Why a Hollywood career isn't enough for 'Black Panther's' Forest Whitaker

Actor Forest Whitaker
Michael Kovac | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

You're used to seeing Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker take the lead on the big screen. But, increasingly, he's trying to lead the way on global sustainability issues, too.

That's because he believes he has a personal role to play in improving the planet, the "Black Panther" star told CNBC Make It.

It all started with a phone call from the United Nations in 2006. Whitaker had just wrapped filming "The Last King of Scotland" and was helping a friend volunteer with child soldiers in Uganda when the international peace organization got in touch to find out more.

"The UN saw what I was doing and asked if I would come in and talk about what was going on," said Whitaker.

The project had not been on the UN's radar, he said, nor on the agenda of local government. So, he decided he had to do more himself.

The actor set about extending his charity work, and, in 2012, set up the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative, a non-governmental organization designed to help communities torn apart by violence in Africa and North America. In 2015, in recognition of his work, Whitaker was named as an advocate for the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — 17 targets aimed at tackling global challenges such as poverty and climate change by 2030.

"When the UN Secretary-General appointed me as SDG advocate, it was very clear for me that this agenda was different from previous ones," Whitaker told audiences at Temasek Ecosperity 2018, a sustainability conference in Singapore in June.

"It did not presume that governments and international organizations are going to do everything and substitute themselves for people and communities."

Actor and philanthropist Forest Whitaker at Temasek Ecosperity 2018 conference in Singapore in June 2018

Of course, Whitaker isn't the only A-list celebrity flying the flag for global causes. Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, as well as the UN's 16 other "eminent" SDG ambassadors, are among those raising the profile of worthy causes.

Speaking to CNBC Make It after his speech, Whitaker said he believes that sort of high profile leadership can make a difference and called on others to do more.

"I think that it's very important, this kind of advocacy," he said. "They, depending upon what they do, can act as role models."

Whitaker's projects so far hit 11 of the UN's 17 SDGs, including education, infrastructure and poverty. But the actor said everyone can make a contribution in their own way.

"That's a larger goal that I've decided to take on," said Whitaker. "But the same thing can happen at a micro-level, just by looking at your own life."

He suggested starting with small goals like turning off lights, clearing up plastic from the beach, or providing free tutoring. "I think that they can choose and look at what they are, recognize how they can affect any of those areas in their own personal lives, and decide how far they want to make that commitment go," he said.

Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker at Temasek Ecosperity 2018 conference in Singapore in June 2018
Karen Gilchrist

Whitaker's advocacy work does not mean, however, that he plans to step away from the big screen anytime soon.

The 56-year-old actor said the things that drew him to the film industry in his early-20s remain as appealing today as ever, and can improve his understanding of some of the communities he hopes to help.

"My purpose of going into it was to explore characters so that I could understand my connection with them. That's really the goal of what I'm doing. If I can continue to do that, then I'm good," said Whitaker.

He added that he hoped his film production company, Significant Productions, would help bring more "new voices" to the fore by providing a platform to young, aspiring filmmakers.

Barack and Michelle Obama recently announced similar plans for the media industry in their new production partnership with Netflix.

"We hope to cultivate and curate the talented, inspiring, creative voices who are able to promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples, and help them share their stories with the entire world," the former president said in a statement.

Forest Whitaker: Promoting global peace