Although he's won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, it's always been about the craft for the veteran actor. So repeated comments that he deserved a nomination for his leading role in "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and for "Fruitvale Station," which he co-produced, just roll right off.
"I've been doing this for years and my goal is purely to expand the human experience, to expand myself and connection with other people," he said in a recent phone interview to promote his new film "Repentance." "That's my real goal. It's always nice when people celebrate me or my work. But that's not my real marker. It's seems to be more of a marker for others."
Sure, Whitaker was disappointed that "Fruitvale Station" wasn't among the nine Oscar nominees for best-picture. But he ultimately felt the film didn't need a nomination or an award to validate its success. It was "beautifully done," he says.
"It was some great performances, and I think people did acknowledge my work," he said. "As far as nominations, you really just can't allow yourself to get caught up. You just have to see how it flows."
"The Butler," ''Fruitvale Station," ''Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" and nine-time nominee "12 Years a Slave" were among last year's bumper crop of acclaimed films about black racial struggles.
While gratified with Hollywood's attention to these issues, Whitaker is hopeful black actors will also be cast in more natural, colorblind roles in films that go beyond a racial theme or ethnic marketing strategy.
"In my career, probably maybe 80 percent of the time, I've been playing characters that had no ethnicity or different culture," Whitaker said. "So I've been lucky."
But there's no question Whitaker's characters have been diverse — from his assassin in 2000's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" to his Oscar-winning portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 2006's "The Last King of Scotland."
Whitaker took on a new challenge in "Repentance," a psychological thriller in theaters Friday. He plays bipolar Angel Sanchez, who seeks private treatment from a spiritual adviser, then takes him hostage.
It's also one of Whitaker's darkest roles — a "new territory," as he calls it. To prepare, Whitaker talked with mental patients and researched books and articles on the topic.
According to cast mates, Whitaker made it seem easy.
"He was very focused and specific," said Nicole Ari Parker, who plays Whitaker's wife. "It was almost easy to be in a scene with him because he was so powerful. ... It was wonderful."
So is this a colorblind film? Not exactly. The story is based on Philippe Caland's 2012 film "The Guru and the Gypsy," which featured a cast of mostly white characters. But Whitaker wanted to remake the movie with an all-black cast. In addition to Whitaker and Parker, it stars Anthony Mackie, Sanaa Lathan and Mike Epps.
"I thought it was a brilliant idea," said Caland, who directed Whitaker in the 2007 film "Ripple Effect." ''It allowed my film to be its own project that became bigger. He helped reinvent my movie rather than remake it."
Caland notes the film not only gave Whitaker an opportunity to portray a character outside his norm, but also allowed co-stars to stretch a bit, too, such as Epps, who is best known as a comedian.
The director said Epps showed he could play a serious role. "He wasn't the obvious choice, but delivered in an amazing way," said Caland. "It was a surprise to everybody."