Oscar winner Forest Whitaker has taken what appears to be an odd fit: a network… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
Forest Whitaker has built a career on channeling the souls of troubled characters. From his guest-star turns on "ER" and "The Shield," where he played obsessive and violent men, to his 2006 Oscar-winning performance in "The Last King of Scotland" as the ruthless Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, the 49-year-old actor has distinguished himself as a fearsome, shape-shifting force on the big and small screen.
Now he has taken what appears to be an odd fit: a network TV drama where he plays the good guy. In this "against type" role, Whitaker is the lead in "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior," a spinoff of the successful CBS drama that focuses on a team of FBI profilers who travel the country investigating horrific crimes.
"This is a new situation for me," admitted Whitaker while sitting in his darkened office at Walt Disney Studios. "I'm not used to being in just one place — I'm more like a gypsy, going from place to place. But I really like this character and I realized what I could do with him."
Showcasing an Oscar winner in prime time is a major coup for CBS' lineup. The addition of Whitaker burnishes its star power, which includes Tom Selleck of "Blue Bloods," Julianna Margulies of "The Good Wife" and Laurence Fishburne in "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." And it's also noteworthy: Whitaker and Fishburne are two of the only African American dramatic leads on a broadcast network.
"We started out thinking, 'You think Forest Whitaker could be interested in this?,' and to actually get him on the show is beyond amazing," said "Criminal Minds" executive producer Edward Allen Bernero, who is also serving as show runner on the spinoff. "It helps define what this show is — like 'Criminal Minds,' it's not a procedural. It's all about character."
The dynamics of the two shows, Bernero added, are very different. The team in "Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior" has its own problems: "This is a new family, and they are a lot more damaged. [Whitaker's character] Cooper is also damaged. They all support each other."
In person, the 6-foot-2 actor, dressed in a sweatshirt and black pants that camouflage his size, is still formidable, though it's obvious he has slimmed down from what audiences may remember from his portrayals of the British soldier in "The Crying Game," jazz legend Charlie Parker in "Bird," or the pigeon-loving hit man in "Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai." He is soft-spoken and thoughtful, in sharp contrast to his often volcanic outbursts on-screen.
It's that subtle internal tension that animates Whitaker's portrayal of Special Agent Sam Cooper, the leader of a special group of agents inside the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. Cooper maintains a quiet and spiritual approach as he strives to understand the mind of his psychopath suspects.
"Playing someone like Sam is at the source of what I'm always trying to do in my work," said Whitaker. "He is a leader that thinks everyone has a light inside of them, no matter what kinds of horrible things they are capable of. I'm always interested in human nature. He wants to heal those that come in contact with this darkness."
His talent for delving into and understanding the dark side can be disconcerting to his on-screen co-workers. In the second episode, a local detective teamed with the BAU to track down a suspect who is mutilating victims doesn't approve of the unusual method.
"You have to know them," declares Cooper. "You can't be afraid. Just because I choose to walk in their worlds doesn't mean I have to stay there."
Though a weekly TV series marks a new path for him, Whitaker is no stranger to taking unexpected steps. The actor, not noted for his comedic talents, memorably hosted "Saturday Night Live" in 2007, and in one skit played a waiter who could not stop singing. The actor has also notched success behind the scenes: directing the black female-bonding movie "Waiting to Exhale" in 1995, and executive-producing "Brick City," a Sundance Channel docu-series about a gritty community in Newark, N.J.
The often demanding schedule imposed by a TV series has meant some adjustments for Whitaker. "It was a challenge at first trying to find that rhythm with the writers that would make me feel good," he said. "We've really developed that now, it feels good."
Playing his "Criminal Minds" character Cooper nicely fits with his philosophy of creativity.
"I have a discipline about trying to do work that is truthful," he said. "I was always fortunate enough to play interesting characters, and I've always gone by my heart."