Forest Whitaker has a sterling acting career garnering the Academy Award for his memorable performance as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. His credits are too numerous to list but suffice it to say he has delivered many memorable performances. At an early morning press conference to publicize his latest film, Our Family Wedding, (a lightweight, formulaic film about two warring families,) Whitaker talks about much more than his latest picture, and we get a real insight into the character of this most gifted actor.
Mirror: This film is a real departure from your other films which are much more serious. What attracted you to this script?
Whitaker: When I was younger, I did some really intense roles like Bird and The Crying Game so my career went in that direction. This project started to happen at about the same time I hosted Saturday Night Live. I liked the Our Family Wedding script and thought it was fun, but very touching and something interesting to do. It explores racial and cultural differences and goes to the heart of everybody ultimately coming from the same place.
Mirror: Did you enjoy the Saturday Night Live experience?
Whitaker: I had a blast. It was crazy. You know what, it’s a big release working on a movie like this. I mean it’s really relaxing. You still have to find your character and make him live in a specific universe.
Mirror: Was there anything in the script where you thought you might be walking a fine line?
Whitaker: I think the movie walks a fine line quite a few times with the Black and Latino stereotypes, but I think sometimes stereotypes have a core of truth, and the point is to get past those thoughts, images, and ideas and see the real person.
Mirror: Do you think weddings are mostly for the parents?
Whitaker: I think in a lot of cases it appears that way. When you have to coordinate such a large event for so many people, some of whom don’t even like each other, you have to take a lot of things into consideration, such as seating the right people next to each other. There are so many different types of weddings from going down to City Hall or Las Vegas or little intimate ones. Some of them are for the couple, but I think the majority is a reflection of other people’s dreams.
Mirror: Did you have a similar experience?
Whitaker: My wedding was very small. We went to Jamaica and held the ceremony on the beach. We had around 40 guests and it was like a giant holiday for everybody.
Mirror: Carlos Mencia who plays Miguel is a stand-up comedian. Were there any special challenges in working with him and did you improvise?
Whitaker: I thought he was really centered as an actor and I loved working with him. We improvised a lot when it came to the back and forth banter. His character is really kind of a straight guy and is very sensitive, especially in those touching moments between he and his wife (Diana Maria Riva) and the conflict in letting his daughter Lucia go (America Ferrera.)
Mirror: You were born in Texas. Did your family move to California because of racism?
Whitaker: My family didn’t move here because of racism. My dad moved here because he wanted to have greater opportunities. There was racism in the Texas town in which we lived. That particular part of Texas was very segregated. We lived on one side of the river and you never crossed over. It’s not very far from Jasper where eight years ago they were dragging people behind trucks. It’s a difficult place, but there are difficult places all over the country.
Mirror: What’s your take on the struggle between the Latino and African-American gangs?
Whitaker: There has been a struggle between the Latino and Black communities for a long time. Even when I was a kid that stuff was going on. Now it’s more intense. There have been attempts at truces between the gangs, but it’s difficult because so many different elements are involved. I narrated a gang documentary a year ago and I have met with gangs in different cities.
Mirror: Are there any parallels in this film?
Whitaker: This film is about inner personal racism. Color issues are many times about people trying to reach a higher key than what society has given them and their desire to feel like they’re the best. The Latinos have their own racism against each other from different racial groups and Blacks have different issues with each other, so it’s very complicated. It’s more of a tribal issue and that exists all over the world.
Mirror: Do you think the film can bridge some of the animosities and does it have crossover appeal?
Whitaker: I think there is crossover appeal. I don’t know if it’s going to make a dad say, “Go ahead and marry that guy.” But maybe it will make someone stop for second to realize he might be a nice guy. It takes little steps to make all the pieces come together for a breakthrough.
Mirror: Race issue aside, don’t most of us feel that no one is really good enough for our child?
Whitaker: I agree. At the core of the story is that Miguel is losing his daughter Lucia and I’m losing my son Marcus (Lance Gross.) Our lives have to now be readjusted. I think about that with my own kid. He’s going off to college and I wonder if he going to come back, or am I going to see him just once year, or is he going to have kids? It’s normal behavior.
Mirror: Why does your character choose to date women his son’s age?
Whitaker: My character is damaged because his wife left him and he raised his son. He goes into those inappropriate relationships so he doesn’t have to get serious, and these young women aren’t looking to get married. Ultimately, the kids open his eyes because they show him that a relationship with an age-appropriate woman (Regina King,) will bring him happiness.
Mirror: Your character is a bit anal in wanting everything to be in its proper place. Are you like that?
Whitaker: Sometimes. If I’m working on stuff I like things organized in a certain way. As far as my character, that’s a way he tries to keep order in his universe and this new event breaks it up.
Mirror: How does your Black Belt in Karate impact on your work?
Whitaker: I would say that martial arts is one of my first big teachers of acting. I was taught how to reach a point, not just through a straight line, but to understand different angles and energy. I think that approach is one of the biggest influences impacting on my technique. When I did The Last King of Scotland, I worked intensely with my sefu (master) on the character – not on the words, but on fighting, because my character was extremely combative and aggressive and in some ways painful. My sefu taught me how to move through that aggression and pain and that was a big part in figuring out how to play the character.
Mirror: When will you be directing again?
Whitaker: I’m scheduled to direct and star in Satchmo in April of next year.
Mirror: We look forward to that project.