Fresh off the success of blockbuster smash Black Panther, Forest Whitaker stars as former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu in new film The Forgiven.
The Roland Joffé picture is based on the intense exchange between Tutu as the leader of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and real-life murderer, Piet Blomfield, played by Eric Bana (Hulk).
In this exclusive interview with EBONY, the Oscar-winner discusses the new film, the pressure of portraying real-life icons and how the leader himself reacted when he saw his story reflected on the big screen.
The Forgiven is based on a play, The Archbishop and The Antichrist, which is a fictional account of an encounter between Archbishop Tutu and murderer Piet Blomfield. What was it that appealed to you about this particular story that made you want to be a part of the film?
I think Desmond Tutu’s work with the commission was really, really important, him trying to understand how to heal this nation from all the past pain and abuse. This film is a really interesting way to explore that, and to also explore the notion of forgiveness and redemption. With all of the crimes and pain we’ve caused, can we be forgiven for anything we’ve done? Also, can we accept and forgive those who have harmed and hurt us?
How was it playing opposite Eric Bana, especially those really intense scenes?
I like Eric a lot, he was really committed. He’d been working on the part before I even got there, so he was already steeped into the Afrikaans speech.
Is there any additional pressure as an actor when you portray larger-than-life, real world figures like Desmond Tutu?
There’s a lot of pressure, I have to say. I was really concerned about being able to do it. There are a lot of physical difference between us, differences vocally and culturally. So, because I have so much admiration for what he’s done, I was concerned.
What I came to was to try to capture some of his spirit and character so we can understand his philosophy, the way he lived life, the way he saw the world.
I was concerned up until I heard he liked the film, and even then, I thought, “I hope he’s not just trying to be kind [Laughs].” Later, he released a statement about the movie and how important he thought it was, and that was really good to hear.
When it comes to portraying real people, how do you walk the line between studying your subject and making sure you aren’t simply imitating them as far as mannerisms, accents, etc?
When I’m trying to understand how they speak and why they do things, or how they move, I look for the reasons why. I’m looking for why he sounds this way, where is he from? What happened to him there? What changed him? Why does he laugh this way? How does he think? How does he view the world? The history is always full of these emotional moments, experiences, thoughts and understandings that I get from the character.
The Forgiven is in theaters now.
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Born and raised in Compton, California, Jessica Bennett began her career as an intern at The Oakland Post, and later, The Source Magazine. She went on to write for respected hip hop publications such as DJ Booth and Hip Hop DX before becoming the Urban Editor of pop culture website, Wetpaint.com. She joined Ebony as the Entertainment Editor August 2017. Bennett has interviewed such names as Vanessa Williams, Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, Forest Whitaker, Magic & Cookie Johnson and several others.