Forest Whitaker says the message hooked him to ‘Repo Men’

The question is, “Do you think Jake is a psychopath?”

“Hmm,” comes the quiet voice on the other end of the line. “It depends on your definition of ‘psychopath.’ I guess the fact that he seems to carry no remorse or regret in the killing of others -- that, by many people’s terms, would be considered psychopathic behavior. I think in this universe, he’s dedicated to his job.”

Forest Whitaker is calling from New York to discuss “Repo Men,” which pits lifelong friends Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Whitaker) against each other when they find themselves on opposite sides of a collections dispute in a not-too-distant, corporatized future. An artificial-organ company dispatches the likes of Remy and Jake to repossess its devices past a certain point of account delinquency. In this particular dispute, the organ to be repossessed happens to be inside Remy.

“He lives a structured life,” says Whitaker of Jake, who believes, “These people don’t pay; they feel like they can do things other people can’t. If we don’t enforce the rules, there’s chaos.”

That said, there’s plenty of lethal chaos dispensed by Jake and Remy in explosive fight sequences showing off a rarely seen physical side of the veteran of more than 80 films and TV shows. Whitaker holds a black belt in Kenpo Karate and has extensively studied kali stick fighting (which came in handy, considering Jake’s weapon of choice), so the Oscar winner admits the action was a draw for him. But as with much science fiction, the metaphors were even more important.

“The whole concept of ‘What do you own?’ -- we should at least be able to own ourselves,” he says. “This whole concept of healthcare [taken to the extreme] -- how much will we do? In this case, we’re giving people parts that save their lives, but ultimately we feel we own them.”

The film was made nearly three years ago but could hardly be more timely, echoing the recent sub-prime meltdown and current healthcare reform debate.

“Yes, it touches on both,” Whitaker notes. “Being overextended -- the company’s desire to not be paid back. This is shown with real clarity in the film, when Remy’s forced to live the life they want him to live in order to make payments. In some ways, it becomes a life of slavery.”

The other prime mover in the film is the relationship between Remy and Jake, unusually rich for the genre.

“We’ve been friends since we were children, then we went off to war together. We’ve killed together, we’ve shared something that’s private in that respect. So our bond is really strong,” Whitaker says.

Sci-fi action isn’t the only new frontier for the busy actor, known primarily for his intense dramatic performances. Apart from a number of completed projects on the way, he has another change-of-pace movie out now: the culture-clash comedy, “Our Family Wedding.”

“I always wondered how people could do a scene and start laughing? I’ve always been so deep in my character. There were a number of times that happened in this movie,” he says, laughing as he recalls. “There was that one scene where, Shondrella [Avery], I think it was, they started beating up the cake. She’s pounding it with her hands and she’s like, 4 feet tall.”

And after shooting a scene in which he and Carlos Mencia chase a goat that has eaten a stash of Viagra (don’t ask): “We were sitting there, we were exhausted, we had been looking for the goat, we can’t find it -- the goat walks up and stops and looks at us, and then he walks away. Carlos and me just busted out laughing. It was too absurd.”

Coming as “Wedding” did after a couple of heavy dramatic parts (including a “difficult” role as a schizophrenic in the upcoming “My Own Love Song”), Whitaker says, “That was a funny gig for me. It was a relief.”