The soft-spoken actor suddenly has all of Hollywood talking

By Joshua Rich
Updated October 06, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

About a year ago, deep in the African jungle, Forest Whitaker found himself anonymously sweating his way through a throng of Ugandan pilgrims marching in a procession to a monument for slain missionaries. ”I needed to understand what it’s like to be African, what it’s like to be Ugandan,” says Whitaker, who was preparing for The Last King of Scotland, in which he plays Idi Amin, the dictator blamed for the deaths of 300,000 Ugandans in the 1970s.”Those things are already a part of him. They’re not a part of me — I’m African-American and this was my first time there.”

Sitting in an air-conditioned Beverly Hills hotel suite, smearing cream cheese on a bagel, it’s clear that a lot has changed for Whitaker since returning from Africa, where he traced his ancestry back to tribes in Nigeria and Ghana. Far from getting lost in the crowd, Whitaker is drawing applause and Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Amin. Already, it is bound to be remembered as the performance of his life, and, as The Wall Street Journal proclaimed, ”one of the great performances of modern movie history.”

A quarter century has passed since the actor, now 45, made a cameo as a brooding football player in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and became a Hollywood fixture in movies like Good Morning, Vietnam; Battlefield Earth; and Phone Booth. But it’s hard to imagine a moment when he’s been busier — or more gratified. In the past month, he’s jetted from L.A. to Telluride to Toronto to NYC to Chicago, soaking in adoration. Oprah Winfrey invited him on her show, effusing on-air that she’s seen Scotland more times than she has seen her own movie, 1985’s The Color Purple.

It’s praise to make an actor’s head swell with pride. But Whitaker just smiles and says, softly and with a tinge of embarrassment, ”It’s best to just live in the moment, I think. Right now, I’m really happy.” Despite carrying the frame of a sack-hungry defensive tackle, the 6’2” star has probably been called ”shy” and ”a gentle giant” more than anybody since Snuffleupagus. The dad (he and his wife of 10 years, Keisha, have four kids, ages 8, 10, 14, and 16 — two were from prior relationships) may play killers (Panic Room) and tough guys (FX’s The Shield), but he carries with him a well-worn book on spiritual mysticism, Jeff Love’s The Quantum Gods.

Whitaker’s quiet demeanor contrasts with the alternately fiery and gregarious Amin. The film provides a glimpse of the tyrant through the eyes of a fictional doctor, played by The Chronicles of Narnia‘s James McAvoy, whom Amin hires as an adviser. ”He was very much in the zone all the time,” McAvoy reports. ”That’s disconcerting. But I thrived off the way Forest worked. He terrified me and, by turns, thrilled me.”

To embody the charming but vicious oppressor, Whitaker studied old films, learned some Swahili, and honed the martial-arts skills he’s practiced since age 12. ”It teaches you about the heart of being a warrior,” he says. ”I was looking for some key to his spirit. Because I wasn’t trying to impersonate him.” Throughout production, he continued researching, meeting with friends and family of Amin (who died in exile in Saudi Arabia three years ago). ”I was deeply searching to figure out the guy I was playing,” he says. ”I kept trying to find all of his emotion and feelings inside myself.”

Whitaker had a past of his own to build on. A son of a teacher and an insurance man, he grew up in Compton, Calif., and commuted 20 miles to high school in L.A.’s tony Pacific Palisades. ”Everybody knew me because I was on the football team and I sang,” he says. ”But I was very…quiet.” Not that it kept him from landing a football scholarship to Pomona College or, after injuries sidelined him, a music scholarship to USC.

His first agent discovered the tenor singing in a production of The Beggar’s Opera. Soon he exploded into films (Platoon, The Color of Money, Bird, The Crying Game), but he didn’t get carried away: ”I was like a hermit. Really, a hermit. I’d just do my work and go home.” Whitaker then turned to directing (Waiting to Exhale, Hope Floats, First Daughter). He was interested in stories about ”healing, personal dignity, and pride,” he explains, and those female-oriented films fit the bill. Still, he says, ”I was losing being an artist. I needed to figure out what it was I needed to say. So I went back to the source — I started acting again.”

Which is how Whitaker wound up in Africa. Along with his recent turn as tough cop Jon Kavanaugh on The Shield and his upcoming five-episode arc as a man-done-wrong on ER, Scotland is a key part of that newfound focus. Also on tap: an appearance in a video for rapper T.I., voicing a beast in Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, and a return to directing next year with a gritty drama about Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army. ”I’m not going to keep repeating myself,” he says. ”I just want to keep growing.”

Forest Whitaker’s Must List
Legends, Gods, and Ghosts are what the star digs most.

Denzel Washington
Whitaker has acted with everyone from Sean Penn to Paul Newman. But he really wants to do a film with the Inside Man star. “I love Denzel’s work,” he says.

”The Quantum Gods” 1976
“My reading centers around theosophy and spirituality.” Jeff Love’s book “has to do with different energies in the universe.”

Zhang Yimou
“I am caught up in the splendor of the martial arts, the way [the “Hero” director] displays it.”

”Get Lifted” 2005
“I listen to different kinds of music. John Legend is amazing, [this album] is great.”

”Ghosts of Cité Soleil”
“It’s a great film about this part of Haiti which is supposedly the most dangerous place on the planet,” he says of the movie he caught at Telluride. “Amazing.”