Zen and the art of killing

In Ghost Dog, Forest Whitaker plays a hitman with a penchant for pigeons. He's also developing new projects for black and Asian film-makers in Britain. Should we expect a gentle touch? He talks to Geoffrey Macnab
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

'I've never murdered anyone..." Forest Whitaker pauses, "but I believe that I've murdered someone's spirit. By that I mean that I've hurt someone to such a degree that it has changed their entire outlook on life."

He has just been asked whether he felt at all uncomfortable with the stylised violence in Ghost Dog, in which he plays a samurai-like killer who lays waste almost an entire mafia clan (see Anthony Quinn's review on page 10). And the answer is yes and no. The violence, he explains, is not meant to be taken literally: the film is about the transience of life, the breaking of codes, about "emotional death". Hence the comparison with his own experiences. At the same time, he admits he was "startled" when audiences laughed at the death of a cop and "harboured questions" about the violence. "When I watched it last night," he says, "I realised I killed a lot of people."

It's easy to understand why Jim Jarmusch cast Whitaker as the mystical, pigeon-fancying assassin in Ghost Dog. The 38-year-old actor is a large Buddha-like presence (6ft 3in and roughly 17 stone). He's a bird-lover. As a kid, he used to keep doves. While preparing to play the character of Ghost Dog, he shared his makeshift loft in SoHo (Whitaker lives in LA with his ex-model wife and four kids but decamped to New York to make the film) with a bird called LeRoy. "He was just an ordinary street pigeon but he was real smart. That's how I learnt how pigeons talk. He [LeRoy] was like my psychic partner."

Interviewed in Cannes last year, after the premiere of Ghost Dog, he rhapsodised about sunsets he had seen in Manila; talked about visiting the mountains and temples of Japan and studying Philippino martial arts. His ambition for the millennium, he said, was to be "more confident in how I walk through the air". On a cold April morning in London 11 months later, he is markedly less carefree. He has a cough. He seems distracted by the photographer snapping away. He's here not only to publicise Ghost Dog, but to launch a new venture with FilmFour, with whose backing his production company, Spirit Dance Entertainment, is to develop new projects for black and Asian film-makers in the UK. And the responsibility that comes with such a role seems to be weighing on him.

There have always been two sides to Forest Whitaker - the gentle giant vs the shrewd Hollywood insider (he is a producer and director as well as an actor, with credits behind the camera ranging from Waiting to Exhale, starring Whitney Houston, to Hope Floats, with Sandra Bullock.) And these two aspects have often come into conflict. In 1992, when he played a cricket-loving British soldier from north London in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game, Whitaker almost caused a full-blown Equity strike. Black and Asian members of the actors' union were upset at the casting of an American star in the role. "It's kind of sad but I understand it," he says. "Neil's point of view was that I would be the heart of the movie. He really cast me more for the spirit of who I am than where I came from. He wanted me to anchor the movie, but that pre-supposes that there is not somebody here who has that energy. I'm sure that there is."

Wary of the controversy he caused at that time, Whitaker is keen to ensure that nobody misinterprets the motivation behind the new venture. "I'm just trying to work with creative people - I'm not trying to take over or act like I know everything." Whitaker is taking East Is East as a template for the kind of films he hopes to produce in the UK. He points to his own directorial début, Waiting to Exhale, as another example. "You have to reflect a particular community, but also be universal. The women in that movie are women I know... the relationships are things that I've seen or I've had in my life. That film made $67m domestically. That means a lot of people saw it - it had to cross a colour barrier in order for that many people to see it."

Isn't there a danger that by putting so much emphasis on commercial success, he'll end up making films that are a little bit... cookie-cutter? The question infuriates him. "That's not what I'm talking about," he says, voice rising. "If my child leaves me and it causes me pain, because I'm black or because I'm white it's different? Take a movie like Hope Floats, where a father leaves his little girl and she's crying, "Daddy, please take me with you." If I shot that movie with Indians, with blacks, with Latinos, it's still going to invoke an emotional response. We all understand about not wanting our parents to leave us. That's not being cookie-cutter, that's going to the core of our emotions." He refers to other incidents in Hope Floats and Waiting to Exhale drawn from his own life. He was once in a relationship when someone became so mad with him that she tried to run him down in the street. He has also seen estranged lovers throwing their partners' belongings out of the window, or slashing their clothes...

He has been watching as many films by British black and Asian directors as he can get his hands on but he isn't going to give up his career in LA so that he can become a full-time producer in the UK. He is hiring someone else to run the British end of the business, but he'll be coming to London at regular intervals.

London is a city he knows well. He first came here as a student back in the days when he had thrown in his football scholarship and had aspirations to become an opera singer. Rather improbably, he was part of a college choir, performing in churches round London. It was the first time he had been abroad. "I was totally amazed by the place. I was a kid," he says with a self-deprecating shrug, "about 18. I tried to stay. I tried to get a job."

He's got his job now, and it's a tough one. "From what I've gathered of black films [in the UK], the equation wasn't built for success. Maybe some edict was given or someone wanted to show they were backing these films, but it wasn't about making a truly commercial product - a product accessible to the masses. I want to change the equation."

Whitaker clearly wants to do the right thing, wants to avoid causing harm or offence. But that spirit-murdering streak; and that ability to get people so mad they want to run him over... Who knows where that'll take him, or us?