After sharing the screen with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker in The Great Debaters, 17-year-old Denzel Whitaker says he feels like he earned "a Ph.D. in acting." The film is inspired by a true story and focuses on Melvin B. Tolson (Washington, who also directed), a brilliant professor who coaches an African-American college debate team in the 1930s. The younger Whitaker, who plays debate team member and future civil rights activist James Farmer Jr., says he took away a number of lessons from Washington. "He was always telling me to keep it simple, stay humble, be honest to your character," says Whitaker.
An eager student, Whitaker notes that he even wrote down some of Washington's more memorable advice -- tidbits like "Less is more" and "We do by doing" -- and often reviews it before going out on auditions. The young actor also learned a lot from Forest Whitaker, who plays Farmer's father. "He'll come over to you, shake your hand, ask you how your day was," marvels Denzel Whitaker. "I'm like, 'Wow, Forest Whitaker is taking interest in my life.' And when they roll the cameras, you will see him change in an instant. It shows how devoted he is as an actor and how well he can maintain his craft and his personality and separate the two."
Despite his eye-catching moniker, Whitaker isn't related to either of his co-stars--but he has acted opposite Washington before, in 2001's Training Day. Washington didn't remember him right off, but Whitaker was just thrilled to audition for the actor-director. "I couldn't wait to show him my acting talent and my ability, since I really didn't get to do that on Training Day," he says.
He nabbed the Great Debaters role after five auditions, then set about doing research: reading up on Farmer, exploring the yearbooks at Wiley College (the setting for much of the film), and scouring YouTube for relevant clips. Still, his most challenging scene was one that research couldn't prepare him for: a dramatically hefty speech Farmer delivers during the film's climactic debate at Harvard. "In my audition process, I asked Denzel, 'How would you like me to do this speech?' " recalls Whitaker. "He said, 'Don't think of it as a speech. Think of it as a story. I want you to tell me a story, something you're not too proud of.' So I started telling him a story. Then [he said], 'Okay, go back to the script.' Then, 'Okay, go to the story.' "
On the day the scene was to be shot, Washington remembers being incredibly nervous. "I didn't know how it was going to turn out," he says. "And to be honest, on that day, I found out that Denzel was kind of scared as well. Before we [filmed] the scene, all he told me was, 'Just remember the story you told me.' As I'm getting up from my chair [in the scene], I'm writing down that story on my folder. During that moment of reflection [my character] is having, that moment of silence, that's when I'm thinking about the story."
It worked: Whitaker's intense, nuanced performance makes Farmer's rousing speech one of the most emotionally involving moments in the film. Of course, Whitaker emphasizes, he wouldn't have been able to do it without Washington. "Denzel understands actors," Whitaker says. "The best kind of director is an actor's director, because they will direct you like they want to be treated."
Whitaker may be on the verge of "breaking through," but he's been working steadily in the business for about seven years. His was first inspired to try acting around age 10, when an agency called out of the blue and said a relative had recommended him as a potential client. The agency turned out to be a scam, but going in and auditioning awakened a passion in Whitaker. "After that, I did two years of background," he says. "My mom was like, 'If you can put up with two years of background, then I will seriously consider you doing acting.' After two years, I was like, 'Mom, I'm ready.' "
The actor eventually won a gig on Nickelodeon's popular children's sketch show All That. He has also appeared in One on One, The War at Home, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and various commercials. Recently he signed with the William Morris Agency and is looking to transition into more grown-up roles. Working closely with Washington has also given him a new interest: directing. "I'm filling out applications right now for UCLA and USC," Whitaker says. "I want to go to film school."
Naturally, Washington has been extremely supportive of the idea. "He really emphasizes school," says Whitaker. "He's like, 'I expect to see you in college.' "