Forest Whitaker made his film debut in the 1982 cult classic "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," and nearly 25 years and dozens of films later critics and audiences hail his breakout performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland."
The film is the first nondocumentary feature for Scottish director Kevin Macdonald ("Touching the Void"), and it tells the story of Amin's transformation from a man of the people to a murderous dictator held responsible for the execution of 300,000 of his countrymen in the 1970s.
Whitaker recently discussed his role as the charming and mercurial Amin with ABC's Joel Siegel for a Manhattan audience after a screening arranged by the Learning Annex.
Approaching the Character of Idi Amin
To find the inspiration for his violent and heartless character, Whitaker said, "Partly, you have to go inside yourself. You have to go inside the darker little corners … and fuel the fire inside. And part of it's your imagination. Now I am more forgiving. Early in my career, I used to think that 'this is really wrong … I see myself, I see myself.' But you are always going to see yourself; you are always there."
In the film, the audience views Amin through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy), a young Scottish doctor who is swept under the leader's influence. This part of the story is fictional, and the relationship between the Ugandan dictator and the Scottish doctor is reflected in the film's title. Whitaker believes Nicholas' character helps the audience appreciate Amin's swift turns from seductive to savage.
"We are watching this movie from Nicholas' eyes," Whitaker said. "It's a lot about the seduction of Nicholas, being brought into this world … this friendship. The same thing has to happen with the audience. They have to want to laugh. … They have to have the same thoughts or feelings Nicholas might have.
"I wasn't thinking 'I am going to play it charismatic.' I was just thinking I am going to play this feeling," he continued. "I think that these type of characters, these real-life characters, they have a certain charisma, and people warm up and feel like they are invited in even when you know they are doing something wrong."
Making the Movie
The film was made for only $8 million, and Macdonald insisted on shooting on location in Uganda, a move that Whitaker applauded.
"It was the first time that I'd gone to the African continent, so it was something for me," Whitaker said. "I was lucky, because I went to Africa for the first time, and my job was to understand what it's like to be African. It was difficult in some ways, but it really helped me. It put me in a position where I could absorb and learn this character in a way I could not have learned it somewhere else."
Whitaker did extensive research, conducted interviews, and watched old newsreels and video footage of Amin. He also gained 50 pounds to play the larger-than-life figure, and darkened his skin. Whitaker feels the physical transformations were an important element of his performance.
"People don't really know much about Idi Amin," he explained. "They have this image of this brutal dictator. And he's dark, like the Sudanese; he's from near the Sudanese border. And people think of him as very large. I think the largeness and the skin tone are important just in the psyche of watching the movie.
"I try to stay true to the character," Whitaker continued. "I try to live in the myth of the man ... the man in himself is mythic. He's larger than when you look at him on tape. When he [tells Nicholas that] 'Uganda embraces you,' that's Idi Amin, because he is Uganda. He's that big. You have a continent embracing you. How do you play that?"
Whitaker joked that gaining the weight wasn't at all difficult. He just "ate food." He added, "It's harder to go the other way!"
The "O" Word
Whitaker, who has also directed three motion pictures, including 1995s "Waiting to Exhale," is getting early Oscar buzz for his performance. That's exciting news to him, mostly because it's drawing much-needed attention to a film that is currently in just 113 theaters nationwide.
"I hope [the buzz] will make more people go out and see it, and [enable it to] be put in other theaters and move [it] forward. We'll have to see about the rest because I just want to live in the moment. I'm having a good time. The audience really liked the movie. I'm feeling good."