Last King of Scotland: Forest Whitaker on Playing Idi Amin (Oscar Contender)

There are few names in history as recognizable as Idi Amin. He has joined Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Sadam Hussein, among others, in the ranks of dictators who seemingly knew no human bounds. But Amin was also a unique case a one-time boxer and soldier who climbed his way up from literally nothing, charmed the nation with his vibrant pride and personality and appeared to many to be a newly independent Ugandas greatest hope for becoming a truly African nation.

When he first came to power in a 1971 coup against the corrupt and pro-communist Milton Obote, Amin found widespread support among the media and around the globe the British Foreign Office optimistically described him as a splendid type and a good football player–until it became clear he was ruthlessly murdering his enemies and structuring his government around his own bizarre appetites, mystical visions and paranoid fears.

Amins dangerous nature emerged as he began to engage in extreme nationalism, expelling the countrys 50,000 Asians, instigating war with neighboring countries, assisting in the PLO hijacking of an Air France Airbus and creating conditions that led to the deaths or disappearances of hundreds of thousands of Ugandans. Exiles from Uganda told stomach-churning stories of torture, cruelty and even rumored cannibalism in the highest ranks of government.

And yet, even today there remain people in Uganda who speak reverently of Amin. Notes director Kevin Macdonald: One of the amazing things we discovered in Uganda is that there are lot of people who still have a great deal of respect for Amin. People in the West dont understand that he was seen as a pretty incredible person as well as using violence indiscriminately. What was perhaps simultaneously most attractive and dangerous about Idi was how mercurial he could be. He was somebody who started with great intentions, but was brought down by his own character flaws. People originally thought he was warm and funny. They thought this man could never hurt a fly. I think all those contradictions are fascinating.

Only One Actor in Mind

It was obvious that it would require tremendous skill for an actor to embody all of Amins immense paradoxes–all within the confines of a tautly structured thriller. The producers of The Last King of Scotland always had just one man in mind for the task: Forest Whitaker, who is not only considered one of todays most talented screen actors but bears an uncanny resemblance to Amin. With roles in films ranging from Clint Eastwoods jazz epic Bird to Neil Jordans Academy Award-winning The Crying Game to Jim Jarmuschs Ghost DogWhitaker has developed a reputation for embodying the most diverse and demanding of roles.

Eerie Portrayal

For Last King of Scotland, Whitaker was able to evoke Amins split personality– his allure and his menace–so authentically that many on the set found it downright eerie Forests portrayal was phenomenal, says Charles Steel. Hes captured both the largeness of the character and the danger. Theres a tremendous range and realism to his performance.

A buffoon and killer

Whitaker came to the project with the standard impression of Amin as a buffoon and killer, but soon found his view deepening far beyond that. At first, I had only very dark images of this man, he admits. I saw him as a big, angry maniac. But as I read the novel and did more research, I began to have a different understanding. When you look at old footage you can see that Idi was also an extremely charming man. The challenge for me as an actor was to play a really complete character, not just a stereotyped image.

Visionary Victim

While researching Amins history, Whitaker came to the conclusion that he was a man who wanted to be a visionary but who fell victim to his own delusions. Observes the actor: He was someone who rose not just from poor but from dirt poor all the way to the top. He was often said to be unintelligent and yet he spoke ten different languages. And I think he did want to build more schools and create hospitals and fix roads but he didnt find the best ways to do these things. Then, as he started to fear that he was going to lose power, he became extremely paranoid and developed into a much darker figure.

The darkness of Idi Amin led eventually to rampant rumors of cannibalism and blood rituals although these were never conclusively proven. Modern historians have even wondered if Amin may have been suffering from physical or psychological disorders that led to his inhumane behavior. But without succumbing to too much speculation, Whitaker instead carefully developed his approach to Amin by focusing on the more human qualities of his thwarted dreams and out-of-control fears. Rather than turn Amin once again into a stereotype, Whitaker attempted to make the role his own.
No Impersonation

I did not want to do a direct impersonation, Whitaker explains, but I did study tapes of Amin to help me understand him better as a man. I worked out the way he talked, and studied Swahili because that was his first language. I was most concerned with grabbing a certain essence of the man to give the sense that whatever else he was, he was a real person.

While in Uganda, Whitaker was constantly reminded of just how divided people still remain in their feelings towards the dictator. I met a general there who worked with Amin, recalls Whitaker, and he said, Yes, Amin killed my father, yet he did some wonderful things for this country. That is the way many see Idi Amin.

Role with Profound Impact

As for Whitaker, he knew that playing Amin would take him to grim and frightening places he had never been before that would shake him deep into his core. I knew that this role would have a profound impact on me, and change the way I viewed Africa and the world, said the actor.