Forest Whitaker's interviewers have described him as bear-like so often that it's almost a disappointment to be confronted with the trim and strikingly fit-looking 48-year-old who greets me in the living room of his vast Claridges suite. When I tell him he looks great, he smiles modestly and mutters: "I've been doing some training, you know."
I don't doubt it, because in his new film Repo Men, which opens here next week, he and co-star Jude Law knock several shades of shinola out of each other and sundry passers-by in a series of spectacular set-piece fights. Something of a departure for Whitaker, Repo Men is a sometimes humourous and often grizzly sci-fi action thriller in which Whitaker plays an altogether less serious role than he is usually associated with.
"I think that's probably why I wanted to do it," he says, "because the character, Jake, is irreverent, he's funny, he lives in the moment, whereas a lot of my characters are much more cerebral and I won't say tortured, but contemplative, you know."
You can say that again. In films as diverse as Bird, The Crying Game, Ghost Dog and The Last King of Scotland, he has played soldiers, drug addicts, assassins and monsters with commendable stillness and conviction. But Repo Men signals a decision to mix heavy with light roles in the future -- he'll be appearing in the romantic comedy Our Family Wedding later in the year.
"I think I'll always do that kind of intense character work," he explains, "just maybe not all the time. And something I realised recently by playing lighter parts like this film is that I shouldn't, because sometimes when I play a heavy role I shift myself to the point where I'm in some kind of weird trance, you know? And when you get like that I think you can sometimes see it on the screen."
In Repo Men, he and Law play employees of a futuristic healthcare company that flogs terminally ill people the synthetic body parts that will keep them alive. But woe betide you if you fall behind on your payments, because the boys will be around to retrieve the company's property in impromptu operations that invariably result in excruciating deaths.
He and Law had never worked together before, but instantly hit it off. "We'd never even met, in fact, so we talked on the phone first and I really liked him, and then we met and we spent weeks training for the movie, working up the fight sequences, and got to know each other doing that. He's just a great guy really. I think there was a mutual respect, mutual trust, and then a shared sense of humour that made the bond on screen work I think."
One of director Miguel Sapochnik's intentions with Repo Men was to satirise the American health care system and its potential grisly future, but on the eve of my meeting with Whitaker, US President Barack Obama had succeeded in squeezing his revolutionary health care bill into law, an event that brings a grin to the actor's face when I mention it.
"I'm ecstatic," he says, laughing, "I mean it's monumental. I know that people will fight it and everything because there are all these financial interests, but it's there, we have it now, and for us that's such a big deal."
Though born in Texas, Whitaker moved to LA at the age of four and was raised in one of its toughest areas, South Central, where he experienced first hand the vagaries of American health care. "I truly, truly used to avoid hospitals when I was a kid," he tells me, "because it was so difficult. In the beginning we only went to County Hospital, which is a public hospital, and they were always full, you had to be so hurt to be seen. I remember sitting in there with my brother when he'd broken his arm falling off a jungle gym, and being there for hours, and my little brother was crying and nobody cared -- it was horrible.
"We got insurance later when my mom became a teacher, and that helped us a bit, but it was hard. It's going to be interesting to see what happens now, and I'm sure there'll be problems, but it's a huge step in the right direction."
Acting was to become Whitaker's way out of his hard upbringing, and he tells me a story that sheds light on why he was drawn to his trade. "My mom always tells me that when I was real little, you know five or six, I'd say to her that you can look at somebody, and by the way they talk and the way they move know exactly where they're from and who they are in a sense, you know.
"As a kid, I could see it and when people would do horrible things, I'd always be like, I wonder what the reason is they did that. It wasn't until I was much older that I learnt you were supposed to make judgements about the bad people!"
Young Whitaker's over-developed powers of concentration would come in handy later, but although he took up acting at college, it took him a while to realise it was the thing for him. "Honestly, I didn't really know for sure until I was deep into my career -- deep, even past Bird. Because there was this notion I had that I could never play the characters right because whenever I looked at them on screen I can always see myself, and so it's not true."
His performance in Bird, Clint Eastwood's acclaimed 1988 biopic of drug-addicted jazz genius Charlie Parker, was hugely praised and earned him a Golden Globe nomination, but Forest's doubts remained, possibly driving him to ever greater heights. He cites Jim Jaramusch's 1999 thriller Ghost Dog as an important step in his journey as an actor.
In it, he played an enigmatic urban hitman who kills for hire and lives by the code of the samurai, and "it taught me so much", he says. "First, it taught me about silence, and then it taught me about energy and how you can change your energy to better become someone else. In that movie, I was in a trance most of the time, in a different state, you know."
Whitaker's talk of energies and altered states is sometimes bewildering and at one point he even mentions a shaman, but however he goes about his business it works. And he says it was while making Kevin Macdonald's 2006 film The Last King of Scotland that the penny finally dropped. He put on 40 pounds to play the charismatic but monstrous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and his mesmerising, nuanced performance earned him a deserved Best Actor Oscar at the 2007 Academy Awards.
"Watching that," he says, "was really the first time where I looked at the screen and I said 'ah, you can do it, that's not me ... '"
Another role he remembers with affection is the part of kidnapped British soldier Jody in Neil Jordan's 1992 film The Crying Game. "I had kind of a romantic view of the IRA at the time," he says.
"I think I saw them in terms of the Black Panthers and people like that, you know. But I loved working with Neil. He's a brilliant film-maker, and he gave me a character to play that was a great opportunity. I like what he does with his little movies, like Butcher Boy. I'd really love to work with Neil again," he continues, then asks me "what's he up to these days?"
When I tell him he has just released a film about a fisherman and a mermaid, he nods happily, as if that sounds like exactly the sort of thing Jordan should be getting up to. "Right," he says, "right. I'll have to catch up with that."
Repo Men opens nationwide on April 23