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How Far is Too Far for a Role? Forest Whitaker in ‘The Last King of Scotland’

Forest Whitaker is arguably one of the most diverse actors working in Hollywood today. The man of a thousand great small parts, if you will, that rarely, if ever, mirror one another and are each undoubtedly unique in style and grace.

As we look back at his long and rather accomplished career, we have seen various bits and pieces of what Whitaker can do: The unforgettable Charles Jefferson–the volatile high school football jock with a short fuse and a penchant for Cool and the Gang in comedy– Fast Times at Ridgemont High; the hip-hop street-Samurai hit-man of indie classic Ghost Dog; the relentless villain with his eyes and maybe not so much is heart, on the prize, in Panic Room; and most recently, his blistering portrayal of the frustrated cop Lt. Jon Kavanaugh on the gritty FX police drama The Shield.

But his latest big screen role is the most powerful culmination of what all those finely etched character moments over the years have been building up to. As a seasoned 45-year-old husband and father of three, Whitaker, for lack of a better term, lets it all hang out acting-wise, and takes the plunge deep into the heart of darkness as the brutally sadistic yet charming Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, Fox Searchlight’s certain-to-be awards contender for 2006.

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“I did everything that I could to give myself no excuse,” declares Whitaker, who gives what critics are already dubbing an Oscar-worthy performance in the film. “I had to look in the mirror on this one, and I feel proud of the work. So that was good because it could’ve been a different demon.”

One thing is certain while watching the gripping tale of corruption and violence in war-torn and poverty-stricken Uganda–Whitaker gives a frighteningly real portrayal of the ruthless dictator. At times, almost too real, according to some of his fellow cast members. “It was disconcerting, really,” says handsome up-and-coming young Scottish actor James McAvoy (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), who plays alongside Whitaker as the young and naïve Nicholas, personal doctor/advisor and right-hand man to Amin (as well as an historical amalgamation of some Amin’s real officials).

“It was amazing, but it was also disconcerting because he was so into it and you didn’t always know what he was doing. I didn’t want to ask him if he was becoming him or if he was just doing the accent all the time.”

But how far is too far for a role, one might ask themselves after learning of Whitaker’s transformation? Adds Kerry Washington, best known as Ray Charles’ beleaguered wife in Ray, and who plays one of Amin’s five wives in the Scotland: “I think that it was sort of like this self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says of watching Whitaker make the intense transformation into Amin. “Because he was a little unpredictable and very much in his process and so everyone sort of left him alone more—and then him being left alone more sort of contributed to his isolation and identifying more with Idi.”

And, Whitaker, who even learned two Ugandan dialects for the role, stayed in character each day, shied away from press and anything that might disrupt his process during filming—and even refused to eat anything other than the indigenous cuisine (talk about Method).

“The guy from The [Los Angeles] Times came to do an interview and Forest said, ‘I will not do the interview outside of my accent,’” continues Washington. “I think that he’s brilliant and genius, so I understood why he held onto it. And the producers were afraid that because he wouldn’t let go of the accent that he was also going to do this interview with The L.A. Times being like, ‘Idi was a great man. Idi did nothing wrong.’ They were afraid about what sort of portrayal he was going to give. It was all very intense. So they were like, ‘We need you to understand that Forest has a process.’ It was really interesting…”

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Director Kevin MacDonald, who is best known for his award-winning documentaries Touching the Void and One Day in September, is actually the one responsible for getting the production to Uganda rather than opting to shoot in Canada or a studio lot, thus furthering Whitaker’s metamorphosis into Amin. Still, ironically enough, at the beginning, MacDonald wasn’t certain that Whitaker was the right one for the part.

“I didn’t have him in mind actually,” admits MacDonald. “The producers were always very keen on him and I always said ‘Really?’” thinking that Whitaker was too “gentle” and “sweet” for the role.

But MacDonald’s perception quickly changed after the first script-reading—“he said, ‘Okay, I’m going to read you a scene,’” recalls MacDonald. “He did the scene of the great sort of paranoid explosion just after they tried to kill him in the car. He did it in such a way that I was against the back of my seat thinking, ‘Forest Whitaker is a bit ill.’ He had that quality already when he just read that one scene. So it was obvious that he could do it, but also the thing is that to have an actor, as I was saying earlier, who is prepared to give their all to the part, what more can you ask for in a way. It was obvious that he wanted to do that. Forest felt that this was a part that he could just immerse himself into.”

Audiences no doubt will be filled with mixed emotions as Whitaker brings one of this century’s most complex public figures to the screen. Supported by a talented and superb cast which also includes a completely transformed and elegant Gillian Anderson, and Simon McBurney as the rather ambiguous British cloak- and-dagger figure, Nigel Stone. Whitaker’s Admin is a powerhouse performance that will finally get him the recognition and quite possibly an Oscar nomination, something he so sorely deserves after all his hard work and memorable roles on film.

Be that as it may, to the humble Whitaker, it’s all just part of growth and process. “I try to serve the character all the time, but this one took a lot of work and was all consuming,” he explains. “It feels good. I feel good because you never know when – it’s like climbing up a ladder to me. You climb up a ladder and at times you’re scared to face yourself so you make excuses for yourself. You climb up and take a couple of steps back and get in a bad relationship. You take a couple of more steps up and then go back down like three more steps – you yelled at someone that you shouldn’t have and so now you can’t do this. You keep avoiding going to the top of the ladder and having a look in the mirror and see if you can do what it is you’ve been trying to do.”

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