- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

TORONTO — Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of African dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” is so good that the actor had Ugandans fooled.

“I’m shooting a scene, talking to everyone,” Mr. Whitaker recalls. “These two guys were arguing because one guy says, ‘What is wrong with Idi? Why does he keep repeating himself? He keeps saying the same thing over and over again.’” Mr. Whitaker, at the Toronto International Film Festival for the film’s premiere last month, lets out a deep belly laugh. The Ugandans didn’t realize that they were watching an actor do multiple takes of a scene.

“He only died a couple years ago,” Mr. Whitaker notes. “A lot of them don’t have TVs and news.”

That wasn’t the only case of mistaken identity. Shooting another scene, Mr. Whitaker found, “There were two Ugandans there arguing about what part of Africa I’m from. ‘Maybe he’s not from Uganda, but he must be from Kenya.’”

Mr. Whitaker, who was born in Texas, seems alternately proud and humble about his work. He’d be well within his rights to be more pleased with himself: He’s almost certain to be nominated for an Oscar for his tour de force performance in “Last King,” which opened nationwide on Wednesday.

The actor says he had no qualms about playing a man responsible for killing an estimated 300,000 people during his rule from 1971 to 1979.

“As an actor, as an artist, you look at something like that and think, ‘Wow, that’s an opportunity to try to do something extraordinary,’” he says. “The fear is really, ‘Can I do it?’ as opposed to: ‘A dark dictator, do I want to do that?’ The fear is maybe you won’t be able to capture the spirit of the man.”

Mr. Whitaker threw himself into the role, researching his part right up until the last day. “Even when I was shooting, I was still working on it: ‘Oh, I have an hour off? I think I’ll go up to the mosque where he used to go to,’” he remembers. “On the very last day, I thought, ‘I did everything I can do.’”

Mr. Whitaker talked to Amin’s brother and sister, ministers, generals, even girlfriends. “People loved him. They loved him,” the actor marvels. “That’s the irony of it. Everyone thinks of him as this nasty, nasty despot. Yeah, he was. Hundreds of thousands of people died — but he was overtly charming.”

In “Last King,” Mr. Whitaker manages to convey both the charisma and the cruelty.

“The Last King of Scotland” is based on the novel by Giles Foden. Its protagonist, Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, a Scot who becomes Amin’s personal physician, is a fictional character. But the on-screen world of Amin, Mr. Whitaker is quick to note, was firmly grounded in reality. “You don’t like to do revisionist history. So much of history, particularly when it comes to African history, has been rewritten,” he says. “The essence of the truth is clearly in the movie. All the incidents, generally speaking, occurred.”

Idi Amin comes at the end of a long line of daring roles. Mr. Whitaker won a best actor award at Cannes playing Charlie Parker in 1998’s “Bird.” He played a homosexual designer in Robert Altman’s 1994 “Pret-a-Porter.” One of his most memorable roles was the British solider captured by Irish Republican Army terrorists who turned out to have a surprising relationship with a hairdresser in Neil Jordan’s 1992’s “The Crying Game.”

“I take on the things that spark me to think I’m going to grow and learn something,” he says. “Nobody, not even the director, thought ‘The Crying Game’ was going to be so successful.” Money was so tight that one of the producers borrowed money from a repertory cinema he owned in London to keep the production afloat.

Jody in “The Crying Game” might be the quintessential Forest Whitaker part: a man with a quiet dignity whose role is no less important for its lack of fireworks. The actor welcomed the opportunity to play something entirely different in “Last King.” “I haven’t been so external normally in my life, so big. For me, it was a great opportunity to get to do that,” he says. “I play a lot of introspective, internal characters.”

He’s also done plenty of work behind the scenes. He directed “Waiting to Exhale,” “Hope Floats” and “First Daughter” and served as executive producer of the last film and a few others.

He’s currently developing two projects. One is about a boy genius — “this kid that they thought would be the next Leonardo da Vinci because his IQ was like 400” — who ends up working at Home Depot after graduating from college at 11 with degrees in astronomy and mathematics. The other involves the Lord’s Resistance Army, a messianic rebel group responsible for human rights violations in Northern Uganda.

Clearly, his time in Africa had an effect on the artist, but what he really wants to get across is that “Last King” isn’t just about the horror that was Idi Amin. It’s broader than that, “about the West going into cultures, ravishing, pillaging, thinking they know what’s best.”

“I think it leaves a more complete image of Idi Amin and British intervention in Africa than any other thing I’ve seen so far about it,” he says. And that picture is something we all could learn from, he believes. “Everyone keeps trying to explore it because it’s what we’re dealing with right now in the world, the West going into places.”

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