Forest Whitaker is a distinguished artist and humanist. He is the founder of PeaceEarth Foundation, co-founder and chair of the International Institute for Peace, and is the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation. A versatile talent, Forest is one of Hollywood’s most accomplished performers, receiving such prestigious honors as a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in The Last King of Scotland, as well as a Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for Bird.
He has dedicated himself to seeking ways of using the film medium as a means of raising peoples’ consciousness. He produced the award-winning documentary Kassim the Dream, which tells the touching story of a Ugandan child soldier turned world champion boxer; Rising from Ashes, which profiles Rwandan genocide survivors’ attempt to qualify for the Olympics riding wooden bicycles; Serving Life, which focuses on hospice care for prisoners at Louisiana’s Angola Prison; and the Peabody Award-winning Brick City, which offers an unvarnished peek at inner-city life in Newark, N.J.
Here, he talks about his latest outing as the title character in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a decades-spanning sage chronicling the life and career of an African-American who served eight presidents in the White House.
KW: What interested you in The Butler?
FW: It’s an amazing story. And the script was beautiful in the way it followed this man who served eight presidents and portrayed his love for his family, as well as the love between him and his son. So, I saw it as offering a great challenge and opportunity. And I thought that Lee [director Lee Daniels] would do a wonderful job with the script as a filmmaker, so that was an attraction as well. And I had wanted to work with Oprah, so all of that came together to afford me this tremendous opportunity.
KW: Did the film’s father-son relationship resonate with you when you reflected upon your relationship with your own dad?
FW: Yes, it’s hard to always understand and appreciate your father when you’re coming up, especially since my dad had three jobs when we moved to L.A. So, he was always working. Plus, coming from the South, from Texas, he had a certain way of disciplining that made it hard for me to appreciate, at the time. In some ways it did parallel the journey of ultimate appreciation that we see in the movie of me towards my son and my son towards me.
KW: How did you prepare for the role of Cecil Gaines?
FW: I trained with a butler coach for quite some time. And I worked on how I could communicate my thoughts more clearly without words. I wanted to fill myself up enough so that you would be able to feel my thoughts, even in scenes where I would say nothing.
KW: That hard work paid off. I cried about a half-dozen times during the film.
FW: It’s very moving because it deals with so many primal issues: loss, degradation, even joy. Lee painted a picture that allows you to get in touch with many different emotions.
KW: What was it like acting opposite Oprah?
FW: Oprah just really committed completely to the movie. She was startling, at times, in how deeply she was into the authenticity of the scenes. For instance, there was a big emotional moment that wasn’t shown completely in the film where she screamed and fell to the ground, letting out a piercing wail that went through my bones. It had me trying to figure out how to comfort her, because it’s hard to find the proper emotion to respond to pain that overwhelms.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Forest, and best of luck with The Butler, and I hope to talk to you about your upcoming independent project.
FW: Sure, Kam, and thanks again for supporting Rising from Ashes.
To see a trailer for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, visit: