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Best of all -- he listens

Forest Whitaker is often in macho mode on screen, but it's different when he directs.

September 23, 2004|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

Forest Whitaker has a keen sense of balance.

As an actor for more than 20 years in movies such as "Panic Room," "Phone Booth" and "Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai," he is often drawn to characters battling demons, in works with violent themes.

Yet as a director, Whitaker tells a completely different story. In 1995's "Waiting to Exhale," 1998's "Hope Floats," and "First Daughter," which opens this Friday, the shadows lift and a gentler, lovelier world is revealed.

Thus the man's man meets the ladies' man. What accounts for such a dichotomy?

"We're made of two things, the masculine and feminine," says Whitaker, 43. "We may mask certain parts of it. Sometimes that puts us in a weird, out-of-balance way. But if you embrace it, walk into it, then you realize it's part of you; it's what life's about. Light and darkness."

Though the theme has been apparent throughout his career, it's no more so than now.

"First Daughter" stars Katie Holmes as the daughter of the president of the United States, going off to college and trying to find her way despite a severely restricted environment. Whitaker, aiming for a younger audience than in his previous movies, set out to create a fairy tale about a young woman coming of age.

Meanwhile, Whitaker is now in Iceland playing an insurance investigator in a thriller called "A Little Trip to Heaven." In addition, his production company and IFC are producing a film tentatively titled "American Gun," about the proliferation of guns in American society and the resulting violence that affects a disparate group of people. Whitaker plays a school principal in one of the sobering vignettes.

"I tend to be interested in characters who are struggling to find their path, struggling to find a little piece of something for themselves," he says of his roles.

Whitaker the actor got his first break with a small part in 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." His first breakout starring role was as the brilliant and tormented Charlie Parker in 1988's "Bird," for which he won a best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. But his pivotal role as a kidnapped British soldier in 1992's "The Crying Game" really signaled his arrival.

Whitaker has acted in more than 50 movies and television programs and has built an enviable reputation among critics, audiences and peers. His roles have ranged from the sweet, innocent Jackson in "A Rage in Harlem" to the arrogant fashion designer Cy Bianco in "Pret-a-Porter."

But a large number have been drenched in blood, sweat and testosterone. In addition to "Panic Room," "Phone Booth" and "Ghost Dog," some form of mayhem prevailed in "Platoon," "Diary of a Hitman," "Blown Away," "Battlefield Earth," "Bloodsport" and "Body Count." In last year's TV drama "Deacons for Defense," based on a true story, Whitaker played Marcus Clay, a man who fought for equality in a Southern town in 1964, ultimately leading an armed revolt.

"I'm always looking for the heroic inside of something that we don't always see right away," Whitaker says. "So the characters tend to be very different from each other, but yet probably with that same overriding theme inside of them."

As he began a career in directing, Whitaker was still interested in characters struggling to find their way. But this time around, the characters weren't men, and their struggles weren't as obviously violent.

His first feature film as a director was "Waiting to Exhale," in 1995, starring Angela Bassett, Whitney Houston, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon. With its interweaving stories of four African American women losing love and finding themselves, "Exhale," like the book before it, was a hit. Whitaker says he didn't consciously seek a "woman's movie," but was drawn to the material because he could relate to the emotional content.

"When I was working on my first film, I really felt like every experience they were going through, I had felt and experienced in some way," Whitaker says. "These women were struggling with relationships and trying to find happiness and trying to find joy, and ultimately they were able to find it in themselves."

Similar trials and triumphs went on in "Hope Floats," Whitaker's next directing choice. Starring Sandra Bullock, Gena Rowlands and Harry Connick Jr., "Hope" tells the story of a brokenhearted woman made strong again with the support of those who love her. "She was able to find a path for herself that allowed her to become more whole," Whitaker says.

In his first two films as well as "First Daughter," finding love is important, but finding one's own voice and strength are even more so. His body of directing could be categorized as "women on the verge of becoming their true selves."

"They're such universal themes that we all deal with because that's one of the reasons we're put here on the planet," Whitaker says, "to continue to grow and try to become better and happier, and to reach toward a place of peace and wholeness for ourselves."

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