BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker had been acting for 25 years before he felt he was really up to the task.
"I decided I wanted to try to do it my second year of college," he says. "But it was after I worked for years and years actually, maybe after 'Bird' even -- it was a long time into my career. I was testing it out for a long time wondering: Is this what I'm supposed to do? Is this where my destiny is? Am I going to be good enough to be able to make this my life's work?"
His role as jazz sax player Charlie Parker in "Bird" may have won him best actor at the Cannes Film Festival. "I was really proud I'd done it, but I couldn't watch it at first," Whitaker says. "I know it sounds crazy, but I think it was 'The Last King of Scotland' that made me say, 'OK, I can do it.'"
He won an Oscar for "Last King." Despite that, Whitaker says: "All that time I kept struggling, saying, 'How can I disappear and just let the character be there? Just be so deep into it that when people look at it they see THAT?' That's when I learned about something that I didn't know if it was possible to vibrate change so much, a certain way of thinking that people don't even see you -- they see just the person (you're playing)."
The 58-year-old actor, who has essayed everything from tough cops to Desmond Tutu, says he began to lose his zeal for performing about seven years ago. "I stopped being passionate and feeling it the way I wanted to,' says Whitaker.
"And I just couldn't really create. I wasn't doing good work. I was just working and continued to work hoping and expecting that something might happen; (I was) without joy," he says.
"There was a period of time, five years, when I was just like, 'I'm not doing anything good. What am I doing? Not working the way I want to.' But the last few roles have been rejuvenating for me," he nods.
One of those roles is the part of crime boss Bumpy Johnson in Epix's new series, "Godfather of Harlem," premiering Sunday. Based on real events, Johnson returns after 10 years in prison to find his former kingdom in shambles and the Genovese crime family his deadly rivals.
Whitaker, who grew up in Compton and later attended college on a football scholarship, is now working the way he wants to. His dad, an insurance salesman, transplanted the family from Texas to Los Angeles when he was little. "When my parents first moved to L.A. we moved to south-central L.A.," he recalls.
"I was about 11 and we didn't have any money. They couldn't get me a nickel allowance, but I didn't really see it that way. I didn't see myself as poor. It was only later I realized that if you can't get a dime to go buy something, then maybe you have financial issues," he laughs.