I had the opportunity to sit down with actor, director, producer, humanitarian, and peace activist Forest Whitaker recently at The Venetian in Las Vegas. Whitaker was in town to conduct a keynote interview about his career and peace efforts for IBM Impact 2013.
Though many of us have known Whitaker most through his prolific film and TV roles, which have ranged from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to The Last King of Scotland, he has also been involved in extensive humanitarian efforts, ranging from the Southern Sudan and Uganda to Mexico and even the United States. Whitaker has worked with Penny Lane, an organization that provides assistance to abused teenagers; PETA and Farm Sanctuary, organizations that protect animals' rights; and over the last several years, as a spokesperson and emissary for the Hope North Ugandan orphanage and Human Rights Watch.
Our discussion began with a few questions about his acting career and experiences before quickly turning to his extensive humanitarian efforts, which has included helping bring computers, phones, and related information and communication technologies to the nether regions of the African continent, along with conflict resolution and peacemaking skills that can help translate conflict into collaboration and peaceful cohabitation.
TODD: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. My first question is, when it comes to directors, you've worked with some of the best of the best -- Jim Jarmusch, Clint Eastwood, Robert Altman, the list goes on. And I wanted to ask you about Altman in particular, because I've heard so much about his unique way of working on the set, one that always seemed to be in the spirit of true collaboration. I was curious when you worked on Pret A Porter, is that what you saw, that kind of collaboration and improvisation?
FOREST: Sure, and there were a number of things at work. I remember we had eight pages to shoot, and he shot that in like half a day! We spent days on stuff that wasn't scripted. He set it up for us to have a fashion ball, and he invited all the designers of the day -- Gautier, Cerruti, etc. -- everyone was there. And when we went in, and they all had a card as to who we were [the character].
So they knew, when they looked in their program, that I was playing Cy Bianco, and this was my style of design, and so I'd be engaging in conversations with all these different designers from everywhere, and they would start improvising and I would start talking about design and fashion, and they would say "Cy, I saw your last show!" And that's kind of the way he set up this really magical moment. It was pretty magical.
TODD: I've seen a number of his films and you really get that sense that his actors are able to unleash that creativity. You know, the F/X series "The Shield" seems to have been another piece where the ensemble acting, just as a viewer, really seemed to gel onscreen.
FOREST: With "The Shield" they were already in an amazing groove as an ensemble when I arrived. They were really in such a powerful show, and I came in as a disruptor. I mean, I was put there to destroy [Vic] Mackey. In fact, they were probably going to shut the show down. So I was going to be the one who stopped him... and then they decided when the ratings went up to go another year! I was brought in while they were trying to decide whether or not to end the show. But because of the antagonism between the two of us in the show, I think it just gave it an extra spark.
TODD: You've worked a lot in both media, in film and TV, and I'm curious at this stage of your career, do you really have a preference? I mean, we see a lot of great content being created on TV and the cable networks, and you would think the Internet would open up a whole new wave of distribution for independent filmmaking, and it's done to that some degree...
FOREST: To some degree... yeah, I think with pay-per-view the concept of being able to sell your film and put it up is great, but it still requires some marketing and word of mouth. So I don't have a preference of medium... I have a preference of quality of artists, who I'm working with. I'm very open, in some respects, being an artist who's done it for such a long period of time.
I will work with a first-time director... that's not a problem for me. I will work in television, in any medium, you know what I mean? And I will do a movie that's completely improvised. I've done a movie where there was no script! So I can't... I think for myself, I've always just been on the edge of what appealed to me. I just try and go with how I feel. That's the only real determiner for me.
TODD: When you did the work to prepare for the role of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, how do even begin to do that preparation?
Whitaker explained during our interview that he drew upon extensive historical data, along with personal interviews of contemporaries (including with family members, friends, ex-ministers and -generals, and the like), to prepare for his Academy-Award-winning role as former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
FOREST: It's pretty simple. There's so much historical data, and Amin was very public, so you can look at all kinds of news footage and coverage, interviews... then you have the historical reference -- there's all these history books you can go to. It was in the 1970s that this [Amin's reign in Uganda] occurred, so you actually know the people.
Anyone who's over 30 or 40 years old and who lived in Uganda was touched by Idi Amin, there's no question about it. So you can go and talk with his ex-ministers, his ex-generals, his brothers and sisters... all of which I did. You could go to where he was raised, go to Parliament, ride in his cars... visit every monument he was in, learn about the food, the place, the religion... all these things kind of amalgamate themselves and sort of enter your system, and then you start to play the character.
You learn about music... he played the accordion, so you learn how to play the accordion. And you start to understand that that's a social instrument that you can carry so that means here's someone who likes to bring the party wherever he's going. There were a lot of indicators, you know what I mean? You just have to put them together.
TODD: I'm curious, did the film get distributed throughout Africa?
FOREST: There's not a lot of film distribution systems in Africa. There's more of a DVD distribution system. I think in South Africa, yes. And in some other places like Ghana. But in Uganda, Southern Sudan, Angola, there's no film distribution system that's set up across the continent of Africa. So most of it's through DVD.
TODD: But even through the underground did you get a sense of how people reacted?
FOREST: People loved the movie, people saw the movie, but on DVD mainly... it's a DVD culture. Just like in Nigeria, which has the second or third largest film culture in the world. It's called "Nollywood." Nollywood does so many films... so many films, that are so popular around the world. But they're all DVD-oriented, meaning they were sold as DVDs in places like markets on the corner, in small stores.
TODD: Is it out of that experience that you first got involved with Hope North [Hope North is an accredited secondary school located on a 40-acre campus in Uganda that contains an international arts center, vocational training, and a working farm, staffed by 26 dedicated Ugandan educators for the purpose of helping rehabilitate child soldiers who had been involved in conflict.]
FOREST: I became involved with Hope North because Sam Okello, who taught me how to dance, and actually taught me "Acholi," or northern [Ugandan] dances for "Last King," had an orphanage for child soldiers. And I just decided to go up there and see what he was doing in the north of Uganda. And then I decided to start working with him.
And so I started to help him build some of his buildings, put the walls up, build some of his dormitories, and then the relationship continued over the last six years until this last December when we began our program there, which is a "Harmonizer" program, where we started our ICT training all over Uganda. We gave them computers, phones, and started the work there. The second ICT training was just last month, so we'll be doing that for the next three years.
TODD: And ICT training stands for...?
FOREST: Information Communications Technology. Basically, we're providing people with computer skills and social media tools for them to work in conflict resolution and mediation.
TODD: During the keynote you shared a really interesting story of the kid who had never really used a computer or a telephone, and the next thing you know he's Skyping with his brother in another country. That must have been a profound moment.
FOREST: It was very emotional. Some of it was so emotional, for them and me, because when Elaine [from Ericsson] asked them how many of them had used a computer, out of 24 people I think there had been like maybe three. They didn't know how to even turn it on. They didn't have access. And by the end of that night... because, what happened was, we had our training all through the day, and the youth still wanted to work on their computers.
We left our lab open until two in the morning, with kids working on the computers. Until finally the next day, with the phones that were given to them, they had used the cameras to take photographs, uploaded them to the computers, and sent the pictures to people across the country. This is a powerful thing, you know? I was so impressed by them.
TODD: With respect to the PeaceEarth foundation, I was reading through the Website and it said that "it seeks to plant a seed that can move towards peace, but we must plant the seed of hope, we must nurture the seed of peace." I'm curious as to what some of the actionable steps are that you and the foundation are taking in Southern Sudan, Uganda, Mexico and the United States to plant those seeds. What, specifically, do you do when you go into a new country that you're trying to help provide some of that conflict resolution?
FOREST: I'll talk about Southern Sudan, 'cause it's easy to do. In Southern Sudan, we're a conduit it in a way, because we're bringing organizations together. So we're bringing together the Ministry...the Youth and Sports Ministry is working with us from the Southern Sudan...UNESCO is partnering with us there... Zane is partnering with us there. Ericsson is partnering with us there.
Then we start to partner with grassroots organizations across the state. We're going to train two people in every single county in Southern Sudan. And now we've done our first state. And what we did, was, we trained them in conflict transformation. So we start with modules of communication, elements of mapping and recognizing power structures to understand who to go to in certain situations, and ultimately to be able to mediate themselves in their own community. Ultimately, they will be formalizing small advisory groups in all their communities across the country. That's one element of what we do, conflict transformation.
The second is computer, or ICT, training that we talked about earlier. The users there are going to be getting that training for the next three years. We'll leave them with the capacity to become computer specialists, because that's how long the training will go forward. They'll be able to use the computers, teach how to use the computers, and ultimately be able to move into other companies and help them use their computers.
Then in the third capacity, we'll have them be able to create action plans in their communities that we're helping work with them on. Their input is what creates them, and in four of the ten we're building community centers that they requested. So in that sense, we'll go to our partners and we'll put computers in those centers, we'll bring educators there to help train the people in that community.
The other area we're focused on is around gender violence, where we'll start to connect them with other organizations to help them deal with gender violence. We'll help them... sometimes it's as simple as giving them the facility to give water to people in their community so they can come to these meetings. And then there's the tools, what I consider "life skill" tools, of meditation, breathing, organizational tools mind mapping.
So all these elements will be left behind. The computers and the phones are crucial for the communication work we're doing right now, but they're just tools for them to utilize in the other areas of their life. At a certain point those will be antiquated and they'll let go of them, but then they'll take the life skills we've enabled them with and move into the next phase, which is the controlling of their own environment and their own country. I'm only offering and facilitating, you know what I mean? But those are the actionable things.
TODD: Those are great... So do you think Africa is ready for the development that is rapidly about to occur? I mean, even we at IBM are moving aggressively into Africa after having already had a significant presence for a long time. I'm curious if you think they're ready for the coming modernization?
FOREST: I think they're ready for the modernization so long as it doesn't preclude allowing them to maintain their own structures that exist. You know, clearly the number is like 735 million phones there, so clearly they're ready, there's a lot of... it's just gonna go "Pow Pow Pow." I guess the question is, is the connectivity up for that, for the Internet? Not yet.
TODD: I meant culturally...
FOREST: Yes, but with all these tools that they're being given, can they yet utilize them? No, not at present. But will they choose to? Some. How will it be used? It's gonna have to be used with existing systems until evolution moves it forward. Evolution meaning from the personal to the analog to the digital, and then moving into that sphere if that's what they want. It's a process...but it's clearly growing.
Because look, they've already given us two new industries. The dual SIMM card came out of Africa. And this [mobile] banking system. I think Rmaen did something in India, but it was more activated in Africa. So they're actually contributing to this space really strongly. Because one, they don't have landlines, means of doing certain things, so the only way they can do them, even like healthcare, is sometimes through the phone. So in effect, yeah, they'll start to use it. Because these are life and death issues we're talking about [with respect to healthcare]... the diagnostics.
TODD: That's why Ushahidi was so successful there, because it realized there weren't a lot of landlines around, they had to depend on the mobile infrastructure.
TODD: So in closing, I'm curious with the UNESCO work that you're doing as a goodwill ambassador, is that for you just a logical expansion of some of these other humanitarian efforts, or is there something...do you have a broader vision? I read that you were going back to school to get a degree in conflict resolution. Is the State Department next?
FOREST: (Laughing) I'm already working for President Obama's committee, and we'll deal with them when it comes to areas of conflict. UNESCO, I have to give them a lot of credit, because I was doing my work stateside with gangs and battered wives and children, and then as I started to work in Northern Uganda, and I was working with child soldiers there.
They recognized my work and asked me to become involved, which elevated my work in an international way. I started working more internationally in different countries. In fact, they partnered with me to start an institute. I started an institute with the State Department, UNESCO and Rutgers. It's the only Category 2 peace institute with UNESCO, and it's in New Jersey, and I was able to do that with them.
TODD: Forest, thanks very much, I appreciate you taking the time.
FOREST: Thank you.