In The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker becomes the notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. To deliver the performance of a lifetime—and one that’s likely to land him the Oscar after already netting the Golden Globe—Whitaker spent months researching Amin’s life and legacy, learned to speak Swahili, and mastered the distinct Ugandan accent.
And I would know because, last year, I spent nearly a month in Uganda, covering their presidential elections and reporting about the country’s 20-year war against crazed northern rebels. We spoke a couple weeks ago about his role, Ugandan politics, and Santa Barbara. This is the extended version of that Q&A, which appears in an edited form in this week’s Feburary 1 printed edition of The Independent.
Since I’m the editor in charge of film fest coverage at the paper, I got to choose who interviewed who. And I picked you because I was in Uganda last February and March, covering their presidential elections and reporting on the war in Northern Uganda.
Oh, really? Did you go to Gulu?
Yea, I went to Pader actually, which is right in the middle of the warzone. We had to hire armed guards to get there.
Wow. Have you written anything since [Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph] Kony stopped?
Yea, I finished a piece for a magazine called Swindle in L.A., but the war hadn’t officially ended yet. It still hasn’t but I wrote a line in the article that said I hoped it was over by the time the piece gets published.
Well, the world has taken such a strong opinion [on how to punish Kony and the rebels]. And it’s crazy because—well, some of the Acholis [the tribe victimized by the war] really want Kony to die—but the main counsel of the Acholis doesn’t want him to die. They don’t want him persecuted. That makes it very complicated. And, in a way, [The Last King of Scotland] deals with outside forces going into places and not understanding the community, the environment, the politics, but they go about dictating how people should live. And it deals with the monstrous situations that occur from it…. [And in the case of this war], it’s kind of halted in a way because of the International Criminal Court [which issued arrest warrants for Kony] and the Western point of view. That’s not to say that they should let him go, but it’s the same thing in a different form.
When the ICC came down on Kony, I talked to a lot of Acholis, who are prepared to forgive Kony, and they said that the West was meddling in their affairs again.
Exactly. So to me it’s a beautiful example. It’s an odd reconciliation way that they do things. I would love to be able to have the forgiveness and the reconciliation ability that they do. It’s a cultural thing, it’s not a Western thing. Therefore the West won’t understand.
Well, that’s enough about Ugandan politics for now. Let’s talk about your role. What did you know about Idi Amin before doing the movie? Very little. As a kid I had this idea of a mad dictator who had killed all these people, but really I had no idea. As I get older, I keep in check my opinions on individuals who are presented to me that way, from other countries, particularly people of color. I don’t what what’s really occurring, so I didn’t know anything. And then I went on this real long journey of research, both intellectual and emotional, to understand and play this guy.
So you watched documentaries, read books? Was that the process?
I started in Los Angeles nine months beforehand. I started studying all the documentary footage I could find, and read all the books I could find on him, and the interviews. One of the main keys was studying the history of the region and then the big key was studying Kiswahili [which is the Swahili word for Swahili]. I had to trick my mind into believing that English was my second language, you know, like when in trying to formulate my [English] words. The language helped me a lot. I started working on the dialect [in the States], but then when I got to Uganda, the dialect shifted. It went from a technical understanding into a more organic phase—what different sounds meant, what gestures meant, how one word is played with. And certainly, I met a million people too. I met with his brothers, his sisters, his ministers, his generals, his girlfriends. I met so many people, elders that raised him. And then trying to understand what it’s like at the core to be Ugandan. Then understanding the concept of what it’s like to be the father figure of this country and what it’s like to be a father in an African family.
There is very much that sentiment there, that the leader is at least portrayed—and by many people accepted—as the father of the country.
It’s a very difficult concept. You said you covered the election last year, so as you know, many people were upset about that election because the constitution was changed [to allow President Yoweri Museveni to run for another term]. And the argument was that Museveni is continuing to lead the country because he feels he knows what’s best. As a democratic American, a Westerner, I can have my opinion on that. But in some ways, if you ignore all that, and go back to Idi Amin being the father of the country, in some ways, when you’ve been there longer, you are older and stronger. You don’t get rid of that person. He’s the father.
I read in another interview that you wanted to try speak a tribal language with a fellow tribesman in one scene, but that it didn’t happen.
That was one of the couple things that I wanted to get into the movie. I recognize that the director was like, “Who’s gonna know?” But the Africans will know, and I believe that internally people will know. I believe that people will feel the shift, maybe even in the way that it would shift me into behaving, the way that I talked to him. And I just thought it was such an important social and political thing. And it deals a little bit with tribalism.
And that’s so much at the heart of understanding Africa. You have a bunch of people thrown together inside borders that were made up by the West, and now they have to deal with each other.
Exactly. But the problem with that scene was that the other actor didn’t speak the language [laughs]. So I couldn’t force him to the homework that I was so obsessively trying to do. Get a life!
You play this brutal dictator who clearly did not leave a very kind legacy. But you seem to understand that in Uganda, not everyone thinks he was all that bad of a man. How did you come to realize that?
I approached it like I was going on a discovery and because I knew I didn’t know, I met so many people and I started to fill it in and I started to understand the way he thought about things. It’s like the actor who played my minister, he said they wouldn’t have theater in Uganda if it wasn’t for Idi Amin. I said, “What do you mean?” And he said before Idi Amin, there was only patriot theatre. And then when Idi Amin kicked them out, he started auditioning plays on the radio station. Then he put the best play in the theater and that’s how theater began her for Africans. Then another person will say he started that radio station Number One. And the other one will say that Idi Amin got everyone to start speaking their native languages again because they were losing them and he forced them. The unfortunate event of kicking all the Asians out of the country was celebrated in Uganda, because Indians controlled 80 to 90 percent of the economy. Historically, or mythically, they don’t treat the Ugandans very well. That’s what everyone told me. So now I’ve met many Uganda businessmen who are African Ugandans. There are Indian Ugandans, that were born there and are second, third generation, but at that time there weren’t really any African businessmen. But now there are, and it’s because he kicked the Asians out. So you start to understand the undertow of it. You start to understand that he was trying to do this crop thing and all of these things that no one really knows about. A lot of the things that are in the constitution that Uganda has today, Idi Amin put them in the constitution and they won’t change them back. Then all of the sudden you start to see, not necessarily an excuse, but you start to see a different face, a different part of Idi Amin. Then you immediately understand the politics, what the Brits wanted him to do, what the Israelis were trying to do. And he said, “Screw you.” As an African-American, as someone who talks to pan-Africans, they explained that he’s one of a few African leaders who said, “Get out. We can take care of ourselves.” And they had to leave, and they did.
Did you have to navigate some of the Ugandan politics during your time there?
The government and Museveni truly gave us complete usage of the country. The movie was made for eight million bucks, and we could have never made it in the manner it was made without his help. As a result, the military you see in the movie is really the army and then Entebbe [the airport] is really Entebbe, and parliament, we’re really in parliament. When I’m standing up and giving that speech, that’s parliament. We couldn’t have been able to access the country without their aid. I got the opportunity to meet his son, and I really liked him, I thought he was a really nice guy. He’s the head of the presidential guard. We got in a few political conversations about how necessary it was for his father to make changes to the constitution to stay in power. It was interesting.
You were so immersed in the character of Idi Amin, was it a tough role to get out of? You really digested in entirely.
I did and it was. Normally, when playing a character, a few little bits with stick with you, and sometimes they also stick with you forever, like a word you learned or a certain sound you make. Colloquial, things, expressions are really hard to get rid of.
At that point, the line goes dead. Then Forest calls back.
I’m not sure what happened there. Sometimes my phone cuts off after 15 minutes.
Like when the interviewee rambles?!?! [Laughs.]
I read that you used native Ugandans in the crew. How’d that work out?
It was positive but it also had difficulties. Maybe 50 percent of the crew was Uganda, and probably 90 percent of them had never worked on a film before. They were learning as they were going. But it was that different for some, because if you hire a tailor, he’s still a tailor. It’s just getting used to the rhythm and like the excessiveness off filming. But I think, personally, two things: One, just being in Uganda for me as an actor, I couldn’t have played the part if it was shot somewhere else—South Africa specifically, which is where they wanted to shoot the film. Secondly, those people who worked on the film worked so hard completely on the movie also, it helped keep the authenticity of the film. Because they would say if something wasn’t really correct or if something was wrong. It’s definitely really positive. It’s daunting too, for me, because every time I give a speech, I am surrounded by people who actually saw Idi Amin speaking. So it’s daunting, but good too.
Did you get a response from the Ugandan community on whether they liked the film?
They’re not showing the movie in Uganda officially until the middle of February, but they have shown the movies to some of the politicians in Uganda. And a number of people who are Ugandan have seen the film here. I have been in a number of audiences where there were Ugandans from Uganda who had no idea what the movie was going o end up being. Some had trepidations about going to see it, and so far, we’ve had really positive responses from all these people. One guy was in this particular audience, and he started asking questions about the character of Nicolas Garrigan [who is based partially on a true Scottish aide to Amin], and he was asking, “Don’t you think you painted him a little too cleanly?” I said we had talked to John Nginda, who was the presidential advisor helping us. And the guy says, “I know John. He is my brother.” [Laughs.] He wished that Nicolas was a darker figure, but I think Nicolas was someone who could have been almost anyone, someone looking to go find and enjoy life, and going and seeing what they can get.
And then getting caught up in something way beyond your control.
Yea. But the character was a compilation. He couldn’t have been the real guy because that guy was too dark a figure.
One thing that struck me while watching the film was the early scene where you are speaking to a crowd at a political rally in the countryside. It reminded me exactly of some of the political rallies I attended while in Uganda. So do you think things have changed much since Amin’s time? Could you see the fervor in their eyes when it came to politics?
I saw that people were very deeply concerned and involved and that they were trying to decide what was the right thing. Certainly, there were many people who were opposed and there were many people who understood that in order for them to move forward, the person would have to stay to make sure things happened. It was interesting to listen to different arguments and debates about it. I didn’t get the chance to attend a rally for Museveni, but I do know that the rally we did in the countryside, many of the people thought it was an actual political rally. They didn’t know, they just came, and even some thought they were going to get paid.
Because that’s what they do at political rallies in Uganda.
Yea, exactly, that’s what they said.
Everyone is saying that this is your greatest role since Charlie Parker. Were you aware that you were doing something great in the midst of making the film?
I knew that it was a really complicated, intense character to play, and I knew it was going to challenge me. I knew it was going to be one of the most difficult roles that I’ve ever played because there were so many things that I had to do. Just technically, even just learning how to play the accordion, it seems like nothing, but you still have to learn how to play it. Not that I was jamming or anything. Just learning the language, speaking Swahili, the history, the man. It was just a lot to come to. I can’t say that I knew it would be received in the way that it’s being received, because clearly it’s being received so well. I can’t say that. I can say that I knew that if I could pull it off, it would be something unique and I would do something that could be very powerful. I was afraid maybe I couldn’t too, and maybe that’s what fueled me to work so hard. And I was really happy after all that. I felt like I had done what I could do and in the end people were saying that it’s got something to say, and that my performance was really strong and powerful and special. So it means a lot to me because I got so much from being there, to give back too, you don’t always get that in a role. It’s a great gift to me. It’s a reward for working so hard because it could have also just disappeared.
What are your thoughts on Santa Barbara?
Santa Barbara is one of the places where my family—my wife and kids—we go to the most as a vacation spot. We even spent the millennium there when the century changed. It’s close, it’s quiet, we love it. Yet it’s still arty and sophisticated. The people are interesting. Sometimes I feel like I’m looking at real natives walking up the street.