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Foreign Correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski

Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski died on January 23, 2007, at the age of 74. As a foreign correspondent, Kapuscinski covered coups and revolutions in the developing world for forty years. Many of his articles appeared in a series of books that made him famous: The Soccer War, Another Day of Life, and Shah of Shahs. This interview originally aired in 1/21/1988.


Other segments from the episode on January 26, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 26, 2007: Obituary for Ryszard Kapuscinski; Interview with Forest Whitaker; Commentary on apologies.


DATE January 26, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski discusses being a war
correspondent covering coups and revolutions in world's most
dangerous places

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

The death of at least 60 reporters in Iraq reminds us of the peril journalists
face in war zones. Today we remember one of the 20th century's most prolific
war correspondents, a man who for decades seemed to race to all of the world's
most dangerous places. Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, who covered 27
coups and revolutions, mostly in the '60s and '70s, died Tuesday in Warsaw at
the age of 74.

Kapuscinksi focused on conflicts in the Third World, telling their stories in
news dispatches and in vivid essays and books, in which he used allegory and
metaphors to convey the events he witnessed. He came to know Patrice Lumumba
in the Congo, Che Guevara in Cuba, and Idi Amin in Uganda. He narrowly
escaped death several times. His books include "Shah of Shahs," about the
Iranian revolution; "Another Day," about the civil war in Angola; and "The
Emperor," which explored the end of Haile Selassie's reign in Ethiopia.

Terry spoke to Kapuscinksi in 1988.


Did you go looking for all of these 27 revolutions or did you just happen to
be at the right place at the right time?

Mr. RYSZARD KAPUSCINSKI: It was both. I mean, I was working in a very small
agency, and that was my advantage because big agencies, they have
correspondents in each country, and I was covering the whole continent, whole
continent of Africa, Latin America and Asia. So, for me, it was always as for
any journalist to be in a hot spot if something was happening, but in case of
Associated Press correspondent or Reuters correspondent, that was just his one
chance in his life, because if something happen for--in Nigeria, for example,
he was based in Nigeria, but myself, I was rolling all over the continent. So
I was always in those places where something was happening. So it was easy to
collect such amount of different sort of revolutions, coup d'etats, home wars
and so on.

GROSS: Is there something about war and revolution that speaks to your

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: In the sense that--well, first the journalist has to be in
such a place, so that is his obligation, his profession, but from my own
characteristic is that I like the places which are--which create an extreme
situation for the people, which in the people have tested themselves, you
know, their abilities, their character, and those extreme situations, those
hot situations, have a very strong impact on me, too. I feel very well in
such conditions.

GROSS: I want to quote something that you wrote in "Shah of Shahs." You
wrote, "All books about revolution should begin with a psychological chapter
that shows how a harassed, terrified man suddenly breaks his terror and stops
being afraid," and you say that's how revolutions start, that people who have
been afraid of the police suddenly stare them back in the eye and they don't
budge. And then the confrontation takes place and the revolution starts. You
have probably witnessed such beginnings of revolutions. Can you think of an
example where that happened where you saw somebody break out of terror?

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: That's exactly what I--there's this particular situation
you are quoting from my book "Shah of Shahs" just exactly happened in Iran,
and I saw it with my own eyes. With my own eyes. I understand, because, you
know revolution, beginning of revolution, is a sort of psychological problem,
question. We have a lot of countries in this world which are living in a very
poor situation, and they are very tense in that situation but nothing happens,
you know. People are desperate, people are very unhappy but they don't revolt
because they are dominated by fear and unable to break this situation and to
control themselves, and the very moment when not one man but the big masses
are able to control themselves and to start fighting, that's the beginning of
each revolution.

GROSS: What did you see in Iran that made you write that? What was the event
that you witnessed?

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: This was in Qom in a small town near the Tehran, when there
was an article came down from one of the official Iranian newspapers about
the--which was very insulting to Khomeini at that time. Khomeini was in
exile, and being himself from...(unintelligible)...the people surrounding
there and started to fight again, very strong police forces, but the very fact
that they win this battle, despite all victims and all casualties, this very
fact started the whole process in Iran. But this is only one of the examples
of this. We have many of this sort of example all over the world.

GROSS: You also have seen a lot of revolutions that have gone wrong and that
have ended up practicing their own form of tyranny, and you've written that
one common theme is the helplessness on the people who serve on the
revolutionary committees because they've never been in that kind of position
of leadership before.

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: Well, there are different reasons. I think the main thing
is that people are not trying first to make a revolution, they're trying all
other means of improve their lot, improve their living conditions and improve
their situation. But if they fail with other peaceful means, they're just
trying to make a revolution as a last desperate step, and, of course, they are
also failing quite often because most of the revolution are unsuccessful
because most of the revolutions are just a change of power and a change of
group of people in the power.

GROSS: There have been many times when you have been going into a country
that's in the middle of a war or revolution just as everybody who's from that
country is trying to flee and go some place else. What are some of the things
you've had to do in order to get in to a situation where everybody else is
trying to get out?

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: Well, I mean, people are trying to escape the dangerous
situation. That's very natural and a very...

GROSS: Sure is.

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: ...very normal reaction. I mean, it's a human natural
reaction, but at the same time, there are some crazy people, some crazy
journalists who are just trying to get in, and I'm among those crazy
journalists, and was such a group of 40 or 50 or 60 people all over the world,
maybe something like many more. But for us, we have another approach. We are
the people who are trying to, first of all, to establish the truth, what's
going really on because all official reports we get from the governments
involved in the war, they are pure lies. There's a lot of exaggeration, a lot
of distortion, and only by journalists to go inside is to establish the truth.
There is no other way but to risk his own life and to risk everything just to
get in.

I was quite often in situations in which I was told, for example, in Angola,
that such-and-such town is in the hands of the foreign group, fighting group.
Then everybody was saying this but nobody was sure about this, so the only way
to find out the truth, to prove how it really is, it was to go there, and to
go there, it was to risk your life, you know. I was to--having such a
experience for example in Nigeria during the civil war in Nigeria. They were
saying that the southern road from Lagos to Benin is a road which you can't
pass because it's too dangerous. It's too many roadblocks. Too many thieves
on drugs and those people and bandits and guerilla fighters, everything. But
I was not sure about this, and I proved--I went with my own car, you know, to
find out the truth and, of course, it was--I narrowly escaped death because it
was really very dangerous, but then after coming back to Lagos, I could report
how it really it is, where really is a danger, where really is a war going on,
where there is really a front, but there is, in such extreme situation, there
is no other way.

GROSS: Isn't there a voice inside you that keeps saying, `Turn back. Turn

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: Yeah, well, there are people who are doing this but will
continue doing this, and sometimes it's also a competition problem. Once I
remember there was a war between Salvador and Honduras in Central America, and
we were trying to get a group of journalists, international group of
journalists from all over the world. There were something like over 50 of us,
that were trying to get to the border between Honduras and Salvador when there
was real war going on, and the road was quite open road, and the forces, the
military troops was on the both sides of the road, and the road considered to
be under the fire of the both sides. Nobody was able to pass through. But we
entered this road and we were going this road, knowing that we were going
straight to the death. But because we were a group of competing people,
nobody wants to admit, you know, that he will stay back, you know. Everybody
was trying to show himself that he's a brave, good journalist, and he is not
worried about any danger, and he's going. And we're going like mad, crazy
people, a few miles unless somebody tells, not telling openly that he's
afraid, but he said, `Look, I got some heart trouble, I would prefer to stay a
little bit.' So he started the movement of stopping all of us, you know, and
eventually we turned back. But this road when we're going, everybody knowing
that we are doing some crazy thing but nobody wants to admit it. It was very
typical for this sort of situation.

GROSS: It sounds like a real journalistic macho, yeah.

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: It is something like that indeed. But, at the same time,
you know, it gives you after that a great satisfaction...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: ...that you really want--it's the best proof for you
because it's authenticity which is important. People had said, `Have you seen
this?' `Yes, I saw it. I was there,' and that's what's really make your
documentation, your report, valid.

GROSS: Do you ever do things like bring objects along that could be used for
barter or to bribe people who would otherwise try to steal something from you
or mislead you or imprison you?

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: I remember when we were trying to get to Zaire, to
Congo-Brazzaville and to Congo-Kinshasa at that time. We used to have some
cigarettes, you know. The army was very demoralized at that time, and they
were not allowed to get through without giving them something. So we had a
lot of cigarettes and drinks and some things like that just to give to this
people. But it's not quite often--I will say that mostly in most cases,
people are rather helpful, rather hospitable. Once they know that you really
are doing the job, you know, that you really are somebody serious, who really
wants to know, who wants to support their case, they're rather helpful and
hospitable, and I think--I was always getting along in such situations with
such a people.

GROSS: For about 20 years, you were writing for the Polish Press Agency. Now
would people make certain presumptions about you and about which side you
might be on because you represented an agency from a communist country?

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: Well, it works both ways, you know, because we're--being a
group of foreign correspondents, for example, in Africa, we're all cooperating
a lot. It was a sort of competition but, at the same time, cooperation. It
was not working in Europe or it was not working in a developed country. We're
working all of us in extreme situation. We have to share, you know, the
little food we had. We have to share the little water we had. We have to
share the car we had. So we're cooperating very much so. Sometimes, this
cooperation was one of the example which, maybe there will be time I want to
write something about it, how wonderful it can be because when there was, for
example, right-wing coup d'etats, my friends from the Western press were
sneaking me in, saying, `Well, this man is OK. Just let him in.' And when it
was a left-wing coup d'etat, I was helping my friends from Western countries
to sneak in, saying, `Well, this man is fantastic, just let him in.' And it
was a lot of such examples.

I remember that during the Zanzibar revolution, a small island on the eastern
coast of Africa, that was such a revolution in '64, and there was my colleague
from Agence France-Presse, and there was a television man from ABC, and they
had a small plane and--but I knew the people who made this revolution, you
know. So they came to me. But the island and the airport on the island was
completely closed. Nobody can enter the territory of Zanzibar. So they came
to me and they said, `Ryszard, we have this small plane, but we can't get in.'
And I said, `OK. Let's make a deal. I will talk with the people there who
made this revolution and--but you will take me, too, on the plane because I
have no money to share for, you know, to share expenses of this.' And I spoke
with the control tower in Zanzibar. They said OK. I said, `There's fantastic
people coming here and just be quiet. Nothing will happen. We will write
good stuff about what's going on here.' So they allowed the plane to come in.
It was a small Cessna plane, and we came in, and were the first journalists to
give the news from this revolution.

DAVIES: Polish war corespondent Ryszard Kapuscinksi, speaking with Terry
Gross. We'll hear more after a break.

GROSS: What made you want to travel...(station difficulties).



DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's conversation with war correspondent and
author Ryszard Kapuscinski. He died this week at the age of 74. Terry spoke
with him in 1988.

GROSS: What made you want to travel and write about other countries instead
of writing about Poland because let's face it, Poland's recent history has
been very, very interesting, and journalists from around the world have tried
to go to Poland to write about that.

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: Exactly. I'm meeting all the ways--I have a lot of my
friends coming from here. It's very nice they are visiting me, but I'm sort
of travel agency in Warsaw--but, yes. But I'm not specialist on this. I
believe in specialization. I believe that journalism is also a profession
which requires specialization, and my experience, my life experience was that
I was in my country in a unique position, a unique situation to be able to
know, to see, to witness this tremendous historical event of the second part
of the 20th century which was the birth of the Third World. That is, in the
second part of during of this century, there is a completely new map of the
world has been created, and I think being a witness of this fantastic,
incredible event, I have to write something about this. I'm living in Warsaw,
I'm writing in Polish, but I think that my contribution to the Polish
literature and to other literature is just to exploit my experience and doing
this not in the only purely journalistic way, because there is a lot of
journalists who are writing about the Third World countries, but using also
having these opportunities that I can write, not only just press cable, you
know, small article, but also to write about atmosphere, about climate, about

GROSS: How about the psychology of the...

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: About psychology, about all this, you know, so I think that
if I...(unintelligible)...drop it to write about Poland, you know, I will left
something unexploited and unwritten, which in my opinion, it was to be
written, to be--I was, you know, a witness to something very important, so
this is how I understand, my role and even my vocation, my mission.

GROSS: Let me tell you what I find hard to understand about you from what I
know about, you know. I know you grew up during World War II, and for the
first seven years of your life, you lived in poverty. There was never food
or, at least, never much of it. You didn't have shoes during most of your
childhood. It was hard to get any kinds of clothes. You lived under very,
very difficult circumstances. You saw a lot of death around you. And so the
war ends. You grew up. And what do you do? You follow one war to another,
going from one revolution to another. I would think that someone who grew up
as a child in war would be so happy to try to put that behind them and to live
as comfortable a life as possible as an adult.

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: Well, there's probably something of the Freud in this.
Show me your childhood, you know. Your childhood and your experience in this
age and this period of life is leaving some marks on your psychology, on your
character, and it makes--you feel at home in such a situation. It means that
you understand the situation and to being living, for example, early in my
childhood and living in poverty, I understand the people living in poverty. I
understand people living in Ethiopia, in Africa, I know what it means to be
hungry. I know what to mean to feel cold, and so I can communicate with these
people, and I can understand what they feel and what they think, so it makes
me to be at home being inside these countries. The situation of great
comfort, of having everything at hand, makes me a little bit uncomfortable. I
feel better being there, being in a very simple surrounding among very simple
people and trying to say something in the name of them--of their name, to say
how they feel, how they suffer. To say about their pains and about their
hopes. That's how I understand my role and my profession. I don't treat my
profession as a simply the way of writing of making money. I understand it
also as a sort of social work and also sort of mission.

GROSS: Do you feel that growing up during the war and being surrounded by
suffering made you more fearless?

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: No, I don't think. I think every people know what fear
means. I will say that, no, because the difference every people--every people
suffer from fear. It's a very painful experience. I never laugh at it. I
think the difference is only between the people. That there are some people
who knows how to dominate fear and those who are defenseless against the fear,
and that's the only difference. But everybody...

GROSS: So you can dominate your fear?

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: That's only--sometimes.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KAPUSCINSKI: Sometimes, you know. Only ambition which is stronger than
this. Sometimes I know that I'm in a very bad situation, and I fear very much
but I think, I have to be there, and that's what leads me.

DAVIES: Polish writer and war correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski speaking with
Terry Gross in 1988. Kapuscinski died earlier this week. He was 74.

I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Actor Forest Whitaker discusses his film and TV roles

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

Forest Whitaker's portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the film "The Last
King of Scotland" has earned him a Golden Globe Award as best dramatic actor
and an Oscar nomination as best actor. Whitaker has also starred in such
films as "Ghost Dog," "The Crying Game," "Bird," "Platoon" and "The Color of
Money." "The Last King of Scotland" is about Amin's rise to power and a young
naive Scottish doctor who becomes Amin's personal physician. In Entertainment
Weekly, Whitaker's performance was described as `mesmerizing, capturing the
mercurial madness of Amin, charming one moment, homicidal the next.' Here's an
example of each side, starting with the charm. Early in the film, shortly
after Amin has seized power in a coup, he makes a speech that wins over his

(Soundbite of "The Last King of Scotland")

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Mr. FOREST WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) (Foreign language spoken)...and I want to
promise you this will be a government of action...

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) ...not of word.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) There will be new schools, new roads...

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) ...and new houses.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) I may wear the uniform of a general
but...(foreign language spoken) my heart I am a simple man, like you.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) I know who you are and everything that you are.
I am you.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Now for Amin's other side, the homicidal madness. Later in the film,
Amin's convoy is attacked by men he assumes represent former president Milton
Obote, who Amin overthrew. Amin speaks to the men before having them

(Soundbite of "The Last King of Scotland")

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) You work for him, Obote. Huh? That drunk silly
man! You want to kill me for that drunk silly man! Huh?

(Soundbite of drums and music)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) Uganda loves me because I am loyal and I am

(Soundbite of groan)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Idi Amin) I am your president.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Forest Whitaker read a lot about Amin and watched a lot of footage
before shooting "The Last King of Scotland." Terry spoke to him last year when
the film was released.

Mr. WHITAKER: Once I started to do the research for Idi Amin, his--the
choices that he made started to come into clarity for me. I started to really
understand him actually. I mean, he was a soldier initially. I mean, he
joined the army when he was very young and he started at the bottom, and he
was really embraced by the British army. He was in the King's Army, and he
was embraced by them and promoted by them for his battles against the Mau Maus
and many other things. And he was one of the only soldiers--there were two
soldiers that were chosen to go to Sandhurst to train, so they loved him. You
know, then he trained with the Israelis in paratrooping. And so I started to
just to find the things about him that ended up motivating him to do that, and
through this understanding, through them putting him into power--the
British--I started to understand the paranoia that started to happen when he
started to feel deserted, not just by the British and the Israelis but by all
the countries around him, when he started to feel surrounded, because he was a
soldier first and foremost.


Let's start with getting Idi Amin's style of speaking.

Mr. WHITAKER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What did you do to learn his speech pattern?

Mr. WHITAKER: Well, I mean, before I left, when I first got the role, I
started working on the accent, and then I started working on trying to
understand as much Kiswahili as I could, and by studying the tapes of him and
his interviews, it was a key for me into like trying to understand a little
bit of--at least in my imagination--the way he was thinking. I started to
analyze just the way he emphasized certain things, not just in English but I
would listen to tapes of him speaking in many different sort of tribal
languages or many different dialects, because he spoke like 11, and I would
just try to absorb that, because I think that was a key for me to understand
how to play him, was to trick myself in my mind to believe that Kiswahili, or
the Kakwa language was my first language, and that English was my second. And
so in that way, it influenced how I approached dealing with certain people and
the things I had to overcome, or Idi Amin had to overcome in order to be able
to communicate properly.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of what you mean?

Mr. WHITAKER: What I mean is, take for instance, I'm speaking to you, you
know, speaking to you now in English. And if I tell myself that I'm searching
for words in my mind to express the thoughts that I have, it starts to change
even now, just the demeanor and what it is I'm trying to say and how I
emphasize what I'm trying to say, because this language was a big deal to Idi
Amin. I mean, in fact, he like made them start to teach the native languages
in the schools. He started to return back to the tribal languages and
dialects because he felt it was important for national pride. And in fact
when he went to the UN, he actually spoke in Kiswahili there and had it
translated, which was very unusual actually for an African ruler. They would
normally speak in English, and it was a big statement about how he felt he
should be able to be represented and how he felt he should be respected.

GROSS: Actors always say that they draw on part of themselves no matter what
kind of character they're playing, so what part of you do you think you drew
on to play Idi Amin?

Mr. WHITAKER: That was the great thing about working on the character is,
you know, because I did have to try to go inside and explore the darker sides
of myself, you know, which helped me understand myself a little bit more, a
little better. And at the same time also, Idi Amin was the kind of person who
would come into a room and just like swallow it, you know? And that was
something I needed to like work on, too, you know, to try to understand how to
come in and own the space the way he did, and so I'd look--kept trying to
search for those things inside of myself and the confidence that he was able
to have, which, you know, I don't necessarily walk through life with that kind
of clarity and confidence.

GROSS: Yeah, confidence, right. The way you portray him he sure had plenty
of that.

Mr. WHITAKER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So were there physical attributes of him, too, that you found in
videos and news footage that you incorporated into your performance?

Mr. WHITAKER: There's a lot of things, I mean, that helped key me into try
to find his spirit, I think. One, you know, one was some of his gestures
helped me like find a definitive way of kind of dealing with people when he
would say his speeches, and something about the way he would move, his walk,
you know, with such a certain sense of certainty. Again, like the timbre of
his voice because he spoke lower than I do, in a lower register than I do,
which gives you when you speak that way a stronger sense of center. So there
was--and then, of course, there was the--I mean, we didn't do any prosthetics
or anything like that to look like him, but we definitely--I was a darker--we
darkened my skin, because he's from the Sudanese part in the north of Uganda.
And then I got larger, I gained even more weight to play the character.

GROSS: How did you feel about having to darken your skin to play the role?

Mr. WHITAKER: I was playing a very specific person and I think that people
don't really know a lot about Idi Amin. They just have this like generalized
concept of him. But the one thing I think people know is that he's from sort
of the Sudanese part, which is more of a blue-black undertone, and I think
people do know that and it would feel false for people if that weren't the

GROSS: My guest is Forest Whitaker and he's now starring as Idi Amin in the
"The Last King of Scotland."

This year on the FX series "The Shield"...

Mr. WHITAKER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: were like the guest star through the series, through the

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah. I did like 13 episodes.

GROSS: Yeah. So there's a couple of more episodes left that you'll be
appearing in when "The Shield" starts up again. And...


GROSS: ...for anyone who hasn't seen it, it's a really terrific series about
a kind of corrupt strike force in a police department just outside LA in a
very tough neighborhood with a lot of gangs and drugs. And you play someone
from--a detective from internal affairs, who's...


GROSS: ...there to investigate this strike team. You know, you're somebody
who's extreme in your pursuit of what you think is right.


GROSS: And you will go to extremes in the same way that the corrupt cop, you
know, Vic Mackey goes to extremes.


GROSS: Except that you're doing it in the pursuit of justice so it doesn't
bother you at all that you're doing it.

Mr. WHITAKER: Right.

GROSS: If you could talk a little bit about finding that part in yourself as
an actor so that you can intimidate people to tell you the things that they
don't want to tell you.

Mr. WHITAKER: I think that Kavanaugh is interesting because he really
watches and understands human behavior, and so he tests people. I think one
of the first things that happens is when I--you see me testing Benito's
character, Dave, with a pack of Juicy Fruit gum, and he doesn't take it. And
I say, `Well, if you take it then it's been an indication in a way that I
could break you.' And later you see me pretending to have children at the
school with Vic Mackey's wife, with Cathy.

GROSS: Yeah, you're trying...

Mr. WHITAKER: And I ask her...

GROSS: You're trying to get on her good side, and she has--you know that she
has a couple of kids and that they're developmentally disabled, so in order
to--you want information from her. So in order to get on her good side, you
pretend like you're a father, which you're not.

Mr. WHITAKER: Exactly.

GROSS: And she has no idea that you're playing her.

Mr. WHITAKER: Exactly. And I try to become friends with her, and I also do
the gum test and she takes the gum. And then ultimately, later, she does
crack, you know. So he's a student of human behavior and he knows how to push
and pull on people to get them to respond so he can get the information that
he needs. And sometimes it's being a friend actually.

GROSS: Let's hear that scene in which you're trying to get on the good side
of Vic Mackey's wife, actually his ex-wife, and Mackey is the head of the
strike team, and you're pretending to be a father.

(Soundbite of "The Shield")

(Soundbite of traffic)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Jon Kavanaugh) Gum?

Ms. CATHY RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) Oh, no thanks.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) Come on. It's a fresh pack. Here you go.

(Soundbite of children's voices)

Ms. RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) Sure, thanks.

(Soundbite of steps)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) That's your boy?

Ms. RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) Yeah, yeah. And our daughter.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) Two? Wow, that must be tough. And I'm
struggling with just one autistic child. It's the challenges of single

Ms. RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) Yeah, yeah. Doing it alone is hard.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) You too?

Ms. RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) Yeah.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) The daddy's not in the picture?

Ms. RYAN: (As Corrine Mackey) He does what he can.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) My ex, she doesn't even acknowledge our child.

Ms. RYAN: (As Corinne Mackey) I'm sorry.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) Sometimes I wonder why I even married her, you
know. You ever feel like that?

Ms. RYAN: (As Corinne Mackey) I'll see you around.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) Could I call you sometimes? Sorry. It's just
that they told me that I should try to get to know some of the other parents
and I'm out of my depth.

Ms. RYAN: (As Corinne Mackey) Ah...

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) I could talk to you or I could talk to your
husband, either one, if, you know, whatever you...

Ms. RYAN: (As Corinne Mackey) OK. Last name's Mackey and you can call me
about the kids or the school. My husband's not going to be much help.

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Kavanaugh) Thanks.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: That was from the FX series "The Shield." We'll hear more of Terry's
interview with Forest Whitaker after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Forest Whitaker. His
performance as Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" has earned a Golden
Globe Award and an Oscar nomination.

GROSS: Now I know you grew up near Compton. Is that right?

Mr. WHITAKER: Well, my parents moved to South Central Los Angeles when I was
six weeks old, and I was raised there till I was 11, and then they moved to
Carson, which is on the Carson-Compton line, until I was about 17, when I went
off to college.

GROSS: OK. And I read that, you know, while growing up in or near South
Central LA you actually went to school in a really wealthy neighborhood.

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah, when I was in Carson, I mean, I was supposed to go to
Compton High and my parents didn't want me to go there, because my mom was a
public school teacher and she knew the school at the time. She didn't think
it was right for me. So they sent me to Palisades, which was about two hours
away near the beach in Santa Monica.

GROSS: Two hours, did you commute?

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So you commuted two hours in each direction?

Mr. WHITAKER: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it was--I would go over to one side of
town and then catch the school bus when I got to the other part of town.

GROSS: Well, I mean, that just takes up so much of the day, just commuting
back and forth.

Mr. WHITAKER: I mean, yeah, I mean, I guess. You know, I mean, we're
talking about a person's whole future and their future and their life. You
know what I mean? So it's like, yeah, it means one hour more a day than
somebody else might have to go, or less or not. I don't know. You know, I
would study on the bus coming home. I played football and I would study, you
know, the stuff on the way home, but then as a result of that my view of the
world, like, shifted. I became more aware, so the amount of understanding
that happened from this choice that they did was like massive. So I'm sure I
would still be doing something in a productive way if I'd have went to Compton
High, maybe had a different set of choices. But I think people all kind of
still live into their sort of destiny and their archetypal destiny in
different ways. I mean, I would have, maybe, you know, I would have been
doing something different but still experiencing the same things in a
different way.

GROSS: Now when you started to act, were there roles that you were offered
that you didn't want to take because they were stereotypical?

Mr. WHITAKER: I did like this big thing on "Hill Street Blues" once called
"Blues for Mr. Green," where I was like this kind of straight-up gangster,
you know, who got on a bus and shoots the bus driver because he wouldn't take
my transfer, you know. But the thing about stereotypic roles, as you say, I
mean, I don't mind playing roles that people say are stereotypic as long as
I'm able to bring to them like a fullness, a clarity, where I'm able to
express the motivations of a person and characters, because I think that's the
point of why I went into acting in the first place was to find a human
connection between myself and others and between my characters. And so those
characters, like these figures that people think are dark and stuff, or they
think are horrible, many times were people that I knew in my neighborhood and
stuff like that. So I beg to differ sometimes on the way people perceive them
and the reasons why they made the choices that they did. So it's important
for me to sometimes to play those characters.

GROSS: Your big breakthrough, I think, was in "The Color of Money," in which
you played a pool hustler who out hustles Paul Newman. What was your audition
with Scorsese like for that? I'm assuming Scorsese was there for the

Mr. WHITAKER: Actually the first time I auditioned for it, they just put me
on tape and I didn't get the job. They hired someone else. And then I got a
call later saying that they were letting this person go and would I be willing
to fly myself--to pay for myself to fly to Chicago and audition for Martin
Scorsese. And I was like, `Oh, wow, it's Martin Scorsese.' So I paid for the
ticket and I flew. Then I found out that the reason he had been fired was
because he couldn't play pool well enough. And luckily, because of my
obsessiveness, as soon as they told me about the audition, I had two weeks and
all I did was play pool for like, I don't know, 12, 14 hours a day. So by the
time I got there, I met Mr. Scorsese, the first thing he said before I even
got to read the lines for him, was, you know, `I want to see you play pool.'
And so I went and I was playing a nine-ball champion. And luckily for me, he
was trying to convince him that he should use a little eight-ball in the
movie, which was like--so we got to play eight-ball, which was like, `Oh, this
is easy.' This is like a gift from God, you know, because there were so many
possibilities of what I could shoot. And so I was just cocky about it, and it
was like, you know, I had been playing it so often. So that was--after
that--shortly after that, because I was like, you know, playing so well, and
like being so arrogant about it, they gave me the job.

GROSS: Were you being arrogant because you knew your character would be

Mr. WHITAKER: I was playing the character, yeah, yeah. It wasn't Forest
Whitaker being arrogant. I mean, I was like walking away from shots. You
know when you're playing the nine-ball champion of the world, and you're like
hitting the ball and walking away and making sounds, that's extremely, you
know, like you walking away and not looking at the shot, you're like, `Pow!'
And it hits the pocket. That's, you know what I mean? That's, you know, it's
a little much but it was in telling the character.

When I first got to Chicago, that's where I auditioned, it was like freezing.
I remember, I walked up to the hotel desk and I was like, `Excuse me, where's
the pool hall?' You know? And he's like, `OK.' And I just, `Yeah, yeah.' And
I just went around the corner and started playing pool till, you know--I was
in that space-knit zone. Sometimes you can--I can't really play pool at all
now, but for some reason I have this savant way of like while I'm doing
something, I just believe it. I believe that's what I'm doing. I believe it
and it starts to happen, you know, like, I believe that I can do this thing,
you know, and it starts to happen.

GROSS: Forest Whitaker, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WHITAKER: Sure. My pleasure. Thanks a lot.

DAVIES: Actor Forest Whitaker speaking with Terry Gross. His performance as
Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" has earned him a Golden Globe and an
Oscar nomination.

Coming up. linguist Geoff Nunberg on apologies that aren't apologies. This


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Linguist Geoff Nunberg on when an apology is not an

We're used to hearing public figures apologize for their transgressions with
words like, `I'm sorry if anyone was offended by something I might have said.'
Or `My words were ill chosen.' Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has these thoughts
on when an apology might really be an artful nonapology.

Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: Back in 1971, J. Edgar Hoover gave an interview to Time
magazine in which he said, `You never have to bother about a president being
shot by Puerto Ricans or Mexicans, they don't shoot very straight, but if they
come at you with a knife, beware.' When the remark came in for criticism,
Hoover issued a testy explanation. His words had been misinterpreted and
taken out of context, he said. In fact, he had many Hispanic acquaintances
and hadn't intended to cast dispersions on the law-abiding citizens of any
ethnic group, by which he presumably meant the ones who weren't carrying

Needless to say, that explanation didn't entirely mollify Hoover's critics.
One Hispanic politician called it a nonapology. As best I can tell, that was
the first time that word ever appeared in print, and it was another 25 years
before it became common in the media. The question is: Why did it take so
long to come up with the word for these things? After all, there's nothing
new about nonapologies. Public figures over the centuries have always looked
for ways to placate the demand for expressions of contrition without having to
undergo the self-abasement that sincere apologies entail.

But then, no age has ever made such a public spectacle of apologies as ours
has. By the time Hoover made his remark, public figures were having to be
mindful of heightened ethnic sensitivities and the media's increased
willingness to report the lapses of public figures. And the advent of Nokia,
YouTube and "Oprah" brought the theater of expiation into its full modern
flower. Nowadays, every public misstep is apt to be recorded and broadcast,
with the offenders obliged to make ceremonial perp walks on the talk shows.
Some of them trying to rescue their careers and some in the hope of reviving

This isn't a genre that rewards originality, and the performances all follow
familiar scripts. Basically, we know everything there is to know about
nonapologies by the time we're seven. You make appropriately contrite noises
and then you go on to point to extenuating circumstances, disclaim any malign
intention and minimize the offense. As in, `OK, I apologize, but he started
it and I was only kidding. And, anyway, it was washable ink.'

If you're nailed for something you said, you can always claim to have been
misinterpreted, the way Hoover did. After the "Macaca" episode, Senator
George Allen said, `I apologize to anybody who may have been offended by the
misinterpretation of my remarks.' Or you can express regret over the response
to your words, the way Pope Benedict did after his remarks about Islam. `I am
deeply sorry for the reaction in some countries to a few passages of my
address which were considered offensive.' That's the same strategy that was
recently used by Charles Stimson, the Defense Department official in charge of
the Guantanamo detainees. In a radio interview, Stimson had said that it was
shocking that attorneys from top American law firms were representing accused
terrorists and went on to suggests that they might be receiving payments from
suspicious sources. After even the administration distanced itself from those
remarks, Stimson apologized by saying, `Regrettably my comments left the
impression that I questioned the integrity of those engaged in the zealous
defense of detainees.' That's sort of like calling somebody an idiot and then
saying you're sorry if you left the impression you were impugning his
intelligence. But it's a favorite formula for turning a moral transgression
into a mere procedural slip-up. Not, `I said something unacceptable' but `I
should have picked my words more carefully what with how touchy everybody is
these days.'

Then there are the contingent nonapologies, the ones that come laced with
`ifs,' `anys' and `may haves.' Mel Gibson reached out to `those who had any
wounds from something I may have said,' as if his anti-Semitic outbursts were
purely hypothetical. And back in 1992, when Senator Robert Packwood was
accused of having sexually assaulted several dozen women, he responded with
what has to be the most dubiously penitent nonapology ever offered. `I'm
apologizing for the conduct that it was alleged that I did.'

Of course, a boxed nonapology often compounds an offense by adding moral
cluelessness to the mix. But apologies don't always have to be genuine to do
their work. In a recent study, the Boston University researchers Richard Ely
and Jean Berko Gleason found that the majority of young children's apologies
were prompted by adults. It's a fair bet that 95 percent of those prompted
apologies were insincere, and the rate is probably equally high for the
apologies that public figures are obliged to offer for their transgressions.
But then, does anybody really care whether Pat Robertson was genuinely
remorseful about suggesting that Huge Chavez should be assassinated? Or
whether Charles Stimson felt a pang of conscience after attacking the lawyers
representing the Guantanamo detainees?

Sometimes the more insincere and grudging an nonapology is, the better it
makes the point. It doesn't matter whether you're really sorry, if you say
this kind of stuff, you're going to have to go out and take it back. A friend
was telling me the other day how she'd made her 12-year-old son call a girl in
his class to apologize for something he'd said. When the girl came on the
line, he said, `I'm sorry I called you fat.' Then hung up the phone. It was
pretty clear his apology fell short of true contrition, but my guess is that
everybody learned something anyway.

(Soundbite of song "I'm Sorry")

DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at the school of information at the
University of California at Berkeley. His book on political language is
called "Talking Right."

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of song "I'm Sorry")

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) "I'm sorry, so sorry that I was such a fool I
didn't know love could be so cruel. Oh-ho-ho-ho, oh-oh. Oh, yeah."

(End of soundbite)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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