22 Forest Whitaker Live

Amazing Night at The AERO with Forest Whitaker

Last night I had the privilege of attending a Q&A with Forest Whitaker at the Aero Theatre, followed by a screening of The Butler and Fruitvale Station. I got there very early and scored a front row center seat. Before the Q&A, a short montage played that included scenes from just some of the films that represent a body of work that is legendary. It also served as a reminder of the diverse and transcendent roles Forest Whitaker has undertaken and OWNED over the last 30 years.

With a film career that started with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, followed and highlighted by (but not limited to) The Color Money, Platoon, Bird, The Crying Game, Ghost Dog, Panic Room, The Last King of Scotland (for which he won an Oscar), The Great Debaters, and The Butler, Forest Whitaker has delivered such powerful performances that, at the simple naming of any one of these films, we are instantly transported to our memories of what he made us feel during certain scenes. The actors this can be said about are a small, elite group. He’s worked in television, creating lasting characters on ER, The Shield, and Criminal Minds, as well as directing Waiting to Exhale, Hope Floats, and First Daughter, and producing several films including Fruitvale Station.

A rousing standing ovation welcomed Forest Whitaker onto the stage where he thoughtfully and graciously answered every question with considerable charm, humor, and his unique soft-spoken zen quality.  We learned that after attending college on a football scholarship and getting injured, he switched his major to music, was accepted at both USC’s Music and Drama Conservatories, initially studying opera. He’s worked with legendary directors like Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Clint Eastwood. He’s directed films, TV movies, and music videos, but he’s never directed himself and he’s somewhat hesitant to do so.

[more after the gallery …]

Whitaker told us that while he finds something he can relate to in each character he plays, since writer/director Jim Jarmusch wrote Ghost Dog (one of my favorites) for him, that’s probably the character he’s most comfortable with and is most like himself in some ways. As for The Last King of Scotland, he immersed himself in research, learned Swahili and mastered Idi Amin’s accent, met with Amin’s family, soldiers and victims in Uganda, all resulting in one of the most remarkably chilling performances of all time.

As if I wasn’t already having a fantastic enough evening, I got to ask the final question of the Q&A! I had a few ready, but one had already been asked. In The Butler, the character of Cecil Gaines ages about 60 years. Knowing that films don’t shoot chronologically, the task of jumping back and forth (possibly in the same day) from one age to another is a tremendous challenge. Forest confirmed that was indeed the case and explained how he used people he knew and even his own grandparents who lived into their 90s as inspiration, as well as calling on all of his own life experiences.

My question related specifically to playing a starring role as a character who has to be ever-present and effectively accomplishing tasks in close proximity to people, while being somewhat invisible at the same time. I found his answer fascinating because, in addition to what you might expect to hear, like learning as much as he could about the expectations for a proper “butler” and being willing to give himself over to that, he took it a step further. He told us how he’d basically sabotage himself. For example, by purposely leaving something off the tray that he needed, he’d be forced to focus completely on what to do and how to handle that situation. At other times he’d direct all his attention to one piece of silverware or china, releasing himself to block out everything and think of nothing else.  It was a great lead-in to watching The Butler.

I’ve gone to many screenings with Q&As and I’ve met many people in this industry, but last night there was a sense that I was in the presence of greatness, not just in terms of Forest Whitaker’s awe inspiring talent, but also in terms of his humanity and grace.

The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels with an all-star cast that includes Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Robin Williams, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman, and Jane Fonda, is a great film.  It’s moving and surprisingly more all-around entertaining than I expected, and ranks among my favorites for 2013.

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