Forest Whitaker on Godfather of Harlem, choosing roles and doubting himself

Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker at 1Fox in Johannesburg last November to promote his new series “Godfather of Harlem”, currently streaming on Showmax. (Photo credit: Eimages for Disney & Showmax)


Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, Black Panther) was in Johannesburg last November to promote Godfather of Harlem, the hit new crime series from the creators of Narcos

Forest stars as infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson, who returns from Alcatraz in the early 1960s to find the neighbourhood he once ruled in a shambles. With the streets controlled by Vincent ‘Chin’ Gigante (Emmy nominee Vincent D’Onofrio from Daredevil and Jurassic World), Bumpy forms an unlikely alliance with radical preacher Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch, reprising his role from Selma) to take on the Italian mob and regain his position as the titular Godfather of Harlem

Now streaming on Showmax, Godfather of Harlem is the remarkable true story of how the criminal underworld and the civil rights movement collided during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.

We caught up with Forest to find out more…

What research did you do to prepare for the role? 

There’s not a lot of footage of Bumpy Johnson. There are maybe five photos, but you have to take from those postures and gestures, pull them inside and create a full human being. 

I spent time with Chism, one of Bumpy’s bodyguards. He’s 94 now but still coherent. I also spent time with Junebug, another guy who was part of the fabric of Bumpy Johnson’s world. They still live in Harlem. They were explaining to me how he would go about his day, how they were protecting him. They helped me a lot. 

I also had an adviser in Professor Smalls, who was working with Malcolm X and actually took over the mosque when Malcolm left.  

I read Mayme’s book. I read Bumpy’s poems. I studied the history. I read up on Malcolm. I read up on Adam Clayton Powell Jnr.  I listened to the music of the day.  I just got more and more information, as I read the books and spoke to people. That helped me figure out how to shape him into a real person. 

When you’re researching a character like Bumpy, what are you looking for in your conversations with the people who knew him? 

I just wanted to understand what his fears were and what his needs were. So I was searching for those kinds of stories, for the kinds of things he felt he needed to protect, for the fear choices in his life. I was looking to find his truth and discover what drives him, to understand the moments that happened in his life that motivate his actions in the series.

How do you keep a TV role like Bumpy Johnson fresh? 

I keep it fresh by using myself as a barometer. I continue to try to push myself to do more. On set, directors often say, “You did this scene and it was working really well, and then you did something else. What was that?” – I was continuing to explore. My choices start to shift. They stay on the theme, they still fit the edit, but they’re a process of discovery. 

You have to be like a child. And that’s hard to maintain. 

Do you prefer film or TV? 

I just want to tell stories in whatever way I can. My last couple of projects after this one were film, and I’m still open to do more. 

How do you choose your roles?
I keep trying to grow as an artist and a person and I choose my roles that way.  A lot of times I’ve chosen roles that cause me a little bit of fear. 

I just love playing complete characters – that’s all I care about. 

Did you ever lie to get a role? 

On The Color of Money, they fired someone who couldn’t play pool and they asked if I could play. I’d played pool before but I wasn’t a great pool player. They asked me to fly myself to Chicago to audition, so I spent days just playing pool, hour after hour. I spent 14 hours a day in the pool hall. When I got there, the first thing Martin Scorcese asked me to do was to just play pool… 

In your career, have you ever doubted yourself? 

Most of the time, through the early part of my career, I was doubting myself. Even after I won at Cannes for Bird, I was deciding whether or not I’d be able to do this as a life. It wasn’t until really late – 15 or 20 years into my career – that I started to say, “Okay, I’ll continue to do this for the rest of my lifetime.” 

When I did The Last King of Scotland, I started to understand something about transformation, about changing my energy to become someone else. Those sorts of moments became affirmations for me, not people.