Forest Whitaker is one of those rare actors who can bounce back and forth between indie and mainstream projects and still hold the fickle public’s attention while maintaining the respect of his peers. He is the quintessence of a Gentle Giant, his 6’2” frame cuts a behemoth figure completely at odds with his kind-hearted, peaceful disposition. His amiable nature and workman’s approach to acting has endeared him to filmmakers like Oliver Stone, Clint Eastwood, Robert Altman, Barry Levinson and Wayne Wang.
Whitaker got his start as the testosterone-laced football player, Charles Jefferson in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but it wasn’t long before he was stretching to more challenging roles like Charlie Parker in Bird. Whitaker parlayed his successes into a position where he could direct the high profile Waiting to Exhale.
Whitaker’s latest role is, of all things, a samurai warrior in an post-industrial urban center, at war with a mob family in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of The Samurai. I sat down with Whitaker to discuss the way of the samurai, the way of the director and the way of the industry.
How did you become Ghost Dog?
Jim and I met at Super 8 Sound, and we decided we wanted to work together. So about a year later, he had an idea and he came out to Los Angeles, and we has these meeting like three-or-four hours-at-a-time about life, ideas and concepts and things. And then he said he was going to go off and write it. Jim always gets his money from Japan and France and Germany, so they were already waiting for his next movie.
How long was he writing?
About a month or so--a couple of months. He didn’t do a lot of rewrites afterwards. I don’t know what he did up there. Because we could talk about, you know, like hope and the samurai code and the mob and all the pride… the fact that me and my best friend talk to each other in different languages. He’s got an amazing mind. Even that scene with the little boy dropping the toys out the window. For me, I love that scene.
How did you prepare to play a samurai?
I studied the Hagakure. I meditated a lot. I looked at lots of samurai films. I read a lot of different Japanese philosophies and stuff. There’s not much martial arts in the film.
But there’s enough martial arts that you at least needed to look like you knew what you were doing.
But, most of that stuff I knew from when I was a kid. Filipino Kali. It’s a particular style that incorporates grappling arts, kung fu, western boxing and Muay Thai kick boxing.
Like Jeet Kune Do?
Mmm… that’s what it is. Danny Ilosanto was a sort of a primary teacher underneath Bruce Lee and he used to teach in my neighborhood. At that time, I was living in Carson, California. That’s where the studio is. At that time it was called the Danny Ilosanto Academy. Jim was surprised that I did martial arts, you know. I still study martial arts off and on. I studied martial arts, just a different style about two years ago. It’s just something I enjoy. I don’t do it as a religious practice, but every once in a while, I’m working with a trainer and I’ll choose to train that way. Because I prefer it to going to a gym or something like that.
Do you prefer it because of the more spiritual aspects?
Yeah, it teaches me a lot more about things. I learned as much about acting, or more about acting from Danny, then I did from my acting classes. You know, about how to reach objectives and how to go to different points you know, the different lines to get there. It’s a pretty strong way of thinking. I could say the same for most team sports, too. I think I learned more about directing from that than most of the classes, because I really understand how to motivate a team, to get them together, to understand how to support people. Sometimes, in those classes, people are so caught up in themselves, they forget their objective.
Were you familiar with the Hagakure prior to this project? Do you read a lot of things of that nature?
Gosh! I used read a lot when I was working a lot. That Maria Ranier Rilke book Letters To A Young Poet. I used to read that book all the time. I kind of related to it. I don’t know if I would feel the same if I read it now. I tend to read mostly philosophical or religious books. I don’t read much fiction. And I tend to generally read about different people’s spiritual practices. Mostly indigenous, aboriginal types of religion I relate to the most. Even in this case, when I went to Japan first, I enjoyed the Shinto Temples and stuff much more than I did the others. Some Native American things. Definitely Eastern Indian philosophies, a lot of I would say the Egyptian and Urubic traditions, yeah, I probably read that most. Oh, by the way, I did learn that one longsword technique for the movie. I wanted to do something that was true to the samurai culture.
You handle your guns as though they were longswords as well.
I wanted to find sort of an iconic gesture, throughout. So like it was a place that he studied on the path. You know the concept is that your sword or your knife is just like an extension of your arm and so is the gun. So, I decided to use it with everything I touched in the movie as a backdrop.
What part of you is Ghost Dog and what part of Ghost Dog is you?
I don’t know. I’d like to think that I live by certain rules. I don’t bend too well, but I still have a flexible mind, I think. The mediation and philosophical parts are there. Those are all parts of my life, so it’s not really that foreign. It’s not that different. I’m not a hit man.
Ghost Dog was kind of a loner, too.
I used to be a real loner, but as I became a filmmaker and as I started to run my company, it’s more difficult to be that way. Yeah, it’s impossible, actually.
Are you working on a film now?
Well, we’re producing our first film at the company, called The Green Dragon. So we’re kind of gearing up for that. It’s a movie about these Vietnamese refugees who came through the fall of Saigon to live in the relocation camps here. And it’s about how they moved down the community. It’s about this little boy, who’s waiting for his mother and about the whole community. It’s by this guy, who directed this movie last year, called Three Seasons. Tony Bui. And it’s mostly Vietnamese. I play like a little very tiny role. But it’s about 80% Vietnamese. It’s a beautiful script.
As a director, what sort of things do you look for? What draws you to, for instance Terry McMillan’s book?
You know what? The piece is about healing. Ultimately it’s about them breaking cycles in their life and that was something I was really focused on… about breaking cycles and caring about yourself and knowing that you’re alright and loving yourself. It’s about real relationships. All the relationships I’ve dealt with personally on one side or the other. So I related to all that, and I wanted to say something about how you can get past some of the pain.
Where do you place yourself in terms of “cachet” with other black actors like Denzel Washington or Sam Jackson and do you think there will be an equality with the number and types of roles available to black actors?
I don’t know about equal. I think that it’s obviously getting better. When I was a kid coming up, there was only usually one star. That fact that you can ask me how I place myself in those people is a big deal, because at that time, when I was a kid, there was always one star, one serious actor, Sidney Poitier. And after that, a series of comedians that took the light for like two or three years at a time. You know, like Cleavon Little. But now, you know there’s a bunch of serious actors. There’s Ving (Rhames), there’s Sam Jackson, there’s Wesley (Snipes), there’s Denzel, there’s Lawrence Fishburne. There’s probably at least a dozen and myself. There’s a number compared to what it was before.
And there’s a lot more filmmakers, you know, who are telling stories, and that’s a big key. I think what it does is it paves the way for other minorities because the African-American community is the guard to push through the block in America. The Latin community will follow that and the Asian community will follow that and then, hopefully at some point, they’ll get to the Native community and the Native community will follow that. Equal, it’s not. Maybe, at some point, we’ll assimilate our society to a place where it’s just about the green.
Or maybe where it’s not even about money, but the work itself.
I don’t know, but I think people are always going to find ways to make themselves feel better than another person. The easiest way to do so is to look at someone’s differences, their appearance and group yourself into something and say, “This group is better than that group.” Even inside of groups, you’ll find the same thing. I don’t know if that’s going to change unless there’s an evolvement of the human mechanism. Unless we evolve as people.
Do you think that’s possible?
The next generation have a different… their souls seem to be a little older, they seem to be a wiser. They seem to know more. And I’m not talking about the computer golem that’s happening. Society is trying. There are these different bastions that are fighting for the causes, different causes. But I think it has to do with something deeper than that. Because it’s not just what kids are being taught. If I watch my three-year-old dealing with people and children and other things, she does it in a manner that’s older than people were before. It’s not because I’m force-feeding her a quality or even that she’s in school because I have chosen not to put her in pre-school yet. I really think it’s a more powerful kind of energy-God-thing more than anything.
How do you want to be perceived, is that important to you?
As long as I’m taking care of myself. I just want to do what I believe in and feel good about. I want to be known as somebody who does projects about people from the heart, about hope and about the human experience. That’s what my thing is.