Forest Whitaker is having a great year. He produced Ryan Coogler’s breakout hit “Fruitvale Station,” he is getting Oscar buzz for his performance in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and his latest film “Black Nativity,” hits theaters today.
Our journey with Kasi Lemmons’ musical drama began on February 22, 2013, when we were invited to visit the set of the film up in Harlem at St. Luke’s Church, a beautiful landmark. We had the opportunity to observe a crucial scene in the film featuring cast members Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jacob Latimore, Mary J. Blige, Luke James and Grace Gibson. In this particular scene, Reverend Cobbs (Whitaker) was delivering his Black Nativity sermon and Whitaker was performing “Can’t Stop Praising His Name.” The energizing gospel chorus was joyfully singing in the background “I just can’t stop praising his name…Hallelujah.” Angela Bassett joined in on stage, too! She was singing and dancing. The choir featured stellar handpicked singers from across the nation. We were perched behind the keyboard player in the band, on stage left, giving us an up close and personal view of the stage and pews. We chatted with the band in between takes. There were over 100 extras who played church goers in the scene.
Latimore was seated in front of the church and soon after Mary J. Blige in her platinum fro glory took her seat and Luke James and Grace Gibson sat besides Jacob shortly after. During the filming, we almost didn’t realize Mary was in the building as she was unrecognizable with her large platinum fro. Production pointed her out to us. It was a treat to see Forest perform live. He commanded the stage and we felt like we were in church as opposed to on a film set. It was very authentic. The cast and crew were very warm and there was a familial vibe. There was even a moment on set when everyone burst into song and dance. At around 11:30PM the cast and crew took a break for food in the basement of the church. Luke and Grace graciously came over to greet us and discuss their major motion picture debut. They were so excited.
In “Black Nativity” Whitaker plays Reverend Cobbs, who takes his estranged grandson Langston (Jacob Latimore) in for the holidays. He is an upright man and staple in his Harlem community. The Source Magazine sat down with Forest Whitaker to discuss his role.
How did you get involved with the film?
Forest Whitaker: Kasi sent me the script and I looked at it and Trudie Styler gave me a call and then I talked to Kasi about it and she was describing the different ways she was going to make it as a musical and I decided it was something I should do.
What did you love about the character?
Forest Whitaker: It’s a great opportunity. First of all, it’s a musical. I’ve never done a movie musical, so that’s kind of a challenge. And then to play a preacher of a big congregation in Harlem was an exciting thing to do and ultimately he has a lot of regrets, so I made him have a lot of depth because he’s trying to work through a lot of issues, so it’s an exciting character.
Did you model this preacher after anyone in your life?
Forest Whitaker: I think I modeled him after a number of different people. I watched a lot of different preachers on video, I of course spoke to Reverend Calvin Butts over at Abyssinian Baptist Church and he talked to me because he has a congregation in Harlem. Listened to different types of preachers who sing and then I looked at some of the role models of preachers that I knew from my youth that I had seen in church. They were really influential in the way I perceived church.
How important for you was it to be part of a faith-based film?
Forest Whitaker: I think this movie is important because it deals with having faith and the love of family, too. About how throughout your problems and your regrets, if you confront them and deal with them and that you can find yourself in a better place.
You and Angela Bassett were wonderful together. When was the first time you met Angela?
Forest Whitaker: The first time I met her, a friend of mine…introduced me to her on the Fox lot when I was doing a movie called “Downtown” and then she was I think doing some film with James Cameron, maybe. Then I directed her in “Waiting to Exhale” and we became friends and I’ve known her for years.
Your friendship comes across on screen as well.
Forest Whitaker: Well, yeah I think there’s a trust that we have between each other – we respect each other as artists and I think she’s a really talented actress and I knew that something would happen between us. So hopefully some kind of magic would happen inside the scenes because of our relationship.
Can you speak about collaborating with Kasi Lemmons on the film?
Forest Whitaker: It started I think really before I even started because she was talking to me about the character and I was thinking about doing the part and she sent over some video of a song she had cut together and she talked to me about the style of the movie, so I could understand what she was imagining because this is very much a director’s film – a musical. And I decided to sign on and then she set up a rehearsal process for us all. We rehearsed for I think it was a month…on the songs, on dance, on the music and she introduced me to some of the preachers that were there in Harlem. And it was this collaboration all the way through to the end.
Also, many people don’t know that you can sing. Can you tell me about the musical preparations you went through?
Forest Whitaker: They sent me the songs and I started listening to them over and over again and trying to sing it to them and then they set up rehearsal, so I was rehearsing with the choir, rehearsing with the pianist to get ready to do the song and then of course I got to go in with Raphael and record even though, we also did record it live on set.
Did you enjoy that process?
Forest Whitaker: I did. It was amazing. It was really fun.
This is a holiday film, so can you tell me your favorite holiday traditions?
Forest Whitaker: Thanksgiving is more about getting together for a meal and being together and giving thanks as a family. Christmas, the big thing is we take the kids and we go out for our tree and find a tree and bring it back and decorate it together. Those kinds of holiday traditions.
In the film, your character has a prized possession – a watch from Martin Luther King. Do you have any kind of similar possession?
Forest Whitaker: Well, I used to when I was younger. I had this ring from my father – his graduating high school ring. But I really have a few small gifts that people have given me – I have a watch that was engraved from a friend.
What music are you listening to right now?
Forest Whitaker: Right now I kind of listen to whatever my kids listen to. I’m listening to a lot of her music – my daughter is a musician. So she’s been writing songs and she’s been in the recording studio so I’ve been listening to a lot of her stuff.
Tell me how filming on location in Harlem lent itself to your performance?
Forest Whitaker: We went to this church in Harlem you know where we actually did it was inside of a church and it was kind of dilapidated like the one in the movie you know? And they were going to fix some of the roofing and stuff like that. That’s kind of inspiring – you get the feeling when going inside because you’re in the real place and I guess just going through the streets of Harlem it’s alive and teaming with energy and it kind of fuels you and reminds you of what it is you’re doing.
“Fruitvale” is getting a lot of buzz. How important is it for you to mentor young talent like Ryan Coogler?
Forest Whitaker: Ryan Coogler I think is an artist that is destined to speak for our times and he is really talented and I feel very fortunate that I was able to support him in what’s going to be his destiny, which is to I think bring faces of humanity to all the characters that are out there and to social issues at times…As well as Michael, he’s done a beautiful job. I’ve worked with a number of first time filmmakers and I would say I have produced a lot of films and on a whole – unless it was a first time filmmaker that it was the second film that I was producing the second because I produced his first, but most of them have been first time filmmakers.
We met Nina Yang Bongiovi, Vice President and Head of Production of your company Significant Productions. Can you speak about the kinds of projects you’re interested in producing?
Forest Whitaker: I’m interested in making movies about the human experience that allow us to go deeper into our connections as human beings. I think Nina and I are looking at different types of films and I think we should be producing the Richard Pryor story next year and have another company that Nina is also CEO of called JuntoBox Films where we also nurture new filmmakers – they start a film on Monday called “Sharon 1.2.3.” It’s just stories that unveil human experience.
Do you have any plans to direct in the near future?
Forest Whitaker: Yes, I may direct next year – I’m looking at two films maybe. I’ve been developing the Louis Armstrong story and I’ve also been developing a story that’s about a conflict journalist in Africa. I’m not sure what I’m going to do.
“Black Nativity” is now playing.