First King of the Festival

Forest Whitaker Talks Acting, Uganda, and Why Idi Amin Wasn’t

In The Last King
of Scotland
, Forest Whitaker becomes the
notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. forest.jpg 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?
last%20king.jpg 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.
forest%202.jpg 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.

forest%203.jpg

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.

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