Forest Steven Whitaker has proven himself to be one of today’s greatest actors. Quiet and soft-spoken, from the moment he’s in character, the Oscar winner disappears on screen. Like, in The Last King of Scotland, audiences shivered as he nailed each awkward, scary, idiosyncrasy of infamous Dictator Idi Amin. And he aggravated frustrated progressives with passive, house Negro tendencies while playing Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Whitaker works to evoke movement and emotion within him and those who see his work. He consistently seeks change, whether by Executive Producing films like Fruitvale Station that highlight social injustice; or by elevating the consciousness of a global community as a humanitarian and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace. Committed to excellence, this legend in the making took a moment to share his world, and give a brief master class in the process of acting.
Raqiyah Mays: So we’ve seen you play nearly everything. You were just an eloquent, well-spoken, singing preacher in Black Nativity. You constantly work. So what’s your key to preparing for a role and turning off one character to transition into another?
Forest Whitaker: I guess it depends. Like in [Black Nativity] I started looking at different preachers and I met some different guys when I was in Harlem. And then I started actually looking at the scripture to keep my mind thinking in that way so I could improvise even with the church. I started practicing the music, working on the song, and then slowly, I don’t know, something starts to occur. The character starts to fall into me. I start looking at the way he speaks, thinking about looking at Martin and different speakers of the past, 'cause I wanted it to be a bridge between the past and the present. Or even maybe hopefully with what the future holds. And that started to dictate my meter a little bit and the way I spoke. You know what I mean?
RM: Like a slow transformation.
FW: Yeah. And that kind of entered into this speech and into the way I was kept and how I presented myself. It’s just a process. It’s always different for every part. The last number of roles I’ve played have been opposite sides of each other. The next one is quite different.
RM: Out of the Furnace…
FM: I play a sheriff in this little town [in] Pennsylvania with Christian Bale and Casey Affleck. Zoe Saldana plays [Christian’s] wife. It’s very different.
RM: I love Oprah. What was the process like working with her?
FM: I loved working with Oprah. We had wanted to work together before. We had talked about doing a play at one point. I had talked to her about a film I was gonna maybe direct, to try to get a chance to work together. And actually when I auditioned, I read with her for Lee [Daniels]. And she was actually already playing Gloria at the time. And magic was happening. I think throughout the process she was so committed to the part and so talented and so amazed. We’d walk back and forth from set together, talking and holding hands, just staying connected, because it was important to show the intimacy and the love between this man and this woman.
RM: How did you get involved with Lee Daniels?
FW: I had met Lee a few times before and he had spoken at one time about a part in one of his films. And then I ran into him when Precious was going on, during that period. They just called me. And actually I came in to audition for the role. So it wasn’t like I was just offered the role or anything like that, you know? And they were seeing, I guess, he saw maybe 6 or so people that same day that he saw me.
RM: You auditioned? That’s interesting. I know Oprah hadn’t done any acting in years, so she took private lessons to prepare for The Butler. Do you still train?
FW: There’s two things. There’s an acting class. I haven’t really been in an acting class. But my acting classes are different things. I study in life. Like for me, maybe I’ll take a meditation course. That for me is like shifting my acting. Maybe it’s through a martial arts class. Maybe it’s through archery. Maybe it’s even through, like, I do a lot of philanthropic work or social conscious work. So I just got back from South Sudan and certainly it shifts my acting. It shifts my being. The things that shift your being, to me, are what allow you to become a better actor.
RM: So what would be the ultimate role for you?
FW: I dunno. I know it will just reveal itself. The parts that I’ve been working on or thinking about playing, I’m not sure if that’s the one that’s gonna make me move to the next level. Something’s happening where you can transcend. I call it transmutation, where your cellular level shifts. So you leave a little different.
RM: It changes you.
FW: Yeah. Like when I was in Last King, I learned a lot about transmutation. I think in The Butler I started to trust in transcendence. This whole thinking of what’s in the next role. What will it bring? ‘Cause I feel blessed to have done The Butler. I think it gave me so much as an artist. I learned so much. I grew so much. The part was so complex for me to figure out. How do you change every four years or every eight years where you can see the difference? But it’s quiet. There’s a very quiet difference between 49 and 53, you know what I mean? So how do you do that? That was something that I got a chance to learn and understand how to put things inside my physical body to make me make the aging process happen, but more from the experiences. And that was a new lesson I hadn’t taken before.
RM: What was the lesson or message that you wanted people to take away from The Butler?
FW: Two things that I hope they recognize is the love of family, the love of trying to, through all its troubles and stuff, it’s possible to reconcile and it’s possible to stay together through love. And then I think it’s important what the message says is in whatever way you can, to always, to try to stand up for social injustices and issues that you see. Whether it’s in a quiet way like a phone call, a slipped note, a private conversation. Or whether it’s loud like Occupy Wall Street or those dealing with Trayvon Martin’s situation. Or whatever you feel is an injustice. Oscar Grant. However. Just speak up so you can be actively involved in that conversation to change it to the planet and world that you want it to be.
RM: Love that. So The Butler is set for rerelease on the same day Out of the Furnace hits theaters. Most say the rerelease is to remind people of how great the film is and to seek Oscar consideration. But you already have a best actor academy award for The Last King of Scotland. What would you tell fellow actors that are in the game and have this dream of winning an Oscar? Is that a proper motivation?
FW: Well, I don’t think that I would have moved to the kind of work that I do if that would have been my original motivation. I think the first part of my career I was really fighting and I couldn’t do well enough. I was only concerned about whether I could get good enough. Like I can say in The Butler, people are talking about it, you’re happy that people are seeing my work like that, that they see it as that worthy that they went to see the movie and now they want to acknowledge my work. I think that’s a gift, that’s a blessing. But I try not to get too completely enveloped inside. I think you can get lost. And I don’t think actors should be too concerned… I shouldn’t say that. People should follow the path that’s right for them. You know what I mean? For myself, I’m just trying to get better. Like I’m looking for the role right now that will challenge me so that I can get better. I became a stronger actor when I did Ghost Dog. I did Last King of Scotland, I learned more. I became stronger. And I think The Butler made me stronger too. It made me understand something else about acting. So I’m looking for the next one, the next thing, and I think that’s [the key] to keep searching, to keep looking, it's what keeps me balanced.