Forest Whitaker: Deep Forest

With Hope Floats, his directorial follow-up to Waiting to Exhale, Forest Whitaker aims to show audiences that Sandra Bullock is "a very serious actress who can do just about anything she wants."

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When Forest Whitaker, the tall, hulking actor with the gentle-giant vibe, parlayed the success he'd achieved in roles for such big-time directors as Martin Scorsese (The Color of Money), Oliver Stone (Platoon), Clint Eastwood (Bird) and Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) into a film directing opportunity for himself, not many people guessed he'd score a box-office success like the glitzy, soapy, crowd-pleasing diva-fest Waiting to Exhale.

Suddenly, a guy who'd previously directed only a few plays, some videos, and an HBO flick found himself not merely sought after as a solid, commercial director, but considered by many in Hollywood to be a terrific director of women. With an array of follow-up film possibilities before him, including Exhale novelist Terry McMillan's new one, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Whitaker chose Hope Floats, an intimate, multigenerational Texas romantic comedy/drama about a young woman who goes back to her small hometown to reclaim herself after being publicly embarrassed when her best friend blabs on a national TV talk show about the affair she had with the woman's husband. With its twangy drawls, countrified backdrop and messy family entanglements, Hope Floats is unflashy by comparison with Waiting to Exhale. Moreover, it's a film in which the star and executive producer , Sandra Bullock, has the task of reclaiming her career after being publicly embarrassed by the critical and box-office disappointments In Love and War and Speed 2: Cruise Control. What drew Whitaker to simultaneously tackle the direction of such down-home material and the reinvention of a movie star?

"I got attracted to trying to put on-screen how you feel when you're as lost as the character Sandra plays," he says. "The movie's about the pain of losing yourself and the joy of regaining yourself. It's the story of someone being dragged to the bottom, someone who loses some of the best parts of herself, but who then somehow rises back up. That just grabbed me."

Whitaker's persuasive actor, and he's got a "relationship movie" to sell, but he utters his with such palpable empathy that I'm moved to comment, "Sounds like you've been there and back."

"I have felt most lost in my life around certain relationships, "he observes, staring off and smiling ruefully. "I was probably a lot more idealistic when I was younger, but I remember being so in love with somebody that I flew to another country just to be where she was. In this relationship, there were always lies that I refused to believe were lies. For instance, if she said, 'I have a friend who lives with me,' I would accept that. So, this one time, she was supposedly out of town, and, let me say, I was really in love--really, really gone. I flew to where she was, and I remember thinking, 'Well, if she's really out of town, she won't mind me climbing up this ladder to look in her room way up there. If she's there, I can talk to her. If she's not, well, then, she was telling the truth.' So I found myself climbing up this ladder, and there she was with her friend and lover. I was just devastated. I climbed down and took the lessons from it."

Such romantic desperation and resignation probably account for Whitaker's damn-the-KIeenex, full-speed-ahead approach to the transcendently melodramatic Waiting to Exhale, and may explain his feel for Hope Floats, in which Sandra Bullock's character is forced to come to terms with things like her sometimes harrowing impulses toward her young daughter and her relationships with both her flamboyant mother (Gena Rowlands) and her Alzheimer's-stricken father (James N. Harrell).

"I don't consider women's experiences foreign to me," asserts Whitaker. "I don't mind listening and looking deep into women, to what they say and feel. I try and see past everything. There have been times in my life when I've felt every bit as lost and without hope as some of the characters in Exhale or Hope Floats, times where--especially in love relationships, as I said--I basically lost my mind."

Is that how he sees Hope Floats--a story about somebody losing their mind? "I had this idea that I kept to myself until now," Whitaker says, "that the whole story was like a dream. First, the lead character dies a terrible 'death' being ripped to shreds in the modern equivalent of a Roman coliseum, which is what I think a talk show is. After that, she must revisit every issue in her life, every person in her life, all of whom show her parts of herself she must come to terms with in order to progress to the next level. See?"

Well, sort of, but what most people probably want to see is whether Sandra Bullock will finally prove herself more than photogenic, sweetly sexy and inordinately lovable. Does she pull it off? "Many people who are involved in the movie expressed concerns and worries about that," concedes the director. "I just looked inside of Sandy's eyes when I met her and I could see little pockets of pain, insecurity. I saw how vast she is, the capacity she has. She came to this with a dive-in attitude, really wanting to expose different parts of herself and wanting to play darker moments. Actors need to have confidence that they're not going to fall. I let Sandy know that I was walking with her and she went very far emotionally. In a couple of moments especially, she just destroys you. If she doesn't show all [she can do] on camera, it'll be my fault. I don't think the movie's going to change people wanting to see her do the comedy stuff she's so good at, but I think people are now going to take her as a very serious actress who can do just about anything she wants."

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