PHONE BOOTH directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Larry Cohen, produced by Gil Netter and David Zucker, with Colin Farrell, Forest Whitaker, Kiefer Sutherland and Katie Holmes. 81 minutes. A 20th Century Fox release. Opens Friday (April 4). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 74. Rating: NNN
With 49 film credits in 20 years, forest Whitaker has played every kind of role -- star supporting player, cameo -- in every kind of movie. He's capable of stealing a scene from Paul Newman in The Color Of Money, winning the best actor prize at Cannes for Bird and, as a sideline, directing Waiting To Exhale and Hope Floats.
He was in what may be the worst big-budget movie of all time, Battlefield Earth. But he's also been in great movies. He was the English soldier murdered at the beginning of The Crying Game and was part of the amazing ensemble of Fast Times At Ridgemont High.
Whitaker made a point of attending the Fast Times cast's 20th-anniversary reunion.
"I think everyone was there except for Nic Cage. It amazes me to think about that film. You take a job, and 20 years later people still talk about it and younger audiences still relate to it."
Whitaker's speaking to me at the Intercontinental Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival, where he's promoting the mistimed Joel Schumacher thriller Phone Booth. The film was originally slated for release last fall just as the Beltway Sniper was terrorizing Washington. Colin Farrell stars as an amoral publicist trapped in a phone booth by a sniper with an impersonal grudge against him.
Whitaker's career seems to just keep rolling, all the more impressive in that he's never been a star. He's a great character actor in an era when those are supposedly in short supply.
He's also done it while being all those things Hollywood doesn't look for in an actor: large, heavy and black. The last is less of an issue now, but when Whitaker began his career in 1982, there weren't a lot of "name" black actors in the movies.
In Phone Booth, he plays the police captain who takes charge of the growing circus atmosphere and is under the impression that Farrell is the criminal.
That's what appealed to Whitaker about the role.
"It gave me the chance to play a character who thinks he understands exactly what's going on and gradually realizes that he's not in control and has no idea what's going on. But he still has to maintain the appearance that he knows what's happening."
As an actor who doesn't get $20 million a picture, Whitaker likes to work. In 2001 he shot Phone Booth while in rehearsals for Panic Room, then started work on Deacons For The Defense before flying out to Vancouver to work on the new Twilight Zone, on which he serves as host and consulting producer.
He takes both roles seriously.
"I needed to have input," he says of the Twilight Zone gig. "It's my face out there."
PHONE BOOTH (Joel Schumacher) Rating: NNNN
Phone Booth has been kicked down the schedule for almost two years; Forest Whitaker made Panic Room before he shot this. It was moved to follow Minority Report, which was going to make star Colin Farrell huge but didn't. Then it ran right into the Virginia sniper, which made its plot (Farrell is trapped into a game of psychological cat-and-mouse by a sniper who has him under the gun in a New York phone booth) seem alarmingly exploitive and insensitive. Schumacher is a mega-hack with a big budget (Batman & Robin) but can do wonders with a single setting and a minimalist plot, as he does in Tigerland -- and as he does here.