NEW YORK – Known for thought-provoking roles in acclaimed films such as The Last King of Scotland and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Forest Whitaker is leaving his distinct mark on Hollywood. And with performances in this year’s anticipated science fiction blockbusters Arrival and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – plus projects such as Marvel’s Black Panther and The Forgiven in the works – things aren’t likely to slow down as the Oscar-winner tackles even more diverse and exciting parts. We spoke with Whitaker about training to be a Jedi, what his characters have in common and the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative.
To meet Whitaker at the Rogue One London premiere and attend the after party, place a bid online from 28 November to 9 December at IfOnly Presents: The Experiences Auction.
FOREST WHITAKER. PHOTO: COURTESY OF DISNEY.
How did you prepare to play Saw Gerrera in Rogue One?
There's a rich history of who Saw Gerrera is and where he originated, since the character existed in Star Wars lore before Rogue One was filmed. I started to prepare by looking at his journey throughout the Clone Wars series, and worked to understand Saw's sense of leadership on Onderon, his home planet. Then I explored how he began to fight back in the militia, and tracked the ways in which his training evolved: becoming a rebel as the war continued and ultimately even becoming too extreme for the rebels. Alongside a movement coach, I worked to figure out the significance of Saw's staff, which was imbued with great significance and the memories of his past. Saw was trained by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker themselves, so the staff was much more than a walking tool; it was a way for Saw to incorporate his Jedi training and that philosophy into his existence. The staff also served as a reminder of the battles, which caused Saw to lose his leg, and helped me to build the character's emotions on my own. I saw how the loss of his friends and family pushed him to understand that the universe was being destroyed, and resulted in him becoming a freedom fighter in order to stop the destruction of the universe.
You’ve taken on a diverse range of roles. When you sign onto a movie, are you drawn to particular types of characters, scripts or themes?
As an artist, I'm always attempting to continue to grow and find new ways to challenge myself. I seek to understand the connections between each character I've played throughout my career, as well as how they each relate to humanity. So, I look to choose characters, scripts and themes that help me to continue to explore that humanity, and which centre around our relationships within the world and the ways we can improve the quality of our lives.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF DISNEY
How do you feel your career has evolved throughout the years?
I'm currently in Cape Town playing Archbishop Desmond Tutu for an upcoming film. That role is a perfect example of how my career is continuing to evolve. I've played other real life characters before, but am currently trying to embody the spirit of a man who is still alive and has great physical differences from me, which has been a new challenge. Now my goal is to capture enough of him that viewers will focus on looking into the heart of the man. While I hadn't worked on sci-fi projects before, I filmed both Rogue One and Arrival last year, and am now preparing to shoot Black Panther, my first Marvel comic. These are new genres for me, but they're connected by many of the same themes I try to explore. Arrival was about communication and our place in time, while Rogue One is about breaking free from oppression. Burden focuses on finding ways to break past racism and anger, and The Forgiven similarly deals with forgiveness and reconciliation. The characters I've portrayed may outwardly be quite different from one another, but I've found that they're also intrinsically linked.
A lot of your movies, such as The Last King of Scotland and Lee Daniels’ The Butler have strong social messages. Why do you think film and other arts are so essential to sharing these stories in our society?
I think that cinema and the arts are central in our lives because we grow up and learn about the world through our exposure to stories. Parents use them as a tool to teach their children fundamental truths and values, much as adults can view them to gain exposure to cultures and individuals that they'd never be able to view in their own lives. Stories hold great power, which enables us to utilize them to shape minds and test our capacity to feel and think. Films I've acted in like The Butler or produced like Fruitvale Station can resonate more deeply than reading about similar events in history textbooks or newspapers, and contribute to making us more human and humane. I try to support stories that enable us to see the difficulties in our society and the challenges we face, which is why I've also produced documentaries like Brick City and Serving Life. Cinema and the arts invite viewers to focus on a story, and in doing so, peel away its layers and peer into the depths of the human soul.
"I think that cinema and the arts are central in our lives because we grow up and learn about the world through our exposure to stories."
Could you talk a bit about the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative and what inspired you to start that organization?
WPDI is an organization that I created in 2012 to mobilize young women and men from places that have been impacted by conflict or violence. Violence and conflict take many shapes, be it the gang wars that plague neighbourhoods in the Americas or actual war in South Sudan. In other cases, our work is to help communities recover from war. This is what we do in Uganda, which is where the whole project actually started.
In 2006, I was working on The Last King of Scotland in Uganda when I met Sam Okello. He was enrolled as a child soldier in the civil war that tore the north of the country for years. He told me of the campus he had created, Hope North, to rehabilitate former child soldiers. Too often, these children have lost everything.
These youths needed more than assistance. They had to be part of peace because they had known war from the inside. I gave a lot of thinking to this and eventually came up with the main idea behind WPDI – to gather young women and men who come from traumatized communities and give them a unique set of skills as mediators, communicators and entrepreneurs. We operate from a set of four pillars: conflict resolution training, computer technology, trauma and life skills, and entrepreneurial skills for development. Once trained, they go back to their communities where they keep a kind of watch, mediate conflicts if they arise and develop community projects and small businesses with local youth. I like to think that they can be leaders in times of peace and in times of war. This was the plan. I was ambitious when we started. But the results are real. The young people we trained are developing and running their projects.
Many of the wars we see around the world start as domestic conflicts that are fuelled by external forces and powers. My view is that we can help peace if we help communities transform from the inside, on their own terms. This is where the young people I train and support through WPDI are so important. They can bring about positive change that is based on global awareness, but that remains in tune with local realities.