by Chesley Turner
photography by Yu Tsai
What’s in a name?
“The forest is a place that you enter, a big place full of mystery. So I think the name brings an ability to move into that mysterious place and walk past fear.” Forest Whitaker believes in the power of names, the power of acting, and the power of humanity. Armed with a philosophy about life that fuels both his performances and his many philanthropies, this is a man who interprets the world, and sees the change he can make within it.
Though he is often described as a “gentle giant,” Forest is far from passive. Perhaps as a result of his unique name, he sees his career as a forum for self-discovery. “I’m looking for characters that will help me grow, and learn something. To some degree, I’m looking for a little bit of fear. I think it’s an opportunity to understand someone else, to go into other worlds and meet other people. I’m like an anthropologist in some weird way.” Unsurprisingly, such a conscientious process fueled his Oscar-winning performance in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland. Forest took on the role of Idi Amin, a Ugandan dictator from the 1970’s who is, to this day, both loved and hated by the Ugandan people. Amin’s personality was supercharged, larger than life, and bordered on bipolar. The character required an actor who could command the attention of everyone in the room. To prepare for the role, Forest began a journey into a different culture. “Learning to speak Swahili, I sort of rewired my brain and began to see the world differently. I broke down the dialect and learned about the historic context.” Part of the characterization process was fueled by his trip throughout Uganda. “They brought me to see every area of the country, allowing me to work on the real accent, bringing me to homes, to hearts, to villages, to forests… every different place. I was reluctant to go on safari, but you can’t understand the country completely without seeing the animals.”
Through this immersion, Forest began to deeply identify with the African people. “I learned through a Eucharistic way, eating and socializing the way they do.” As a result, the role left its mark on him. “It changed me deeply, in different ways. I understood colonialism more from the inside out, and the excitement about Idi Amin. There is a misconception that he was totally hated. For lots of people, he was a hero. And it was a gift to be able to go to Africa, to understand what it was like to be an African. It changed my vibration somewhat, and connected me to what I was trying to get in touch with.”
It’s no secret that a strong acting philosophy powers some of the most riveting performances on the big screen. Forest has an abiding belief in the power of acting to connect and inspire the human spirit. “I don’t want to be too esoteric, but I believe there is a particular spark inside of each of us that connects us to everyone else. That connection is there, and acting is taking away the layers that cover it up. I go downward to get to that place, that treasure, and when I get there, I hopefully reveal that thing – that thing that is humanity, that is the common denominator that we all share.”
During his Academy Award acceptance speech, he stated, “Through our combined belief, we can create a new reality.” And for Forest, these are not just words. For years, while maintaining an onscreen presence, he has been applying his acting philosophy offscreen as well. Perhaps one of the most poignant examples of his philanthropic endeavors is Hope North, an orphanage in Northern Uganda which offers both a home and an education to orphans, broken families, and former child soldiers. Okello Sam, one of the actors in Last King of Scotland, began Hope North, and invited him to visit the campus. “I met the people in his community, and I wanted to help. The atmosphere is beautiful.” It is a place of hope for many who have forgotten the joys of life. “These are kids who have been child soldiers, forced to kill their parents and families. It takes them a long time to get the spark back, the light in their eyes, to find a joy again. But by revisiting, you start to meet some of the kids who before were empty, who now start to play or laugh.” Based in the region of the Acholi tribe, Hope North is both a safe haven, and a place for new beginnings. “The Acholi tribe is giving, and willing to forgive. A simple ceremony of just eating together and apologizing starts to bring people together again.”
Hope North, though a powerful example of humanitarianism, is not Forest’s only endeavor to create change in the world. He also supports Dr. Keith Black of T.H.E. Brain Trust, who is involved in progressive cancer research. And then there’s The Street Doctor, Mr. Earl Best, who reaches out to the kids of Newark to teach them a better way. “He’s a pretty selfless person who spends all of his time trying to do good. He has overcome a life of crime, and works in that same environment to teach kids a more honest way of life.”
A tried and true vegetarian, Forest also supports PETA and Farm Sanctuary. Activism is something that resonates with his children as well. “I’m hoping that they recognize this is their world and that the only way to become a true person is to recognize yourself outside yourself, in others. They do that. They care.” True, Forest’s daughter (so named to allow her “to have a door to a good destiny”), speaks on behalf of Farm Sanctuary, and the entire Whitaker family helped organize an Internet cafe for the children of Hope North. “They are happy kids, but I try to give them first hand experience in the world,” to reaffirm the idea that they, too, are enmeshed in the fabric of humanity.
It’s not surprising, then, that Forest became a surrogate in the Obama campaign, which simultaneously sought to give voice to the voiceless and to instigate change within the American political system. “I was part of the Urban Policy Committee during the early part of the campaign for Barack. I had heard him speak at a convention, and personally, directly. When I did, I started to tap into him, and what he was thinking of trying to do.” What he found resonated deeply with his own ideas. “I heard something that was important for the nation: that spark of hope and change. What struck me was his call for people to recognize their individual power. This country needs him, here and abroad. But one of the greatest things that came [from his campaign] was people understanding that they do have a voice and they can change themselves. People were individually empowered. Their lives mattered, their voice mattered. That was a great gift that he gave to his people: to take charge of their own destiny. And they did.”
Now, a year after Obama’s inauguration, Forest recognizes the importance of the communication system that was blueprinted during the campaign. It’s a work in progress, but it’s an imperative part of new politics. “During the election, there was a machine in place that allowed people to have a podium to stand upon, an ability to instantly become a community. The new manifestation of that is still being worked upon. To allow people to have a voice is a crucial thing. It needs to be accessed, or else people will become frustrated, and from that frustration, cynical, and then antagonistic.” But a flawless forum for communication may take time. “We feel a need for quick resolution, which is good, and natural, but not always possible.”
In the meantime, those in power need to recognize the needs of those who aren’t. Forest makes it a point to live with eyes open, willing to help where he can. “Everyone is entitled to a certain life, to be fed and to have a home, to find their place of happiness in some way. I see situations where justice just isn’t being done, and I will aid in the struggle toward people achieving the things they deserve. In some ways, it’s just making a contribution, or showing up and making a speech. Sometimes a more long-term process is needed. It’s different for each cause.” Beyond his obvious passion for philanthropy, he reiterates the role of his art. “My work is an expression of me, of my soul. I try to continually find the place inside each of us that allows others to see each other in a different light.”
Recognizing the power of art to connect the world, Forest Whitaker is also a music aficionado. “Music is a powerful thing; it’s the vibration that connects us. It transcends acting – there’s a purity there, a power when you sing.” He’s a trained tenor with a lovely voice, but “no one’s ever offered me a role to sing. I’ve sung in movies before, but I have to sing in character.” A more musical role might be in the works, though. “There’s something going on right now… maybe I might get a chance to play a singing role… I hope it works out.”
What is enduringly interesting is that Forest, so passionate about his art, uses his acting philosophy to create a myriad of characters. Beyond the sheer power of Idi Amin, he has a plethora of film roles coming down the pipeline, and they run the gamut. “This year, the roles are more extremely different from each other. I’m most curious to see My Own Love Song, with Renée Zellweger. It’s by the same director as La Vie En Rose, about a schizophrenic who thinks he speaks to angels.” Not looking for an artsy piece? “I had fun doing Our Family Wedding – it’s relaxing doing comedy, and changes my perspective a little bit.” Seeking something to keep you on the edge of your seat? “Maybe my strongest work is in The Experiment. I went in for some sound work and saw a few clips. I thought, ‘Wow. This is gonna be really interesting.’ And then there’s Repo Men, which allowed me to do some martial arts… The films are just totally different from each other.”
Onscreen and off, Forest is a unique character. Combining an intuitive soul with a powerful physical presence, he is contemplative enough to recognize frailty, but strong enough to affect change. So what’s in a name? For Forest Whitaker, whether for a role or a cause, it’s a willingness to venture into the unknown and find the interconnectedness of humanity.