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Interview with Forest Whitaker from the World Economic Forum 2017

Following are excerpts from a CNBC interview with Tania Bryer and Forest Whitaker from the World Economic Forum 2017.


TB: Ladies and gentlemen please welcome Mr. Forest Whitaker. Forest It's lovely to see you. Thank you so much for joining me on CNBC today. We just saw a little bit of a snippet of the work that your Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative does and of course you were honored here last night in Davos with the crystal award. How was that?


FW: Oh it's an honor. I mean it was a great honor for them too to acknowledge some of the work that people I'm working with really are doing. I've had this foundation for about four years now and we've been pretty active and aggressive and so it's great to be here at the World Economic Forum and to be able to be embraced in that way.


TB: When you're rewarded for the work that you do in front of the world stage like last night Forest how does that make you feel?


FW: You know I guess there is an emotional feeling in the sense that the people that I work with on the ground on a daily basis and they're working as we speak you know have worked so hard diligently in difficult circumstances at times. So for that to be acknowledged that's the work that's being acknowledged really. Its very rewarding, very rewarding.


TB: But it all started with you Forest and you said you started the initiative in 2012 but it was back in 2006 when you were filming The Last King of Scotland in Uganda. What happened there to motivate you to start this initiative?


FW: When I was on the Last King of Scotland I was doing a lot of research. One of the people that I met there had an orphanage in the north and he was working with children child soldiers who were who were being rehabilitated and who were being educated at this facility. And I started working with him helping to build dormitories and different things of that nature. And from that work which I did pretty intensively , the UN asked if I would come and speak to them about the work that was going on what was happening with the Youths there. So I came there and they asked me to work with them. First as a Goodwill Ambassador and then as a special envoy for peace and reconciliation. So that was sort of the impetus of what happened that ultimately made me want to continue to work on the ground as I'd been doing in the beginning and formulate this NGO Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative to do the work and to work with Youths who were affected by conflict.


TB:: And you're working now throughout Uganda, in South Sudan and in Mexico and into the US. What are some of the initiatives on the ground Forest. What sort of what does it do in these areas?


FW: Ultimately in the very beginning when we go into community and we work with all the local leaders to be able to choose sort of a small cohort of individuals of young leaders, about 30 we'll probably begin with there and we started to train them in conflict resolution, computer technologies, life skills and trauma work and then development or entrepreneurial work and those individuals are being trained for about a year and then they go back because they were chosen from each county of their state. And they'll go back into those places and they'll start to train two people from every village that's in their community. And from that they create sort of network of individuals across the city that are early warning systems. In their individual pods they decide projects, development projects that will help their community bring peace to the community and then we finance those projects for them. So it's a peace building initiative as well as a community building development initiative as well.


TB: What experience has stood out for you the most, a personal experience for you being on the ground?


FW: Well there's a lot of different experiences. I think when we first moved into the South Sudan…We were training individuals there and that is where the conflict began. And those individuals those Youths they became early warning systems and started to help each other in safety and that was a very moving experience for me. And then we moved into the POC camps after that to work with the youths that were there.


I think honestly what really affected me recently was one of our Youths…..There was….. the Army had occupied a school and he went to discuss with them or talk to them about moving out of the school to allow the children to come back in and that was a very powerful emotional experience for me. But I think on a small note one of the Youths there named Simon, I've known him he was a child soldier and I've known him for years. When we first met it was difficult for him to even be in a room alone. But he's worked with us for years now. And when I went back there last time, he grabbed my hand and he brought me up the hill to his own store to his electronics store. And that was really overwhelming for me as he was talking to me about expanding and the fact that he was training a group of Youths to be electricians on his own. To help the community. It's very Very powerful.


TB: What has surprised you the most Forest do you think since starting the foundation?


FW: I think I wouldn't say it's a surprise because it was a hope, that we would be able to continue. We're working in all these different places and there's different types of conflicts in Mexico or different things. But I think when I was looking at the South Sudan and the current conflict that goes on. The fact that we're able to continue to do the work . We've built like five from community centers, community learning centers and those are still intact and Youths are going there and children are going there every day. And I guess I was surprised in some ways even during this conflict they continued to build. They continue to work continue to develop their projects and move them forward. People would say to me that it's not possible to continue some form of development during these conflict times. In this case it has I don't know it will continue. I do know that the educational components that we have in place, because we teach literacy and computer literacy as well at our centers, that those soft skills will remain with them forever and they continue to request them. You know even even on both sides of the fence we've been embraced as far as as an organization that works with the people that listens to the people and empowers the people to take charge of themselves.


TB: There must have been so many things that you've witnessed on the ground working with your initiative Forest but what you think has been the most important thing so far that that you've learnt?


FW: I guess I was in Uganda and I was watching the youths like at a soccer game and there was a gentleman there. He was really sad, he was crying and This is a while ago, a long time ago. And I said what's wrong and he said that he had started a program where he was reinstating the child soldiers back into their homes. That night he had brought his first youth in and that night that youth had killed his sister. And I guess maybe really try to understand the complexities of everything, the carefulness that you have to take in the way you make the choices. You have to truly listen and study and understand. That taught me a great deal. So as we go along we have a system of sort of servant leadership. In the sense where we go in to a situation with the power being embraced around there's no centralized power in that sense. We are working with Youths and they're bringing new knowledge to what's going on. They're informing us and helping us and we're offering what we have inside of that equation and then hopefully from that we find a way to be able to solve whatever issues there are or enhance whatever positive things are already being nurtured.


TB: You mentioned before your work with UNESCO's as a Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation. How important is that work for you?


FW: It's really important I think to be able to do certain forms of advocacy. Being able to go and visit places and to advocate for the people there whether that be trying to get agreement on the elimination of child soldiers, from a president or minister. So you know these types of things are very important in a policy level. So we're working on the ground with our projects but then we also are working above to try to do a holistic approach to be able to make certain things happen. Whether that be going advocating for educational services and teachers to be trained whatever that might be. So it's been very very important in the process of the work we are doing.


TB: Talking about education in schools Forest you also work in the neighborhoods that you grew up in I believe in Compton and in Carson. How important is it for you to give back to the communities where you grew up?


FW: It's a great feeling to be able to add something to my community where I came from and we started a pilot program, a CRE a conflict resolution education program with L.A. city school districts. We are taking conflict training and inserting it inside the core curriculum to help with bullying, with gangs, with sort of random violence that occurs in schools, to educate them to deal with communication tools, to be able to deal with conflict resolution and mediate their own problems to be able to transform their environments and stuff through that. And they've been really supportive of that training. So I'm really excited that I get to offer that to a school in the neighborhood that I grew up in. It's a pilot program at Carnegie Middle School. But we anticipate it will grow. We've already taken part of those concepts and moved them into other places , we'll be probably moving them into Mexico as well as we translate some of the work.


TB: What about your own childhood because you were born in East Texas but grew up in South Central L.A. and the neighborhoods that we were just talking about. It was in the civil rights era where you grew up Forest, as well. How did that all impact and shape what you do now?


FW: It was instrumental. I've been trying to understand conflict and violence ever since I was a kid. You know. There were a few things that happened even on my block – the Black Panthers used to be right around the corner from where we were. And I remember seeing them every day and there were picking me up and talking to me. Then one day I went by their place and it had been shot up blown up. And that was very impactful to me as a child, I didn't understand. And the same thing happened with SLA which was right behind my grandmother's house or apartment. I didn't understand it then either. I walked to those buildings later to see the charred remains of what it was. And. I guess also at the same time the riots that come on when I was really young I didn't understand it at all. All these things were accuming to make me have a curiosity about why these things were occurring. And I think with war you know my cousin who was staying with me, we lived on East 39th street, He went off to Vietnam War and I was really young And he was there in 70 , I mean 68 he came back out but he was a totally different person. And we were so close before and we lost that closeness after, and it made me try to understand what conflict means, what it does to your psyche the trauma that occurs from it. And I guess later in life I started to activate that by working on the programs that I'm working on right now.


TB: How do you navigate those differences those prejudices, those conflict areas as a child though Forest how did you try and understand that?


FW: It was difficult to understand as a little kid. I mean I was kind of being raised during the time of the birth of the gangs there, and the Crips and Bloods. And I didn't I didn't really understand it well. I ended up having to leave. I was going to Compton school Walton - and I had to leave that community because I was being….. the gangs were after me I guess is the way I looked at it as a kid. I wasn't a gang member but I'd done something that really upset one of them. So my mother in her wisdom decided to move me across the city to another school. That was very powerful and a big change in my life because it changed my entire environment which is something that I needed and started to understand. These different universes that existed that I didn't know about before. So yeah.


TB: And your mother you say was a big influence she did send you to the school which was an hour bus ride away to get your way from the gangs. She also had two college degrees herself. She was raising you and your siblings so what sort of role model was she to you?


FW: She was a great role model. I mean she was as you say she was raising the four of us with my dad and she put herself through school, she you know finished out two of her masters at USC and one at UCLA. So it's the first time I went to those kind of places and stuff was with my mom when I was a little kid. I think that instrumentally what she did was she told me something that has always impacted my life. On Sundays we would go to church. I kind said I should be able to believe what I want I don't know why I have to go to a place that you believe and where you worship and stuff. My mother just said something that really impact ed my life. She said you don't have to go where I go. You don't have to believe what I believe, but you have to believe in something. So you need to get up and find out what you believe and deal with it. You know and that was very important, it was very impactful to my life.


TB: And how did you find then what you believed in because you had a football scholarship at first didn't you at college and then there was singing and that lead you to acting?


FW: I think the singing I had to take the very first classes in speech and stuff. And when I did that teacher there asked me if I would audition for the play. And from that I was given the lead in that play and it sort of shifted my life a little bit. I had a music scholarship to go music conservatory. But then I was accepted at the acting conservatory as well. And I slowly made the shift over when I was able to get a scholarship to be able to afford to switch departments. That's what I did.


TB: Did you know then Forest that was it you'd found that passion what you believed in the acting bug?


FW: No I think I didn't know whether I wanted to keep acting deep into my career. I kept trying to see if I would be able to do it well enough to make that part of my destiny or part of what I was supposed to do. I think the interesting thing about acting for me was that I get to explore these different characters and people and I just sort of philosophy that if I just tore away the layers of every character all the different things and stuff that the core at the bottom of that person I would find a light that would connect them to me and so there was that journey that was most interesting to me. It was that that I was always following moving through.


TB: Well of course you have an extraordinary career from film to television to directing and have become very famous for inhabiting the roles. For Idi Amin we were talking about Last King of Scotland previously Forest but you learnt Swahili, you put on weight for the role, you learnt how to play the accordion. How hard was it to inhabit that kind of a role?


FW: I just surrendered to it. All of those things were tools that would help me be able to figure out who he was. You know so I had to have some place to start. So I started by looking at the history trying to understand his language. The places I would go, music, all those different things were ways to fill me up to in a way break away out of the fear that I could inhabit this person. They like start to slowly fill up until finally as I continue to learn and met with his ministers met with his family met with different things like that. I started to change the way I was thinking. You know that surrender that you do to that person to that thing to that energy is part of how I do my work.


TB: Forest was it hard though because of course he was a monster, you know someone with a lot of destruction in his own country accused of killing a lot of his own people. Was that hard for you to come to terms with playing someone like that?


FW: What was the journey was trying to understand why those things had occurred. I mean certainly in the west treated him a different way anyway because the person after him killed more people and before him killed more people. So it was about like this man who was bigger than life who was making these statements and challenging the West in a way. But he did do a number of atrocities. I was trying to understand that and it was like me delving into his spirit. He didn't want to be the President, they kind of recruited him to make him the president. You know he became the President and he started to feel paranoid about all the things and the things that people were attacking him from all sides and that fueled the fear.


But they had taken him - he was famous for being a combatant. You know certain personality traits that he had that he maintained during the presidency. And I think I was trying to understand what could make a person do those things. And that's why I kept pulling at the layers and pulling at the different things to try to get to the core where he and I connected. You know at the bottom as human beings and then figure out all of the circumstances of his life that would make him do the things that he did , the atrocities that occurred. There are a lot of people who were in Uganda too that look at him in some ways as a hero. He's one of the few African leaders that kicked the west out of the country . So it was interesting too to listen to their points of view about it. It's quite informative to understand colonialism in a different way.


TB: Of course you won many awards for your portrayal of Idi Amin and you won the Oscar as well.

How did that change your life?


FW: You know I mean I think it made it probably easier to get certain movies made, things of that nature. Didn't really change the kind of roles I was playing I was already I had already been playing really interesting characters when I was you know with the Crying Game, The Bird, with Ghost Dog with all these different films , there were characters that I would like to continue to play even now. You know so that didn't change. But I think the ability to maybe activate a project became easier.


TB: And of course there's been a lot of controversy Forest about diversity with the Oscars. Do you think they're taking the right steps in the right direction?


FW: Well certainly there's you know the tapestry of films has become more diverse. You know I think you also have to look at behind the camera how diverse that's become it's becoming more diverse but there's still a lot of room for growth. A lot of room for growth in both areas you know and all those areas. And then you have to not just look at ….you have to look at the types of stories that are being told when you have these diverse, if there is these diverse casts to look at. Whether they're dealing with gender issues whether they're dealing with sexuality issues, whether they're dealing with class issues even inside of the structures and stuff so there's so much to still be dealt with, to be worked on to just be looked at as a whole complete citizen of the country or of the planet. But there has been progress made definitely.


TB: And of course recently we've seen you in Star Wars. What's it like to be part of such a huge franchise? Were you a Star Wars fan?


FW: Yeah Yeah I liked Star Wars as a kid. I liked science fiction. So it was really wild when they offered me this opportunity. It was a really interesting character to play. He has a lot more duality I guess than some of the characters that they've had in the past. So I was really excited to get to do it.


TB: And we're also going to be seeing you as Archbishop Desmond Tutu was that hard playing somebody living now? Did you meet Desmond Tutu and obviously there are quite a lot of…. I've had the privilege of meeting him and he's got a very distinctive laugh, and his physical stature is very different to yours….?


FW: Yeah. That's my big fear - it was another fear to walk through. Because yeah he's smaller , he has a higher pitched voice, a number of different things. But I think to be able to try to capture the kindness of his soul and his heart was something that was a deep challenge to want to find. You know yeah I did get a chance, I've met him before actually a number of times when I was doing some mediation work in South Africa I went to meet with him a few times, and during this period I got to meet….but I think trying to understand that or surrender to that…. to look at humanity in that way to see us all as little pieces that can correct and make society better. And his quotes of like 'doing your little bits of good' you know wherever they are you know can overwhelm the world. And so it's i understanding that philosophy of connectedness, being one family, togetherness yeah.


TB: Talking about togetherness Forest here in Davos the theme is responsible leadership. How do you feel about President Trump and do you feel from what you know of him so far to be a responsible leader?


FW: I think I would hope that the next President-elect as he moves forward would look at all of us, all of us constituents and understand a sense of wanting to represent them, wanting to take care of them, allowing them their voice, supporting them throughout this process. These are the things I would Hope will happen during this presidency. I think it's….. certainly clearly I'm someone who doesn't believe in intolerance , who believes in inclusiveness who believes in all these things, so anything that would be, that would be said that would contradict that, then you would know that that's the way I feel about it.


TB: Would you stand out though? Because he already is attacking liberal Hollywood. So would you stand up to things that you disagree with?


FW: I always stand up for what I believe and what I want to. I don't know liberal Hollywood or so many different walks of life that need to be….that will be addressing and stuff, issues of migration issues you know of race, issues of culture. You know I'll stand in the same positions that I stand now on those issues again, inclusiveness of wanting to maintain a humanity, finding an empathy and understanding through that. I'm gonna always stand by the side that.


Hopefully, hopefully those things can be found during this current administration. He certainly is going to be President of the United States the 45th president. So we'll have to find some common ground hopefully to be able to make sure those things and any time those things are infringed on, we'll have to stand up to try to make sure that the right thing is done for us as a culture, humanity, in our country and also the way it will cascade itself around the world.


TB: Are you worried though Forest. I mean you were in conversation in November 2016 at SOAS the school in London with Baroness Amos and you did say to her that you felt that there could even in the U.S. be something of a feeling of a civil war, of the breakdown of ideology….?


FW: I mean I think there's been a clearly a polarization inside the country and when you have a polarization , those kinds of things can happen. Also as well is when you have unmet needs, that's what I'm saying if these needs are met then we'll be able to move forward as a nation you know following a democratic system, then we can do that. If those needs aren't met then anything can occur inside of a culture whether that's…I'm not saying that's a violent insurgency, it could be a political one or it could be a movement, it could be whatever. Hopefully the people will stand up for what they believe and fight for equality life liberty and the pursuit of happiness in every aspect that that exists.


TB: Somebody who was standing up for that recently was John Lewis and were you saddened by the conflict that he had with the president?


FW: Yeah Of course I was saddened by it I mean I have great admiration for John Lewis. I think he is an immense man who has done things that have really helped move forward humanity and race and culture in the US and ultimately that understanding affected different parts of the world. I don't know the details of hacking or things like that and that's something that he may be more privy to or that the president elect may be more privy to, I don't know so I can't comment on that. I can just comment on the fact that I find him to be a man of integrity and hopefully these things will be sorted out as they affect the country?


TB: And just finally what are your hopes personally and also for your foundation in the future?


FW: Well I think we're in the process of scaling. You know there's so many conflicts and problems around the world. As you say you know different regions of the world including my own in the US, in the Middle East in all the different places and we'll be looking at putting our work in those different places and pockets around the world over the next few years.


TB: And personally spending more time with your family with Keisha and the children?


FW: Oh I try to spend time with the kids as much as I can. And I think you know watching them grow they're you know older now. Some are in college, branching out like in their career as music artists and different things of that nature so they are growing up. But I'll always be there for them and they know that.


TB: Forest Whitaker it has been such a pleasure to talk to you today, thank you so much for joining me for CNBC