Interview: Forest Whitaker

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"Religion and spirituality are not always the same thing."

Posted 5th December 2013, 10:31am in Film


Forest Whitaker gives a powerful performance as the imposing Reverend Cornell Cobbs in Black Nativity. Cornell is married to Aretha (Angela Bassett) and revered by his congregation. But he has created a rift within his own family and is estranged from his only child Naima (Jennifer Hudson).

When Naima can’t pay the rent on her Baltimore house, she puts her son, Langston (Jacob Latimore) on a bus to New York, to spend Christmas with her mother and father - grandparents the boy has never known. Clashes ensue and it seems that Langston is headed for trouble.

With a compelling narrative, superb acting and fantastic music, (put together by acclaimed musician and music producer Raphael Saadiq) the film, which also stars Mary J. Blige, relates an uplifting and very entertaining story about family and forgiveness.

Born in Texas, actor, director and producer Forest Whitaker was raised in California. His film debut aged 21 was in Fast Times at Ridgemonth High. His early films included Vision Quest, The Colour of Money, Platoon, Good Morning Vietnam and Bird, which led to a Golden Globe nomination.

His impressive credits include Panic Room and The Last Kind of Scotland for which he won the 2007 Best Actor Oscar. He recently starred in the acclaimed film, The Butler. Among the films Whitaker has directed is Waiting to Exhale.

Whitaker is the founder of PeaceEarth Foundation, and is the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation.
 
The actor, 52, sat down in Los Angeles for the following interview.

What was it like starring in a musical—something a little different from your previous work?
It was exciting. When I first heard from Kasi (Lemmons) I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t see the movie she wanted to make, so it was my decision to just step into it. I was a little nervous, a little frightened by it, but that is always a good sign. I tend to stay away from music.

But you sing really well in the film.
Well even when I sing around the house, my daughters are always like, ‘please, Dad,’ because I have very musical kids. One is in a music conservatory. The other is recording an album. So I’m always dealing with music some way or another in my life, but not personally. I’ve never worked in music myself. This is the first time since I can’t remember when.

Was it intimidating to sing alongside great talents like Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige?
Looking back, the last scene we did was the most daunting, with Jennifer, because she is such an amazing singer. We had recorded it, so I knew I could just mouth it if I got too nervous. But they wanted to do it without the recording; they wanted it live, so that was a little more daunting. By that point, though, I was so into the character it worked out. I was so consumed by who he was and I was connecting to the audience in my church and my choir, so I was able to bypass that. For Reverend Cobbs, music is a way of connecting to his audience and a way of connecting to the spirit for himself.

What are your views on the music?
It is wonderful, Kasi chose some really great songs and Raphael Saadiq (the music producer) did an amazing job. We got a chance to work on some really nice songs, with a great choir and amazing artists, like Nas, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, and Tyrese (Gibson). Jacob (Latimore) who plays Langston is also amazing in the film. He’s a great singer and a great actor.

You are an accomplished director yourself and have worked with some of Hollywood’s best filmmakers. What was it like working with Kasi Lemmons?
It was great. I think that she wrote an amazing piece with this film. She’s a great director, going all the way back to Eve's Bayou (1997) and The Caveman's Valentine (2001). She was able to bring together a team of people to work as a family. She would create this environment where she had us rehearsing and being together with the choir and with the dancers that created a great atmosphere because we knew we were doing something unique and something special. The talent of a great director is to inspire you and to push you to your limits.

What kind of man is your character?
I run a large, traditional congregation in Harlem. Kasi and I talked about the Reverend as a man who lives in a place of the intellect. He is very proud of having gone to Harvard and he is now working in the community. He is estranged from his daughter (Jennifer Hudson), and is now trying to hold up the community with the help of his beautiful wife, played by Angela Bassett. I think Angela is amazing, and I care for her deeply. The love comes across on the screen. Then of course, she’s one of the greatest actresses working on the planet.

Was the church a big part of your life as a child?
I come from preachers; honestly, one out of ten people in my family are preachers, since I come from ‘Bibleville’, Texas. But I grew up in LA, and the church remained a part of our life. I went to church every Sunday with my mum. My dad was always a little bit too tired, (laughs) but now, my dad is there all the time.

What does religion and spirituality mean to you these days?
Religion and spirituality are not always the same thing. To understand a connection with a higher power is very important to me. It’s a part of how we move through our lives and go deeply into our work, to find some grace and divinity in the things we do. A spiritual path is about understanding that we’re all connected. Understanding that when I look at someone, I see my other self. On a spiritual level, the notion of love and forgiveness are more of a comprehensive concept.

How does your spiritual outlook influence your work?
The notion of connection is why I do my work. I’m trying to connect with my characters. I’m trying to understand and unveil who they are and recognize my connection between them and that connection with others. That’s the driving force of all of my work. The dedication I put into my work is done in a spiritual way. It is guided completely by my understanding of the divine. It’s my awakening to understand my deepest connection with God. I care about humanity and connecting with humanity.

Black Nativity is a holiday film, what are some of your favourite Christmas traditions?
Going out for the Christmas tree is very a big thing with my family. We go out, look for the tree, bring it back, and decorate it. Thanksgiving and Christmas are two holidays when you get together with your family and have dinner. Christmas Day tends to be more of our own private one. Either all our relatives start to show up to our house, or I go to my father’s house and we get together there. This happens every year. There have been a couple of Thanksgivings where I’ve been away and my family has come to me, because I work most of the time.”

What will you be doing for Christmas this year?
I’m going to be at home with my family and have some food. There will be the traditional food that we always have on Thanksgiving or Christmas. There’s candied yams, dressing, black-eyed peas, collard greens, and pies. We have a vegetarian and a meat-eating household, so we have vegetarian options. I can’t say that’s exactly the way it was when I was a kid. We never had vegetarian options (laughs)! I think Christmases are getting simpler and simpler, maybe because the children are getting older and older.

You’ve won an Oscar and have achieved so much already in your career, did you realise as a child that you possessed a talent for acting?
I didn’t act until I was at college. I guess when I was a kid I knew I was supposed to do something ... but I’m still not quite sure I’ve completely figured out what that’s supposed to be! I’m still working on it, though I think acting is a preparation for what I have to do. Life is really challenging for me; I wish it could be easier. I’m still working a number of different goals. I can’t say they’re entertainment-oriented, although I want to keep getting better at acting. I want to keep exploring. I want to see what the next level is that I can reach as an artist, but I think the goals that I’ve focused the most on are probably connected to my foundation and issues of that nature [charity].

Are you seeing a difference in black, African American films and filmmakers right now in Hollywood? There have been a number of excellent films this year including your film The Butler, from Lee Daniels.
There’s a difference yes, not just in the films, but also the filmmakers. There are directors like Kasi Lemmons, Ryan Coogler, who directed Fruitvale Station, Steve McQueen, (12 Years a Slave) Lee Daniels (The Butler), and David Talbert (Baggage Claim). These filmmakers are quite unique, so they have different perspectives on the universe and the world. It’s great that the studios are thinking that there’s some financial or business reason to make these films. It will open up the space for other cultures to be able to do the same thing, like the Latin market. I hope it will translate to the Asian market, as well as the Native American community.”

Do you believe this new, encouraging movement is extending beyond the realm of filmmaking?
Yes the country is opening up and it is all a part of a larger thing. Of course now that Barack Obama is the President, the leader of the free world, we recognize what is possible. That influences the world, because when you go and you talk to people in other countries, they’re suffering through some of the same civil rights and human rights issues on different scales that we did in America, whether it’s immigrants in Sweden, the Algerian community in Italy, or the riots in Britain that happened a few years ago. People are still striving. It’s all a part of a whole and those images [film and Obama] shift and change our reality.

So you have seen things change in a positive way over the years?
Through the Civil Rights Movement in America, we’ve seen that the black community has fought for human rights and personal rights, which translates itself to other communities and countries, continuing to move forward. This is an indicator that a broader sector is about to open up. First, one needs acknowledgement and when that happens, one moves into an understanding, which is where we’re moving into now. After that, we can move into the next phase: which is growth and forgiveness. That is happening with all these films that are being made. Then, we can just move to what I consider ‘the love phase’, where we’re all connected together. We are going through that progression of healing. It’s a progression of healing that’s actively happening and we’re all seeing that. I think that everything is shifting. Where is this coming from? It’s part of this new movement of people recognizing that we’re in this together and we are universal citizens—citizens of the world.

Black Nativity is in cinemas from Friday December 6th 2013 from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
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