Forest Whitaker on Broadway debut: 'I want a challenge'

NEW YORK -- Forest Whitaker has not one or two copies of the script he's memorized for his Broadway debut.

See Full Article

Not three or four copies, either. Try five.

The actor, director and producer pulled them out of his backpack recently and all of them were battered, underlined and soaked in highlighter. One was studded with little photographs he added to evoke feelings.

Whitaker these days is like a graduate student during finals. Every word seems to have been interrogated, researched and then put back, gingerly. This is what he needs to do.

"You've got to. Well, I mean, I don't know if you've got to. I have to," he said during a visit to his modest dressing room at the Booth Theatre. "There are so many things for me to learn."

Whitaker this month stars in a Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie," a short play about human connection that requires the actor to speak for an hour virtually nonstop.

"It's really going to force me to grow," he said. "It's very challenging for me in so many ways. I guess I didn't even realize how challenging until I actually took it on."

Like O'Neill's more famous works such as "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "The Iceman Cometh," "Hughie" deals with the pathetic illusions men create for themselves to fill their sad lives.

Tony Award-winning producer Darren Bagert, who helped lead the last Broadway revival of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," sent the script for "Hughie" to Whitaker in the hope of finally luring him onstage.

Whitaker over the years had been offered plenty of roles in plays or revivals, but always refused. Even his agent warned Bagert that the actor was likely to decline. But something about "Hughie" -- with Michael Grandage directing -- grabbed him.

"I had never heard of it. I had never seen it. I actually couldn't locate someone who had," Whitaker said. "It's almost like doing an original play because it has no preconceptions around it and yet it's written by this amazing playwright."

"Hughie" is a two-character play set in a rundown New York hotel in 1928. Whitaker plays Erie, a low-level gambler and spinner of tall tales about himself. The only other role is a bored night clerk, who has taken over from the recently deceased Hughie.

Erie is mourning the loss of the only person who believed in him. "He's a guy who likes to tell stories and likes to hear himself talk," Whitaker said. "There are guys like that. I had a friend who, even if you left the phone for 30 minutes and made a sandwich and came back, he'd still be talking."

The play marks Whitaker's return to the stage after 30 years. After graduating from the University of Southern California, he was in an improv show at the Mark Taper Forum and a musical at the Inner City Cultural Center, but then movies came calling, starting with "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

Since then, Whitaker's credits include Oliver Stone's "Platoon," Lee Daniels' "The Butler," Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game" and his Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin in 2006's "The Last King of Scotland." He said he needed to grow before returning to theatre.

"He easily could have done a multitude of other ensemble plays, which he would have easily gotten amazing acknowledgment as the featured actor," said Bagert. "But Forest said to me, 'I want a challenge. I want something that's going to challenge me as an actor and a person."'

Whitaker has typically thrown himself into the part. He learned the idioms of the time ("lousy with jack" means flush with cash and "bangtails" are racehorses). He also was coached by professional craps and poker players. He even visited horses at Aqueduct Racetrack.

Other actors who have played Erie on Broadway include Jason Robards, Ben Gazzara and Al Pacino. Whitaker will be the first African-American, but Bagert said asking him was never about skin colour.

"I was trying to think of an actor that I thought was one of our greatest character actors who may be willing to take on the incredible mountain to climb of this role," the producer said.

Whitaker, 54, knows he doesn't match O'Neil's vision of Erie, which calls for an actor with blue eyes, sandy hair and medium height. No matter, it's the character that counts.

"Colour can't be wiped out -- it's there, I'm a black actor -- but you move past that into the minutia of the story itself and the spirits or souls of these particular people," he said.

Whitaker's days now are filled with the "Hughie" script. It has taken a lot of work for Whitaker to get here but he seems jazzed by a live audience after years of movie-making.

"You can feel the energy and the movement of their breath or their laughter, which, I think, is one of the things I wanted to feel," he said. "That kind of connection is powerful."



Advertisements

Latest Entertainment News

  • Nobel prize winner's book turned down by 19 publishers

    Entertainment CTV News
    The French writer Claude Simon, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1985, would not be published today, according to an experiment conducted by one of his fans. Writer Serge Volle sent 50 pages of Simon's 1962 novel, "The Palace," set during the Spanish Civil War, to 19 French publishers. Source
  • Famed Winnipeg filmmaker and animator Grant Munro dies at age 94

    Entertainment CBC News
    Winnipeg filmmaker Grant Munro has died at the age of 94, the National Film Board said. (John McMillan ) The National Film Board says famed Winnipeg filmmaker Grant Munro has died at the age of 94. Source
  • Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel holds son, pleads for health care

    Entertainment CBC News
    Jimmy Kimmel held his baby son as he returned to his late-night show after a week off for the boy's heart surgery. Kimmel was crying from the first moment of his monologue Monday night as he pleaded with Congress to restore and improve children's health coverage, a cause he has championed since his son Billy was born with a heart defect in April. Source
  • 'Hi I'm Jimmy. This is Billy:' emotional Kimmel makes health-care plea with infant son

    Entertainment CBC News
    Jimmy Kimmel held his baby son as he returned to his late-night show after a week off for the boy's heart surgery. Kimmel was crying from the first moment of his monologue Monday night as he pleaded with Congress to restore and improve children's health coverage, a cause he has championed since his son Billy was born with a heart defect in April. Source
  • Bullied boy's mother under fire for troubling social media posts

    Entertainment CTV News
    The internet has turned on the mother of Keaton Jones, the Tennessee boy who tearfully described a bullying incident in a viral video, after several social media posts surfaced of her proudly displaying the Confederate flag and making potentially bigoted remarks. Source
  • J.K. Rowling says she's proud to receive royal honour

    Entertainment CTV News
    LONDON - Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling can add another magic moment to her list of achievements -- she has been made a royal Companion of Honour. Rowling received the honour from Prince William on Tuesday at a Buckingham Palace ceremony. Source
  • Royal cameos?: Princes Harry and William to attend 'Last Jedi' premiere

    Entertainment CTV News
    LONDON - Princes William and Harry are due on the red carpet for the European premiere of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," in which the royal siblings reportedly make a cameo appearance. Royal officials refuse to comment on reports that the princes played stormtroopers in the sci-fi saga when they visited the film's set in April. Source
  • Jimmy Kimmel returns to show, pleads for children's health care

    Entertainment CTV News
    LOS ANGELES - Jimmy Kimmel held his baby son as he returned to his late-night son from a week off for the boy's heart surgery. Kimmel was crying from the first moment of his monologue Monday night as he pleaded with Congress to restore and improve children's health coverage, a cause he has championed since his son Billy was born with a heart defect in April. Source
  • Singer Gwen Stefani to wrap up Super Bowl week performances

    Entertainment CTV News
    PRIOR LAKE, Minn. -- Pop singer Gwen Stefani will close out a star-studded Super Bowl week in Minnesota. The three-time Grammy winner will headline at Club Nomadic at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel on Sunday, Feb. Source
  • Apple orchestrates deal for song-recognition app Shazam

    Entertainment CTV News
    SAN FRANCISCO - Apple has bought Shazam, the maker of a song-recognition app that Apple's digital assistant Siri has already been using to help people identify the music playing on their iPhones. The companies didn't disclose the price of the acquisition announced Monday. Source