Getting into the mind of a dictator

In `The Last King of Scotland,' actor Forest Whitaker finds a way to understand Idi Amin

Spotlight

October 01, 2006|By John Anderson | John Anderson,Special to Newsday

BURBANK, Calif. — BURBANK, Calif.-- --Forest Whitaker still uses the occasional Britishism, a vestige of his part in Neil Jordan's gender-bender, The Crying Game. If it weren't so emotionally painful to pick up an alto sax, Whitaker could probably revisit Bird with a few jazz blasts from his Charlie Parker past. Ten years from now, he says, he may not be thinking about Panic Room, but he'll probably be able to drill a safe.

The research and immersion in character that Whitaker has performed for the various roles he's created -- from the football star in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, to his Private Garlick in Good Morning, Vietnam, to his breakout role channeling Charlie Parker -- have left their traces on his own character, he says. So what has Idi Amin left imprinted on the soul of the 45-year-old actor?

Whitaker, who plays the notorious Ugandan dictator in The Last King of Scotland -- which opens Friday -- points out a little click he's now doing with his voice, a way of punctuating a sentence, a la the late Amin. He pronounces his co-star James McAvoy's character, Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, as "Nick-O-Laaahs" with an echo of the Swahili he learned for the part. It's all part of the process, he says.

"It's just a conglomeration of who I am now. It's experience. Life," he says, seemingly relaxed and nondictatorial in the lobby of a Burbank hotel; he's just back home from shooting an episode of ER (on which he's playing Curtis Ames, a carpenter who suffers a stroke) and doing an Oprah segment on live TV ("Scary," he said). And he got raves for his performance as an ambitious Internal Affairs detective on The Shield last season.

"Each character requires different things, but I do have a process by which I think I try to capture the spirit of the character," he said. "With Bird, it was early in my career. I moved downtown to this loft, played the sax all day long, wandered the street. And that was weird because while doing Charlie Parker -- you know, he was a drug addict, he was sad, he was alone a lot of the time -- I would wake up some mornings and feel like I didn't want to go on. With Idi Amin, I didn't feel that way."

The first man

Amin, the army officer who became president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979 (he died in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003), reigned during a period of terror: The death toll was estimated to be in the vicinity of 300,000 -- much of it owing to tribal and religious violence.

Even so, he has become part of Whitaker's journey of self-exploration.

A recent trace of Whitaker's genealogy revealed he is descended on his father's side from the Ibo of Nigeria, and on his mother's, the Ekon tribe of the Hausa in Ghana.

"I had never been to the African continent," Whitaker said. "It was unbelievable, really. I thought I would have gone first to West Africa, because that's where my ancestors were from, but I think it was great to go to East Africa -- where the movie was shot -- the home of the first man, the source. ... In Uganda, they believe that this is where good and evil first fought."

The Last King of Scotland is more about the gray areas of morality bumping up against each other than about a good-and-evil struggle. Dr. Garrigan (a composite of several real-life people) is a mission doctor who chances into contact with Amin. The dictator has just assumed power and chooses Garrigan as his personal physician -- but the good doctor is not so good, it turns out, when faced with unlimited power and luxury.

It is, however, Whitaker's portrayal of the president -- a murderous baby, a tantrum-throwing tyrant -- that captivates. Neither Garrigan nor the audience can resist the tug of Amin's charisma, or not be fascinated by his contradictions. The performance may be the best thing the actor has done.

"I didn't try to make him sympathetic," Whitaker said. "I just tried to figure out how he thought. If you watch the Barbet Schroeder documentary, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, you'll see his charm, his joking -- he's quite a joker, loved to party. You'll see him playing the accordion at parties, making lots of jokes, commanding the alligators. ...

"I think it's wrong for people to think someone like him could have rose from nothing. To become this big on the world stage, you have to be charismatic and charming."

A different view

Deciding to play a man widely considered one of the 20th century's more nefarious figures would naturally cause an actor to have reservations. Whitaker had his, although they weren't so predictable.

"I was worried about whether I could find the core of the guy," he said, "but I was most concerned, honestly, and this is going to seem ... that I was going to let the Ugandan people down, the African continent down. They have a different view of Idi Amin than the rest of the world. The pan-Africanists do, too. You'd think Ugandans would be like, `Oh, he killed 300,000 people,' but no, a lot really admire him. And most have mixed feelings about him.

"So I was worried about not showing the wholeness of the guy."

He needn't have worried.

As he suspects himself, his career is in a transitional period. The Last King of Scotland (the title refers to Amin's Scots fetish) appears to be a major step toward a newly formed Whitaker.

"I think there is some kind of weird awakening inside of me, a new connection between the external and the internal," he said.

"When I was on The Shield, people were like, `What is he doing?' and I think I was just exploring. But going to Uganda really did something to me inside. Made me feel really centered in a weird way. And my best work is about to happen. I really feel that way."

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