Forest Whitaker Reflects on Storied Career Ahead of Receiving Newport Beach Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Forest Whitaker
Michael Buckner

As Forest Whitaker prepares to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Newport Beach Film Festival on June 16, the prolific Academy Award- and Emmy-winning actor with a career spanning four decades says he finds himself increasingly reconnecting with the way he approached the work when he was just starting out.

There’s a “joy when I’m working on a part in the discovery of looking at it and trying to figure out the people,” he says.

For example, he notes that by focusing more deeply on the needs of his “Godfather of Harlem” character, real-life crime boss Bumpy Johnson, the character itself leads the way to his performance.

“That’s the way I was working before,” he says. “I started to go back to basics sometimes, and it’s making things more exciting for me again.”

Whitaker admits he feels fortunate to have been allowed to play an astonishingly diverse array of roles across practically every imaginable genre. His acting resume includes such disparate projects as “Bird,” “The Crying Game,” “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “The Great Debaters,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Black Panther” and “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.”

An avid researcher who intensely immerses himself in a character’s world, Whitaker says he believes he’s grown and evolved personally as a result.

“It helps me because as I start to explore these people and their different circumstances, I start to see more of the universal. I call it just ‘oneness,’” he says. “You start to see how these things relate to you because you’re searching for a way to understand them. So that means you’re searching inside of your own belief system — an awakening of a sort. And that is a great gift to be able to recognize.”

He was also an early adopter of the opportunities that prestige television presented to film actors, embracing extended stints on “ER” and “The Shield.”

“It’s a luxury to get a chance on TV to really, really go deep into a character and to watch them change slowly,” he says. He recalls his “Shield” character’s gradual transformation over the course of a season, which included slimming down 10 suit sizes and shaving his head to externally reflect his spiritual annihilation in his clash with Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey.

Today Whitaker finds similar long-term creativity in playing Bumpy Johnson — more specifically, in expressing “the depth of him being a family man, a poet, a chess master [all while] trying to strive for quality with the Italian mob.”

Whitaker says in exploring the choices that fueled the real-life Johnson’s conflicts and partnerships with New York’s Five Families, the key is to “look at why he did it, what opportunities he wasn’t being allowed and then ultimately decisions that he made.”

When Whitaker talks about exploring choices, he’s not just doing so with a performer’s eye: He also serves as an executive producer on “Godfather of Harlem” and the docuseries it spun off (“By Whatever Means Necessary: The Times of Godfather of Harlem”). Previously, he produced film projects including Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” and Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You.” And in the 1990s and early aughts, he helmed such modern classic films as “Strapped,” “Waiting to Exhale,” Hope Floats” and “First Daughter.” Now, after a nearly two-decade hiatus, he’s eyeing a return to the director’s chair.

“I was just discussing it with my representatives the other day, that I might direct another film,” he says. “In the next five years I’ll probably step behind the camera again — maybe even the next two years.”

In the meantime, though, “I think I’ll keep acting for a little bit,” he says with characteristic understatement.