Lead actor contender

The opportunity to play one of the great despots of the 20th century was as much a learning experience for Forest Whitaker as a meaty acting assignment, one that could bring him his first Academy Award nomination in 25 years of acting in front of the camera and directing/producing behind it.

Certainly our concept in the West of the larger-than-life Ugandan dictator Idi Amin does little to suggest Whitaker, a highly internal actor who has brought intelligence and amiability to films as varied as “Bird” (in the title role of Charlie Parker), “The Color of Money,” “The Crying Game,” “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Panic Room.”

His Amin, however, is something else again — a balls-out performance that the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern has dubbed one of the finest of the past few years. For Whitaker, the acclaim is just icing on the cake.

The joy was in the doing, he says, and it doesn’t sound like a canned response. He will, given the opportunity, wax passionate about learning to play Amin and about the thrill of “putting my feet on the ground in Uganda,” his first visit to the African continent.

“It would not have been the same film if we had shot it anywhere else but Uganda,” says Whitaker.

It was a tough, bare-bones shoot in some respects, and many on the crew had never made a movie before, but Whitaker credits them with teaching “me how to be a Ugandan. I learned the language, the dialect, how to eat, how to sit, where I would sit, how to shake hands and pay respect to people.”

His preconceptions of Amin were similar to most other non-Africans, a classic cardboard-cutout tyrant with genocidal blood on his hands. But through his research, Whitaker says, a decidedly more complex character emerged.

“Idi Amin was in the British military for 25 years. If he had been displaying insanity for 25 years, would they have appointed him president of the country? They would have noticed that. This was a man who was friends with Golda Meir.”

Whitaker also viewed Barbet Schroeder’s acclaimed 1974 documentary “General Idi Amin Dada,” and saw “a charming presence who continued to seduce the press until it was too late,” and spoke with countless Ugandans — “everyone over the age of 30 has a personal remembrance of him” — who, despite everything, maintain a decidedly more benign view of him than anyone in the West.

It was only later, Whitaker explains, when he was isolated and beset with paranoia about his own safety that Amin’s extreme behavior manifested itself. The challenge of his performance was to reconcile all these contradictory aspects, says Whitaker, “and to explore those areas in myself that were like this character. That is ultimately what helped me grow as an artist.”

Favorite film of the past five years: “City of God”

Actor who impressed you greatly after working together: Isaach De Bankole, his co-star in “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.” “We didn’t speak the same language, but I could tell his space was very deep.”

Next project: Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Air I Breathe,” from new filmmaker Jieho Lee, co-starring Kevin Bacon and Brendan Fraser. “I know it’s going to be really special.”

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