Seeing the Forest Through the Tazoom

Award-winning actor and box office-grabbing director Forest Whitaker defends the male characters in Waiting to Exhale, explains why he'd rather direct than act, and presents a cabalistic theory of Creation.


Whatever you do, don't try to anticipate Forest Whitaker's next move. Here's a guy who goes to Pomona College on a football scholarship and ends up onstage. Here's a guy who, early in his career, turns down film roles because he doesn't think he's good enough and then, at the age of 27, wins the Best Actor award at Cannes. And here's a guy who lauds the agenda of the Million Man March and then directs a movie, Waiting to Exhale, in which most of the black men are reprehensible.

I meet this tall, soft-spoken, unpredictable vegetarian in a coffeehouse, where he sips cranberry juice and listens as I harangue him about Waiting to Exhale. He stays cool, and when I'm finished he says, ''I didn't perceive the men as badly as other people did. It was always my intent to try to understand their points of view. I kept saying to [the screenwriters] that if audiences don't understand these men in some way, then they won't understand the women at all. Because the women have chosen to be with them."

"Are you saying the guy in the film who leaves his wife and two children and starts boffing his secretary is not a villain?" Whitaker smiles and says. "As an actor, if I'm playing what some people think of as a bad character, I never think of myself as villainous. I once played a hit man who was supposed to kill a woman and her baby, and you think, how can I like that guy? Well, I liked him very much. I thought he was a decent person. There's always some reason why a character behaves the way he does. It's up to the filmmaker to assert some of that and to create whole characters."

Directing Waiting to Exhale would have been a daunting assignment for even the most experienced director, because so much of the melodramatic exposition is revealed in voice-overs and monologues. This is OK in a book, but in drama, conflict drives the story and there's not much conflict in voice-overs and monologues. Whitaker, who prior to Exhale had directed only a few stage plays, music videos and an HBO film called Strapped, coaxed terrific performances from his quartet of actresses (Angela Bassett, Whitney Houston, Lela Rochon and Loretta Devine), and the film, despite its mawkish script, became a solid (and surprise) commercial success.

For his next feature, Whitaker has opted for a script with a more traditional story line. Emerald City is a thriller set in Galveston, Texas, and on the day of this interview, an offer to play the leading man has just been made to a big-name actor. Whitaker is nervously awaiting his answer. "I don't want to jinx it by saying who." he says,

"Wait a minute," I say. "You're Forest Whitaker. Can't you just pick up the phone and call any actor you want and say. 'Hey. I'd like you to be in my next film?'"

"It depends," he says. "I called Wesley [Snipes] and Gregory [Hines] on Exhale. With Whitney, you have to speak to agents. It's usually best to approach actors though agents. That way you don't put people in an awkward position. You want the project to be the right thing for the people you're asking. I wouldn't want to ask someone to take a role just so I can get my film made." Then, apropos of offers and acceptances. Whitaker asks me if I'm familiar with the Tazoom theory.

"The what?"

"The cabalistic theory of the Tazoom."

"No. What is the Tazoom?"

"In the beginning, there was only the giver. But you can't give unless there's someone to receive. So the giver created a receiver out of its own self. But the receiver couldn't give. The arrangement didn't work for him, and he felt guilt and shame. This friction between the two caused the Tazoom. The Big Bang."

"Uh-huh. Speaking of a big bang, tell me about your Best Actor award for Clint Eastwood's Bird at Cannes back in 1988."

"First of all, Cannes was mindboggling. All those people. All those cameras. Fans screaming, 'CLEEENT' and 'FORET!' I was a pretty insular person. I didn't even read the trades. It never occurred to me that I'd win. It wasn't the way I thought at the time."

At the time, Whitaker was a young man from South Central Los Angeles. His mother was a teacher. His father sold insurance. He'd had small parts in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Vision Quest and Johnny Handsome, among other films. He'd videotaped an audition for Eastwood's casting director and then had had a meeting with Clint, during which they just talked about jazz. After that enigmatic encounter. Whitaker called his agent and said, "It seemed like i might have the part, but he didn't say it. Could you check that out?" Of Eastwood. Whitaker says. "He trusted me, and at that time, there was no reason to."

By the time the Cannes award brought Whitaker international recognition, he'd already worked with prestige directors like Oliver Stone (in Platoon) and Martin Scorsese (in The Color of Money), and he went on to further acclaim in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game. After directing Exhale, he stepped back in front of the camera to star with John Travolta and Robert Duvall in Phenomenon.

"Which do you prefer? Acting or directing?"

"Directing is more comfortable for me, because as an actor there's always something inherently false. Because I'm not that person. I can spend a week in jail, but I'm still leaving. I once talked to a shaman who said, "What makes you think these characters you play aren't real? I think you should examine that.' But it has always been my great frustration as an actor that I can't go deep into the thoughts, feelings and history of the character. As a director. I feel like it's real. I get caught up in the emotions and the story. I like being a storyteller."


Jeff Lantos interviewed Paul Verhoeven for the November. 1995 issue of Movieline.