theater began.


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