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“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”: Forest Whitaker Interview

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., March 1, 2000 — He lives on a roof, communicates through pigeons and spins a saber better than a Jedi. At night, he hides in the shadows, pads about urban streets and eliminates targets with one muffled gunshot.

He is Ghost Dog, played by Forest Whitaker — a samurai who serves as an assassin for members of the Mafia. It is an obligation he fulfills after a small-time mobster (John Tormey) saves him from a gang of thugs. But when a hit goes awry, Ghost Dog finds he is the hunted and must defend himself while honoring the samurai code he lives by.

At first, “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” appears an unusual fit for a Gentle Ben such as Whitaker, an actor whose acclaimed career has teamed him with Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Neil Jordan. But the 38-year-old actor, who sports cornrows in the film and studied Kurosawa films to prepare for the role, says he was always interested in ideas of the East.

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“I’d been reading Eastern philosophy since I was a kid. And I meditated. I did it on a daily basis. It’s the one thing I do with any consistency,” Whitaker says. He also increased his regular meditation to 2 to 3 hours a day, doing Egyptian mediations to the god of war. “Meditation gives you a different kind of mindset. It’s very powerful.”

It was kismet, then, that director Jim Jarmusch (“Stranger Than Paradise,” “Dead Man”) was piecing together an Eastern-flavored story with Whitaker in mind.

“I just sort of weave things together, there’s no real conceptual plan. … I didn’t start off with ‘I will mix an Italian gang culture with a black urban O.G. (original gangsta) guy and Eastern philosophy,'” Jarmusch says. “I almost always write with a specifc central character in mind. So the next step was, ‘Who can I imagine embodying that contradiction?’ And it was Forest Whitaker because to me, he embodies a certain contradiction in that he is very vulnerable and soft and sad and deep about him — just his presence. But he’s also very big and strong, both physically and his own spirit was very strong.”

The two finally ran into each other “at Super 8 Sound. I was messing with my camera, he was messing with his,” Whitaker says. They expressed mutual interest in collaborating, and a year later Jarmusch gave him a call.

“He said, ‘I have an idea,’ so we got together. … We sat there talking for three to four hours at a time, about four times, maybe. And he said, ‘OK, I’m gonna go write it, I think I got enough.'”

The title character is a hero, but like many others he is a loner as well, making friends only with a young girl (Camille Winbush) and an ice-cream vendor (Isaach de Bankolé) who speaks nothing but French. How he came to be a samurai is not known, but that’s what strengthens the mystery of Ghost Dog.

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“He’s an urban myth,” Whitaker says. “He represents this thing in all of us, being able to live by a code. … That’s what he’s trying to create. He comes in with the wind, and he leaves by it. Most myth stories, the character seems like an orphan or someone — you don’t know his parents or his mother.

“We don’t think about Siddharta. … I don’t remember what the heck Gandhi’s path was, and I think that’s kind of why the myth was so strong. I don’t see anything else about him. … That’s the following of the myth.”

“Ghost Dog,” distributed by Artisan Entertainment, opens nationwide March 17.

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