Uncovering funny side of Forest Whitaker

Movies: The actor, who has made his mark with serious roles in films such as `The Crying Game' and this year's `Ghost Dog,' yearns to show his comedic talents on film.

March 25, 2000|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

Forest Whitaker has a little secret that he'd like to share with as many of you as possible:

He can do comedy.

It hardly seems likely, given his super-serious body of work, including his current film, "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai." But Whitaker swears it's true.

"I love comedy," said Whitaker, during a recent visit to town to promote "Ghost Dog." "A couple of friends from college think that's the one area that people don't even know about me. That was the area that I was really good at, but I don't do it."

And that's because most directors only seem to picture him as, say, a soldier in "The Crying Game," or as jazz legend Charlie Parker in "Bird," or as a down-on-life security guard in the recent school flick, "Light It Up."

In other words, they don't see the funny side of Whitaker, who actually had bit roles in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Good Morning Vietnam" and laughs heartily at the concept of his next role, a space alien who duels with John Travolta in the forthcoming "Battlefield: Earth."

"The right role hasn't come, but if it does, the directors might have somebody else in mind," said Whitaker, with an intense laugh. "But I wish they would give a brother a break and let him do some comedy."

It's Whitaker's intensity, sincerity and willingness to take challenging roles that have given him an impressive resume and career satisfaction, even if it hasn't placed him front and center on marquees.

"I look at stuff as ways I can grow," said Whitaker, 38, the married father of four. "It may be a part of me, but maybe it's a part that I'm afraid of, or something that I don't understand."

Whitaker has also carved out a non-acting career directing the Whitney Houston-Angela Bassett vehicle "Waiting to Exhale," and "Hope Floats," and he thinks his experiences behind the camera have made him better in front of it.

"I understand things better," he said. "Sometimes, directors don't know how to communicate very well."

For example, Whitaker recalled an exchange he had with Clint Eastwood, who directed him in "Bird."

The director wanted Whitaker to keep his head up, and the actor didn't understand why:

"He said, `I don't really have an explanation, but it's better if you keep your head up.' Now, I get that right away."

It didn't take long for Whitaker to understand the title character of "Ghost Dog," a hit man who lives in the heart of an unnamed modern city but is immersed in the "Hagakure," an 18th-century Japanese warrior text.

The blending of three wildly divergent cultures, along with touches of black humor, make the film admittedly quirky (Whitaker says director Jim Jarmusch calls it an "East-West, hip-hop mobster Western") and tough to describe.

For those reasons, and because "Ghost Dog" is only available in 60 cities and his is the only recognizable name in the credits, Whitaker has been trying to drum up publicity for the independent film.

"I really want people to get out and see it," he said. "I try to describe the movie, and I feel like I'm not doing it justice. The movie is much more powerful than I can describe."

Whitaker, for whom the role was specifically written by Jarmusch, said he latched onto the character while he was directing "Hope Floats," the Sandra Bullock film that had modest success two years ago.

"As soon as I saw the script, I knew I wanted it," he said.

Jarmusch and Whitaker, who studies Eastern philosophy, crafted "Ghost Dog" as an amalgam of the old and new; the hero lives the monastic-like life of a samurai, while being part of the modern urban culture.

Their collaboration was strong on detail. For instance, Whitaker had Jarmusch ("Year of the Horse," "Dead Man," "Night on Earth") make a samurai-like talisman for his character and insisted that it be a third eye that he could wear as a medallion, as many hip-hoppers do.

At the same time, Ghost Dog, who receives his assignments via carrier pigeon, lives by a code that keeps him honorable, even in the face of the horrible job he does.

"There are things about this character that I relate to," said Whitaker. "The whole notion of living by a code and dying by a code is something I deal with throughout my life. Where do you make a compromise? What do you stand for? The movie is violent, but really, the biggest death in the movie is the death of the code.

"The other deaths are transient. If I shoot you in the head, that's one thing. But if I break your heart and never make you believe in love again, and you treat your kids like you don't believe in love, I've killed a nation of people."

Of particular note is the respectful nature of the relationship between Whitaker and Louie (John Tormey), the gangster who saved his life as a youth and serves as his point man with the mob.

In a telling scene near the film's end, the two men discuss how the world is changing around them and how they seem to be two of the few left with a sense of honor.

"That's a sad thing, to believe in something and nobody else does, and you're trying your best to do what you think is right," he said. "You feel like you're almost insane. You say, `I don't belong here any more.' "

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