Actor Forest Whitaker

Oscar and Emmy winner discusses his passion for stories that display humanity and connections between individuals.

Oscar winner Forest Whitaker began his career on stage and has become one of Hollywood's most accomplished actors. He's also achieved success off-camera, with a co-exec producer Emmy for the TV movie Door to Door, as exec producer of the Peabody Award-winning reality series Brick City and director credit for several features. The Texas native started college on a football scholarship, studying classical tenor before shifting to acting. His talent is showcased on the small screen in primetime on the new spinoff, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior.


Tavis: Always pleased to have Forest Whitaker on this program. In addition to his role as executive producer of the Peabody-winning documentary series, “Brick City,” the Oscar-winning actor stars in a new series for CBS called, “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior.” The show airs Wednesday nights at 10:00. Here now, a scene from “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior.”
Tavis: Good to have you back on.
Whitaker: Good to be here, man.
Tavis: When we first came on the air here, I was leaning over talking to you because I was trying to remember how many years it has been since you were last on network television. I knew it was “The Shield.”
Whitaker: Yeah, “The Shield.”
Tavis: So three or four years ago “The Shield” kind of went off.
Whitaker: Exactly.
Tavis: So you ready for this – this daily TV – this series thing is a grind, man. (Laughter)
Whitaker: It is a grind.
Tavis: It’s hard work.
Whitaker: I try to find a new rhythm and stuff, just to get used to, like, the day and then getting home and trying to get ready for the next day. But I think I might have found some kind of rhythm for it. We’re going to see what happens when we come back next season, I think.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Whitaker: Yeah.
Tavis: For those who haven’t seen the series, tell me the back story.
Whitaker: Yeah. I play Sam Cooper. I work with behavioral analysts from the FBI, and we were operating a red cell, which is outside of Quantico, and deal directly with the head of the FBI, and we just basically analyze behavior, analyze behavior to understand who and what type of person would do certain things.
My character is unique only because he’s always – he believes that inside of everybody there’s a light, there’s a certain potentiality of good, and it’s that thing that he’s searching for. By pulling away all the layers of all the behavior and the problems and the pains, he finds that kernel and then goes out from there. So my team is – I like my team, they’re really good actors.
Tavis: Outside of the character you play, have you come to believe that? Or, put another way, did you believe that prior do doing this series; that is, this notion that there is some good, that light, inside of every one of us, even the worst of us?
Whitaker: Yeah. I think that was one of my philosophies about life, in a way. I believe that we come into this inherently good, and we, because of our experiences, because of our pains, because of different things, we start to cover ourselves, the shadows cover us.
I spoke to them about that, because I’ve had a lot of input in how to develop the character and where I was going to go; the sort of spirituality of the character, too, because the character is deeply spiritual. He was in the seminary, now he’s very spiritual and looks at things from all different points of view and stuff.
Tavis: Is that typical for you, typical for Forest Whitaker, or do you have to get to a certain point in your career where you can have some involvement in the character as opposed to just reading what you’re told to read?
Whitaker: I think it’s partly me, only because too, because in this case I’m a director, I’m a producer, I’m a writer, and so they knew that, and they wanted my input, they asked for my input, until they tried to figure out how to shape the show and how to shape my character.
I really like working with them. They seem to really be trying to get into the potentiality – not just the symptoms, but the cause of what things are, like, that point that we start from.
Tavis: Is network television these days a good place for a guy with a best actor Academy Award on his shelf? Is network television all that these days?
Whitaker: I made the choice to do it because it felt like the right thing to do. I’ve been trying to keep doing what I feel is right, and for me, it was actually a place where I thought I had more potentiality, because I thought, one, I knew I was going to be home with my family more, which would allow me to be hopefully a better father, you know what I mean?
Tavis: Yeah.
Whitaker: But when I sit still I’m able to create more. Like, that’s why I created – during this time we created two documentaries, started developing my next show. I just came back from a scout from Africa to try to figure out the next movie I direct, sold the show, working on that.
So it was a place for me to sit still, hopefully, amongst all that other work. I’m not trying to act like (unintelligible) work. (Laughter) But maybe I could do something in new paradigms for myself that might allow me to be more creative.
Tavis: Yeah. I guess the answer to the question is that when you have an Academy Award statue and your name is Forest Whitaker, you ain’t doing just one thing, anyway. So yeah, it’s just one place where you’re working, amongst all these other projects.
Since you mentioned these other projects, let me take two or three of them that I’m aware of, piece by piece, and get you to tell me more about them beyond the CBS series.
I love “Brick City.”
Whitaker: Thanks.
Tavis: I know Cory, Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, and I love the treatment that you have given that city. I love the exposure to the issues. What I really love is the exposure to the people, and in those moments where you get a chance to really showcase and allow us to revel in, to embrace the humanity – that’s the real thing about Newark – getting a chance to embrace the humanity of these people and not writing it off as just another urban center with troubles and travails. But I assume you must love doing this, because you’re back for another season.
Whitaker: Yeah, I do. My partners, Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin, we decided to do this piece, and we wanted to bring dignity – or not bring dignity; show the dignity of everyone’s everyday lives, of how they go forward. And we’re able to do that by being on the street with the gang members, being in the chambers with the mayor, obviously, with Cory, being in the police department.
I’m hoping that it’s going to allow people to understand the way things work a little more clearly, too, inside of this system, to understand, yeah, I want this school system, or I want my place to be more safe, but here is the budget over here, and you’re watching the insides, the inner workings of somebody, Cory, who’s – he’s a pure person, you know what I mean?
But who has to make compromises. It’s interesting to just watch people trying to go about their lives and better their lives, and there’s a dignity in that that I think this documentary captures.
Tavis: What are the lessons, though, to be learned by those who happen not to be African American, who happen not to be living in an urban center? As a producer, you’re trying to get folk who don’t look like me and you, who don’t live in those environments, to understand, appreciate, embrace what?
Whitaker: For me, this was always like a pilot for us to understand – because I think the cities are the rebuilders of our nation, and this was for us to take as an example of what could happen in any city. Yeah, urban cities, but the issues of the economic crisis, what happens with our school system, how we can restructure it and rebuild it, whether it’s charter schools, whether it’s working on a private school sector.
Whatever it is, through the – of how we can, like, have police forces that work. Not just in the Deep South as well, where there’s, like, all kinds of different problems in New Orleans, you know what I mean? Not just – I don’t know, I hate to just throw that name out, but in Houston.
Tavis: It’s a good example.
Whitaker: But you know what I’m saying.
Tavis: Sure, sure.
Whitaker: To be able to watch a police officer, and watch them try to implement a process of bringing people into the community, making them not foreign to the community, trying to figure out how to get them to engage with the system, you know what I mean, I think it’s very powerful. That’s what I’m hoping it’ll do – it’ll bring up different systems that can work. Some won’t work for your city, but some systems will work for your city.
Tavis: So beyond the CBS series, beyond “Brick City,” I have heard that you are working on a documentary, a piece for Ms. Winfrey’s new network, OWN.
Whitaker: Yeah.
Tavis: True story?
Whitaker: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: What’s that about?
Whitaker: It’s called “Serving Life.”
Tavis: It’s called “Serving Life?”
Whitaker: Yeah.
Tavis: Okay.
Whitaker: It takes place in Angola prison. Lisa Cohen directed it for me. It’s a piece that deals with prisoners, because 93 percent of the people in Angola prison will die there – 93 percent. So this deals with prisoners who are caring for the dying, the hospice in prison, and really, it’s kind of a statement on compassion.
It’s a question of redemption – can we truly be redeemed? And if really, if it’s not about redemption, then can we just continue to move forward in our lives in a compassionate way, and perhaps that thread is a redemption we can get, you know what I mean?
But this is a very emotional piece. I can’t wait until you see it. You see men who are saying, “I’ve never touched someone in compassion before, with caring before.” You see someone say, “Look, I killed someone. I can never be redeemed. There’s nothing that can redeem me. So I do what I’m doing here, caring for these people, because I feel that that’s what’s right.”
The lesson, hopefully, is for us out in the world to look at our own compassion towards others as well, and hopefully, this piece will explore all that.
Tavis: As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been – you’re the same force as I’ve always known you to be, and that is one who makes good decisions about the kind of roles that he plays, and good decisions about the stuff that he turns down, for that matter.
But the thing I always revel in is how it is that you find – not even just find; sometimes find, but to your point, sometimes create these stories that allow us, again, to wrestle with the humanity of everyday people. Where did that pull, that drive, that motivator come? Where does that come from, that this is the lane that you want to run in, getting us to wrestle with the humanity of the other?
Whitaker: This is why I even do what I do. This is how I originally thought about even acting, was a way for me to explore, like, what I consider is the connection between each individual to each other.
When I follow and go through a character, I’m searching for those things that connect me to him, me, personally. I think that when I look at the world, I’m looking also for those connections. I’m looking at connectivity of how we can exist together in a humane and a positive way on this planet, and how we can uplift each other.
So my work, my choices, kind of reflect that – not all the time, but most of the time. Most of the time.
Tavis: I want to ask a question, but I see I’ve got 30 seconds here, so I’m not going to ask it on the air. I tell you what I’m going to ask Forest and you can go to our website at to hear his answer. I’m sure Forest is aware, I’m sure you’re all aware, courtesy of our friend Whoopi Goldberg, “The New York Times” did a piece a few days ago that got everybody up in arms, courtesy, again, of the women on “The View,” talking about the Black actors who, quite frankly, are missing in action this year.
Not just actors, but anybody Black is missing, it appears, at the Academy Awards this year. Unless you’re presenting something on the stage, you ain’t going to be on the show this year, unless you’re working behind the scenes somewhere. So I want to ask Forest, as an Academy Award winner, what he makes of this “New York Times” story that suggested that a lot of folk in this town thought the year that Halle and Denzel won together was going to open up a whole new wave of opportunity in this town.
That has not happened. We’ll see what Mr. Whitaker has to say about that. For now, the show is on CBS, as you know, “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior,” starring one Forest Whitaker, with a documentary coming to OWN about this Angola prison. In the meantime, check out “Brick City.” I think you’ll like it; I do. Forest, good to have you on.
Whitaker: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Tavis: As always.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm