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"Night and Day and In My Dreams"



Forest Whitaker at Friday night's Lincoln Center tribute (Photo: Christopher Campbell)

By Christopher Campbell

Forest Whitaker is more popular than ever, but it certainly isn't going to his head. To wit: his humble acceptance of a tribute from the Film Society of Lincoln Center at the Walter Reade Theater on Friday. Following a clip reel and Q&A session, the Oscar hopeful seemed to have nothing better to do than mingle with fans and sign autographs. It was nearly half an hour before Whitaker's people managed to drag him away, and he capitulated only because the behind-schedule screening of The Last King of Scotland needed to get underway.

Watching this display, Whitaker's speechlessness at the Golden Globes made sense. This awards stuff is still a little new to him, despite twenty years of critical acclaim. Sure, he's won acting awards in the past, even a prestigious best actor trophy at Cannes (for Bird in 1988), but his performance as former Ugandan president Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland has taken him to another level; finding himself the front runner, so far he has pretty much sweeping the nation's critics' awards.

"You never know how people are going to receive what you do," he said, seeming to ignore the business of accolades to concentrate more on the general public's acceptance. "What's more amazing is that people are receiving the work. It doesn't always happen that way. That gives you a good feeling."

Whitaker explained that with Bird, Clint Eastwood had hoped for bigger things. Whitaker delivered a great performance as Charlie Parker in that film, but it didn't attract a big audience or a nomination from the Academy. To those who have followed his work in the two decades since that film, he has almost always been incredible (earning forgiveness for Battlefield Earth), and it seems almost ridiculous for him to suddenly get the recognition he’s always deserved. However, as surprised as he is to be getting so much attention right now, he does claim to have noticed a difference with his performance in The Last King of Scotland.

"I commit myself to all of my parts," he said, "but I gave myself over completely to [that] character -- night and day and in my dreams. The difference at the end was not that I knew it was going to be great or anything. It was that I knew I had done everything that I could. I left feeling like this is all I can do. If it works, then it works. If it doesn't, then I just failed. I couldn't do any more. Sometimes I've played characters and I've committed myself, but I didn’t always have that feeling."

He explained to the audience that he tried to believe that Swahili was his first language, and described having to immerse himself into the culture of Uganda. The main impetus for such commitment seems to be the need to perfectly portray an historical figure that so many Ugandans knew so well and so few non-Ugandans understood.

"You do feel a certain responsibility to these people," he said, "not just his family members, but to the country of Uganda and the continent of Africa as a whole. Of leaders in Africa, people don't know that many. He was an important figure on the continent and on the world stage. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to find the right spirit of the character."

Of course, Whitaker also worked very hard at playing Parker, and he said that he gave the role everything he had. But he was much younger then and everything he had amounted to less than it does now. It didn't help that there is almost no footage of Charlie Parker on film; with Amin, he was able to study tapes and documentaries, using them to help shape his performance. "Maybe I don't choose to copy him," Whitaker explained, "but I can take things to help me."

ON DIRECTING: "I love directing because you can create a whole universe. It's so different because for me acting is much more private work, even though you're working with everybody and working together, whereas with directing you're dealing with so many people all the time, and you're always trying to convey your thoughts to someone and hopefully get to pull out of them the best work that they can do to help you. The next movie I direct is going to be a little more personal. Mostly movies I've directed have been studio films (First Daughter; Waiting to Exhale; Hope Floats). In this case I think it's going to be a smaller film. I have some other things I want to say. I'm developing something with Greg Howard, who wrote Ali. It's about a journalist who is going to all these hot zones, like in North Uganda. It's really about when and how you step in, how as an individual you bear responsibility. I've never directed myself, but [with this] I'm thinking about it."

ON JIM JARMUSCH: "I really liked working on [Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai]. It was different because it started different. Jim had an idea, and he would meet with me, and we would just talk for hours and hours about myth or about codes or about whatever. And we would do that a few times. Then he went away and wrote the script, came back and gave it to me. In his way, he felt it represented a part of me. That character to him is a symbolized way of how he perceived me."

ON ABEL FERRARA: "Abel's really passionate. I like him. He's so intense. [His films are] scripted, but his scripts are really short. So there's a lot of room for improv, and a lot of room for creating the character."

ON WAYNE WANG: "[Smoke] was pretty tightly scripted. You just talk to him about building the character and stuff. The only thing that’s loose about him is that Wayne likes to let things happen and he does it in a realistic way, and sometimes improv comes out of that. The next movie he did, Blue in the Face, was basically all improv, but this one was more scripted.

ON TRUSTING FIRST-TIME DIRECTORS: "I've worked with a lot of first time filmmakers, but I feel like some of them did some of the best films I’ve done. I just did a movie called The Air I Breathe, and it's by a young filmmaker whose name is Jieho Lee. It's his first movie and I thought he was brilliant. I thought he was one of the best directors I've worked with in a long time. He had the most vision, clarity and a unique way of looking at the world. I'm open and I trust myself. If I fail, I fail. If it doesn't work, okay. But I trust my instincts if it feels right."

Posted at January 22, 2007 8:18 AM

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Oh yeaaaaaah

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