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.

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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."


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