Mr. Whitaker, you are an avid sportsman: Kenpo karate, football, yoga … Is this how you let off steam after a strenuous day of filming?
Yes, absolutely. I started martial arts when I was 12 years old, and until a few years ago I trained three or four times a week. I didn’t start playing football until I was 16 and in high school, and was forced to stop after only three years due to an injury. I did a lot of yoga for quite a while, too.
Do you really hold a black belt in kenpo?
Yes, that is the martial art I am best at. But I have also done a lot of kali, a combat style from the Philippines.
What triggered your interest in martial arts?
As I child I was interested in Asian philosophy. Then I discovered that Dan Inosanto had a dojo close to my home, called the Kali Academy. Inosanto is a Filipino-American who was a student of Bruce Lee’s and who learned jeet kune do, his combat style. I trained at Inosanto’s academy for a long time, but also had other teachers over the years, including Joe Jackson, a highly regarded instructor.
Are you also interested in the spiritual aspect of martial arts?
Definitely. Kali is a very spiritual martial art. You have to feel your opponent’s energy, sense his motions and adjust your attack and defense strategy accordingly. You learn a lot about yourself, about your body, about pain. You learn how to retain your inner balance, despite the stress triggered by pain.
What is the most important insight you have gained thanks to martial arts?
Martial arts have played an enormous role in helping me to understand the world in general. Things don’t always move in a straight line; sometimes they move in a circle or a triangle. There are an infinite number of ways of getting from A to B. The most direct path is not always the best. There are many ways to arrive at the truth.
Have martial arts helped you in your acting career?
Absolutely! Martial arts have taught me discipline, which is immensely important for actors. And I have learned to center myself, to treat others with respect. You don’t just learn how to fight, you learn for life – that’s what it’s about.
What would you say is your most defining characteristic?
My constant willingness to learn. I always try to learn new things, exchange thoughts with others, and understand the world more fully. I want to keep developing, learning and growing. I want to discover new technologies and languages, want to try out new paths in life.
Have there been roles that have taught you a lot about yourself?
Of course. I learned so much playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland because I penetrated deep into his story and the history of an entire country. It was my first time in Africa, and I learned a new language. I learned a lot about style and working in service for my role in The Butler, while Ghost Dog taught me about energy and inner calm. Bird showed me how to deal with my innermost fears and realize that they aren’t that bad. Each role has something it can teach you.
Have you ever received a script where you love the role you’ve been offered but have no idea how to play it?
Every character, even the worst one, contains a miniscule molecule of yourself. You have to find that molecule, amplify it and blow it up like a balloon until it fills your whole body and you become the character. Sometimes it’s difficult to access, so you have to dissect the character completely to get to its core and find out where the connection is. Once you have done that, you can reassemble the character and get started.
Have there been roles that changed you as a person?
Yes, different roles feel like different lives, like being permanently reborn. Sometimes, you don’t notice the changes immediately, but years later you realize you are doing things in a way that was influenced by a previous role.
Sometimes you have to dissect the character completely
You have been known to learn a language or an instrument for a role. How much do you actually retain?
A lot goes into short-term memory so it disappears again fast, unfortunately. A language, for instance, is something you have to speak regularly. But whenever I have the opportunity, I like to refresh certain skills.
Would you describe yourself as a perfectionist?
Yes, I have always been very driven, it’s something I got from my parents. If I do something, I do it properly.
Is there anything that you can’t do or are bad at?
Apparently, I’m not a very good driver. At least I often hear complaints from my passengers: friends, family, kids. I appear to be slightly distracted, and then I get comments like “Dad, watch out!” or “Dad, not so close!” I hear that a lot, so I do seem to have a problem there (laughs)!
Have you considered giving up driving altogether?
I live in L.A., so that’s not an option. I have been driving since I was 16. And yes, since then there has been the odd accident that I was responsible for. Perhaps I ought to take a few more lessons.
Or take on a role for which you have to do a lot of driving …
That’s a brilliant idea! I’ll start looking for scripts straight away!