March 2002
PANIC: NOT ME : An interview with Forest Whitaker

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

PANIC: NOT ME : An interview with Forest Whitaker

Forest Whitaker is one of the most accomplished actor/directors in the business. He came in the business with a small appearance in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. That was followed by many roles until he won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988 for his portrayal of jazz legend Charlie Parker in “Bird”. He then gained worldwide acclaim for his performance in “The Crying Game”. A few more roles followed until he made his directorial debut with the HBO film, “Strapped”. He then directed the blockbuster hit “Waiting to Exhale”. After appearing in the indie cult film “Ghost Dog”, Forest Whitaker is back on the big screen with “ Panic Room”, a new thriller directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club). In an interview with, Forest talks about his work on the film.

WM: What sort of research did you do for the film?

FW: Most of the research I did was security research. The other stuff was about being conflicted, trying to care for my family, dealing with the custody battle, and trying to change my life. So a lot of research dealt with building the panic room and understanding that stuff for me.

WM: Your character had shades of “Ghost Dog” in the film. Is there something about these characters that you are drawn to?

FW: The thing that is similar between both these roles is that they both live by a code. There is somewhat of a code that Burnham lives by; he won’t cross certain lines no matter what. He won’t allow them to be crossed. The character of Ghost Dog is not conflicted, he really feels confident about the way he’s living his life and he knows what his code is and he won’t alter that for anything. He’s a much more spiritually elevated person, even though he’s a hit man.

WM: What was most appealing about this role?

FW: The conflict. Here’s a guy who goes into a situation he thinks will be very simple. He’s trying to change his life. He has the key to the apartment. He knows the entire layout of the place. But there are people inside and he has to get over that hurdle. Then another accomplice comes into the mix, and that’s another hurdle he has to cross. Slowly I start to make these little steps that at certain points I really can’t get out. Then I have to figure out, once I’m trapped, how far I’ll go. That’s what's interesting about the character to me.

WM: Could you have a panic room in your own home?

FW: I don’t want a panic room in my own home. It sort of frightens me. I could understand why you want one, but I don’t want to walk by a room knowing that I put it there just in case somebody is coming to get me. That means that every time I walk by it no matter what I have to think about somebody coming to get me. I’ve been ok so far. But I understand people wanting to take care of the people they love. It makes sense, but not for me.

WM: Was the dynamic on the set different on the set from what you are used to?

FW: The guys on the set, Dwight, Jared, and me, would work for a day, and then the next day Jodie would work. We rarely worked together, so it was all about getting to know some of the guys. With the way scheduling was, she’s not in the small frame as all of us. They never did it that way. The thing about the film was you did become closer with some people in ways because it took so long. This is the longest shoot I have ever had. It was about 145 shooting days. We also had rehearsals before that. I think it so long because of the shots taken. It was the most planned movie I’ve been involved with.

WM: How long did you take before deciding to do this film?

FW: When I read it right away, I knew I wanted to do it. They told me that David was going to be directing it, and after reading the script, I knew it would be a great movie. In his hand, I thought it would be amazing. In another person’s hands, it would feel like a play. It all happens in a house, but with him choosing to do that, it’s totally different.

WM: Which do you prefer, acting or directing?

FW: I think I like directing, but I’m really getting a blast with some of the roles I’ve taken. I liked working on this character. I liked working on “Phone Booth”. It hasn’t come out, but l liked the character. It comes out in the fall, I think. Colin Farrell is in it, and Joel Schumacher directed it. In a way, it’s sort of the antithesis of Panic Room. It’s also like a play because it all takes place around a phone booth. But we shot that movie in 11 days total. With cameras all around, I was always in character and it was really kinetic.

WM: Do you have anything else coming out this year

FW: Yeah, I’m in a film called “The Green Dragon” that my company produced. It comes out in May. I play a small role. It’s about Vietnamese refugees brought here during the Vietnamese war. They’re put out in the communities from these military bases and it centers around these families and them trying to find their own place. They want to feel secure at home, and in a new land. It’s mostly about the Vietnamese and their camp. It’s not really about me.

WM: How did “Fat Albert” come to you?

FW: Bill Cosby came to me and said “My people like your directing at Fox, and I would like you to direct my film”. Well, I said “ok”. I said that I liked the show and let’s check out the script. It will be a live action version of Fat Albert. We start shooting in 4 weeks. It comes out Christmas Day.

WM: Was there a big search for “Fat Albert”?

FW: We were looking all over the place for him. He’s a hard person to fill. At one point, I was saying, “Well, maybe he doesn’t have to be so big”. I was open to everyone. We saw people thin and large. But the guy I found, he is Fat Albert. He’s perfect. This guy is great. He’s also very funny and secure.

WM: Are you as complex as the characters you choose?

FW: I guess I am because certainly the characters are a reflection of how I feel and think. I put a lot of myself into my parts.