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Forest on Fire

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Whitaker wooing the international press corps,
as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner)

Despite the unmistakable talent that has earned him the admiration and confidence of A-list directors like Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Robert Altman, Forest Whitaker has rarely been rewarded with a leading role. Sure, he’s stolen scenes from screen stalwarts including Paul Newman (as a seemingly na´ve hustler in The Color of Money) and Robin Williams (as a soft-spoken soldier in Good Morning, Vietnam), but the 45-year-old Texas native has been better known for his acting chops than his star power.

His latest project, The Last King of Scotland, might not vault him into the ranks of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, but it just might earn him some long overdue recognition. As Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Whitaker fills the screen with brash charisma and murderous menace, a difficult mix that might have defeated a lesser actor. But Whitaker tackles the role with electrifying intensity and strikes a perfect balance, in a performance that will be very difficult to ignore come Oscar time.

Not that he’s worried about it.

“It would be great to be recognized for this role, and I can’t ignore all the talk I’ve heard about that,” he says quietly, with a faint grin. “So yes, I think about it. But everyone told me I’d win an Emmy for my work on The Shield, and I didn’t even get nominated. Right now I’m just concentrating on doing all I can to make people get out and see this movie, because it’s a great story.”

Whitaker readily concedes that he doesn’t look much like Amin, though the two men share similarly hulking, athletic physiques. (Before seizing the Ugandan presidency, Amin was a boxing champion; the 6’2”, 250-pound Whitaker earned a college scholarship as a football player.) Even so, he went to great lengths to capture the larger-than-life spirit of a man known to much of the world as a mass murderer.

“Amin was such a fascinating character,” he says. “He was a killer, sure, but he could be incredibly charming, and he used that charm to win over the press, which couldn’t have been easy. To do justice to that character, I did a lot of preparation that went beyond watching film and doing an impression.

“I talked to his brother, his sister and his generals. I tried to talk to one of his sons, who’s now a general, but he was concerned that we were portraying his father as a cannibal, and I didn’t see that. I got a chance to go to Africa for the first time, which was important to me, and speak to the people of Uganda, who were eager to tell us how this man touched their lives. I wanted to capture the essence of the man’s soul, which is something much greater than an impression could provide.”

Now, having spent much of the past six years endeavoring to do just that, Whitaker is ready to sit back and reap the fruits of his labor – for a little while, at least. He will soon return to The Shield to film his final episodes as the tortured Det. Kavanaugh. Until then, he’s content to reflect on the most challenging role of his career.

“There are a lot of roles that I keep with me. I loved playing Charlie Parker in Bird, and I loved playing Ghost Dog. But playing Amin was the most gratifying experience of my career, and the most difficult for me personally. It’s the hardest and best work I’ve ever done in my life.”

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