Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor.
Forest Whitaker is no stranger to exploring characters that are based on real people, having won an Oscar for his turn as Idi Amin in 2006’s The Last King Of Scotland. This season, he worked on two fact-based films: Fruitvale Station, on which he served as a producer, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in which he stars opposite Oprah Winfrey as longtime White House butler Cecil Gaines (loosely based on the real-life Eugene Allen). And, just to round out his onscreen roles, he plays a singing preacher in Kasi Lemmons’ musical-comedy Black Nativity, which opened November 27. The soft-spoken actor has some pointed observations about his process and how The Butler fits into the black-themed historical films crowding the Oscar field in 2013.
AwardsLine: Did you have to audition for the part of Cecil Gaines?
Forest Whitaker: I had to go and do a reading with Lee, and Oprah, who was already playing the role (of Gaines’ wife, Gloria). It was in the same hotel I auditioned for Idi Amin as well, the Sunset Marquis (in West Hollywood).
AwardsLine: What did you learn when you trained with butler Steven Ferry for the role?
Whitaker: We started first in Los Angeles, where he was teaching me about serving, setting the proper table, how you measure the chairs, how you measure the plates, where you put everything. Then he came to New Orleans and stayed in a house with me, and we continued to train. I think one of the big things was (Steven) teaching me about the philosophy of service. It’s a very spiritual concept.
AwardsLine: When you portray a character, do you decide whether or not you like that person?
Whitaker: My philosophy, why I pursued acting, is to find the connection between everyone. So I never think that a character is bad. I try to figure out the experiences that made him who he is. I don’t really judge him.
AwardsLine: Even if it’s Idi Amin?
Whitaker: I remember distinctly they had me do an interview with the London Times when I was playing Amin. I said to the producers, “Please, I’m in the middle of doing this character. You don’t want me to talk about Idi Amin when I feel this way!” (Laughs.) (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) Samantha Power said it was one of the few times she’d seen one of these desperate, genocidal characters portrayed the way they seemed when she met them. They are generally very charismatic.
AwardsLine: Why do so many Oscar contenders deal with African-American history this year?
Whitaker: Things are shifting; man is evolving in many different ways. The Internet has created a portal for people to connect with each other in a way they never could have before. When it comes to African-American or black films, it’s different because there is a model that you can actually look at, an equation that shows that these films earn money.
AwardsLine: There seem to be uncanny parallels with real-life events.
Whitaker: With Fruitvale, there was a dialogue going on in the nation about racial profiling. It came out at the same time as the Trayvon Martin trial—by accident, not by design. If you look at The Butler, you’ll see Emmett Till, and you’ll recognize the same parallels of Emmett Till. Even if you don’t recognize it historically, emotionally a part of yourself does.
AwardsLine: The Butler seems to be drawing a wide general audience.
Whitaker: This movie has a strong universal bent because it’s dealing with a universal issue, which is the estrangement of a parent and a child, the holding together of a family through hard and difficult times. Also, what Lee did was, he put a face on some things that were just abstractions, that before were just political events.
AwardsLine: The Butler has been criticized for taking liberties with the truth. What do you think?
Whitaker: There are lot of things in the White House that are accurate. There are certain things in the family that are different. Certainly Cecil’s (fictional) son, Louis, travels as a Zelig-like figure through every single civil-rights organization—he’s in all of them. But that’s for you to be guided through this story and this history that’s affecting his family. I think there is something very powerful about it all.
AwardsLine: Are you bothered by the inevitable comparisons among The Butler, 12 Years A Slave, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom and Fruitvale Station?
Whitaker: I’m happy for 12 Years A Slave. I’m happy for films that are trying to show more about the human existence. I am hopeful that now we have all these voices telling a specific and clear story. They’ll continue to develop, and at some point, from specificity we can move to universality for all us human beings.
AwardsLine: Given your penchant for “important” films, do you ever want to do a flat-out comedy?
Whitaker: (Laughs.) I love doing comedy. My friends are always saying, “Man, if only they knew—that’s your area.” In school, I got a chance to do comedy, (but) very rarely in features. I did it in A Rage In Harlem; I did it in Our Family Wedding. Not a lot, but I loved it.