FOREST WHITAKER: CRIMINAL MINDS: SUSPECT BEHAVIOR
By Abbie Bernstein
In person, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker turns out to be a number of things. He has a powerful physical presence, though he is much leaner these days than he was in some of the roles he’s best known for, including his Oscar-winning turn as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND.
His lengthy resume also includes WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, STREET KINGS, THE SHIELD, ER, the 2002 TV reboot of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI, SPECIES, THE CRYING GAME, BIRD and PLATOON, to name a few better-known projects.
Whitaker is soft-spoken and has a gentle demeanor – yet there is an intensity to him that suggests he takes both the questions he is asked and the answers he provides very seriously. Certainly, he takes his work seriously, which is something that CBS and the producers of CRIMINAL MINDS: SUSPECT BEHAVIOR use to their advantage.
For those unfamiliar with the original, CRIMINAL MINDS deals with a team of FBI profilers who track serial killers. Now in its sixth year, the show has been such a ratings success for CBS that the network deemed a spin-off was in order. Enter CRIMINAL MINDS: SUSPECT BEHAVIOR, created by Chris Mundy and executive producer Edward Allen Bernero (the latter is also executive producer of the parent series), which stars Whitaker as Sam Cooper, leader of a San Francisco-based team of FBI profilers. The SUSPECT BEHAVIOR agents seem a little more unconventional, personally damaged and familial with each other than their CRIMINAL MINDS counterparts.
All of the characters come to their professional calling for different reasons. It seems that Sam is at least partly motivated in the hopes that figuring out what has caused the dark behavior of the disturbed criminals he pursues, he may be able to alleviate the darkness in himself. Whitaker agrees with this assessment. “The event that occurred in Afghanistan [before the series starts] involved some things that he did personally that he’s having a hard time dealing with. As he looks at all these individuals and says, ‘You are me and I am you in some way,’ the more he’s able to understand that, he understands or cleanses that part of himself, too, and I think that is a part of the journey.”
Whitaker’s own journey on SUSPECT BEHAVIOR has been very collaborative, he relates. “I was really fortunate that the producers allowed me to be deeply involved in the creation of the show, and how my relationships are with the other characters as well. We really started to push forward some of the ideas, which is great. They’re great. I really like working with them. One of the things we’ve been working on is to not just be about symptoms [of criminal behavior], but to look at it allopathically, like medicine, to look to the source. That’s what [Sam] is searching for, the source, what was the inciting incident, the thing that occurred, what made [the suspects] that way, because he knows at the bottom of the source is that [spiritual] light. And that’s the journey that occurs within this family [of the FBI team], in this incarnation of the show.”
Even the standing sets reflect Whitaker’s input. This interview takes place on the studio-constructed dojo where Sam and his fellow agents both work out and consult with one another. The place is all about function, rather than looks – it’s dirty in the way of environments where people to do what they came to do and never get around to washing the windows. Whitaker says this is intentional. “It’s not about appearance. It’s about practicality and what we’re going to do and applying ourselves and a certain edge that we have. There are spiritual things about martial arts that for me have made me grow spiritually. Sam Cooper is basically talking about being in the now, and so this place is about that, and about following your own way, because I think this is Sam Cooper’s way. When you go to his apartment, you’ll see he lives in a loft, he’s very expressive, he’s a painter, so you see him painting there, but it’s a hodgepodge of things, like a chair that fits – there are five chairs, but all of them are different [laughs], and there’s walls of books, but they’re all in metal shelves.”
The notion of FBI agents having an extremely spiritual side is not something simply dreamed up by the SUSPECT BEHAVIOR writers, Whitaker notes. “When I started to work on the character, I went to [FBI training center] Quantico. I got a chance to spend time with the FBI agents there, I worked through the training program, I watched the program [as trainees were taught] to fire, fighting, hostage rescue teams, and I met with two or so analysts. They’re all quite unique – they’re all very different. They are not cookie cutter personalities. The thing also about FBI, when you meet the cadets and you talk to different people, they’re all of an older age, so they’ve all developed a certain personality. So I found at times [they had a sense of] deep loss, more than I expected, particularly when you talk about child abductions, the men who have to lead, they have to go to the source, go to the place to try to find them. There was a deep pain in some of these individuals. They were trying to understand. They felt a great loss and many of them carry photographs and were trying to keep themselves intact. So as far as my character goes, I think this is a character who is pushing the envelope in that respect, and it’s stated in the show that he’s a completely unusual individual. The head of the FBI says so. There are times when they don’t want to bring my team in because of the way I [as Sam] think. He does all these unusual things. He goes through things, he talks about certain ways to get to the core of something. So he’s written as a character that’s different. We watch him in Afghanistan and that character was in the world, worked analysis there. That guy comes back here. For awhile, what occurred there threw him off and there’s a certain degree of missing years in the character, where he disappeared. And he reappears back here and they ask him to start a new team, but it’s that time where he started to find a different sense of his spirituality. This is what this character is. The team – these are knights or these are angels that are fighting that darkness or demons. That metaphor is there.
For Whitaker, having Sam immerse himself in an environment in order to understand what happened there doesn’t mean just showing the character doing it; Whitaker tries to experience that immersion himself. “Trying to take in the environment, those are just things that they do, go through the environment and try to understand it. What is it going to tell you about the people there?”
Whitaker has been working out in real life as well, not so much because he was going to be playing an FBI agent, but because he says he feels being more fit makes him a better parent. “I trained and I changed my eating pattern and my lifestyle quite a bit. I had done LAST KING and people’s image [of actors] is always bigger, but in that case, I got really big, so I just wanted to look after my health and my family, so I just started working on it for that. It just happened that this came along. I think it works well for it. Because I was always physical – I’ve trained in martial arts, I’ve always done certain things. I’ve been a vegetarian since my late twenties, for twenty-some-odd years, but I think you can be a vegetarian and just eat pizza or just eat ice cream and cake, so I kind of changed the way I did that,” he laughs. “I also started changing my work and my life and changing my lifestyle, because I have four kids, my family, and I want to live a healthy life.”
One episode of CRIMINAL MINDS: SUSPECT BEHAVIOR deals with siblings who have been abandoned by their father; subsequently, one commits suicide and the other becomes violent. “In that case, that kid has been abused by his father in a way and left behind and his neuroses and pain come out of it, and then his sister hangs herself and she dies and it’s a lot to deal with. So I’m trying to come in and feel that and understand where he’s coming from, not disavow the way he sees things. He’s talking to his sister, who’s dead – I actually talk to her myself and see if I can get the answer to help us [from the psychology of talking, not in order to elicit a supernatural response]. So I’m looking for all those things and trying to make sure I’m doing it right. This guy, he left [his son], I say,” Whitaker adopts an incredulous tone, ”Because your kids were defective? Your kid has emotional problems, so you just left him in a barn?’ This is horrific. Of course this kid has problems. I mean, I have problems, and I didn’t get left in a barn,” Whitaker notes with a laugh. “I’m still trying to work through things myself.” Then again, Whitaker doesn’t kill people, but he is fascinated by what drives people to do what they do. “These were things that I thought were interesting about the show, is to continue to explore the human existence in that way, what moves us and compels us to go places. If you go back to the early parts of my work, you’ll see me talking about this light inside of people and trying to understand that connection between that light and all the light that’s in everybody and how it gets covered up and how we try to take it apart. That’s why it’s interesting. You see me try to understand it when I’m working with the kid in a critical situation. I try to just surrender to the event, to the moment, to feelings.”
It turns out that playing a profiler hasn’t gotten Whitaker started profiling the characters he’s played – because he was already profiling them, he explains. “It’s interesting, because I believe that I’ve been in some ways profiling for thirty years – not for criminals, but for characters, for people. I try to figure out when I work where [the character] comes from, what happened in his life, who his people are, where he grew up, what shoes he wears, what his parents are like, what his friends are like, where he lives, does he like clean clothes, does he like oranges or he likes apples. That’s the way I do my work as an actor. And in that respect, that’s part of what profiling is.”
So in other words, playing Sam Cooper for Whitaker is in some respects like playing himself at work? “Everyone perceives acting differently,” he replies. “I pursue it to understand, and to deepen my connection with people, and so that sort of goal is the same goal that I do in mostly everything I do. I can’t say it’s just acting. It’s part of my life, the way I look at life.”
Interview By Abbie Bernstein