“I was hanging by a thread,” says Forest Whitaker, recounting his recent disillusionment for acting.

Ahead of receiving the Newport Beach Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award on June 16, the legendary actor and filmmaker talks with Variety senior editor Michael Schneider to discuss rediscovering his “spark,” and look back on his nearly 40-year career in Hollywood.

“I was having a really hard time,” Whitaker explains. “I was finding no joy in the work. I wasn’t progressing. … I had lost that exploration.”

What came along to change that? Netflix’s 2020 holiday movie “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.”

“There was some magic that was happening,” Whitaker says of working on that musical. “Everybody was so happy, everybody was working so hard, that it really sparked something in me, and I started to come back alive a little bit.”

Now, Whitaker is focused on portraying real-life crime boss Bumpy Johnson in Epix’s “Godfather of Harlem, which returns for the second half of the second season on Aug. 8. Originally, he shares, he was only going to be apart of the series as a producer, but he decided to take on the role and “it was a great journey for me.”

The series explores Johnson’s life in the 1960s, including his relationships with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) and his family.

“I didn’t understand the complexity of the man,” he admits when first looking into whether or not he would be a good subject for a TV series. But his research showed more than a mobster — a man who was a poet, a chess player and a strategist — and that was what intrigued him most.

Up next he is also set to play C.L. Franklin, the preacher and father of Aretha Franklin (Jennifer Hudson), in the upcoming big-screen biopic “Respect.”

“I love working with Jennifer,” Whitaker says. “Actually, this is the third time I’ve played her dad! We always get along really well. She’s really talented.”

Reflecting on his previous co-stars, Whitaker also talks about working on the 1987 film “Good Morning Vietnam,” paying tribute to the late Robin Williams.

“Robin Williams was a unique person,” Whitaker says. “He was a really special man. It’s mind-boggling the way he thinks.”

Watch the full video from the Newport Beach Film Festival above.