February 12, 2007 12:00 PM

When Forest Whitaker called home from Uganda, his kids didn’t recognize the voice with the African accent. “They’d say, ‘Daddy, is that you?'” recalls his wife, Keisha. Whitaker would respond: “I told you I had to go make believe.”

Whitaker’s latest game of pretend may bring him an Academy Award. After wins at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Golden Globes, Whitaker, 45, is a Best Actor front-runner for his charismatic turn as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. The veteran actor and director—a soft-spoken father to four who’s “gentle, shy and kind,” says King cowriter Peter Morgan—relished playing such an intimidating, brutal character. “It made me stronger inside,” Whitaker says. Never a slouch when it comes to preparation, he learned some Swahili and spent a month in Uganda observing the locals. “My job,” he says, “was to learn what it’s like to be African: how they eat, sit, pay their respects.”

Whitaker has always been adept at moving in different worlds. Growing up, he attended a public school more than an hour from home to escape the gang violence of his L.A. neighborhood. He thrived both on the football field and in the chorus, earning a classical music scholarship to USC. He didn’t consider an acting career until a college trip to Europe. “I saw Jonathan Pryce do Hamlet,” he recalls. “He was on stage writhing around and I thought, ‘Wow!'”

Performing in an opera, Whitaker himself wowed an agent and soon got his first break playing a jock in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. After critically acclaimed turns from Charlie Parker in Bird to a British soldier in The Crying Game, Whitaker also began to find work behind the camera, directing Sandra Bullock in 1998’s Hope Floats and Katie Holmes in 2004’s First Daughter. Lately he’s been a go-to TV guest star too, showing off his scary side as a patient turned stalker on ER and a revenge-obsessed cop on The Shield.

Fortunately he can come out of character. At home with the kids he’s “silly and playful,” says Keisha, 34, a cosmetics entrepreneur, who met her husband of 11 years on the set of 1994’s Blown Away. “He likes to laugh.” (Their family includes daughters True, 8, and Sonnet, 10, plus Forest’s son Ocean, 16, and Keisha’s daughter Autumn, 15.)

He’s also a believer in fate. Disappointed to learn that he had no chance of seeing a lion while on safari in Uganda, he studied his script instead. When one appeared, he joyfully shouted his lines to it. Keisha says it was a pivotal moment: “He took it as a sign that anything’s possible.” Including, perhaps, taking home a statue on Oscar night.

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