The award-winning actor previews his latest film, the psychological thriller Repentance, and comments on the work of his foundation.
Actor-producer Forest Whitaker
Tavis: Forest Whitaker is a true artist and an activist whose body of work reflects his commitment to social change. An Academy Award winner, of course, for his unflinching portrayal of dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” last year he turned in another critically acclaimed performance in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and produced “Fruitvale Station,” which was, to my mind, one of the most compelling and important movies I have ever seen.
Not just last year – ever seen. His latest venture, which will be in theaters this weekend, is a psychological thriller. It’s titled “Repentance.” We’ll take a look right now.
Tavis: Poor Anthony Mackie.
Forest Whitaker: (Laughs) Yeah, it was tough, because he had to go through a lot during this movie, I think.
Whitaker: Because of what happens after he gets – should I tell you about, what it’s about first?
Tavis: Please – just go ahead, take it away. Tell me what the movie’s about. You jumped right on in, go ahead.
Whitaker: No, it, Anthony Mackie plays a life coach/therapist/self-help guru who meets this man who’s being tormented because he has a mental illness, and he lost his mother, because of the loss of his mother.
He’s trying to get Anthony Mackie to be his coach, but he won’t. Ultimately, he abducts him and deals with him and tries to make him admit all the things that he’s done wrong in his life.
Tavis: So we see what happens to Anthony Mackie in that scene, but the truth of the matter is you’re pretty ruthless to some other folk in this cast as well. Let’s talk about your character more.
Whitaker: Yeah, Angel is, he was a construction worker; he had a beautiful family, a wife and kids. Ari Nicole Parker plays my wife, and Ariana plays my daughter.
Because my mother died, at that moment there was too much and he cracked, and he started to become slightly bipolar. As a result he’s seeking help and he’s trying to find the truth.
He’s tormented by the fact that he doesn’t know what happened to his mother, that he can’t find out what happened to her. So he’s searching and searching to find the truth.
As a result, when he captures Anthony Mackie’s character, when he captures Tommy, he also ends up abducting these other members because he’s searching for the truth, he’s searching to find out what at the bottom of everything.
Tavis: I got 25 questions running through my head right now. Let me slow myself down and start by asking – because I’m always so delighted to have you on the program and talk to you about your work.
Tavis: But one, why does Forest Whitaker at this point in his career choose to play this character? What’s in it for you? Why would you want to do this?
Whitaker: Well first, I think the movie’s fascinating because it’s a thriller, it’s intriguing. But I think exploring mental health and exploring loss, pain, especially when a person is just reaching for love.
Because all he’s trying to do – he loves his wife so dearly. Even in this clip that we saw, he’s trying to get him to tell his wife that he’s okay, that he’s all right, you know what I mean, so his wife will give him a second chance; and the loss of his mother.
So it explores these deep loves and what happens when you lose yourself because of it, and what happens in the mind as well. I think mental illness and mental problems are something that we have to explore and try to understand.
Tavis: I don’t mean to limit you with this very question, because it’s clear throughout your career you’ve played a little bit of everything, including fun-loving characters.
I don’t know why the title escapes me because I just saw it two nights ago – you and Gregory Hines, Robin Givens –
Whitaker: Oh, “Rage in Harlem?”
Tavis: “Rage in Harlem.” (Laughter) I saw that again the other night. So you play some great, fun-loving characters in your career, so I don’t want to diminish you with this question.
But there’s something about you, Forest, that allows you to play so brilliantly these characters who have these – my phrase here, not yours – these tortured souls, if that makes sense.
If it does make sense, what is it about you that, about you or about your training or about whatever, that allows you to be drawn to some of these characters, but then to pull them off so well?
Tavis: I think that my quest is to try to unveil the reasons why people are the way they are, to understand, like say with Idi Amin or with characters like that, where you can pull away all the experiences.
You try to pull away the experiences until you get to the core of humanity, and you find that light that exists in everybody. It’s that light that I’m searching for in all of my work, is that connective thing, that ether that enters all of us, you know what I mean?
That’s a part of God. So these people that we misunderstand and that I’m still trying to understand, I pursue to deepen my connection with humanity, with others, to see myself in other people, to recognize that that soul that I see in front of me, as tortured as they are, is a part of me, is me.
So that’s the journey that I’m on in my work as an actor. Even if the film is frivolous or silly, I’m still on that same journey inside of that character, inside of that frame.
Tavis: When you do a project like this, like “Repentance,” where you’re trying to get us to see what this tortured soul is dealing with in part because of mental illness, maybe even schizophrenia, how do you do that through film – it’s not a documentary, it’s a film.
How do you do that without proselytizing about the issue? How do you do that and entertain us at the same time? Does that make sense?
Whitaker: Yeah. I think when you go to the human core of, like, the relationships, because the relationships are so full – like my relationship with my daughter, which is very sweet and loving and fun, you know what I mean, is very special in the movie.
Then when you see how deeply I love my wife, I think that gives you a fuller picture of what might have been a cardboard cutout before. Of course the movie itself goes in other directions.
Because Anthony and Sanaa Lathan, who’s also in the movie, are going through their own journey with Michael Epps, the brother. There’s a triangle there. So this is very intriguing.
We’re watching everyone grow, and inside of the movie everybody is having to come to terms with what’s the truth in their lives. My wife, Ari Nicole, she’s having to come to grips with that too – what’s real, can we be together, are you sane, are you taking care of yourself.
Anthony has to understand what’s going on in his life as well. So it’s doing that, and I think that’s really intriguing for people. Everybody’s going through that search in their life, and it’s just on a real basis we’re watching it unfold, you know?
Tavis: To your point now, Forest, that every one of us, no matter what race, color, or creed we may be, we’re all going through these kinds of struggles in our own lives with certain members of our family.
This movie is a remake and it’s being remade now with an all-Black cast. What is the significance of that for you across the board? Or top-line for me what the significance is for you.
Then I want to go a little deeper and talk about the significance of this being a Black cast around this particular issue of mental illness, given the way it gets, even today, so maltreated inside of our community, if you know what I’m saying.
Whitaker: Sure, sure, I do. When Philippe, he showed me “The Gypsy and the Guru,” which is what it was originally called, and I said, “This could make a really interesting film,” we got another writer for it, and I suggested that we make it be a Black cast, or in that community, a very specific community.
Whitaker: He was really excited about that, and so we went in that territory. I think it just points up some issues, as you say, that sometimes are not addressed appropriately.
We see it every day, like just going through the streets you may see a homeless person. A large portion of those people have certain degrees of mental illness based on the stresses and the pains of their life, you know what I mean?
Inside of certain communities, because of different familial things, violence, molestation, abuse, there’s a lot of mental illnesses that are occurring around us. You say, “She’s just depressed, so she just stays in her room.”
Or, “You can’t really talk to him too much; he gets really upset with rage.” You know what I mean? All these kinds of issues that we see familiarly happening around us have to be addressed and dealt with.
Sometimes you try to go back to the core of where it began. In this case my character is continually trying to go back to the core of where this moment happened that sparked this thing for him.
Certainly he has the propensity to do it because of other things, but something happened, and in this case it was the death of his mother that sent him over, was a tipping point for him.
So when we go to that truth, he’s able to, like, start to reclaim a little bit of his life, whereas in other areas people won’t reclaim their lives. They won’t admit certain things even occurred or happened, certain pains happened, certain abuses happened towards them, you know what I mean, that forced them to be in a tipping point that they fell over, and everybody just accepts that that’s the way it is, or doesn’t accept, treats them as lesser than.
Tavis: Is there a takeaway for Black folk when they see this issue being wrestled with on the screen with a Black family?
Whitaker: I think there’s a couple of things. I think at the core of the thing that holds this character together is the fact of the love that he has for his family. And in fact that’s the thing that makes him maintain himself, at least in some way.
Then it’s the issue of, like, having to address our past pains and our past deeds, which has to be addressed by my character, has to be addressed by Anthony’s character, by Tommy.
Because he has to address the things that he’s done in his life in order for him to move on with his life and heal. He has to address those things, and I think that’s something that everyone, regardless of color, has to look towards.
Addressing certain issues that will allow them to move forward with their life and embrace their life so they can find true happiness. The film deals with that in a lot of ways – in an entertaining way, as you say.
Tavis: Absolutely. It is entertaining, to be sure. (Laughter) Since we’re talking about films, let me talk about two other issues now relative to film. One, your personal film journey, and then secondly, writ large, the year that we are told that this has been in Black film.
Tavis: We’re days away, of course, from the big show, the Academy Awards. You’ve been on the stage before in the past, winning the biggest award of the night as best actor.
What’s your thought at this stage now, now that we’re almost at the end game here for this season, what’s your take now as you look back on this year that we were told was this phenomenal year in Black film?
Anything you read, anywhere you went, anywhere you looked, there were conversations being had about the year that this was in Black film. What do you make of it now, looking back on it, particularly given that you were a part of it?
Whitaker: I think it’s, there’s always been a lot of films being made by the diaspora, by Black filmmakers and stuff, but not seen or recognized in the way they were this year.
I guess for me, what’s exciting is the diversity of the filmmakers, is the diversity of the storytelling, is like the completeness of telling the full story, and a courage to be able to start to recount our own history and stuff in a way that allows people to embrace it.
It’s not the history, just African American history or Black history; it’s the history of this nation. It’s the history of this nation was built upon these principles, that it’s built upon life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
So any break from that allows us not to achieve and be what we truly say we were going to be in the first place, what it was built upon. So all that movement is just to allow the country itself to become actualized, and hopefully, like, be a hint to the world for it to be actualized as well in all of its fullness.
I think these movies that came out allowed us to see the fullness of the experience, and there’s a greater fullness that’s still to come. An unfolding that’ll happen, not just for the African American community, but for the Latin community, for the Asian community, for all of us who are a part of this tapestry, which is humanity.
I think that’s what was exciting about it. That’s what (unintelligible) this story, this guy’s telling, it’s straight-ahead comedy, straight-ahead funny. This one’s silly, you know what I mean? This one’s like really, really powerful.
We’re looking at “12 Years a Slave,” this is a powerful piece about this piece of history. We’re looking at this one about “Best Man’s Holiday,” we’re looking at this one about “Fruitvale Station,” where you’re dealing with a social issue that has to – it’s putting a human face on a social issue. All these different –
Tavis: And one called “The Butler.”
Whitaker: And “The Butler.”
Tavis: Yeah, let’s not leave that off the list. (Laughter)
Whitaker: And “The Butler.” I was proud to do it, and I hopefully put, in a human place, and experiential place, emotional place, an experience that the country went through during all those years that allowed you to journey in that.
Tavis: Did that film, “The Butler,” live up to your expectations, whatever those are? Did it live up to your expectations? I ask that in part because your die-hard fans – you’ve been so busy you probably don’t have time to go on the Internet.
But there’s been a lot of talk on the Internet about the fact that Forest got robbed, that Oprah got robbed, the Academy didn’t nominate them. So every artist has his or her own fans if you’re lucky, if you’re blessed, so you expect your fans to say that.
But I want to ask you now what you make of the film in terms of did it meet your expectations, and what do you make of the critical acclaim not necessarily being met by a variety of nominations in the award season?
Whitaker: (Unintelligible) a few phases, like as an artist, as a human, it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had as an artist. I really grew; transcendent for me. I expanded because of the film, so it was a great gift for me I received.
Then I was really excited that it exceeded my expectations, I think everyone’s expectations in regards to how much people went to go see the film. The film was number one here for weeks in a row, it made hundreds of millions of dollars, and then internationally, I don’t think people know like in France it was number one three weeks in a row.
It was number one in all these countries all over the world and people embraced this film and accepted this story, so I was really happy about that. I think it’s an important story, because quickly, because I think it does speak about the individual and the different journeys that you can make to create the world and the life that you think you deserve.
It shows that through David’s character and my character, all the different ways, all the different organizations, all the different possibilities to change your life.
In regards to awards, I can’t live in that space. I think there were some great films, some great performances. I’m very proud of mine, but I think some of the other performances were great and I’m happy and celebrate them, because the time for whenever that’s supposed to happen will happen, and right now the time was for a film to be delivered that allow people to think and dream and give it to their children, and hopefully live and leave a legacy for people to watch years to come. So I’m really happy about it.
Tavis: I said at the top of this conversation that your intimate involvement helped to get a couple of projects made over the last year; one of course being the one we’ve just talked about, “The Butler;” the other being one that we referenced earlier in this conversation, “Fruitvale Station.”
As I said, again, this is one of the best movies I have ever seen in my entire life, certainly over the last year. But it’s just a powerful film, and I’ve encouraged everybody everywhere I have gone, on this TV show, on my public radio show, in speeches and appearances around the country.
I’ve said to people, “You must see this movie, ‘Fruitvale Station,’ particularly given that it happened to come out, obviously, as you know, around the time of the verdict of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida.
So this story of Oscar Grant and what happened to him in Oakland is a story that I think everybody needs to see. This is my opportunity on national television, not that it’s any of their business, but it will be now, but my chance to thank you.
I have a foundation called Tavis Smiley Foundation – go figure – that works with young people and has for years, thousands and thousands of young folk across the country.
Every summer we have a leadership institute here on the campus of UCLA. We have hundreds of kids from around the country, from most of the States, who come for a number of days to be trained and taught what it means to be a servant leadership.
We train them that you can’t lead people if you don’t love people, and you can’t save people if you don’t serve people. That’s our notion, our mantra.
Tavis: So we bring these kids out every summer, and they were here this summer – last summer – in L.A. at UCLA around the time that the movie was out. I wanted these kids to see it so badly, but the truth of the matter is I didn’t have thousands of dollars to take hundreds of kids to see the movie.
Something just said call Forest, and I called Forest Whitaker. He was on location filming a movie, and literally within a matter of minutes, an hour or so, Forest called me back personally.
I didn’t know he was going to call me back. Called me back personally and made arrangements for the film, not for the kids to go see the film, so we wouldn’t have to bus them and get them out to a theater somewhere, a studio.
He had the film brought to us on the campus of UCLA, and all those kids got a chance to see that film. I want to tell you that, and thank you in person because the conversation – these kids are there for, like, seven or 10 days at this intense leadership training conference.
But there was nothing in that conference that kicked up the kind of conversation like what happened when these kids got a chance to see that film. So I want to thank you personally for coming through for me in a clutch within a matter of minutes.
But that’s a long way of getting into asking how pleased you were with the response to that particular film.
Whitaker: Yeah. Thanks for the work you’re doing too. I really love what you’re doing.
“Fruitvale,” I’m so proud of the film. I’m so proud to be involved with it, because I think it’s really an important movie because it really does paint a human face on a social issue that we need to examine, look at, and act upon.
I was fortunate enough that Ryan Coogler, as a student, came in to meet with me, and from that meeting I decided to make this film with him, with Michael B. Jordan, who Ryan always wanted.
But I think amazing crew that followed a leader, I think, within Ryan to, like, shepherd this movie and to bring this message out. I think it’s so important to have this dialogue and this discourse, this discussion about this issue. As you say, it came out during the Trayvon Martin, the Zimmerman –
Tavis: And here we are again with another brother in Florida.
Whitaker: Yes, yes.
Tavis: Just like this movie just keeps resonating in so many ways.
Whitaker: Yeah, it does, it does, and it’s unfortunate that this cycle is going. But at least if we can talk about it we can hopefully come to some movement in changing it.
Tavis: How bright do you think the future of Ryan Coogler is? When the movie came out we had Ryan the director, young director, just out of USC film school, we had Ryan the young director and Michael B. Jordan on the show together to talk about – we had a great conversation. But my sense is that he’s got some more good work up his sleeve.
Whitaker: Oh, I think he’s – first of all I think he’s a really powerfully centered person to be so young. I think he’s a great filmmaker, an auteur filmmaker, and he’s going to make some films that are going to speak to us for years to come.
No matter whether they’re studio commercial films, his sensibility is going to enter those, engage in those films, and it’s going to open up and create dialogue around different things and show sides of the world and sides of people’s lives that we all don’t see on film.
Tavis: Before I lose you, because I know you are such a humanitarian I don’t want to color this question too much, but I’m always curious, as I am off-camera, to ask Forest what he’s working on.
So let me ask you know where your humanitarian work is concerned, you’ve always got a bunch of things, projects you’re working on. What are you doing now when you’re not on the film set?
Whitaker: Well in my foundation we just started our branches in Mexico. We’re going to be working in three states there, so we started working on our harmonizer program, which is a conflict transformation program.
It tries to work with peace-builders to become community builders in their neighborhoods. We work with the first 34 youths and we train them in conflict transformation and life skills, because we work with life coaching and things of that nature, and trauma release and stuff like that.
Then they create action plans for their own community, and then we support them through that. The program is a three-year program, and it’s a monthly program. So they’re working all the time.
We have partners with Eriksson and stuff, they work on computers. We train them in computer technology and stuff, and we work with them. So we have that program there, I have the program in south Sudan, although at the moment we’re restructuring the program because of the conflict that’s been going on.
We were in, all my programs were in the areas of conflict there and in Uganda, and now we’re working on a program here to engage in the school system. So we’re working on the area of gang violence and bullying that we’ll hopefully be inserting.
We’re working at the university, at Cal State University (unintelligible) to engage in that.
Tavis: Let me close by asking, on a personal note, because there’s always something to glean from these answers, I think, how you balance your life. You’re acting, you’re directing, you’re producing, you’re doing your foundation work, you got a wife and kids. Hey, Keisha. (Laughter) How do you balance – say a word about balance in your life. How do you do this?
Whitaker: Well, I try to live my life in a holistic way, show that all of it intersects because I’m coming from the same place. Now at the core of it I’m just trying to connect and be there, so I’m trying to be there for my family, my wife, my kids, my friends.
But the rest of it too, like it’s integrating even more. I’m starting to feel that in, like, my film work and the things that I’m saying in my philanthropic work. That worlds are crossing and so I can stay on track.
When I’m working with UNESCO it’s usually in alignment with what I’m doing with my foundation. Now we’re starting to tell some of the stories. Like I produced a film called “Rising from Ashes,” which was about the Rwandan bicycling team and them racing in a way to get away from the pain from genocide that they experienced.
Well that became part of that foundational work, and then that also, like, was a film that I was really proud of, as well as how it’s working with even “The Butler” and “Fruitvale” and hopefully others.
It won’t be in everything. Like I said, the core of it, when I play a character, I’m always on the same journey. So hopefully that light will be shed out on everything.
Tavis: You won’t find anybody in this town trying to shed more light than Forest Whitaker. He is a wonderful humanitarian, and on top of that a brilliant artistic genius when it comes to his acting craft.
His new project is called “Repentance.” It is in theaters around the country this weekend. You want to be scared just a little bit, (laughter) just a little bit –
Tavis: – go check it out. With an all-star cast; everybody’s in it. Ari Nicole and Sanaa Lathan and –
Whitaker: Anthony Mackie –
Tavis: – Anthony Mackie –
Whitaker: – Michael Epps –
Tavis: – Michael Epps. It’s a great cast, and of course, headed by Forest Whitaker. I love you, man. You’re always welcome here.
Whitaker: (Unintelligible) too.
Tavis: Good to see you, brother.
Whitaker: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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