Forest Whitaker arrives at the South African special fan screening of “Godfather of Harlem”. Picture: Supplied

Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker relishes slipping into the skin of multilayered and fascinating characters. 

In fact, he appears to feed off it. To him, delivering a bonafide performance is all the acknowledgement he needs. 

From playing Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland", Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ "The Butler", Zuri in "Black Panther", Curtis Ames in "ER" to his latest role as Bumpy Johnson in "Godfather of Harlem", he proves his genius as an actor time and time again. 

On Wednesday, Whitaker arrived in town for a fan screening on Thursday as well as a masterclass on Friday. 

In between his busy schedule, he agreed to a one-on-one, which was held at The Pivot, Johannesburg. 

Nestled comfortably in his seat, looking very debonair with his spectacles, I shook his hand before taking a seat next to him. 

There was no time for goosebumps or for small talk so we dove right into the interview. 

Forest Whitaker in a scene from "Godfather of Harlem". Picture: David Lee/Epix

Having caught up on all the episodes available the night before, I asked him about a poignant line delivered by Bumpy. And if that was one of the reasons why he agreed to play the part. 

In one of the scenes, Bumpy said: “To be an old dog, you got to learn new tricks.”

The actor explained: “I think the complexity of what happened then in the 60s and now - the situations are similar. It’s interesting to me. I think that was one of the most interesting things about the story is the relationship dynamics. There is the criminal world, the civil rights movement and politics, which was making the actual nation run. And it looks at how people were fighting for their own independence even if it was through criminality.”

Interestingly, he also wears the hat of a co-executive producer on the series. 

When asked whether is becomes tricky to navigate his way between the hat of that role and lead actor, he clarified: “Well, we started working on this story a year before we actually did it. The process of doing the research and getting the story worked out by the writers fueled me as an actor because I would get all this knowledge and information and incorporate it into the character. 

“When you are working on set, you want to focus on the scenes. But you still have to deal with whatever problems come along, as a producer. You have to put yourself at a point where you see it as this is a part of my character as well as the show.”

In a way, it works out beautifully he points out as Bumpy is trying to run the world that he is in. 

Nigél Thatch as Malcolm X with Forest Whitaker as crime boss Bumpy Johnson in a scene from the period crime drama, "Godfather of Harlem". Picture: David Lee/Epix

One of the ironies of the show is born from his relationship with his estranged drug addict daughter. 

He is conflicted by his devotion to her as a father and to his wife, who is none too pleased about the situation and is pushing Bumpy to cut ties with her. 

Whitaker explained: “My daughter has caused a lot of havoc in my life, in the show. You have to look at him and what he is doing. His daughter is a heroin addict and a prostitute on the street. And he is selling drugs. That friction is one of the frustrations he deals with. At the same time, he knows he is one of the better leaders but he has to constantly be fighting for respect. Those things are his struggle throughout the show.” 

Although he has ventured into directing, he isn’t keen to return to it anytime soon. 

“In a few years or so. I haven’t done it in a while. It has to be something very special for me to do it.  Right now, the characters I’m getting are just so interesting. I do love being in front of the camera,” he explained.

When it comes to agreeing to a part, he bases it on how it grows him as an actor. 

“Sometimes, it is just an instinctual feeling,” he smiled. 

And on that note, I said my goodbyes to the inimitable actor, silently marveling over his zen disposition and impassioned responses. Respect!