Forest Whitaker towers over me, his burly, 6ft 2in frame a reminder that before he became an actor, the talented 45-year-old had a college football scholarship. Despite his bear-like physique, Whitaker radiates calm; his voice is soft and soothing. And yet, soon after we meet, Whitaker is being tipped for an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Idi Amin in Kevin Macdonald's adaptation of Giles Foden's The Last King of Scotland. The film will open the London Film Festival on 18 October.
Macdonald saw dozens of actors for the role, and initially had doubts about Whitaker, because "he's known for being sweet, gentle and internal". However, the Hollywood actor blew him away. "At one point," Macdonald recalled about the audition, "I actually got uncomfortable. I thought, 'Am I safe in here? He doesn't seem like he's acting.' I cast him right there, on the spot."
The Last King of Scotland does for Amin what Max and Downfall recently did for Adolf Hitler: take a figure whose dimensions have been reduced almost to the point of demonic caricature, and expand their humanity. Evil is always more disturbing when it has a human face, because it reveals our kinship with the supposed other. People like Amin and Hitler do not succeed alone, but with society's complicity. The question is: how far will people allow themselves to be seduced? Will they allow themselves to be destroyed, if not physically then spiritually?
The casting of Whitaker makes sense. You need an actor who, even when he is playing Jodie Foster's tormentor in Panic Room, or a hit man in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, is able to command the audience's sympathy. We must be seduced by Amin's charm and personality, before we, too, wake up and smell the rotting corpses.
Whitaker was determined to find the man behind the headlines. There were reports last year that Amin's son Taban was threatening to sue the producers for, of all things, defamation of character, believing that they were going to present as fact his father's supposed cannibalism. "In point of fact, in the film," says Whitaker, "he gets extremely incensed that the Western press is calling him a cannibal, because it's absolutely untrue. But it's just a way to paint this figure, to be more and more like a monster."
Maybe. But exiles also said he kept severed heads in a refrigerator, fed corpses to crocodiles and had one of his wives dismembered. Monstrous stuff, surely?
"I don't think you should paint over the fact that a lot of people were killed. But I just don't believe he ate people. I've talked to his cabinet members, his family and all that, and I feel like that's Western propaganda."
Amin was one of the toughest characters Whitaker has ever played. In order to see him clearly, he felt he had to overcome his own "indoctrinated Western point of view". "I'm African-American, I'm not African. It's my ancestors that come from there, so I had to understand a different rhythm, a different way of looking at the world."
He learned Swahili, took accordion lessons, watched videos - including Barbet Schroeder's 1974 documentary Général Idi Amin Dada - listened to speeches. "I had to understand everything so that I could inhabit him in a real way. Not in the way he's portrayed, like a one-dimensional figure, but as a whole person," says Whitaker. "He had kids, he had a family. How do you be honest and show the duality of this man?"
Part of being honest about Amin, he suggests, is acknowledging how he was formed. Raised by his mother, a reputed witch doctor and camp follower of the King's African Rifles (KAR), he sold doughnuts in the street as a boy. Later, he became a Muslim and enlisted in the KAR. "He was trained by the English," says Whitaker, looking me squarely in the eye. "They taught him everything he knew about war. They put him against the Mau Maus and made him fight them."
Amin rose through the ranks, and became one of Uganda's first black officers. In 1971 he deposed the Ugandan prime minister, Milton Obote, in a coup, declaring himself President for Life; the British offered their tacit support. The dictator established death squads under the State Research Bureau, and authorised the killing of suspected Obete loyalists. In 1972, he ordered the expulsion of Uganda's 50,000-strong Asian community. At the same time, thousands of Amin's supposed rivals and members of the intelligentsia were killed. Britain eventually withdrew its favour.
"They put him in a position where everybody pulled out," says Whitaker, "and he was surrounded by African nations that did not like him, so he became increasingly paranoid, trying to make decisions, and he just started to spiral and spin out of control."
When Whitaker travelled to Uganda, he was surprised to discover that people had mixed feelings about the former dictator. "It's not the way it's painted here," he says. I ask him if he believes that we hold black political leaders up to a different standard than their white counterparts.
"Yeah, I do," he says emphatically. "I think most of the black political figures who've risen to any kind of notoriety and are aggressively fighting the system were assassinated, killed, imprisoned or demonised. Most of the repres- entatives of colour, actually, who were revolutionaries in some way, from the Gandhis to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, all those people.
"You would think that Idi Amin had killed as many people as Hitler by the way they behave. He certainly didn't kill more than some of the leaders of China and the Soviet Union. I think if you go through history and see the cruelty of some of the dictators that existed before, you'll find that he's not a Cliff Note but a couple of lines.
"The question has to be: were there things that he did that were of merit? I mean, is it OK for him to rename the lakes to their original African names? Is it OK for him to get the children educated in a certain way? He tried. It didn't work, but he was trying."
Reflecting on his time in Amin's skin, Whitaker was glad when he could finally take him off forever, and move on. But still the experience lingers. An Oscar might be at the end of the road, but the bigger prize, you suspect, are the ties that Whitaker now feels to his past. "Because I was dealing with a lot of people just as friends," he says, "I got to understand that part of myself that is already deeply rooted in my ancestors in Africa in the way I behave, and that became stronger and stronger as I went along."
The London Film Festival runs from 18 October to 2 NovemberReuse content