Forest Whitaker tends to stick to the fringes, a soft-spoken man best known for restrained supporting roles and hushed characters who would not stand out in a crowd.
So it’s surprising to see him at the center of the throng, whipping people up to a frenzy. And even more surprising that he’s doing it as that tyrannical boogeyman of the 1970s, Idi Amin, in “The Last King of Scotland.”
Whitaker approaches the Ugandan dictator the way the finest actors to play Adolf Hitler have done, putting a frighteningly human face on a leader able to enchant the masses and media even as his brutal regime tortured and killed people.
A teenager when Amin’s eight-year reign ended in 1979, Whitaker initially was aware of the man only as the despot depicted in the news.
“I just had a postage-stamp image of him. They created him as this savage, brutal guy. I remember this picture of him holding his fist up in a military-type uniform, and he was known as this crazy dictator,” Whitaker, 45, told The Associated Press at the Toronto International Film Festival. “That’s really all I knew until I started working on the character. Then it became much more vast. ...
“Hundreds of thousands of people died under his watch, so I’m not negating that. But the amount of charisma, humor, joy and verve he had. I had no idea of that, and it’s very clear when you watch him on tape, he was a massive showman.”
Preparing to play a dictatorAdapted from Giles Foden’s novel, the film spins a fictional narrative about a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) seeking adventure in Uganda who catches Amin’s eye and becomes personal physician — and ultimately trapped confidante — to the charming but ruthless ruler.
Whitaker fell somewhat under the man’s spell himself as he researched Amin, who died in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003. Ugandans have curiously mixed feelings about Amin, abhorring the man for his bloody methods while admiring his progressive efforts to build schools and hospitals.
“I had to pass through the propaganda maze — ignore it, actually — and just go to the source,” said Whitaker, who researched the character through copious reading, studying video footage and talking with Ugandans about Amin.
“If we were in Uganda, we would know him intimately,” Whitaker said. “He would have killed someone we know or promoted someone we know. So it’s kind of easy. You get in a cab there, you’re going to hear story after story.”
Preparing for a role, Whitaker often immerses himself in the character’s world. For the lead role in “Bird,” Clint Eastwood’s film biography of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, Whitaker said he moved into a New York City loft “solely to be able to play the sax 24/7.”
For the lead in Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” Whitaker said he meditated two or three hours a day to get inside the head of his taciturn character, “so by the time I walked out on set, I was kind of in an odd space. I was, like, buzzing.”
For “The Last King of Scotland,” Whitaker painstakingly re-created Amin’s accent and submerged himself in African culture, visiting archaeological landmarks, subsisting on regional food staples such as green bananas and bean sauce, and trekking to the source of the Nile.
On set, Whitaker would maintain Amin’s accent and bearing between takes. His embodiment of Amin was so authentic it intimidated the film’s crew, co-star McAvoy said.
“I was in every scene in the film, so I saw the crew when Forest wasn’t on the set, and it was a completely different atmosphere. When Forest walked on the set and we’d been working all day, you’d just see everybody tense up totally,” McAvoy said. “But in a way, people focused more and worked harder, and everybody stepped up.”
‘Humanizes a monster’The film’s producers had long been thinking of Whitaker to play Amin, but director Kevin Macdonald was reluctant when he came on board.
“My reaction was, well, no. I think he’s a great actor, but he does a different kind of a thing. He’s very sweet-natured, sensitive, internal. This needs to be somebody who’s out there, who’s an extrovert, an exhibitionist in a way, and that’s not Forest,” said Macdonald, who was won over after hearing Whitaker’s meticulous thoughts about the character.
“He could understand certain things about the psyche. I thought, oh, that’s very interesting. He’s not thinking about him from the outside. He’s thinking about him from the inside, who he really is. He not only humanizes this monster, but also, even at the most horrible, violent moments, he brings this thing to it where you feel he thinks he’s doing the right thing.”
A Texas native who grew up around Los Angeles, Whitaker began acting in college at the University of Southern California, earning his first notable role as a football jock with a prized sports car in 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
His career mainly has consisted of supporting parts in such films as “Platoon,” “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “The Crying Game.” Whitaker had a key role opposite Jodie Foster in “Panic Room” and has a flurry of films in the works, among them “The Air That I Breathe,” based on four Chinese parables, the assassination thriller “Vantage Point,” the improvised drama “Ripple Effect” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” adapted from Maurice Sendak’s beloved book.
Whitaker also has remained busy in television with his acclaimed role as a creepily dogged internal-affairs cop on “The Shield” and an upcoming guest stint on “ER.”
“The Last King of Scotland” has earned Whitaker early Academy Awards buzz, sentiments the actor appreciates though modestly brushes aside.
“It’s a great thing, it’s a great possibility, but I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and you need to keep your head about yourself. You need to keep doing what you’re doing and feel good about a couple of films that are going to come. I keep thinking about what am I going to do next? What characters can I play?” Whitaker said.
“People can continue to write what they’re writing, say what they’re saying or buzz what they’re buzzing, but I’m going to be consumed by something else.”