Oscar Actors: Whitaker, Forest–The Last King of Scotland

Written in 2006:
If there’s justice in the world–and during the Oscar season this means the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences–Forest Whitaker should win the Best Actor Oscar for his multi-nuanced portrait of the charismatic dictator Idi Amin in Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland.

It should be a royal year at the Oscars, with Forest Whitaker standing side by side to Helen Mirren, as Best Actress for her commanding performance as Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen. Like Mirren, Whitaker is nominated for a Golden Globe, and like Mirren, he has swept most of the critics awards, with the possible exception of the LA Film Critics, which declared a tie between him and Sasha Baron Cohen for “Borat,” and maybe another circle or two.

Whitaker’s Role of a Lifetime

It’s always a risk for an actor to play a real-life role–there are few names in history as recognizable as Idi Amin. He has joined Hitler, Stalin, and Sadam Hussein, among others, in the ranks of dictators who seemingly knew no human bounds. But as interpreted by Whitaker, Amin was also a unique man, 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 Uganda’s 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 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.

Amin’s dangerous nature emerged as he began to engage in extreme nationalism, expelling the country’s 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 stories of torture, cruelty and even cannibalism in the highest ranks of government.

And yet, even today there remain people in Uganda who speak reverently of Amin. Director Kevin Macdonald has noted: “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 don’t understand that he was seen as an 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.

It was obvious that it would require tremendous skill for an actor to embody all of Amin’s immense paradoxes–all within the confines of a tautly structured thriller. The producers ways had just one man in mind for the task: Forest Whitaker, who is not only considered one of today’s most talented screen actors but bears an uncanny resemblance to Amin.

For “Last King of Scotland,” Whitaker evokes Amin’s split personality–his allure and his menace–so authentically that many on the set found it downright eerie. “Forest’s portrayal was phenomenal,” says Macdonald. “He’s captured both the largeness of the character and the danger. There’s a tremendous range and realism to his performance.”

Researching the Role

Whitaker came to the project with the standard impression of Amin as a buffoon and killer, but soon found his view deepening 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.”

While researching Amin’s 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 didn’t 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.

Like Helen Mirren in “The Queen,” Whitaker says that he did not want to do a “direct impersonation.” He explains, “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.” Whitaker 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.”

Whitaker’s Splendid Film Career

Forrest Whitaker has never given a bad performance.  In his mid-40s, he’s easily one of Hollywood’s most accomplished actors, who has showcased his talents in a multitude of demanding and diverse roles. Whitaker is also a skillful director and producer, but that’s the subject for another column.

Whitaker was born in Longview, Texas, on July 15, 1961, but his family (his mother is a teacher; his father an insurance salesman) moved soon after to Los Angeles, where he spent the rest of his childhood.

Beginning his college education as a music major at California State Polytechnic University, Pamona, Whitaker later transferred to the University of Southern California to study drama and opera. Acting became a passion for Whitaker; he found work in local productions in LA and then entered the Berkeley, California, branch of the Drama Studio London, where he was offered the Sir John Gielgud Scholarship.

Back in Hollywood, Whitaker made his first film debut in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” at the young age of 21, playing the school’s football star, along many other talented actors, such as Sean Penn. Small parts in a series of hugely popular films (including the dazzling turn hustling Paul Newman at pool in “The Color of Money” and a critically acclaimed performance as Robin Williams chauffeur in Good Morning Vietnam) led to Whitaker’s first starring role, as Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood’s Bird. Rising to the occasion, Whitaker gave a brave performance in a flawed film (not one of Eastwood’s best).

In 1992, he played a crucial if supporting role in the political melodrama, Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game,” which was Oscar nominated. Rather unfairly, all the attention was given to Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson in a gender-bending role; Whitaker played Davidson’s lover.

Whitaker has garnered critical attention for his performance on The Shield opposite Michael Chiklis. In addition, he recently completed the suspense thriller “Vantage “Point,” opposite Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox.

His upcoming films include the 2008 release “Where the Wild Things Are” for director Spike Jonze. The film will be a mix of live-action, animation and puppetry and is an adaptation of the Maurice Sendak classic childrens book. He will also be seen in the upcoming ensemble “The Air I Breathe,” with Kevin Bacon and Andy Garcia.

Whitaker as Producer-Director

Whitaker also executive produced Anne Rices “Feast of All Saints” for Showtime. His other film credits include “Witness Protecion” for HBO, “Light It Up,” “PHENOMENON,” “SPECIES,” “SMOKE,” READY TO WEAR, JASONS LYRIC, PLATOON, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, CONSENTING ADULTS, STAKEOUT, THE COLOR OF MONEY, JOHNNY HANDSOME, DOWNTOWN, DIARY OF A HIT MAN, BODY SNATCHERS, VISION QUEST, and FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH.

Whitaker made his feature-film directing debut with the critically acclaimed, box-office hit “Waiting to Exhale” for Fox.

He first gained recognition as a director for his debut film, the HBO original STRAPPED, for which he received Best New Director honors at the Toronto Film Fest.

He also directed Fox’s film HOPE FLOATS, starring Sandra Bullock.

Whitaker served as executive producer on each of these films multi-platinum sound tracks, which sold over 12 million copies collectively and earned a combined total of 14 Grammy nominations