Forest Whitaker: What I've Learned

As 'The Butler' - a generation-spanning account of the American civil rights movement – opens in cinemas, lead actor Forest Whitaker shares some of his life lessons

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I was a curious child. I’d debate with anyone who came to the door – people from the Islamic community… Jehovah’s Witnesses… anyone.


The best piece of advice I ever got was from my Mom. We used to go church every Sunday. One morning I didn’t want to get up and I said: ‘Why do I have to go and do what you do? Why do I have to believe what you believe?’ She said: ‘You don’t have to believe what I believe, but you have to believe in something’. I think that’s structured a lot of my life.

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This role. This role right here is my biggest. Something happened when I was playing Cecil, something transcendental I couldn’t quite understand.


It’s rare to be able to play a character with so much breadth, to span so many years of someone’s life. It was the biggest challenge of my career.


I love Britain. I first came when I was in music college, singing in different churches all around London. You don’t judge a place just by its beauty – by its architecture or landscape – you judge it by the nature of its people. And I found a lot of people fascinating here.

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I always try and go back to the source of every character I play, find the thing that connects them to everybody else. When other people recognise that thing in their own lives, I know something special is occurring.

 

I love to play chess. The last time I was playing, I started to really see the board. I don’t mean just seeing a few moves ahead – something else. My game started getting better. It’s the patterns. The patterns are universal.


Fame allows you a lot of opportunities to experience new things and connect with people. But on the other hand, people’s perceptions of you can limit the scope of your relationships with them. You walk both lines.


I think I’m pretty good at handling being recognised. People are usually kind. But when you’re struggling with your own personal life – maybe you’ve had an argument, or your kid is on the ground crying – people sometimes ignore it and act like it’s not real. They step over your kid while he’s having a fit. That can be tough.


The internet is part of our evolution. The mystics used to say: ‘we can travel across the planet in a thought’. Now we really can. We can be connected with a million people at a time.


I’ve written a script about Louis Armstrong. If I can walk past my fear, I’ll play him next year. I’m fascinated with how he changed his style of music so many times, from swing to jazz to every thing else. And for what reasons? That’s the story I am going to try and tell.


Success is growth. Developing a deeper connection with other people. Not winning Oscars.


I always wonder what it would be like to play the same character for 5 or 6 years. That’s why doing a big TV show appeals to me. When you look at Boardwalk Empire, or The Sopranos, it’s amazing how those characters develop and evolve.


The best age to be is in your 40s. When you get there, something happens, you have a sense of focus and purpose. The rest of my life seems to blend into one, but I remember my 40s were different.

 

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MORE WHAT I'VE LEARNED:

Willem Dafoe 
Keith Richards 
Bobby Gillespie 
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