Forest Whitaker started as a football player and opera singer and wound up as an Oscar-winning actor and peace advocate. Looking back, he tells AARP what he knows now.
Smart outta Compton
I'm working class. I was supposed to go to L.A.'s Compton High, but I bused an hour and a half to Palisades. I played football. I got a scholarship to West Point; they flew me out. Impressive place, but I was concerned about losing my identity. So I studied classical voice at USC. An agent saw me in The Beggar's Opera, and I got cast with Sean Penn and Nic Cage in Fast Times at Ridgemont High as the school football hero. But I'd just gotten my weight down! I had to eat and eat to be convincing as a football player again, even though in real life, I was one.
Breaking his parents’ hearts
My parents thought a better route would be to become a doctor or lawyer. I had a 3.8 grade point average, why not utilize my talents? When I turned down a soap opera — was it Days of Our Lives? — they didn't understand why. They thought acting was a profession you couldn't necessarily make a living at. A soap would have been security! But I thought I'd perish internally — it just wasn't me. There's nothing wrong with TV — it's a choice, and later I learned it's hard. Criminal Minds  was one of the most difficult experiences of all, learning that girth of material.
Fast Facts on Forest
Birthplace: Longview, Texas; grew up in South Central L.A.
Total film grosses: $5 billion
Film debut: Football player whose car Sean Penn trashes in Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Greatest hits: The Color of Money; Platoon; Good Morning, Vietnam; Bird; The Crying Game; The Butler; Black Panther; Empire
My mom always used to tell me, “You don't have to believe in what I believe — but always believe in something.” So when I was young I read a lot of philosophy, and it influenced me. I'm drawn to ancient truths.
Learning from acting
I won't do parts I don't think will help me understand more about humanity. Playing my first lead role, as Charlie Parker [in Bird, 1988], I had to dive in and commit — to learn how to dance on a limb. And if the limb breaks and I break an arm or leg, I'm not going to die, necessarily, but at least there's the intent of doing everything I could. Every character to me is a journey to learn something. It's important that my films have some sociological, deeply psychological message. For the Ghost Dog hit man , philosophy, particularly from China, influenced me, and martial arts — I studied as young as 12. That role taught me how you can communicate a lot through silence.