Forest Whitaker on Evading Oscar's Curse, Rediscovering the Magic on 'The Butler' (Q&A)

The 52-year-old won the best actor Oscar seven years ago, but he struggled to find another great role -- until Lee Daniels offered him an audition.
Anne Marie Fox

Lee Daniels' Lee Daniels' The Butler, an inspirational drama about one man's unique perspective on the civil rights struggle, has topped the box office for the second weekend in a row, continuing its impressive run, appropriately enough, just days before the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. The film's success is a testament to the power of Oprah Winfrey's name, Harvey Weinstein and his associates' marketing talents, black churches' ability to mobilize audiences for projects that highlight matters of interest to them -- and the word-of-mouth buzz about Forest Whitaker's magnificent performance as the title character. The performance, which has earned across-the-board critical raves (even if the film itself has not), has made Whitaker the man to beat, for now, in the best actor Oscar race.

In the film, the 52-year-old plays Cecil Gaines, a black man from the South who, through a series of fortuitous events, comes to work in the White House as a butler for seven presidents -- from Eisenhower to Reagan -- as African-Americans' fight for civil rights rages outside, impacting his own family as much as any. As Gaines, a Forrest Gump-like character inspired by the late Eugene Allen (whose amazing life story was highlighted by Wil Haygood in The Washington Post in 2008), Whitaker ages convincingly from his twenties to his nineties, shouldering the ever-accumulating burdens of a lifetime filled with tragedy and hardship. It is a subtle and moving performance that I cannot imagine anyone else delivering half as well.

It also marks a comeback of sorts for Whitaker. He won the best actor Oscar seven years ago for his portrayal of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006), becoming just the fourth black man ever awarded that prize. But he subsequently struggled to find another role worthy of his immense talents. It looked like the actor -- whose earlier credits include Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), The Color of Money (1986), Platoon (1986), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Bird (1988), The Crying Game (1992) and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) -- was on track to become the latest victim of the "Oscar curse." But between The Butler (for which he had to audition) and two highly anticipated fall films, Scott Cooper's drama Out of the Furnace (in which he stars opposite Christian Bale) and Kasi Lemmons' musical Black Nativity (in which he sings with Jennifer Hudson), his future now looks as bright as ever.

I met with Whitaker in Beverly Hills earlier this month to chat about all of the above and found him to be one of the most humble, soft-spoken and lovely people I've ever met, inside or outside of Hollywood. Even if his description of his acting process and ambitions sometimes sounded a little too mystical and new-age for a non-actor like me to fully comprehend, I could have listened to him all day. Here's a transcript of our conversation.

The Hollywood Reporter: I understand that singing, not acting, was your first real talent. Is that right?

Forest Whitaker: I was studying in a music conservatory -- I got a scholarship to sing in a classical conservatory at USC -- and I was accepted into the acting program. But I started as a singer, and the first agent I got was from this thing called The Beggar's Opera, which was a precursor to The Threepenny Opera, and someone saw me in that, in between moving from one school to the other, and that's how I got my first agent. And then I was going to music conservatory and, a year or so later, I switched completely to the acting conservatory. I did my first musical this year, too. It comes out November 27 for Fox. It's called Black Nativity. I play a preacher, but I sing. I have a duet with Jennifer Hudson. I'm excited -- it's an honor to get to sing with her.

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THR: Once you began acting, did you develop a specific approach or method that you're able to describe or characterize? From what I've read it sounds like you really dive deep into preparation...

Whitaker: Yeah. I think it's a combination of things. I studied at USC and then I went to The Drama Studio [the London school's now-defunct California branch] -- both British faculty and American. So there was a sort of "method" style, but there was also sort of the quote-unquote "external" side. And I was lucky to study with them, but I think through the years I've sort of found my own method, you know?

THR: At the beginning of your film career, you were very good in a lot of very good movies, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Platoon (1986) and Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). Was there one, though, that you feel really opened up the doors to the sort of career you've had since then?

Whitaker: I think Bird [1988] was pretty instrumental. It was the first time that people looked at me as an artist, really. I was at Cannes and people really, you know, accepted it, and they honored me with [their best actor prize]. There's been a number after, but that was important. The Color of Money [1986] was important too, I think. It was just one scene, but it kind of made people look at me, I think, look at my work and see my work in a different way, and it's been growing since there. Bird was really important to me in that I was acknowledged as an artist, but I think more importantly it taught me how to commit to a role. Because I was young, I had never done anything like that. It was very brave of Clint to give me that role, and I just decided that I was going to dive in, and that really was a key lesson for my career -- I just said, "Okay, I'm gonna dive in." I kind of equate it to dancing on limbs, you know? I felt like I was out there dancing on a limb, but I thought, you know, "If I fall, I'm not gonna die. But at least I'm gonna give it everything I have." So commitment was one. I think there are like four movies, if I were to point through it. Next would be, I think, Last King [of Scotland], because that brought me an understanding of silence and a vibration of something changing inside. You know, Kevin [MacDonald] was very brave to sometimes just have the camera there when I'm driving for like three, four minutes, and there's no dialogue or anything, which was startling. But I was getting myself ready, so I kind of learned about vibration. Last King was another step. It taught me about transforming or transmutation -- trying to shift your being, you know what I mean? It did teach me a lot about that. And I think that this movie is one I would mark there too -- The Butler -- because I think that it taught me, and it gave me an understanding of not just aging; it was a transitive, sometimes, feeling, that things were flowing, and it taught me to live in that flow, that space, you know? And all the things before it helped me and applied. I don't know what the next step will be.

THR: The Crying Game seems like it must have been another important one...

Whitaker: [Writer-director] Neil [Jordan] and [producer] Steve Woolley came up to me when I was at Cannes, I think it was for A Rage in Harlem. Maybe it was the first time where I used an accent in a movie and tried to get a culture. But what it taught me was how you can't divorce an accent or a voice from behavior or movement. In order to truly do an accent correctly, you have to adopt the behaviors and the movements from the culture you're using. And it taught me about that, and I've applied it many times. We were talking about the different styles, "Method" and "British external"; the thing is they both arrive at the same point if you commit to them completely. It's like, if I said, "I'm just gonna hit my hand on the table" -- if I hit my hand on the table a number of times, a certain emotion starts to occur. So you could have an emotion hit the table or the table hit the emotion, but they marry themselves at some point.

THR: In one of your other interviews, I read something that I found interesting and surprising. We're coming up on seven years since Last King and the award season during which you won literally every single best actor award -- and rightfully so. But what I gathered from another interview of yours was that you felt that you didn't necessarily capitalize on that attention in the way that you would have liked to, as far as your next opportunities. Some people think that if you win an Oscar you can then automatically pick any role and it's all easy from there, but my sense from what you had said in that interview was that was not the case for you.

Whitaker: It's interesting. I had been playing really interesting roles before I got great roles. Little ones -- The Crying Game I loved working on, and then Bird, Ghost Dog, so many films. I think -- I don't know if it was some deep disappointment, but it was just a recognition that I need to keep doing what I'm doing in the same way, and that's what I did. Fortunately, the roles had kind of married themselves with my beliefs and structures and stuff. It's hard for me to judge my own films as an artist sometimes. But as an artist, I did feel a fulfillment working on them, you know? Like, I felt fulfilled working on this film. I don't know how people will perceive it or what will happen from it, but I know that when I did Rachid's movie [Oscar-nominated Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb's forthcoming film Enemy Way], it felt magical to me. I've never even seen it, but it was complete. When I did Last King, it was interesting, because there are a lot of times where I finish a film and I'm not quite sure, but I did feel like I had done what I could -- I didn't know what was going to happen, or how it was going to turn out, or how the performance would be perceived, or if it would be as true as I hoped it would be, but I knew that I had a completion. These roles, some of them are so interesting, even the smaller ones. I enjoyed working on Scott [Cooper]'s movie [the forthcoming Out of the Furnace] with Christian [Bale], it was interesting. Have you seen it yet?

THR: I actually have not yet, but I came by the set briefly, unfortunately on a day when you were not there. I'm very excited for it.

Whitaker: I think Scott's gonna do a great job. I haven't seen it. It felt like it was right for what we were doing, and it looked like Christian and Casey were doing some amazing work.

THR: Is there any common thread that connects all of the things that you do and that you're drawn to? You mentioned something about how it has to vibe with your sensibilities or beliefs. Is that something you could expand upon?

Whitaker: I guess, in the pure sense, I guess I'm looking to discover and connect more with humanity, in a way. I keep trying to find characters that make me learn and expand my understanding of myself and the human condition. As a result, I can do things that -- People will think, "Oh, why is he doing that?" And I think, "Well, I never did that [before] -- that's interesting." The key is that I'm trying to keep growing, and trying to keep learning and deepen my connection in every way, in my life, in my work. That's what I do when I look at a role. I learned a lot doing [The Butler], you know, and many other ones.

THR: What was it about The Butler and the part of Cecil Gaines that appealed to you so much that you were willing to audition for it? I can't imagine that you have to do much of that anymore...

Whitaker: I think that it's an amazing script, you know? It chronicles such a long period of time. It allows you to understand what it means to try to get social justice, through the eyes of the civil rights movement. It allows you to see the different ways that people can pursue making sure that there is social justice, you know? And that's really interesting. I think, inherently, I was really attracted to the relationship with my son [Gaines' oldest son, played by Daniel Oyelowo] and my wife [Winfrey], that it was a family drama. And as an artist, I knew that would be extremely challenging for me. It might seem very simple watching it, but it took me a lot of work to be specific enough and detailed enough to make the audience hear my thoughts move through the story. So it actually gave me some fear, and for me, when I feel fear, I know that I'm walking into a territory where I'm going to have to learn something, where I'm going to have to grow and where maybe something extraordinary could happen. It's new territory, you know? And then couple that with the fact that, in the hands of Lee, this movie would be really, really interesting-- And Oprah and I had talked about working together before; we were actually maybe going to do a play at one point. And it just came together. And this amazing cast, you know? What an opportunity! As an actor, an artist, I get to work with all these different actors. It's crazy! Each one's different than the next, each has a different way of working, but I got to work with almost all of them -- the presidents. [laughs] The presidents were amazing! Each one. Almost each week there'd be a new one, there'd be new ways of working, new groups of people.

THR: When they were giving you guys a hard time about the film's title, I was saying, "They should title it All the Presidents' Man."

Whitaker: [laughs] I hadn't heard that one! That's funny.

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THR: Aside from being well made and entertaining, the film also recaps the history of the civil rights movement in a cool way. I gathered from Lee and from you in other interviews that you find it frustrating that young people generally -- and specifically young people in the African-American community -- are often not really aware of their own history. Was that a big motivation for you to help to tell this story? Movies have proven to be one of the most effective teaching tools for a lot of young people...

Whitaker: I think they are tools, and this living history of the civil rights movement is important. One of the big things that it did is it allowed the youth [of today] to see the courage of the youth during that time, and also to recognize that there are many different paths to get to a better life, a fair and equal life, a just life. It's a call for everyone to try and accomplish that in their way, whether that be small -- you know, whispering in your boss' ear, "Hey, can I talk to you?" -- or whether it be Occupy Wall Street, whether it be protests, whether it be marches in Florida, or marches in Washington for "I Have a Dream," you know? Any incarnation of those things. It just says that we have to be mindful and we have to take a stance, and it's good.

THR: Right now, race in America is a front-and-center issue, largely because of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman situation, and people keep saying that we need to have a national conversation about race. In a way, that conversation is happening in the movies as much as anywhere, largely thanks to you because of Fruitvale Station [which Whitaker produced] and now The Butler

Whitaker: Fruitvale Station I think is an important part of the dialogue because of what Ryan [Coogler, the director and writer] and Michael [B. Jordan, who stars] did. Ryan's a great filmmaker -- I think he's special -- and I think Michael did such a beautiful job. It at least brings up the first question of acknowledgment -- we can at least acknowledge and we can at least put a human face on a social injustice, and then we can start a dialogue that hopefully will move us toward some sort of understanding, and maybe some form of change from the understanding, and we can get some compassion for the situation and we can move into the next phase. I'm glad that it came out at an interesting time.

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THR: Speaking of the importance of not forgetting the past and learning from it, I think one of the most impressive things about your performance in The Butler is the way that you convey -- through your walk, your voice and your posture -- the ways in which Cecil's life experiences weigh on him as he ages. Since movies rarely shoot in-sequence, I'm assuming that The Butler was not, which makes me wonder how you kept track of how you wanted to embody the character as you jumped back and forth from age to age. Do you map things out?

Whitaker: Because of the amount of time we had, most of the time I had to do maybe three ages in a day, and I really needed to know where I was and how I felt about everything. So I had, like, a breakdown of the history -- where I was moving from, physically; details, even down to issues of props, and every person and how I felt in the scene, so that I could look at that in the scene and use it as a map. And I think, by doing that, I was able to specifically know what events affected me, and I would take those events and place them inside of me, you know, inside of different places in my body. Here, you know, the death of Charlie, and here would be my son being hosed, and here the president dying. So slowly, by charting it, by the time I'm in my nineties, I can feel the weight, I'm carrying all these things in my body. Hopefully an audience can feel the weight of all those experiences as I walk and as I move -- you know, not thinking about them as a character, but putting them there. That's what I meant when I said it's probably kind of simple, but for me it was the most detailed work I've had to try to do in order to portray a character truthfully.

THR: Looking forward at your own career, are there still specific things that you would like to achieve or specific stories that you would like to tell? It seems, in terms of the tangible things, that you've won every award there is, and you're obviously tremendously respected by your peers and critics, so I would think that, at this point, it would be just whatever is really important to you. I'm curious what that might be...

Whitaker: You know, it's interesting, because it goes back to your earlier question. I just want to keep growing. I just want to keep deepening my relationship to truth, to create a space where everything moves in truth, and I'm trying to figure it out. I know it's probably going to seem to your readers -- I'm not trying to be floaty or anything! [laughs] -- I've just gotta be honest, this is a feeling I'm trying to find. It's a truth. Because there was a lot of work that I would do where it was hard work to get to a certain place, but I've realized now that if I just surrender to that place it'll come. And I'm starting to realize that this information -- this knowledge -- can spring up from yourself, you know what I mean? I just want to keep working on that journey and keep deepening my understanding of people and of humanity. I don't have a specific character, I don't have a particular director -- although there's so many I'd love to work with, you know what I mean? [laughs] But I do want to deepen it. A little bit more. I know there's more. I just have to discover it, and it's that that I'm still looking for.