Having appeared in movies for over 28 years, even directing a few from time to time, actor Forest Whitaker has established himself among the Hollywood ranks for having created a diverse career with a filmography that runs the gamut of genres and budgets. For a long time known as a “quiet giant,” at least until he blew people away with his unforgettable Oscar-winning performance as Uganda’s insane dictator Idi Amin in Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland, Whitaker certainly has gained the respect of both his peers and movie lovers for his body of work. Diversity is really the only thing in common with two very different movies Whitaker stars in this month, the ensemble comedy Our Family Wedding and Miguel Sapochnik’s Repo Men.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Whitaker a few weeks back to talk about the latter, a future shock thriller set in a world where artificial organs are available to anyone willing to sign up for the ridiculous installment plans that go along with them. When they inevitably can’t make their payments, that’s when The Union calls in their top men Remy, played by Jude Law, and his long-time friend Jake, Whitaker’s character, to take back the organs they’ve been given. The film shows what happens when Remy finds himself on the other side of things and Jake needs to track down his good friend and save him from the Union’s other agents.
Besides Repo Men, we also talked about some of Whitaker’s other projects, both past and future.
ComingSoon: This is one of the first movies you did after winning the Oscar. Were you consciously trying to look for very specific types of movies that were different than what you’d done before?
Forest Whitaker: No, I think I try not to shift the way I look at movies and parts much from winning the Academy Award to after. My application has always been that I’m gonna try to do something that can challenge me maybe and continue to help me grow, and it’s always good if I have a little fear around it. This is sorta new territory for me. I hadn’t done much action work and it was very dark humor, so it was just one of those perfect things to try to do.
CS: Teaming you with Jude Law seems very strange though it sounds like an interesting idea on paper. Until I actually saw the movie, I wouldn’t think it would work, but it works great, so did you know Jude beforehand?
Whitaker: No, I never met Jude. We talked on the phone when I was talking about doing the movie and stuff. Miguel hooked us up so I could get the chance to talk to him and everything. That was a great conversation. I really liked him, but I had never met him. I had always known his work. I like his work and I thought he seemed like from his work he would be a decent guy and then it turned out that he was a great guy. I think there was something, that connection between us, which is like a more transient thing that just happens.
CS: You’re both very hard working, and you don’t only do big movies, you like to mix it up with different things. I guess this one was done a while ago because you shot it in 2007, right?
Whitaker: Yeah, we shot this two-and-a-half years ago.
CS: Do you do different amounts and types of preparations for the different roles you take, or do you generally do one specific thing for every single role no matter what it is?
Whitaker: I try to meet the character and what I need to do. If some characters require me to do a lotta work, a lotta research, it’s really foreign from my personality or something, or I need to learn a technical skill, like I need to learn how to play an instrument or I need to learn how to speak a language or an accent, or to steep myself in a backstory or the history of something I need to understand. In this case, these guys were soldiers. They had a cursory knowledge of surgery because they needed to be able to do that in order to complete their job, once they got these jobs. We did the work on getting ready, preparing, physically getting ready for the fight sequences. I think what helps in our back history is the certain way we carry ourselves in the movie, the sort of swagger of the characters, you know? We met with some surgeons, they showed us a couple things. We met with some guys with some props for like, surgical tools and tried to put together our own particular case, you know what I mean? Then we tried to swallow the backstory that was given to us in the script and embellish upon it and make it even more organic and more free.
CS: When you do a movie like this, are you able to turn your director’s head off, or is that always something you bring to the mix as well? You’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors and you’re a director who has made three movies. Do you use those resources ever on set if they’re needed?
Whitaker: I think I have a pretty strong separation between directing and acting. I think I have no interest in thinking about that when I’m acting on a whole. Unless something is going really wrong and there seems to be like a simple solution and I’m kinda confused by it, I don’t really think about it. Maybe I might assess a situation in a different way. They may say I see what’s happening and they say it’s gonna take this long and I can tell how long it might really take (less time) or what it might really take to solve the situation or whether or not the page count for the day is actually possible because of the amount of locations. Stuff like that. But I think an actor of experience kind of gets that understanding anyway.
CS: Even though this movie was made two-and-a-half years ago, it’s a lot more topical now when it’s coming out due to the economic crunch with the banks, people losing their homes and even the health care stuff currently in the news.
Whitaker: At that time, Barack was talking about wanting to bring healthcare to the country. They were discussing it and stuff. He wasn’t President at that time. He was just beginning his real large public campaigning. So that the issue is being brought up to the fore, but of course right now we’re trying to get enough votes and the support. It’s really, really alive and now we have to analyze what it means for this country, for us to really allow there to be healthcare. What are the limitations going to be? What are the compromises gonna be? The credit card thing, I think that’s something that couldn’t have been particularly this deep, the amount of the crisis and what it really meant, what it means to credit card, what it means to people losing their homes, what it means when you overextend yourself through credit and when companies are allowing you to do so on purpose. You know what I mean? All those issues have really come up including the war issue because this doesn’t deal with war, but it does deal with two guys who are soldiers who come back from war. There was a scene–they don’t use it in the movie–where we were sitting there trying to figure out, “What do we do with ourselves now?” We see an ad for The Union, and we say, “Oh, we could fit there,” because there’s not many places for you to fit sometimes.
CS: They say that the best science fiction is based in reality, so do you think the world right now is maybe on a teeter totter between something like this happening and not happening? Do you think it’s something like, “Okay, we’re gonna do this and we’re never gonna get to that point?”
Whitaker: I think besides the notion of people going and taking body organs in third world countries and different places and giving those to people of wealth so they could survive–which does occur–besides that I think to be able to move to a place… This is all metaphoric because we would have to move to such an advanced place in science I think, because I don’t think we’ll move to a place where you can take the organ without replacing an organ, which is what we do. It’s really a question of how far will you go for whatever you need? How much in debt will you go? We would take your house. We would take your home, but now we’ll take your life basically.
CS: Besides this movie, you also have “Our Family Wedding” which puts you fully into the comedy realm, pitting you against Carlos Mencia, no less. Was that something you did because you wanted to challenge yourself by trying to do straight comedy?
Whitaker: I liked the character. I liked the story. It’s a really humanistic movie. It’s like, really sweet. It’s got a great heart. It’s about two families trying to come together, two cultures coming together. I thought it would be really fun and that it would be a great break for me to explore this area and be in an area I’m not in too often. You know, and sometimes Carlos was playing the straight guy in some ways at times unless he was wasted or drunk. Then there are other times when we were just going at each other, because that competition just continued to build and it was really fun for me. I felt completely at ease in that world.
CS: Earlier, you mentioned keeping your directing head separate from the acting, and I know that you’ve been developing a movie about Louis Armstrong called “Satchmo.” Everyone assumes you’re going to play the role, so have you thought about how you’re gonna do that balance and act and direct at the same time? Is that something you’re gonna do very soon?
Whitaker: I think that I’m gonna try to do a whole lot more prep than I’ve ever done before. So I’ll probably be prepping that movie for myself close to a year before I begin, or at least eight or nine months. During that time, I’m gonna probably (story)board the whole film and figure out certain elements. It’s different because I wrote the script with Ron Bass, so I’m very familiar with the material, getting it pushed around. I’ve been surrounding myself with a crew that’s like, phenomenal. I’ve already put together the core crew. We’ve already had a number of production meetings and we don’t even know when we’re gonna be doing the film. I think I’ll be doing that, and you know, a lot of the movie at this moment, or maybe less, for the moment it’s probably at least a third of the way into the film before I’m ever even in the film.
CS: Right, because you’re going to include him when he was younger as well.
Whitaker: Yeah, so now we’re trying to figure out how we’re gonna shrink the script and do certain things, so that’s what we’re gonna be figuring out.
CS: Are you gonna be able to pull anything at all from your time working with Clint Eastwood when you starred in “Bird”? It blows my mind that movie was actually 22 years ago now. That was such a great movie about a musician.
Whitaker: Yeah, I think that I will. I was thinking about watching it again the other day. I think there’s something that I would like to pull from Clint really clearly, which is his ability to galvanize and trust his crew and work with people that really allow his vision to come to life. I mean, he’s worked with the same people for such a long period of time and they know the way he thinks. Hopefully I can artificially create that by meeting and talking with these people for long periods of time before we ever walk out on the stage.
CS: One of my editors said, “You have to ask him about this Jekyll and Hyde movie he’s doing.”
Whitaker: Nah, I’m not doing that film.
CS: You’re not gonna do it? When he said that you’d be doing a “Jekyll and Hyde” movie I thought that sounded interesting, and then I heard it would be with Abel Ferrara and 50 Cent and thought it would be interesting in a different way.
Whitaker: (Laughs) Well, yeah, it was interesting when they announced it when I was in New York and a lot of New Yorkers seemed interested in it.
CS: Yeah, well Abel’s a local guy, of course.
Whitaker: I like Abel. I’ve worked with him a few times, I worked with him on two different films, one of which won the award at Venice, “Mary.” It wasn’t released here because he had some legal issues with the film. It’s not even on DVD, you couldn’t even get it.
CS: You have often gone to the world of indie filmmaking over the years, mainly as an actor, and at this point, obviously having your name attached helps to get movies financed. What are some of the gambles and risks of doing independent film and spending time on something like that where it might not come out? Can you talk about that a little bit?
Whitaker: Yeah, I think that when you have a film and you kinda trust the subject matter. Normally these are films that have subject matters and it isn’t the mainstream. So, as a result you’re always gonna take the gamble though ’cause if they don’t have distribution, or if it’s not set up, we’re in a different kind of world right now even for the studios. The studios are sort of doing mainly large tent pole films. They’re not wanting to gamble on certain types of films as much, you know what I mean? Maybe that’ll change a little bit with the last awards.
CS: Yeah, because last year we had “District 9.” It’s a big movie released by a studio, but it’s not necessarily a big budget movie.
Whitaker: Yeah, which is great. There’s a few of those, but I think when you do that I couldn’t probably tell you the number of movies that are made compared to the number of movies that go on the screen when it comes to independent films, but I started so long ago before they used to say independent films.
CS: When they were just films.
Whitaker: Yeah, like “The Crying Game” and movies like that. It was more in the ’80s and stuff. We didn’t have distribution for that film, but we ultimately got it. There’s a number of films that didn’t. So it depends. It is a little bit of a gamble, but I kinda try to not worry about that and go with my heart and know that I did it because of what I feel.
CS: I haven’t had a chance to see “Hurricane Season” or “Winged Creatures” yet, but I know you did those movies a long time ago and they finally came out. Is it frustrating as an actor when movies get delayed so much, or do you not worry about that and just do the work?
Whitaker: Well, I mean, it depends on the film. I mean, I think on a whole you kinda like are continually moving forward and continuing to grow, but if it’s something that I think it’s a project whether it’s something I produced, or whether it’s something I acted in, or whatever it might be, ’cause I’ve had this situation on all fronts other than directing. Then if the subject matter is important like say a film like “Hurricane Season” which is about Katrina or the documentary right now I’m working on something about Angola prisons, because I narrated a documentary that’s called “Crips and Bloods: Made in America.”
CS: Yeah, I remember that.
Whitaker: Stacy Peralta directed it, but we couldn’t get distribution for it. I mean, I’m not in the movie, but I just thought the subject matter was important, so for me it’s really a question of the important subject matter. Otherwise, I’m okay.
CS: With the Louis Armstrong movie, are you gonna try going to a studio with that once you have everything together?
Whitaker: Yeah, I think we’ll probably have to. I mean, our financing is out of Europe, but I think that the film is a little bigger than I was anticipating, we’ll get partners here in the U.S. to partner with my French partners.
CS: How is the new TV show, the “Criminal Minds” spin-off, because you’re going to start that up soon, right?
Whitaker: I shot the pilot. I mean, I don’t know. It’s a pilot.
CS: So you have to wait and they have to go over the process.
Whitaker: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
CS: Are you prepared for them to pick it up and then you’ll have to dedicate a lot more of your time to the show?
Whitaker: Yeah, I would be doing that maybe towards the end of the year or the beginning of the next year, I don’t know. Then I would still be continuing doing what I do in other areas as far as acting in films and stuff.
CS: What kind of time commitment would that be? When you did “The Shield” that must have just been a few months I would guess.
Whitaker: Oh, well no, it’ll be like a normal hiatus, a little longer one for me, because they want me to be able to continue to do my films or if I want to direct something. But it’ll be like a normal television hiatus probably. Mark Gordon sort of acted out to make sure that I was going to be able to continue to do whatever I wanted.
CS: In 1995, you directed “Waiting to Exhale,” which was really a hugely influential movie that kicked off a whole genre in a way. Do you think Tyler Perry would have a movie career if “Waiting to Exhale” didn’t open things up and let people know that there are audiences for movies like that?
Whitaker: Well, I like to believe that anyone of talent, that their stories hopefully will come to life just like the great artists, great actors, that ultimately their day will find itself. Certainly “Waiting to Exhale” was a door opener for this genre of films.
CS: Yeah, it showed there was a market out there.
Whitaker: It was a massive film, because the studio didn’t even expect it to be so massive. It opened number one on Christmas. They hadn’t put it in enough theaters even to warrant that for them. Domestically at that time for it to make $67 million without really any TV ads hardly at all was massive. As a result, they started to try to look to find other things that would be able to make money. I think shortly after that they decided to try to go forward with “Soul Food.” A number of other films started to come out and this sort of area came wide open and was given birth to. Now it’s its own sort of genre in itself in some ways. Hopefully it’s broader though, it can encompass the universe as well as the specifics of the culture.
CS: The movie’s 15th anniversary is this year, so are there any big plans for something to commemorate it?
Whitaker: Terry (McMillan) is writing a new book, so it’s part two of “Waiting to Exhale.” I haven’t read it. I mean, they’ve kind of casually asked me if I would be interested in directing it, but I haven’t read it yet. But the anniversary’s coming up, and to me, it’d be cool if they’d just re-release the film.
Repo Men opens nationwide on Friday, March 19.