The way of Forest Whitaker
One of Hollywood’s very best working actors on his life in film, his former life as a football player — and his new ‘Arrival’
When Forest Whitaker graced the Academy Award stage to accept his trophy for bringing Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to life in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, he was the fourth black man — and the last black man — to accept the best acting honor. Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx came before him. It was a moment of triumph — Whitaker was finally, rightly, honored for the stellar body of work that he’d turned over in what was then 25 years. Since then, every time a fourth-quarter film gets dropped — in which Whitaker co-stars — greatness is expected. That’s a lot of pressure — he acknowledges it with a laugh, but he gets it. And you can best believe Whitaker brings it.
In Arrival, his latest, he’s a military officer surrounded by actors Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams — walking a red carpet leading toward an award show stage isn’t foreign to either one of them. Still, this is a science fiction film, and it may not happen for Whitaker this go-around — even though it’s well-received by film critics. It could, though. Some might even say it should. Either way, Whitaker has got plenty forthcoming, including Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Burden, that will surely reignite that awards conversation all the same.
You were on scholarship to play football at Cal Poly Pomona, and it ended up not being for you. Why was that?
I remember back when I was a freshman, I was wearing a back brace throughout the time I was playing ball. One day I woke up and I wasn’t able to really move. I realized I was going to have to stop playing. I switched and started focusing myself more towards my music.
How does that happen? A football player also has this affinity for creative arts? And how did that develop for you?
There are many things I was trying to discover … whether I was going to pursue music, whether I was going to pursue law. In the end, I ended up pursuing more the arts community. Acting. I’m a director, a producer. Although I’ve used music a lot, doing music for some of the things that I’ve directed.
You ultimately transferred to University of Southern California’s Drama Conservatory. How did you transition into acting?
My diction teacher … asked if I would audition for a play. I auditioned and I got the lead … I started to really realize that I was able to express myself in a whole different way. She helped me prepare to audition for the Music Conservatory and the USC Acting Conservatory. I was accepted into both.
What lessons have you learned from being an athlete that you’ve used in Hollywood?
There’s an idea of working as a team, playing together towards a goal. Pushing yourself beyond your limits. I learned a lot more from — as far as my acting is concerned — martial arts. As far as moving to a goal, or all the different lines you can take to go to the same place. Balance the different way internal energy moves around.
Your new film is Arrival. At this point in your career, what does it take to make you say yes?
I’m always interested in continuing to explore [and] shed a light on the human experience — and working with people who are really strong and talented. Stories that actually address our hearts and address the way we’re connected to each other. This story … points to the extinction of our society in a way, because all of these aliens come down to the planet and there’s a race to try to understand, or be able to communicate. And I guess the other thing is, usually I do try to do things that make me explore new territory. I try to confront the fear that’s there, and play characters who contribute to universes I haven’t before.
Is this going to be another academy-like performance from Forest? What is it like for you, knowing that’s how people regard you and your career?
I’m just thinking about the work and the character, and how I’m going to get to the truth. I’m preparing for a role right now and mostly what I’m thinking about is how can I get ready. What am I going to do to break down the barriers on some of the things I have to learn. That’s what I’m always doing. That’s what’s going on with me when I’m going to do a part.
What’s the key to your consistency?
It’s mostly being willing to work hard. Being open to the experience, and wanting to know. And then also, surrendering to … the parts. Surrendering to what it is and allowing it to come alive.
You won an Oscar for The Last King of Scotland. Fantastic film. Complicated character. How did winning that Oscar change how you operate in Hollywood?
There are people [who] recognize it, as a stamp, as far as your work is concerned. People have expectations around it and are hoping, thinking what’s the next role that will garner something like that. But before I received the Oscar, I’d been doing really interesting characters. I got a chance to play Charlie Parker in Bird. I played Ghost Dog, I’ve done Crying Game — I’ve done all these different films. They’re diverse characters.
You’ve been working behind the scenes as a director and producer getting movies like Dope [producer] and Fruitvale Station [producer] made.
I want to support young filmmakers, people coming out of the community, young people of color … I started working with filmmakers, I don’t know,  … American Gun with Aric Avelino, and Tim Linh Bui with Green Dragon. Different films from first-time filmmakers, and they were filmmakers of color. A lot of different filmmakers, up until now, you know, with Chloe Zhao did this film, Songs My Brother Taught Me. It’s about a Native reservation, and she’s Chinese-American. So looking at all the different stories that I think need to be told about society … I try my best to support it. I [also] work in different conflict areas with NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], so all our work is generally centered towards the youth UNESCO network.
Is that what you’re doing now? I know you’re out of the country.
I was popping into meetings with UNESCO and meetings centered around the next movement and expansion of our program. Later today [I’m going to] South Africa. I’m doing a project on Desmond Tutu called The Forgiven. It deals with the reconciliation trials after apartheid.
Will this be the first time — with this Tutu project — that you’ll be able to sit down with the subject you’re portraying?
I did do a lot of research. Tapes, videos, books. I had some familiarity with the ANC, so it was a reflection on all those things. Now I’m going to go and spend some time there. Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to sit with Mr. Tutu, depending on how he’s feeling. I’m familiar with Cape Town. I’ve been there, and done a lot of mediations all over that city. I’m already … starting to interview different people who work with Desmond Tutu, or were a part of the trial itself. See some of the prisons. Maybe have some conversations with a prisoner from the remediation trials. Meet people and try to understand a little bit more about the African continent. So it will slowly start to grow. I started working on his dialect a little bit. It’s really tough because he speaks so uniquely. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but, yeah, I’m trying.
You’ve gravitated throughout your career toward sports stories like Southpaw, and of course your first role as a football player in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. What is it about portraying athletes or telling sports stories that you find so compelling?
You’re dealing with the human spirit, and pushing the human capacity. And usually they include some form of triumph. But even the triumph might just be understanding, or the growth of who you are — and I think those stories are really powerful and compelling. I’ve done a number of films — like you said, Southpaw and older films like Vision Quest … the drama, the mythology of sports, when you go to the arena and you see them going out there? They’re bigger than life. They’re champions. We watch them struggle, and it’s a metaphor for life, trying to move either the ball or trying to get something into a place, or whatever it might be. It’s a metaphor for all the struggles we have in life, and all the ways that we can … find to win it.