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Forest Whitaker's Fear Factor

The actor branches out as a morally conflicted burglar in David Fincher's PANIC ROOM

By Pamela Harland     April 01, 2002

Forest Whitaker is the conflicted burglar in PANIC ROOM.
© 2002 Columbia Pictures
He's big, broad and mean looking on screen, yet in person his manner is more of a teddy bear than a grizzly. Forest Whitaker looks every bit the "bad guy" we typically see on film but just like in his career he steers away from that role in life as much as possible. He will never be typecast as "the thug." His ideals are bigger than that. He is a character actor. One who drives for excellence in every character and every part he creates. And even though playing Burnham in David Fincher's new thriller PANIC ROOM may cross the good guy persona he usually tends to on screen, Whitaker says it's a little more complicated than that, defending his character's core intentions.

"I think that he wasn't a bad guy in the first place," explains Whitaker. "I mean this man comes up to him and says, 'My grandfather's house has some money in it and I can't get in. If you help me get in it I'll give you some of it. No one is going to be there. And I have a key to the door.' Things just start to go awry and that's when he has to question his morality as he keeps crossing these lines. He's a character that is conflicted and he is trying to take care of his family."

Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart are under siege in PANIC ROOM.

In the film, Whitaker as Burnham and a team of men break into a house, occupied by Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter (Kristen Stewart), to get to a panic room that holds a small fortune in it. The only problem is once the men get into the house Meg and her daughter escape to the panic room. And soon PANIC ROOM becomes a bevy of mind games between the burglars and the Altmans.

Being a consummate professional, Whitaker researched panic rooms during pre-production. He went to a number of sites that held panic rooms, including government officials' homes, and even watched some of them being built. Whitaker also saw other security measures being utilized including some on the front lawn.

"If you go to certain people's homes, underneath the grass, there are like sensors," explains Whitaker. "They are pressure sensors that alarm the house as well. There are a lot of different ways people are securing their homes."

The 40-year-old Whitaker says, although he has yet to use any of these high-tech security measures, if people aren't able to have their own security guards they might have a wall with some sort of beam on it or watch dogs to help them prevent intruders. But this burly man isn't about to start building walls and hiring security for his home.

"I have a dog," says Whitaker, "but I don't want to live in fear."

Still, he doesn't think it's wrong to have a panic room if that's what's going to make homeowners feel safe. Although, he feels sometimes being too paranoid can lead to a very inhibited life full of fear.

Jody Foster toplines in THE PANIC ROOM

"I don't think there is anything wrong with having one, " says Whitaker. "I just don't want to live in fear and I don't want to know that there's a room that I'm thinking about going to because someone is going to break into my home. It's just a mentality that I don't want to have. I don't want the people around me to be afraid. I do want them to feel safe and, hopefully, I can make them feel safe with the energy that I project in my house and that's what I prefer."

And apparently the fearless Whitaker had very little fear of working with two-time Academy Award-winning Foster either. The two had briefly met at a women-in-film ceremony that he was being honored at for his directing. On his off time from acting Whitaker also directs, with four films already under his belt including WAITING TO EXHALE. And his next directing project, a live action version of FAT ALBERT, is already in pre-production scheduled to start shooting in May.

But during the production of PANIC ROOM, since Foster and Whitaker were virtually in completely different rooms most of the time, their scenes were shot separately, sometimes on each other's days off.

"I didn't get to know her that well," reveals Whitaker. "But she's very centered and very powerful, very strong. She seems to be very focused and she's a really talented actress. I thought that this was a really interesting film for her. I don't think you get to see her be this weak. The character starts off really, really weak. She's like really insecure and she doesn't even know how to control her daughter, let alone her life. And she makes a large journey and I think that she's the kind of actress that brought to the table the ability to do a lot of stuff. It's a lot to play fear because you know fear can be really cheesy in the wrong hands. If it's not really honest, it just doesn't work."

What makes PANIC ROOM work so well, says Whitaker, is director David Fincher's ability to relate with actors while at the same time deal with the technical aspect of the film. In someone else's hands the film may not have turned out as good as it did.

Forest Whitaker is the conflicted burglar in PANIC ROOM.

"He's a brilliant, brilliant man," says Whitaker. "He really understands the film making process really well as well as film history. He finds the soul center of a movie and that dictates the camera work for him and that becomes part of the characters as well. There's this extra character that ties everything together. He works really hard with the actors and we went through rehearsals for quite some time and with the writer as well. So he would shape the characters also as we were going along if things didn't work with something."

Making a film based on the emotion of fear at a time when our country continues to struggle with a widespread fear isn't lost on the Texas born native. Whitaker thinks having to live in fear is a terrible way to live and doesn't want the film to make it any worse for anyone having a hard time, but instead he hopes PANIC ROOM adds a sense of escapism to their lives for at least a couple of hours.

"I hope it doesn't add to any deeper fears in people," says Whitaker. "I think the film works on a primal level and it's a primal fear. It's about basic fears. Like there has always been panic rooms in people's homes. This movie doesn't designate it as such. My grandpa's got a gun at his door and there have always been basements that people went into. There were clubs in front of caves when there were cavemen. There's always been a need to protect your family and your home."

In the end, Whitaker is proud of the job Fincher did in handling the film and where he took it stylistically and says he wouldn't have been interested had they offered the directing reigns to him.

"Nah, in David's hands, it's a perfect film," says Whitaker.


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