Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker had been acting for 25 years before he felt he was really up to the task.
His role as jazz sax player Charlie Parker in 1988’s “Bird” won him best actor at the Cannes Film Festival. “I was really proud I’d done it, but I couldn’t watch it at first,” he said. “I know it sounds crazy, but I think it was ‘The Last King of Scotland’ that made me say, ‘OK, I can do it.’ ” He won an Oscar for the 2006 film.
The 58-year-old actor, who has essayed everything from tough cops to Desmond Tutu, said he began to lose his zeal for performing about seven years ago. “I stopped being passionate and feeling it the way I wanted to,” he said.
“And I just couldn’t really create. I wasn’t doing good work. I was just working and continued to work hoping and expecting that something might happen; [I was] without joy,” he said.
“There was a period of time, five years, when I was just like, ‘I’m not doing anything good. What am I doing? Not working the way I want to.’ But the last few roles have been rejuvenating for me.”
One of those roles is crime boss Bumpy Johnson in Epix’s new series “Godfather of Harlem,” premiering Sunday. Based on real events, Johnson returns in 1963 after a decade in prison to find his former kingdom in shambles and the Genovese crime family his deadly rivals.
Whitaker, who grew up in Compton, Calif., and attended college on a football scholarship, is now working the way he wants to. His dad, an insurance salesman, transplanted the family from Texas to Los Angeles when he was little. “When my parents first moved to L.A. we moved to south-central L.A.,” he said.
“I was about 11 and we didn’t have any money. They couldn’t get me a nickel allowance, but I didn’t really see it that way. I didn’t see myself as poor. It was only later I realized that if you can’t get a dime to go buy something, then maybe you have financial issues,” he said with a laugh.
He attended a neighborhood elementary school, but his mom sent him across town to junior high because of the gang activity in Compton. She was a teacher, the mother of four, and had two master’s degrees. “I come from a family of preachers or teachers on both sides of my family, so I used to go to church every Sunday,” he said.
“And I wasn’t sure. So I said to my mom, ‘I don’t see why I have to believe what you believe; I don’t want to go.’ My mom said, ‘You don’t have to believe what I believe, but you have to believe in something.’ That was a big change in my life. I think it made me look at things like: What do you believe in? What are you willing to die for? It changed everything. I’ll never forget that. I was 9 years old.”
Separated from Keisha Nash, his wife of 22 years, Whitaker has four kids, three with her and one stepdaughter.
One thing that has always fascinated him about his work is it enables him to pursue learning. “I like continuing to explore the human condition through these characters that I play,” he said.
“I walk in the world, and I’m a student all the time. It’s an unusual position to be able to say, ‘OK, I’m playing a dictator and I need to go be with his family in the north and talk to the parliamentarian, and I need to go learn this language, or that.’ It’s unusual. And then to examine what makes them tick, what created them, it expands your awareness of life.”