Forest Whitaker Becomes the First King of the Hour
by Brad Balfour
Originally posted Feburary 25, 2007.
For Forest Whitaker, it’s been a long strange ride from the start, creating the character of Idi Amin for his last film, The Last King of Scotland. With this year’s Best Actor nomination, he’s favored to win – something he never expected upon taking on this role.
But like Idi Amin, Whitaker has always defied expectations, especially when he co-starred in the award-winning The Crying Game – where he played a man in love with a pre-op transsexual, much to everyone’s surprise. Whitaker has been an actor that has defied such concerns and racial stereotypes as well.
How did this project begin?
Producers Lisa Bryer and Andrea Calderwood gave me the book about five years ago. I liked it and we talked about it, but there wasn’t a director. It wasn’t until years later that Kevin [MacDonald] became involved, and when Kevin became involved I met with him and worked with him and he decided that he wanted me to play the part.
What kind of research did you do?
I started first in LA, because I started working on the key Swahili, which I thought was really important, because I wanted to really start to believe in my head that English was my second language. Then I start working on my dialect and the accordion. Then I started studying all the books – so many books about him. The documentaries, the tapes – there’s so much film footage, because he was a showman. He loved the press, so you can get so much material.
Then when I got to Uganda, I met with his brother, his sisters, his generals, his ministers, his girlfriends. Everybody in Uganda who’s like 20-30 or above, they have a personal experience with Idi Amin. They’ve seen him. They watched him on the streets. They knew him. It was just 1979 when he left power. You talk to everyone and they’re explaining their views and opinions of the man, and you’re traveling around and eating and understanding the customs. I had a Ugandan assistant, Daniel, who was helping me get into the culture and try to make it my own.
During your research process, what helped you round out the character?
I knew he wasn’t the caricature I had seen him be. I knew he was a complete human being. I had seen an image of what they projected to me. I had to take things like that with a grain of salt. The minute you start to define the guy, the minute you decide, “Oh, you know, when he comes in the room he likes to use the bathroom first. He likes to take showers in the cold. He doesn’t like to go to this theater.” Then al of a sudden the person becomes more complete. I knew that I didn’t have any impressions like that, so for me it was kind of an opportunity to try to explore it and understand that.
What was your reaction to playing the part of Idi Amin?
I didn’t have an image of him other than a sort of poster stamp image of this sort of mad dictator/general or whatever. So, when I was looking at the project, it was an opportunity to kind of explore. As an artist it was a great opportunity to get to play a character like that and to explore him as a person would help me grow. So I thought it was a great opportunity.
What was the most difficult part to becoming Idi Amin and what do you think ultimately turned him into the person he became?
Trying to find the spirit of this guy took a lot of work. I worked really hard trying to figure it out. I wanted to make it like anything I do. The way I believe this man would behave. It’s really like accessing the spirit of the person.
For me, acting is a little bit of a spiritual experience, so for me I’m deeply searching for a connection inside of myself to look for the places. I’m also looking outside of myself to pull down energy inside of myself to play the character. So that’s a process that takes work.
Was there a particularly difficult element you had to wrangle with?
There were so many technical things that I had to master. I was lowering my voice to his register. I was trying to understand the dialect. Actually I think all that stuff helped me to figure out the character. It was an aid. At least I had a direction I knew I was trying to go in. I’m trying to think what I felt the most difficult… It was just a process. I was just continually searching, so I never stopped for a concern.
Even while we were shooting, if we were off and we would go to the top of the hill, I would say, “Oh, I want to go to that mosque, because he used to go to that mosque,” or “I’m going to go meet this guy because he knows him,” or “I’m going to go call his son, and maybe he’ll meet me.” Up until the very last day of the shoot, I was still doing work and research. So that difficulty problem, it was something I was continually searching for throughout the whole entire process.