Forest Whitaker on Making His Broadway Debut in ‘Hughie’: “His rhythms are starting to invade inside of me”
“I want to get better as an actor, to keep trying to work harder, trying to discover something different” – Forest Whitaker
It’s hard to reconcile that for all Forest Whitaker‘s accomplishments as an actor — he has won a Academy Award, British Academy Film Award, Golden Globe Award, National Board of Review Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award — he never appeared Broadway until agreeing to star in the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s one-act play Hughie. But it’s true — Whitaker is making his Broadway debut in the play, which was last on Broadway in 1996 starring Al Pacino. In a revealing featuring in the New York Times, Whitaker speaks about getting into character and why now was the right time for him to finally take a Broadway stage.
Whitaker shrugs off the fact that he is the first African-American to play Erie Smith on Broadway by pointing out that a character is a character. He explains, “Look — I’m an African-American. I’m black. But I’m just looking at the character and trying to find his soul, his energy. If you can wipe away the blanket of skin and flesh that people tend to see, and look inside for the essence of the soul, then that’s the work I’m doing. That’s the work I always do.”
When he talks about developing that character, Whitaker sounds as if he is slowly being possessed. “His rhythms are starting to invade inside of me, so that I can feel I’m about to move into a journey where he’ll be in my bloodstream. I already notice he’s infecting my laugh; he’s starting to breathe and shift my rhythm.” The talk of possession becomes more apparent as Whitaker continues, adding, “There’s a molecule inside of you that is connected to everything — every person, every energy, every thing. You look for it, and when you find it, then you allow it to magnify and grow and be the dominating chemistry inside of you… there’s a certain surrender, which is the method of allowing the other energy to take over, and be the leading force inside of you.”
Whitaker points out that the character is already inside him — he mentions being inspired by an addict he once knew when he worked at a halfway house — and that he can see him developing inside his head. He reveals, “The other day, I started seeing him dancing in my head, moving around like he’s not full yet, like one of those animated characters in a computer, and he’s saying: ‘Hey, Forest! Don’t you see me? I’m here! I’m here! Let me out! Let me out!'”
From his words it may sound like Whitaker is a natural to the stage, but he has not acted in a play for three decades. He has received many offers to appear on Broadway over the years, and felt that Hughie was the right challenge for his career. He confesses, “I want to get better as an actor, to keep trying to work harder, trying to discover something different. In some ways, it’s a pretty frightening experience. But normally I do tend to walk against fear, and hope that I’ll be able to survive.”