'Marketing is part of the creative process too'

With a FilmFour deal to bring more black movies to British screens, there's no stopping the multi-talented Forest Whitaker.

'My concept of creativity is part of my whole life," says Forest Whitaker, squeezed into a stylish Voodoo Lounge chair and sporting a jacket advertising Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jim Jarmusch's spiritual gangster story, which comes out next week. Marketing, he insists, is just another aspect of the creative process, a statement which must have film promoters jumping for joy. It may also please FilmFour, who have recently announced a deal with the American actor-producer-director to help them develop mainstream movies with Britain's black and Asian communities. Why is Whitaker getting involved? It's certainly not for the money: "They're not paying me anything!" he chuckles, "and I'm gonna be giving a lot of my time ..." So what exactly is in it for the universally respected star of The Crying Game? "It's long range," he explains. "I'm always telling myself to think to the future." Whitaker is clearly genuinely keen "to invest in what I believe is a really interesting community". Having done something similar back home with the support of his own multi-media production company, Spirit Dance Entertainment, he is buoyant about making a success of FilmFour's enterprise.

The idea was originally mooted by Paul Webster, Chief Executive of FilmFour, at last year's Cannes festival. Whitaker jumped at the opportunity "to do something that means something to me and access a community of artists I haven't had the chance to meet".

That opportunity presented itself earlier this week, when Whitaker met with budding and professional film-makers "and familiarised myself with black British films over the last decade". Tuesday evening saw the project's official announcement in front of an audience of expectant ethnic cinéastes. Whitaker wound up chatting until gone midnight. "I had a good time," he enthuses. "I liked the people so much." He noted an air of frustration but insists "the majority were like, 'Let's make some movies!'". And that is precisely Whitaker's intention. "People will be coming with different levels of experience, but no matter what the level, I will be producing with them."

He envisages a three-tier scenario, with professional workshops for inexperienced talent, short films (with some digital ones for the internet) for those with a modicum of film expertise, and budgetary support for more established film-makers. "This isn't simply more film industry tokenism," Webster recently said. "It's the real deal."

Whitaker remains genuinely modest about his impact: "I'm not coming in here as the guy who knows everything," he states, "but more as a person who's going to build even more partnerships." He is ever practical in his approach - "I don't think there'll be much that I won't have a hand in" - and far-reaching in his vision - "I want these movies to be global, I don't want them to just be regional" - and he is quite clearly addicted to the creative challenge.

Whitaker has recently been asked to set up a similar project in Malaysia (his eyes light up at the prospect) and he is unusually undaunted by the flurry of amateur tapes that have already come his way. Is he going to watch them all? "Yeah, why not!" He is not even planning to take "the LA point of view" which dismisses a script if it fails to dazzle within the first 10 pages. No wonder Whitaker envisages spending much more time in Britain than originally planned.

FilmFour is hoping to replicate East is East's cross-community (and box-office) success. "Everyone seemed to find it accessible," Whitaker comments, citing the film's universal theme of family strife. "That's what we're going to do. If we can find the real core, the really truly emotional art inside of us, then the stories are going to be universal."

Asked if his involvement in the project has something to do with giving young black actors and directors the step up he never had, Whitaker laughingly dismisses the idea. "It's not like the way all the stories are", he says, before launching into a revealing account of his formative artistic years. "I think it was my frame of mind. I didn't really care about money - it was almost a demon. I only cared about my art - getting better. I'm not saying I don't care now, but I would make decisions based purely on that. I didn't care about doing movies. I didn't really care about doing theatre. I really just liked acting for the pure thing of 'Can I do it better?' My parents hated it: I'd be like, 'I don't care if I'm on the street'". He recalls, aged 18, directing "a little play down the street" and having to walk to rehearsals "because I didn't have a car - which in LA is a big deal." He'd read Shakespeare in his room with a girlfriend. And with much delight, he remembers, "if I didn't have any money, I just wouldn't eat."

Though he has harnessed his artistic impulses since then - "I can't writhe all over the floor all day!" - he retains that unadulterated enthusiasm for his craft. It is not hard to imagine him passing it on to others.

But can the black American experience translate to the black British? Whitaker is predictably, reassuringly sanguine. "There's differences and then there's deep similarities ... but I think we're all pretty similar at the core of it."

'Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai' opens on Friday

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