After early supporting roles in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “The Color of Money,” “Platoon,” “Stakeout” and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” Forest Whitaker finally landed a leading role, winning Best Actor at Cannes in the process, in 1988’s “Bird” the biopic of jazz legend Charlie Parker directed by Clint Eastwood. Nearly 25-years-on, it looks like the actor-director is finally returning to another jazz icon, stepping behind the camera this time, although enlisting the help of his old collaborator on the film.
We caught up with Whitaker this week at the Marrakech Film Festival, and he revealed he’s got two directorial projects on the way or in the works: “Better Angels,” a project focusing on Ugandan child soldiers in which he’ll also star, and “Getting To Happy,” the belated sequel to “Waiting to Exhale” (we covered both of these yesterday). But there’s one other film he’s hoping to shoot and star in in 2013, his long-in-the-works biopic of Louis Armstrong. The film (which last we heard, was called “Satchmo“) is still being scripted, and for the first time, Whitaker revealed some of the names he’s been working with on the script. “The Louis Armstrong biopic probably will happen in 2013. I’m working on a new draft, Ron Bass (‘Rain Man,’ ‘Waiting To Exhale’) worked on the first draft with me, and now Nick Pileggi, who wrote ‘Goodfellas,’ is working on a new draft with me.” That’s some pretty major talents involved, so we can only hope that this’ll be a cut or two above the usual biopic.
And indeed, Whitaker says that at least in its early stages, the film was pretty different from other examples of the genre: “We’re trying to narrow it down, the first draft was told mythically, more like a fairy tale. All the facts were there, but sometime 5-year-old Louis would break out in song as the old Louis, as he walked through the streets. It’s not your realistic biopic.” The actor confirmed that he’ll be both directing and starring in the film, although he won’t attempt to mimic Armstrong’s distinctive singing voice. “I”m not going to sing,” he says. “I’m just going to use his voice. It’s too iconic.”
And don’t expect a misery-and-guts kind of portrait either. The actor/director maintains that, while Armstrong had his troubles, he was essentially a positive person. “It’s amazing how much he loved life, how much he embraced and danced with life. If you go on YouTube and watch his videos, you can’t help but smile, it’s really startling. I think it’s gonna be great for me, because I think it’ll be great to work out what it’s like to have that kind of joy. He wasn’t miserable, he didn’t die from a drug overdose. He had his conflicts, he was deserted at times, he was considered an Uncle Tom at times, but he loved life.”
Finally, Whitaker has been consulting with his old colleague on “Bird,” Clint Eastwood, on the project, who’s been offering advice. “I asked him to read the script, and I met with him and talked to him. He talked to me about some of the issues with conflict in the latter part…I don’t feel comfortable quoting him.” Before the project moves forward, however, Whitaker has to wrap up a supporting role opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Last Stand.”
The film marks the comeback of the action star, with acclaimed Korean filmmaker Ji-Woon Kim (“A Bittersweet Life,” “I Saw The Devil“) making his English language-debut, and Whitaker’s enjoyed working with the filmmaker in the brief time they’ve had so far. “I’ve only done one day on the movie, I shot the final scene. I really like the filmmaker, and on set, he really has command of the visual image. He talks through an interpreter, but he gives you more notes than any other filmmaker. I do about three more weeks back on that movie in January in New Mexico.”
It looks like the couple years will bring forth some of the most interesting work from Whitaker yet. —
Interview by Jessica Kiang