Forest Whitaker, who was honored with the 2010 Black Perspectives Tribute at the Chicago Film Festival on Saturday, October 9th, 2010, shared with attendees a number of insights and impressions, gleaned from his career in acting that goes back to a debut performance in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” as football player Charles Jefferson. Playing a football player would come naturally to Whitaker, who was All League Defensive Tackle for Palisades High School, from which he graduated in 1979. In fact, Whitaker initially attended Cal Poly Pomona on a football scholarship until a debilitating back injury cut short his football career.
Whitaker moved on to the University of Southern California, studying classical voice on a scholarship. His study of opera as a tenor soon gave way to drama and he also earned a scholarship to the Berkeley, California branch of Drama Studio London.
When asked, Whitaker—who speaks in a quiet voice that seems incongruous with his size—said, “My grades were good, but my family needed help.” Indeed, Whitaker’s mother earned two Master’s degrees while raising Forest, his two younger brothers Kenn and Damon and an older sister, Deborah. On Saturday, October 9th, Whitaker appeared very slim and trim in a dark suit, one that was returned to him late from being pressed, making him late to the Awards Ceremony. (Not to worry: Edward Norton was an hour late for Opening Night ceremonies when his film “Stone,” in which he co-stars with Robert DeNiro was screened.)
Here are some questions and answers that Forest Whitaker gave on Saturday, October 9, 2010:
Question 1: “What was your first feeling as you walked on a set?”
Answer 1: “I don’t know if I remember. I remember I was working on fitting the character in with the others. I do know I was really excited.
Question 2: “You did a movie with Martin Scorsese in Chicago. Tell us a little about it?”
Answer 2: “I played Amos in ‘˜The Color of Money’ (opposite Paul Newman and Tom Cruise). That role was actually given to another actor first, but he couldn’t shoot pool well enough and they called me up and offered me a chance at the role. I had to audition and I had to pay my own way to Chicago to audition for Martin Scorsese, but I had 2 weeks to prepare. I played pool 14 hours a day for 2 weeks. When I walked in the room, I had to play the 9-ball champion of the world. Scorsese was very interested in how well I could play the part of Amos, a pool hustler, and it was like a focus on that aspect of the character: his ability to play pool. I remember we had some discussion(s) of whether to play 9-ball or 8-ball. Anyway, I was winning and then I lost, but I got the part. It taught me something about commitment and about preparation for my parts.”
Question 3: “What was the best advice you ever got from one of the many famous directors with whom you have worked?
Answer 3: “The best advice from a specific director, or in general?”
(Clarifying Question #3): “In general.”
Answer (3): “I was always kind of on my own. I was kind of a hermit. Later, I got to know Sidney Poitier for advice. But the advice I remember the most was from my mom. She said, ‘˜Believe in something, no matter what.’ She told me that, when I had a purpose, I should follow it.”
“My work is a way to go deeper and find out how humans connect. I like to pull away layer after layer.”
Question 4: “You’ve worked with some of the best directors: Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood, Cameron Crowe, Jim Jarmusch (who wrote the part in “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” with Whitaker in mind), Neil Jordan. What have you taken away from working with these celebrated directors?”
Answer 4: “Clint (Eastwood) has a way of working with his crew that is seamless. Scorsese took a more myopic look at just my pool playing (for “The Color of Money”). Altman gives you a feeling of freedom. He encouraged improvisation. What they all had in common was passion for their craft.”
Question 5: “Each time out, you play(ed) a different person. Tell us a little about your preparation for your roles.”
Answer 5: “When I prepped for ‘˜Bird’ (Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film about jazz saxophone great Charlie Parker), I wanted a change of scenery, so I had just moved to downtown Los Angeles. Then, I went out and bought a cheap saxophone and began learning to play it. I read histories of Charlie Parker. I met his wives. I covered the walls of my apartment with pictures of him. The sax I had wasn’t very good, but when I got a good saxophone, that worked for me, because I had to work so hard to make the notes sound good on the cheap one I started with that the more expensive instrument really sounded better. That worked for me.
Question 6: “Tell us about working with Clint Eastwood.”
Answer 6: “Clint wanted to set up situations for me to meet people in Hollywood. Our first meeting, we talked about jazz. Clint is a talented musician and plays cornet and piano and has composed music — “Straight with no Chaser’ (Thelonius Monk). Clint wanted me to trust myself. He taught me to walk through my fear. I was dancing out on a limb — I could fall and break a leg, but I wasn’t going to quit. I think Clint Eastwood is a brilliant filmmaker. He is very supportive of me as a Director.” (Whitaker first began directing with an HBO film, “Strapped” in 1993, which won the International Critics Award at the Toronto Film Festival. He also directed “Hope Floats” with Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick, Jr., in 1998, “Waiting to Exhale” based on Terry McMillan’s novel of the same name in 1995 and “First Daughter,” a comedy starring Katie Holmes in 2004.
Whitaker shared this about his own directing: “The first time I went in to present myself to direct ‘˜Waiting to Exhale’, I didn’t do too well, but I didn’t have a vision for the film. Then I went and talked to my brother, who is a record producer. When I had the music right, I went back and played them the music and said, ‘˜This is the way I want the film to be.’ (Whitaker directed Whitney Houston’s video for “Exhale, Shoop, Shoop”).
Question 7: “What were the difficult challenges in directing ‘˜Waiting to Exhale?”
Answer 7: “My concern is about telling the truth of the story. It is much more freeing when I’m directing than when I’m acting. You have to see the Universe like a watcher to direct. Then you have the ability to walk towards a place you’ve already seen. Actors know I want them to be great, magical, in their roles. ‘˜Waiting to Exhale’ is about healing and people finding their own voice. There were certain myths depicted in ‘˜Waiting to Exhale.’ It influenced the way I shot. The challenge was to be true to those women. I felt as though I knew all those women from my growing-up years. I had a great time working with them. (Laughter).
Question 8: “You are known as an actor who does a great deal of preparation before taking on a role. What was your preparation like for ‘˜The Last King of Scotland,’ for which you won the Best Actor Oscar in 2007?”
Answer 8: “I gained 50 pounds. The character weighed 300 pounds at that time. I learned to play the accordion. I learned Swahili. It was a big journey for me. First, I’d never been to Africa. I went there to understand what it’s like to be African. I wanted to know the customs, how to eat, etc. I kept working on the language (Swahili). I would be called upon to talk in different situations and I could do okay. Even though I was filming, I was still working on the character till the very last minute.”
Question 9: “Do some characters scare you?”
Answer 9: “I kind of decided not to play any more mentally ill people. You have to clean yourself off after you play a certain kind of character, just like you might have to take a shower to clean up after doing certain jobs. It’s a matter of not wanting the vibration as something I don’t want left behind. For instance, I played a schizophrenic in one movie. That one was really hard. Maybe I have a propensity, and I just don’t realize it.” (Laughs)
Question 10: “You have been in some iconic films. What do you hope to leave behind as a legacy?”
Answer 10: “I hope that the choices I made are going to connect with people. That’s the whole reason I do it. I live in my own world. I’m trying to expand.”
Question 11: “When did you feel you had arrived (in Hollywood)?”
Answer 11: There were 3 moments: (1) “Bird,” (2) “Ghost Dog”, when I learned the use of vibrations and silence, and (3) “The Last King of Scotland:” things came all together for me in a way they had not come together before. I understood. Whether I can achieve it is the question. I’m just going to create and tell stories and try to find new ways to show interconnectedness.
I plan to expand. I want to produce every 2 to 3 years. I’m moving into the Internet and gaming.
You keep trying to find a source. A musician friend of mine called me up and said, ‘˜ I hit the chord. I found it!’ I’ve been searching for that chord to touch that sacred place. I consider it a call to arms.”
(Source: 2010 Black Perspectives Tribute Honoring Forest Whitaker in Chicago, Illinois at the 46th Annual Chicago Film Festival on October 9th, 2010.)