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One Quiet Man, One Booming Career : Movies: That’s Forest Whitaker, the actor best known for ‘Bird’ and ‘The Crying Game.’ He’s got four movies coming out this season, which isn’t bad for a shy guy.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a town that thrives on the flashy, Forest Whitaker is one actor who shuns the limelight, does his work and then goes home. Nonetheless, the 32-year-old actor has worked constantly during the last couple of years, in such quirky yet high-profile films as “Bird” and “The Crying Game,” and this season he’s in four upcoming movies, as well as in the director’s chair again.

First up is “Blown Away,” which opens Friday, in which Whitaker stars with Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones as Bridges’ arrogant, antagonistic bomb squad partner.

“I was intrigued by a character that could walk into a room and say: ‘I’m the best. Stick around and maybe you’ll learn something from me,’ ” Whitaker says shyly, while noshing on rigatoni at a corner table at his hotel. “Actually, I was hoping that the film would help me with that side of things,” he says, followed by a crooked grin. Well, did it? “I don’t know, man,” he admits. “I’m sure I’m different. I keep growing.”

The publicity-shy actor has been dubbed “enigmatic” and a “loner,” but Whitaker up close comes off as merely introverted, even spiritual. “I am what I seem,” he says simply. “I’m not acting like I’ve done no wrongs. And I’ve done some rights. I’ve had pain, worked on things, you know,” he says softly. “I’ve looked through the fire. Now I’m trying to find some peace.”

The actor has his own issues as well. “You know what I think about ‘Blown Away’? I think it’s about redemption. I think everybody, even in the smallest manner, deals with that issue.”

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Whitaker, who has become something of a critics’ darling, nonetheless says that he has had to confront his self-doubt through the years. “There are times when I feel like I’m being chased by something,” he says. “Of not being able to do something right. It took a long time before I felt comfortable about what I was doing as an actor.”

“Blown Away” director Stephen Hopkins says Whitaker has clearly reached that level. “He’s an interesting fellow,” he says. “He speaks in such a spiritual and gentle way, so it’s a real shock when he comes onto the set and we start to shoot a scene and bang! He’s this rude and arrogant, larger-than-life character. It’s really something to watch.”

Whitaker’s searing portrayal of jazz great Charlie Parker in 1988’s “Bird,” directed by Clint Eastwood, was the turning point. “At that time, I wasn’t sure about what I was doing,” he insists. “I was just trying my best to see if I could do it or not. But Clint trusted me,” he marvels. “He taught me how to dance on a limb.” Some dancing--he won the best actor award at Cannes for his performance.

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A native of Longview, Tex., Whitaker was raised in Los Angeles and became a star football player at Palisades High School. He won scholarships to the University of Southern California in both theater and opera, then switched his interests from singing to acting. His affable, bearish presence was a scene stealer from the very beginning, in his film debut in 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and other early roles like “Platoon,” “Good Morning Vietnam” and “The Color of Money.”

But perhaps his most heart-wrenching performance was as the soldier in 1992’s “The Crying Game.” The film catapulted Neil Jordan into the upper echelon of directors and made unknown Jaye Davidson a star. For Whitaker, however, the role of the British soldier had less impact. “It was a very positive experience, and I was so pleased to see how well it did,” he says. “But did it help my career?”

Perhaps, perhaps not. But Whitaker’s choices have often seemed calculated to challenge, not coast. His directorial debut, 1993’s HBO movie “Strapped,” a gritty urban thriller, won him the director’s award for best first feature from the Toronto Film Festival; he was then inundated with directing offers from virtually every major studio.

While he says he prefers directing to acting, he has absolutely no desire to direct himself. “When I was working on ‘Strapped,’ I was directing a scene in which two of the actors were like biting the room,” he recalls. “There was so much pain. If I had been acting in the film, I’d have to live with that pain, figure it out and maybe it would stay with me a little bit.”

Whitaker recently returned from Paris, where he played Cy Bianco, a fictional, flamboyant fashion designer in Robert Altman’s “Pret-a-Porter,” an inside look at the fashion industry and the media that cover it. He was energized by Altman’s improvisational spirit and, while he found the world of couture elusive (“I knew nothing about the fashion world”), the character he played is a real eccentric. “He’s into cheap clothes. The clothes he designs are old clothes that are restructured. He always speaks his mind, whereas a lot of the other designers in the film are more covert and competitive.”

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He also stars in the HBO film “The Enemy Within,” about a political coup in the United States in the near future, due out later this summer. He will then be seen in “Jason’s Lyric,” a feature directed by Doug McHenry due out in the fall, a powerful drama in which the actor plays an abusive father killed by one of his two sons.

This week, he reports to work on Wayne Wang’s “Smoke,” about a long-estranged father and son, starring with William Hurt and Harvey Keitel. Later this year, he moves back into the director’s chair for 20th Century Fox’s screen adaptation of the best-selling Terry McMillan novel “Waiting to Exhale.” Despite the fact that the film’s major characters are all women, he says “Exhale’s” subject matter is universal: “The film explores how people repeat cycles.”

A future role he hopes to play is that of legendary boxer Joe Louis, although that project is definitely off the front burner for now. He frets that by the time he’s free of his other commitments he may be too old to play the boxer. “At some point, I’ll probably just direct--and write,” he says. “I don’t know what it is that I’m still trying to figure (out)--there’s something I need to figure out.”

Whitaker, who is divorced and has a 4-year-old son, Ocean Alexander, refuses to shed any but the dimmest light on his personal life. Instead, he is single-mindedly focused on his career and thinks that time is really his only enemy. “I wish I could feel it like when I was a kid. I could see the holidays coming. A year seemed like seven or eight when I was a kid. Now I need to stop and take stock--that’s why I’m probably not going to be acting forever.”


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