Forest Whitaker (‘Godfather of Harlem’) on exploring the civil rights movement of the 1960s [Complete Interview Transcript]

Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker stars as real-life gangster Bumpy Johnson on the Epix drama “Godfather of Harlem.” The 1960s-based series is reportedly the top-rated show on the network.

Whitaker spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria recently about what attracted him to “Godfather of Harlem,” his research process to play Johnson and his memories of winning an Oscar for “The Last King of Scotland.” Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Forest, organized crime has always been a really popular genre on TV and in films like “The Godfather,” “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and now your show. Why do we all flock to films and TV shows about the mob and about crime bosses like Bumpy Johnson?

Forest Whitaker: One, it’s about the exploration of power and being able to execute what you wanna do for your life and make it happen in the way you see fit. Another is just the notion that we have codes and that we wanna live by codes in our lives. We want to believe that we would live and die by certain codes, but in these films, you get a chance to see in these bigger than life circumstances, people who have to live by the codes that they established or die by those codes. I think it’s something that people are struck by, the notion of being able to have the power to control your own life and the notion of being able to live and die by the things that you believe in. I think there’s something exciting about that for people. Lastly, there’s also these extremes of warring factors. Normally in these gangster projects, there’s a warring factor. In my case, I’m trying to regain Harlem back from the Italian mob, Vincent Gigante or Vincent D’Onofrio. I think that battle itself, also, is intriguing to audiences.

GD: So why did you wanna be involved in this show? What sold it for you?

FW: It’s a different situation because they came to me, Markuann Smith and James Acheson, with an idea of doing a project about Bumpy Johnson. I thought it was interesting but I thought if we develop something really unique, it could be something that I’d wanna do. So first I signed on just as an executive producer to develop the script so we went out and got this great showrunner, Chris Brancato, and Paul Eckstein, to come into the process and start to write on the script. I think there’s something that was really intriguing to me, this exploration of the criminal world and the civil rights movement and the political world of the day. That was really interesting to me. This notion of being able to explore that in this character and in this world was really interesting to come up against the likes of Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell and to look at what that meant in this space during that time and these specific years in the 1960s.

GD: A lot of people will go into this show because they like the genre and they like that period of history but for me it was really exciting to see a show bring to life or spotlight the civil rights movement. I haven’t seen anything that’s done it in quite this way. Did that particularly excite you?

FW: That was the main reason why I thought it was interesting to explore it, get a chance to look at the time and what was going on and to correlate. During that time was a lot of unrest. The civil rights movement really flourished in 1963 and moved on from there. We had an opportunity to explore some of the same issues in our show. There was an issue of Black Lives Matter, what was going on with police, what was going on with the people during that time, there was the opioid crisis we were looking at in the show. There was this notion of even the MeToo movement where we deal with certain episodes where my daughter is harmed by a rape by someone. We get a chance to look at all these different issues that are going on today against the reflection of what happened in the past to be able to make people even think about it right now, currently, to try to understand the political climate and the emotional climate and the conflicts of today that are going on in our world that relate to even what happened then. That was exciting to me to get a chance to explore that as a character and to be a part of the process and do that.

GD: Yeah, I’m glad you raised that because every episode that I watched, it made me realize how relevant that particular period of history is to today, especially in our culture and politics, and that kind of stuff sometimes I would forget and it just shows that history repeats itself. I wonder if given that you say that the show is so resonant for today’s time and age, do you get a lot of feedback from people about how they watch the show and then it triggers things about what’s going on in our culture and politics today?

FW: I’ve definitely gotten a lot of people who’ve said to me that it feels so current, that it feels so present in now. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me about that. It means that we are actually hopefully touching on those nerves that we have to address, human rights issues and life issues that we have to look towards solving today and we recognize that those things have been going on, really, for decades. We have to do something about it. People have been telling me about that, so it’s exciting to know that it’s touching people in that way.

GD: The first thing also that struck me when I was watching the show is the incredible cast that’s signed on to be part of it. I can’t list everybody but just off the top of my head, Vincent D’Onofrio, Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Sorvino, Chazz Palminteri. There’s so many fantastic actors. What’s it like to work in a very strong ensemble? Are you all lifting your game because you’re all so accomplished?

FW: We’re all trying really hard to push each other to do the best possible work we can possibly do. I know my wife, Ilfenesh Hadera, doing those scenes with her has been really impactful, and Nigél [Thatch], and it really makes you have to step up to be able to do something, and Luis Guzman as well, Chazz Palminteri, there’s so many amazing actors in the piece that it just makes you have to stay up and be ready to make those scenes as resonant as the two of you can or the three of you can. It’s exciting.

GD: Yeah, it’s incredible. I love how this show has kept me guessing constantly. It’s very not predictable and sometimes quite shocking. It doesn’t pull any punches, pretty much what I’m trying to say. Were there many instances where you would pick up a script and be completely shocked about what the writers have come up with?

FW: Yeah. We’re really fortunate. They really got to frame it with the day, the period of time, of different instances that would happen but inside of that, I think Chris and Paul and the writing team have been phenomenal in being able to get into the real core emotional issues inside of those things that are happening during those days. It really created events and moments that resonate really strongly and they feel classic in some ways. There are times where I’m looking at this show and I think the image itself and what they’ve constructed of even being in front of all the five families and having to address them, Bumpy Johnson, and the issues that are going on there, feel like a piece of classic filmmaking, like they’ve written something that’s really resonant. I’m really proud of it.

GD: The finale has just aired by the time that this interview goes online. It’s such a simple scene at the beginning where Bumpy is at the table with the five families and it gave me chills. It was very simple, very easily digestible scene but it was very, very impactful. I think that’s because of the performances and all of these guys including yourself have given these characters some authenticity that I can’t quite put my finger on. What do you think it is about what you guys have achieved with these characters that have made them feel real and not like caricatures?

FW: Because they’re such classic figures like Malcolm X, Adam Clayton, all these people, what these amazing actors have done and what the writers did really beautifully was to really let you explore the humanness of their experience. If you look at me and Vincent, we’re very similar. We both have problems with our daughters, we’re both trying to control our lives, trying to maintain our power inside of our lives and it’s the struggle of being able to keep it or to lose that. It’s very emotional, very universal feelings. Even some of the immigration issues in the show. Vincent, he’s Italian, he’s first generation, we look at how these things go from Italians, the Irish, Blacks, the Latin community, the Asian community will be explored later in our upcoming episodes, so we really get a chance to deal with the personal issue of trying to find your own sense of self, your own piece of the American pie. That was the term I always used, which is the American Dream by any means necessary. That’s what it is. All these people in this pot are doing their best to achieve a great life and to achieve a life they believe is worthy of them.

GD: Talk us through the research and preparation that you had to do to bring Bumpy to life. That must be part of making this guy authentic as possible, right?

FW: Yeah, I was lucky because I started in the process of developing the script so all the research that was going on in that time was able to be funneled to me and then I had some real-life individuals who are helping me understand the character. Got to meet with a guy named Chisholm and a guy named Junebug who were working with Bumpy, they were 94 years old now but they were young kids in that time and they were walking by his side. They were telling me about incidents and events and things of that nature. Then I got a chance to study the civil rights movement and got to understand more about Malcolm X, which was really important to understand that because I think one of the key relationships in the show is that, my relationship with Malcolm X. One of the things that it does, too, it’s like exploring what does it mean to be the godfather in a community? What are your responsibilities and do you have a social responsibility to help people moving forward? Malcolm is that conscience that is always put in my face all the time. It was like all these different pieces of research and study and photographs and videos and things of that nature and trying to look at the real mob bosses that existed during that time to be able to construct this character the way I finally did.

GD: Something that I like to ask performers who are playing characters who may be complicated or antiheroes like Bumpy, as an actor, do you find that you have to relate to this guy to be able to play him or are you employing other tactics and strategies to try to bring him to life? I find that really fascinating. I’m not a performer so I wouldn’t know how to do it. I’d like you to talk us through how you can make him feel real in your own mind.

FW: You wanna find human things that happened to him in his life. He was someone who came from a pretty poor background back in Charleston. His brother had been accused of killing someone and he ultimately was sent away from that town to New York City because they were worried that he was too boisterous, too loud, and that he would be harmed because of it by the white community. So you started looking for these moments in his life and you start to construct the history and the background and the past and you start to imbue that with your feelings about what those things meant, where they become real vivid memories and thoughts for yourself as you live them in the screen. At the same time, you start to study photographs, you start to look for idiosyncrasies in a photograph, gestures, the way he holds his hand or what kind of suit he wore, if he considered himself a banker, maybe I found a piece of material where he was in jail so he’s in prison and he’s writing a letter, talking about being a businessman. That kind of helps me know that that’s part of what he wanted was legitimacy in this business world. So I start to find a banker model for him as well. All those things started forming different little tiny details that hopefully construct the character.

GD: And then the finale ends with a bang, as the Sicilian hitman is out to get Bumpy and you get quite physical towards the end there. We’re not really sure where it leaves a lot of the characters. Are we gonna see a Season 2? We’re kind of waiting on the edge of our seats to find out whether the network’s prepared to bring you guys back. Do you know yet?

FW: I don’t think officially they’ve made that statement. I can say that what they’ve said to us is that it’s exceeded all their expectations and it’s the most successful show that they’ve had on the network so far.

GD: That’s what I was thinking. They’d be insane not to do it. That’s good news. We’ll just wait for the official announcement.

FW: (Laughs.) Yeah, I wish I could say more.

GD: So just thinking about your career over the years, we could literally spend hours talking about it, which I promise you we won’t. Over 10 years ago, you won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, a SAG and the Oscars for playing Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” In fact, I think you won hundreds of awards. It was really your time and we all followed you along that journey and I just wonder, taking us back to that time in your career, what did that all mean to you? Does it ever spring to mind in this day and age?

FW: It was a really moving experience, the whole process. There was a lot of support from some of the other actors who were all nominated at the same time. The first time I received that kind of acknowledgment was when I won at Cannes for “Bird.” That was quite an emotional experience for me. As a kid, I had never done any interviews. I didn’t know anything about what was going on at all. When it came around to “Last King,” it was a different experience in the sense that I had been working for a long time. They weren’t putting a lot of money into the promotion of the project so the only real promotion was for me to try to get people to see it and talk about it. I think that I understood about the awareness more of people becoming aware of your work and how that happens. I didn’t know what was gonna happen. Every single time it was like a new moment. I really didn’t know. I didn’t know who was gonna be receiving acknowledgment or what and ultimately it worked out positively for me and it helped my career.

GD: Yeah, ultimately that’s what awards do. It’s a lovely acknowledgment from your peers or from journalists but it’s also a springboard for your career. Did you find that that Oscar especially, ‘cause it’s an iconic moment seeing you on the Oscar stage accepting that prize, did that do wonders for your career? Was it a good thing?

FW: I think it was positive in the sense of people feeling like I had an audience so they can finance projects and films more. I’ve done a lot of independent films as well, that being one of them, really. It was a small film. So those things happen. I think that I’ve been working and feeling fortunate. I had played “Bird,” I had played many other characters that were interesting characters and after I finished, I still continued to do similar roles, different types of roles, “The Butler,” or different things of that nature that were quite complex characters. I was really fortunate to get an opportunity to play some of those characters and it continues to this day. Right now I’m playing a character in Aretha Franklin’s story, “Respect.” I play the father C. L. Franklin. It’s quite challenging for me but that’s what I do it for, to keep learning and to keep challenging myself and growing.

GD: And also, when I think about what your work has meant to me over the years, one of my earliest memories of seeing you on the screen is back when I was 14 years old and you were in “The Crying Game,” and I remember saying to myself, “Who is this amazing British actor? He’s so good.” Didn’t realize you were American ‘cause I fell for that performance. It’s stuck to me to this day. I’m in my 40s now and I still sometimes think about how much I loved you in that film. What was your highlight from working on that film?

FW: It was a great experience. It’s really funny, I spent more time preparing to do the [film] than I did actually shooting. I was working really hard and really specifically and people were helping me out. There’s been a number of Brits who thought when I’m playing American that I do a great American accent (laughs). That was a big one for me. I worked hard and my driver actually helped me learn how to do the accent. I was so specific that they even went back later and said… I would put some West Indian inflections inside of some of the British, ‘cause it was very specific from Putnam, this one particular person I was working from. Sometimes I’d be going out to go into the set and he’d be saying my lines to the cast and they’d be like, “Whoa, he sounds like you!”

GD: It’s really crazy because for years I have to keep remembering, is Forest Whitaker American or British? I’ve always wanted to ask you that so I’m glad I did. Last question, you’ve had decades now on TV and film, behind the scenes and also on camera and I think these days, TV is not second-best to film. I think TV is where a lot of the most amazing work is done. What do you most love about working on TV?

FW: I think it’s amazing to get a chance to spend time really getting to know a character and knowing who they are, allowing you to explore the different areas of their life. If this project was a film, I would’ve had just two hours to try to explore. We’re gonna hopefully be trying to explore for the next six years. All the little details and things like that you get to play, it’s amazing. The writing is phenomenal, as they continue to shape and develop and you get relationships with the actors and you guys have a trust after months of working together. You get confident to help each other reach each other’s goals. It’s a great, great thing. I love film but I love that.

GD: It’s the immediacy and going on that long journey with characters is what we probably most love of all. Forest, thanks so much for your time today. We look forward to seeing more of “Godfather of Harlem” on our TVs. Hopefully we’ll get that announcement soon.

FW: (Laughs.) All right, thanks. Good to meet you.

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