Forest Whitaker Interview – STREET KINGS

     April 6, 2008

Opening this Friday is the new David Ayer film “Street Kings.” If David’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he previously wrote and directed “Harsh Times,” and he also wrote “Training Day.”

While some filmmakers love to switch genres after every movie, David has once again made a film that deals with the LAPD. Here’s the synopsis:

Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is a veteran LAPD cop who finds life difficult to navigate after the death of his wife. When evidence implicates him in the execution of his former partner, Detective Terrance Washington (Terry Crews), Ludlow sets out on a quest to find the real murderers responsible and bring them to justice. With the help of a young Robbery Homicide Detective (Chris Evans), the two team up to tackle the diverse communities of Los Angeles. Forest Whitaker plays Captain Wander, Ludlow’s supervisor, whose duties include keeping him within the confines of the law and out of the clutches of Internal Affairs Captain Biggs (Hugh Laurie).

To help promote the film, I recently participated in roundtable interviews with most of the cast. I’ve already posted the Chris Evans, Cedric the Entertainer and Common interviews, up now is Firest Whitaker.

Since I recently interviewed Forest for “Vantage Point,” I’ll admit I wasn’t sure how much new stuff he could talk about. Thankfully, he had a lot to say and I think you’ll find it a great conversation.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio of the interview as an MP3 by clicking here. Finally, here’s a link to the movie clips we posted for “Street Kings.” Again, “Street Kings” opens this Friday at theaters everywhere.

warning…minor spoilers are discussed in this interview

Question: Are you surprised by the success of Vantage Point?

Forest Whitaker: someone just told me that it made like $80 million already overseas or something. Maybe it’ll make $60 something here. So you never know how a movie is going to do. That was like a tough movie to do in a way, physically.

Question: This character was very complex and had at least two faces. When you researched this character and talked to police officers were you surprised at what you found?

Forest Whitaker: I think the classic Rampart thing, that was interesting to study. I guess I wasn’t surprised at the corruption. I think in most countries the police aren’t paid that much money and they’re touching people who have a lot of money. So corruption happens, and I think there’s probably less corruption in our police force in some ways than in a lot of other places. But we do have police corruption. We do have it in L.A. We do have cops that go against the rules and do certain things. When they were bringing in advisors, one of them showed me a picture of someone getting interrogated and it was so physically violent. I said, ‘Why do you carry this picture with you? Why is this something to be proud of?’ So that’s a statement that it’s real. Also there’s the way that criminals are dealt with. I know that cops sometimes over step their bounds and harm people, kill people, beat people, put people on the ground, put people across cars and make you lay in the middle of the street – that’s just what they do.

Question: How did you see your character?

Forest Whitaker: I saw him in a way as the head of a family. He’s the head of these other cops, but it’s also like, ‘This is my family and I take care of them. We can all be alright if we stay loyal to each other and follow code.’ In that way he’s like a Godfather in some ways.

Question: Good or bad? Did you see him either way?

Forest Whitaker: I think some of the things that they do are bad in the sense that they’re making judgments on people’s lives and killing people. The first time you see him really he’s all excited because all these people have been killed. That’s not a great thing. I don’t think that when I was working on the character though that I was thinking, ‘Oh, he’s a really bad guy.’ I was thinking more about what makes a person like this, who he is, what was he thinking about – that’s what I was looking at. Then when I start to put all those things together and I create this weird sort of code in my head, in a way the character becomes moral because I understand the rules and the boundaries that he lives by. In his family everyone understands the rules except for – this is the problem – that Keanu [Reeves] didn’t because he hadn’t been truly exposed to the truth mainly because he didn’t want to see it. So that was the problem, there was a break in my code, a break in the rules, of people understanding truly what was happening.

Question: And that’s what Keanu’s character was.

Forest Whitaker: That’s what happened, yeah.

Question: Was the character corrupted in the name of justice or was he more obsessed with protecting that group?

Forest Whitaker: I think that he viewed bad guys a certain way in the beginning and didn’t feel that they had rights because of the things they’d done and the things that he’d seen. I think it’s typified by the first scene where they find the two young girls who they’ve been having sex with and it being put on the internet and stuff, the kiddie porn ring – I think he sees people like that as people who deserve to die and they have no right and if you continue to let them live they’ll just continue to, like a fungus, propagate and continue to corrupt the world. So when he finds money on people like that he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it. Who else is going to get it?’ When he finds things like that there’s no moral questions there because these guys are wrong, but then once you start to build that kind of power base then all of a sudden it starts become a question too of not losing it. I think that’s when power starts to be a problem. How am I going to lose my power? Then you start to make decisions that I think were morally wrong, passing the line of the question. So it’s then like do you kill a cop because he knows something about you in order to save your kingdom, your world? That’s when you start to lose it and alliances start to be broken.

Question: Was there anyone that you based this character on that you met?

Forest Whitaker: No. I just tried to channel the character and find this energy that would make the character live based on the way that I created the codes around him. I didn’t copy any person or something like that.

Question: Did you get any hesitation from the officers you talked to while working on the character? Did body language shift when you were asking those questions?

Forest Whitaker: I think that they had these advisors, some of them who weren’t on the force anymore, and those advisors were telling us stuff. Everyone already knew it. There’ve been books written about Rampart and so some of that stuff is common knowledge, the corruption and we’ve seen it in many films. We’ve seen cops taking money out of the trunk, from the drug guy and taking their cash. We’ve also seen in many films cops fighting other cops. We see that they try to inform on them. We saw that in ‘Serpico’. It’s nothing new that way. It’s just something about the spirit of this one that I think makes it feel a little bit new.

Question: What was working with Keanu like?

Forest Whitaker: I think he’s really fun to work with. We started in rehearsals and doing improvs and stuff at David’s [Ayers] house, just trying to find our relationship and stuff and the characters and where we were going with it. David was really trying to embed that into the script. Keanu really worked hard. From the very beginning he was into the character and mold the character. He went from being really scruffy with a beard to being the character that he came to now that was even more dark in it’s base. I thought that it was nice doing the scenes with him. I thought that he was right in the pocket of the scenes. They were very emotional scenes and he did a great job.

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Question: What surprised you about him as a guy, getting a chance to know him because you two seem to have the same kind of energy?

Forest Whitaker: I liked him. When you deal with him when you first meet him he seems to be really open and comfortable with himself. That’s very cool. He’s very, very confident in that respect. I think that we got to know each other through the work more than through other things.

Question: Where do you keep your Oscar?

Forest Whitaker: There are shelves in my house as you go down the stairs and it’s in there on a shelf on the side of the wall.

Question: What’s it like to go to work when you’re around a lot of great actors? Does it change your attitude and was that a draw to this movie?

Forest Whitaker: I think it was slowly trying to figure out what I might be able to do with it. The character grew as the movie was getting cast. There were still people being cast and then it became this amazing cast. I’m inspired to work with good actors period. I want to work with the best any time because I think they’ll make me better. I keep trying to reach that. I think that David did a good thing. He put together a kind of eclectic group of people. They seem very different from each other, but they fit into this world really well and all the actors are really strong. Common had a really strong focus on the character. Everybody had a different take. Jay Mohr. I thought that Jay was great. Something about his character was very understated and very strong.

Question: What’s happening with ‘Wild Things’?

Forest Whitaker: I don’t know. Last time I talked to someone about it they said there were some complications. I don’t know what they are. It’s not coming out this year. It might come out this year. I was thinking about it the other day and I was thinking about calling Spike Jonze and ask him, but I don’t want to frustrate him more.

Question: Was that all voice over or was there more to it than that?

Forest Whitaker: On that one we actually did rehearsals and he shot all the rehearsals. So we started with rehearsals at his house and then moved up to the hills and had like dodge ball fights and stuff. Then we went into this space he erected and they created the world in Styrofoam and then we all played the scenes and played the characters. They had a camera on each one of us and they filmed each one of us as we went through the whole process of doing the movie. Then I think that he took that and showed it to the guys who would be working the puppets so they could see the way we were moving and doing certain things. Then they kind of imitated our movements a little bit and then I think they were going to take some of our facial expressions and put them inside ‘Wild Things’ faces.

Question: Who’s a better dodge ball player, you or Spike Jonze?

Forest Whitaker: I think I’m pretty good. Spike loves that though, that’s his thing. He created ‘Jackass’. He’s a fun guy and he loves doing that stuff. Even when we did the scene when we got the space and we were doing rock fights in the movie we were having bread fights. So we’d be throwing rolls at each other across this giant thing and it kind of got pretty intense, violently intense. When you squeeze a roll really tight you can get some speed on it and it can hurt.

Question: Have you seen this movie with the audience? There’s that final scene where your character is stunned that Keanu walks in. Do you enjoy the audience reaction?

Forest Whitaker: What did they do?

Question: They laughed. You don’t expect him to be alive and he’s alive and we know it and you turn around and he tries to play it off.

Forest Whitaker: I’ve only seen it with the actors. I’m curious to see it with an audience. I thought it was interesting because whatever David did he did this thing where you can’t predict what’s going to happen to me because he made the characters capable of doing anything. I felt like the characters were capable at any time of harming each other or harming someone else. So as a result you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re surprised. So I am interested in seeing how the audience will respond to some of the surprises.

Question: There’s also a lot of ammunition fired in this film. Did you know how to hold and shoot a gun prior to this film?

Forest Whitaker: Yeah.

Question: Any mishaps on the set?

Forest Whitaker: I don’t know what happened with those guys. I didn’t shoot a weapon. I don’t remember shooting anything. I don’t think I did. So the biggest thing for me, I guess, that I did was the fight scene. We didn’t get hurt or anything. Those other scenes were really intense. I don’t know what happened to them.

Question: You recently worked with Patrick Swayze in ‘Powder Blue’. How did you react to the news that broke about a week ago, with what’s going on with him?

Forest Whitaker: It’s a horrible thing. Pancreatic cancer is a horrible cancer. I’ve worked with Patrick a number of times. I worked with him on ‘North and South’ for about five or six months. I produced ‘The Green Dragon’ and he was in that and I produced ‘Powder Blue’ which he’s in. It’s a horrible thing.

Question: Have you had a chance to reach out to him at all?

Forest Whitaker: I haven’t known what to say. I will be talking to him, but I just don’t know how to give the proper comfort.

Question: Can you talk about ‘Powder Blue’?

Forest Whitaker: It’s about different characters in Los Angeles trying to connect. It’s about connection. I play a guy who’s a priest who’s wife died in car accident at our wedding. So then I’m like trying to kill myself and I can’t. My morals stop me and so then I try to get other people to do it for me. I go around Los Angeles trying to convince someone to kill me. The other characters are dealing with love. Jessica Beil plays an exotic dancer and she’s dealing with this guy, finding love and stuff. So it’s a lot of different characters in different stages of trying to connect.

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