This Maze Called Life 
A Conversation with Forest Whitaker
feature by
Cynthia Fuchs, 17 March 2000

Forest Whitaker is as cool as you'd want him to be, thoughtful and wise, of course, but also attentive and gracious. Dressed in casually elegant white slacks and shirt, he's also got wide-ranging interests, being as into music, literature, and social politics as he is into the movie business. He's serene and intense, and almost humble, as well: when he talks to you, he looks at and into you, like he's trying to hear you; I mean, he looks like he's paying attention, rather than thinking about when the interview will be over and what he's going to have for lunch.

We start by talking about his new film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which he made with independent writer-director Jim Jarmusch and hip hop artist the RZA. I asked about how closely they worked together on the film.

Forest Whitaker: Me and Jim started earlier I guess, because Jim came to me with this idea. We had about three or four conversations and then started talking about music and RZA's name came up. RZA really wrote the music to pictures, or, he wrote after he saw the film; he was inspired by it. He'd write pieces and send them over to Jim, and Jim cut it where it fit. The album's quite unique: it's inspired by the film, including those sparse tracks he had in there, like the opening one you hear while you see the bird flying. And they're so different on the album than on the screen.

Cynthia Fuchs: Did you study up on martial arts and samurai philosophy for the role?

FW: I started reading the Hagekure and other books, including one called The Code of the Samurai , and I watched a lot of films. I tried to find his mindset more than anything. It's more like a trance-like state for this character than it is anything else, based in the ancient book that he follows. But I did a lot of different types of research.

CF: Didn't you have a previous martial arts background?

FW: Thre's the one long sword technique, which I learned from the stunt guy; but the other techniques, with the machete and my hands, all that stuff that probably looks a little more flashy, is stuff I knew from studying it as a kid. I kind of remembered it, which is not to say that it would be that effectual on the street. And that was all improv on the roof: Jim just said, "Let's shoot." and I found a rhythm.

CF: What's your thinking about Ghost Dog 's place in relation to, say, independent films and so-called hiphop films, or more recent independent-hiphop hybrid films, like Marc Levin's Slam and James Toback's Black and White ?

FW: I guess that for it to be considered independent and not just an "urban movie" -- because there are lots of those made by studios and with low budgets -- might depend on who you define as "independent." I'd define it as someone having a unique vision, outside of the mainstay of Hollywood. There are films, like Juice or New Jersey Drive , obviously hip hop-flavored, but neither was independently financed. So I think the independent hip hop film is a new arena. This one started out of a desire, coming from me and Jim -- we met at a Super-8 camera store, I had my camera, he had his, I think he was doing Year of the Horse . And we said we'd like to work together. A year later, he said, "I think I have an idea." and we started talking. We weren't thinking of the film as part of a "movement," but if there is something, it might have to do with filmmakers looking at what they consider the "underbelly" of society, which really, in this day, is still considered hip hop, even though it's more popular than any other music form right now.

CF: I just read a piece in the New York Times (13 March 00), on the Wutang model of business, as it's been picked up by Ruff Ryders and Cash Money, with family affiliations and members working together and sometimes solo, with "home" labels.

FW: Yeah, they're like tribes, developing artists inside of themselves. They have a group mentality, they want to work together -- like Busta and his group too -- but they have to work so hard now to keep up. Before, years ago, you could drop like one album a year, but you can't do that anymore. I think Master P's system, last year, of putting out an album every month almost, started to make everyone think, "I gotta get my music out there. I can't be forgotten. I gotta keep going."

CF: Let's talk Hollywood politics for a minute. How do you feel about the movies you've directed, being categorized as "women's films"?

FW: I understand why people say that. They're centered around female points of view. Even though Waiting to Exhale is about relationships, it's focused on four women's lives, and Hope Floats is about one woman's life. I don't have a problem with the classification of "chick flicks," or whatever it's called. I'm just trying to tell the stories, about people's feelings.

CF: What attracted you to those projects?

FW: They're relationship issues. I don't really find it as different from myself, the issues and the feelings; they're things I've experienced in my own life, in some way or another, on one side or the other, and if not personally, then through someone who was next to me. Feeling hurt or feeling loss, or being in relationships that are destructive, I don't find this to be women-specific. Those kinds of needs are pretty universal. And I never found myself at a loss, or at a place where I didn't understand what was going on with the characters, not once.

CF: Do you think your attitude is unusual for male directors?

FW: Waiting to Exhale was so strong, women really rallied behind that movie, and Hope Floats was successful in its own way. But Waiting to Exhale was like an anthem -- people were using the phrase, it became part of the culture, TV shows were doing parties -- so it puts me in a position where people say, "You do these women's movies." I welcome that, but the fact of the matter is, there have been a number of movies made about women, and there aren't that many women filmmakers. It's just recently that we've had more female filmmakers starting to work, and some of them don't even do "women-generated films," like Mimi Leder. Her movies have strong women in them, but they're more testosterone-driven. But no one has really asked Jim Brooks about doing Terms of Endearment , and when they say in a review that Waiting to Exhale is like George Cukor, that means that he was doing it already. I'm not the first. So I don't have any lofty idea about my choice of subject matter.

CF: It seems like all your films -- directing and acting -- have been concerned with communication between people.

FW: That's important to me, connecting with people, with feelings. That's always been a goal in my work. In the beginning, that was the reason I was doing it, to find some connection with everyone, not as a movie star, but to find something in a character that would connect, that was part of the spirit that we're all connected to. I don't think about it in terms like that anymore, but I know I'm still guided to those kinds of projects, and I'll always be guided to them. I'm not attracted to anything that doesn't have to do with real relationships. I like fantasy, I like myth, and to me myth is even more connected to our core.

CF: How did you get started in acting?

FW: In high school I did some musicals, but I never took acting until college. I was studying opera, classical voice, and a speech teacher asked me to audition for this play and I got the lead. And she helped me to get into a conservatory, with a scholarship as a singer, and then I was accepted into the acting conservatory. This agent saw me, the summer before I went to conservatory, and while I was in school, I started working right away. And it worked out.

CF: So you didn't pursue this as your one and only career.

FW: Not at all, and I was always kind of nervous that it wasn't the right thing for me. I could have done what I wanted, I had like a 3.8 average. My folks wanted me to be a doctor, but I figured it out and started to do it [acting]. I was concerned that I couldn't do it well enough. I have a little bit of a demon that follows me about mediocrity, in myself, and I used to judge myself really harshly.

CF: Did it help that people around you were saying that you were fabulous and giving you prizes and roles?

FW: Not at all. I think I was a little arrogant about it in some ways, I was like, "No, I don't care what they think." even after I won an award for Bird , I was still chased by that demon, until a few years later, another hit man movie I did, called Diary of a Hit man , and I said, "Okay, I can do this." I don't know why that little movie did it. I think it was because I was so busy before it, and normally I spend so much time to prepare, and I didn't have time in between. And I met with this hit man in Pittsburgh, and I just jumped into it. He took me to clothing stores and told me my shoes were all wrong: it was like Pretty Woman for hit men. I liked working on that film, and lost some of my fear.

CF: You feel confident now, as you're choosing projects?

FW: I feel more centered; it's not my focus. At that time I was so obsessive. Now, I really care about my work but I have so many other things I'm dealing with, and I try to look at my life more overall. I try to live my life as an expression of my art, as opposed to, "That's art, and this is conversation." It makes me enjoy things a bit more.

CF: It looks like you might have enjoyed Ghost Dog . How did you and Isaach De Bankole work out your characters?

FW: He's great, isn't he? I only speak a little bit of French, I couldn't hardly understand what he was saying, but you can understand him if you watch him, because he's so animated. That was one of the brilliant things about this film, how it shows true communication, sometimes in odd ways, like with the bird, the passenger pigeon. And then that scene on the roof, where we're looking at the guy with the boat, and there are three different languages. It's quite unusual, and I like that theme, about transcending words. The movie is mostly about spirit, the internal, I think. And that was the key to how I worked on the part, to try to create an internal life, to sustain the character even though I don't talk very much. I only talk for like thirty or forty minutes, when you see me. So my whole life has been that kind of silence, you know? Even when I'm talking to the bird that comes to me: "Yeah, there is something you could do for me." Or the dog: I was having a silent conversation with the dog, until the girl tells me I can tell him to go.

CF: Camille Winbush, who plays the girl, she's amazing.

FW: She's got a really strong spirit. I read with a lot of girls, and she wasn't the best, but she had the strongest samurai spirit that Jim was looking for.

CF: How would you describe that samurai spirit she has?

FW: It's something that's a little ancient, and by that I mean wise, internally wise, something that's convicted, that knows where she stands. And a sense of quiet strength, something that's a little bit of magic. I hope she's able to do that as she grows older, it's hard for little kids to grow up, you know?

CF: What do you make of the film's thematic interest in the ways the gangsters saw all "others" as the "same thing"?

FW: I think Jim was making a point, with the Native Canadian, or the black guys. The common denominator: they all name themselves. So why are the gangsters making it so separate? Why are you calling me names? The film makes the point about all kinds of minority groups, even women. And it makes it with humor. I think the movie is funnier than Jim thought it was going to be; I don't think he knew the relationship between me and Isaach was going to be that funny.

CF: The TV cartoons are another level of humor.

FW: Yeah, like little commentaries all the way through. It's also reflective of the hip hop community, the cartoons and the comic book world. It's cool, you know. The comic books, it deals more with superheroes and archangels, and the cartoons, well, there's Betty Boop.

CF: But Felix the Cat, man, he's something else.

FW: Felix the Cat was perfect for my character, because I am him, with my own magic bag of tricks. Jim did a good job with that. He grabbed a hold of a lot of components that seem superficial, but are also deeply-rooted hip hop elements. Like the mob: the hip hop community embraces that image, the Godfather, even evidenced in the names of many rappers. But you can see with the rappers in the park, and the Bloods and the Crips in the movie: it's all there.

CF: You mean when the rappers and the kids on the street all give respect to Ghost Dog?

FW: They're tribes, knowing and seeing each other. And in the park, they're building up a myth, making Ghost Dog into an urban myth, while they're staring at them. He's here, but he's also mythic. Jim did good with this one, because he pays a lot of homage, and like you say, respect, to a lot of other things, to other films, filmmakers, and to tribes. And as a result, I think the film resonates. Jim writes characters with specific people in mind, and I think that helps.

CF: Have you ever thought about writing?

FW: I don't have the time. I wrote when I was in college a little bit, a few scripts. I'm telling myself that next year, I'm going to sit down and write something to direct, something more personal to me. I make things personal to me, but I think I'd like to take a story I knew, something I care about.

CF: It is an interesting "moment," in filmmaking, in that, for all the huge "product" available, there's also room for writer-directors, small projects get some distribution. And then there's the cross-pollination, between music and movies and TV.

FW: Yeah, you know I wish the [Ghost Dog] album had dropped already, for that cross-pollination. You have the movie money paying for the video and the video sells the CD: it helps both. I just finished shooting the video with RZA, it should come out in a couple of weeks.

CF: Do you ever worry about too much commercialization, the "selling out" anxiety that afflicts some hip hop artists and fans?

FW: I go back and forth between indie and studio because I feel like it, not because I feel obligated to do one or the other. The only reason to make a decision like that is financial, you know, you can't live. That doesn't make my decision for me, I do what feels right for me. I'm not going to do a bad movie just because it's a studio movie or an indie film, and there are hordes of bad independent movies. People tend to think that indie movies are always good, but I've seen horrific ones, just as well as I've seen horrific studio films. So I just go by how I feel, it's the only way you can figure it out. Otherwise you get lost in the maze of trying to second guess the people, the studio, how you can make your career long or short. It's easy to get lost in this maze, called life, really, you know what I mean?

CF: I don't think many people start off thinking, "I'm going to make a bad movie."

FW: No, they don't think that. Sometimes though, people will start a movie knowing they don't have a lot of money and hoping they'll get some. Or, people get caught up in the momentum of a film getting made, because they can get it made. They don't spend the time to really work on the script. A lot of times it's about money, which imposes a window of time, or set of actors, or a script. It's really a mess sometimes. I've never been on a movie, where the person thought, "I'm going to make a bad movie." But I've watched people make films where they're going through motions, or doing it for some other reason, like, it's a stepping stone (which I think is a mistake), or, "I need to make the money, so I'll direct this film." There are much better and more important reasons to make movies.

Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's review or Jerry White's review.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.