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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.

MIKE PESCA, host:

And I'm Mike Pesca. For any actor, it's a daunting task to play a character who is loved and feared, a person capable of being charming to some and brutally cruel to others.

BRAND: Actor Forest Whitaker faced this challenge as he prepared to play the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the film The Last King of Scotland. Barrel-chested and standing over six feet tall, Whitaker as Amin is terrifying.

(Soundbite of movie, “The Last King of Scotland”)

Mr. FOREST WHITAKER (Actor): (as Idi Amin) I can't think. I can't sleep. Look at this. Look at this. The British newspapers said I am a mad man. The American newspapers say I am a cannibal. I am a cannibal, huh? Huh? These are lies.

BRAND: Forest Whitaker spoke with my colleague Alex Chadwick.

ALEX CHADWICK: You're an actor who gets cast in a lot of movies as sort of a mild mannered, polite. A bio of yours online calls you kind of a teddy bear, but this is more sort of a grizzly bear character in this movie. How do you get the confidence to even think about playing someone as forceful and as commanding as Idi Amin? And he is commanding in your portrayal of him on film.

Mr. FOREST WHITAKER (Actor): I submerged myself in all the information that I could find about Idi Amin. I mean, before I left Los Angeles, I was studying Kiswahili. I was working on the dialect. I was studying every documentary and tape of him that I could find - not just visual, but also audiocassettes, even in other languages when he was speaking in other dialects. And then when I got to Uganda, I started to interview people.

I interviewed his brothers, his sisters, his generals. I interviewed his ministers. I interviewed even some of his ex-girlfriends and everyone in Uganda has - it was not long ago, so you come across people constantly who have a personal knowledge or experience with Idi Amin because it was in 1979 when he left power. And so I - I started to try and take all this information and move it together along with trying to understand what it's like or - to be Ugandan, to live in Uganda and be an African in Uganda. And I started putting those things together and then the character started to emerge from that.

CHADWICK: You play this character who does have this reputation around the world as a monster, but no monster is completely a monster. I mean, no monster sees himself as a monster, anyway.

Mr. WHITAKER: Mm. I mean, it's interesting because when you go to Uganda, the people of Uganda have really mixed feelings about Idi Amin. There's a really deep duality to their thoughts. They hold in one hand the thought and the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of people died. And on the other hand, in the other hand that they balance it, they think that oh, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have this job. I wouldn't have this opportunity. I couldn't be in this hotel if it weren't for Idi Amin because so many things also changed during his reign. And many of them even hold - the thing that connects it, too - a sense of pride about the fact that this man took a strong historical place in our history.

CHADWICK: Here he is speaking with a character playing Nicholas, the young doctor who Idi Amin is interested in. They're stopped at kind of a roadside accident here, and the doctor has tended to Idi Amin's hand which he's hurt. And Idi Amin, your character, begins talking to the doctor.

(Soundbite of film, “The Last King of Scotland”)

Mr. WHITAKER: (as Idi Amin) You are British.

Mr. JAMES MCAVOY (Actor): (as Nicholas Garrigan) Pretty - well, but I'm Scottish. Yeah, I'm Scottish.

Mr. WHITAKER: Scottish?

Mr. MCAVOY: (as Nicholas Garrigan) Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITAKER: (as Idi Amin) Why didn't you say so? If I could be anything instead of a Ugandan, I would be a Scot.

Mr. MCAVOY: (as Nicholas Garrigan) Really? Really.

Mr. WHITAKER: (as Idi Amin) Except for the, the red hair - which I am sure is attractive to your women, but which we Africans we find this quite disgusting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: I just wonder about your portrayal of him. It looks to me as though these really are Ugandan villages and these aren't actors. And to see you in the role of this character, I wonder if you saw people reacting to that.

Mr. WHITAKER: Well, I mean, the first time I came out - which was at the hospital - in the army uniform and with all the medals and the energy I think of the character, people started to take a look - step back, because like I say, he's such a mythic figure. And there's this argument that starts to happen with this guy Charles Mulekwa and like some of the people. He's like no, he's American. They're like no, no, no, no, no, no. He's from Africa. Which part of Africa is he from? He says oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. He's from Los Angeles. You know, he's from L.A. They're like - there's this big scene where I'm speaking to the crowd for the first time.

(Soundbite of film, “The Last King of Scotland”)

Mr. WHITAKER: (as Idi Amin) It will be like this in Uganda now. Together, we will make this country better.

Mr. WHITAKER: They're like coming up and they're asking why is Idi Amin continually repeating himself? Why does he keep repeating himself? We heard him. You know, we're here in support, you know. And he's like no, you don't under - this is not, this is not Idi Amin. This is a movie and you guys are paid.

CHADWICK: Are you saying - people in the crowd really did mistake you for Idi Amin?

Mr. WHITAKER: Because, you know, we're out in a remote village. Everybody doesn't have TV's. And they're like saying, well, many times when we have these political rallies, the people have to pay the people to come.

CHADWICK: You did speak to the family of Idi Amin about playing his character. What did they ask you to do?

Mr. WHITAKER: Well, it was interesting. I mean, I went up - I flew up to Arua, which is where Idi Amin was born in the north of Uganda and I met with his brother and his sister. And I think their biggest concern initially was that he wouldn't be portrayed as a complete human being. So I came here purely to try and understand the truth about this man, to hear your side of the way you believe or the way you perceived him. I didn't come here to try to destroy your image or to create this monster that everyone's talked about in the past.

What I'm trying to do is get inside of his head and to create the motivations -at least his thought processes that ended up making these things happen. And he said well I hope that's what you're going to do. And we left.

CHADWICK: Still, at the end of the film, it's not the charming Idi Amin. It is the terrifying Idi Amin that you see, and I wonder how you feel about going back and showing this film to the family. About how they're going to see it and how they'll see you when that film is done and the lights come back on.

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah, I wonder, you know. I mean, I am a little nervous but I -you cannot ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of people died during his reign. You can't tell the story of this man without recognizing it. But like I say, now in Uganda there's a different social strata. There's Ugandan businessmen. There weren't before. And there's a lot of things that occurred that also give the Ugandans a sense of a pride also about this man.

CHADWICK: Forest Whitaker portrays Idi Amin in the new film The Last King of Scotland, opening in theaters around the country this week. Forest Whitaker, thank you for joining us on DAY TO DAY.

Mr. WHITAKER: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: That interview by my colleague Alex Chadwick. You can find an extended version of it at our Web site and scenes from The Last King of Scotland. Just go to npr.org.

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