Standing strong in one’s beliefs, especially during decades of political and racial turmoil, can be a difficult process for anyone, particularly for a person continuously contending with discrimination over their race. But strong conviction in defending their values and freedoms can help pave the way for radical change. This is certainly the case in the new biographical drama ‘Lee Daniel’s The Butler,’ which chronicles the trials and tribulations of an African American butler in the White House during almost 30-years of service in the 20th century, as he supports ethnic equality.
Set against the tumultuous political backdrop of 20th century America, ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler tells’ the story of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who serves during seven presidential administrations between 1957 and 1986. Inspired by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” about the real life of former butler Eugene Allen, the film begins in 1924 with a young Cecil living in the fiercely segregated South and facing the tyranny of the region’s prejudices. After years spent working in a hotel, Cecil is discovered by a White House employee, which leads to landing the opportunity of a lifetime: a job as a server at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
There, Cecil becomes a firsthand witness to history and the inner workings of the Oval Office as the civil rights movement unfolds. At the same time, he and his volatile but loving wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), must grapple with the rebellious spirit of their son Louis (David Oyelowo), whose tenacious hunger for activism and equal rights often puts him in dangerous situations – and at perpetual odds with his father. While Cecil remains fiercely committed to his duties at the White House and to providing for his family, his determination leads to increasing tensions between him and his anti-establishment son.
The cast and crew from ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler,’ including actors Whitaker, Winfrey, Oyelowo, Mariah Carey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden and Minka Kelly, director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong, participated in a press conference at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria recently to talk about the historical biopic. Among other things, the actors and filmmakers discussed how the opportunity to tell a story that chronicled the civil rights movement convinced them to take part in the film; how the movie showcases the duality of faces African Americans were forced to put on throughout the 20th century; and answered a reporter’s doubts about the casting of the presidents and the look of the Black Panther party throughout the film.
Question (Q): Lee, how did you become involved in this project?
Lee Daniels (LD): It came to me from the late Laura Ziskin, who produced ‘Pretty Woman’ and the ‘Spider-Man’ franchise. She optioned it for Sony, based on a Washington Post article (‘A Butler Well Served by This Election’) that Wil Haygood wrote. Danny strong then wrote an incredible script that we developed.
Q: Forrest, how did you become involved in the film-how did you become the Butler?
Forrest Whitaker (FW): I thought it was an inspirational story about Eugene Allen, who Danny based this amazing script on. This character served these eight presidents in the White House. The film also allowed me to deal with the love of my family, including my wife and son.
I also worked on the accent and dialect and the right speech. I spoke to Lee about it to try to find the right voice for this person. Also, I thought the physicality of the aging was a big part of this drama and this history. I tried to age in a way that would feel organic.
Q: Speaking of the script, Danny, what kind of research did you do while you were writing?
Danny Strong (DS): Well, it was inspired by Eugene Allen, who I interviewed, which was an amazing experience. I also interviewed many other members of the White House staff; I did about 25 interviews in total. I read memoirs from people who worked at the White House.
Then this composite character started to bubble up. I had heard so many amazing stories from so many amazing people, that I felt it would be a disservice to not use as much of it as possible in creating this family. It felt like the more families’ stories I could use, the more of a universal truth could be created. I like to say that the film’s not inspired by a true story; it’s inspired by many true stories.
LD: Danny wrote ‘Game Change’ and ‘Recount,’ so he knows the White House and history in a way that’s unprecedented as a writer. So he wrote this incredible piece.
Q: Oprah, why did you want to become involved in the film?
Oprah Winfrey (OW): Lee was relentless. I told him, “Lee, I have a network to run,” and he wouldn’t listen to me. But I’m glad I said yes, and I finally did because of the story itself. He had been talking to me about the story and Gloria for quite some time.
I’m a student of my own history, of African-American history. I believe that when you know who you are, you will have the ability to move forward with not just the strength of yourself, but the strength of your entire ancestry. (It is) the ability to tell that story of ‘The Butler’ in an entertaining way that would offer an opportunity for the rest of the world to experience a part of our history.
When you see the two of us (Winfrey and Whitaker) at the bus station sending our son off to college, it’s how every parent, regardless of race or economic background, feels when you have to let go of your son. I wanted to allow the spirit and integrity of all of the African-American women who stood by their men and held their families together with their grip, and allowed their own dreams to be oppressed.
Q: Forrest, what was it like to have Oprah as your wife?
FW: It was an amazing experience for me. She was so committed to the role and our relationship. We had wanted to work together, and this gave us the opportunity. In between the scenes, we tried to continue to build our rapport and relationship, and she would be so generous. We would be in the trailer, and she would rub my back. We would walk hand-in-hand to the set, and I think that led us to be connected in the film.
There were some scenes Lee had in the original four-hour version where I was really startled as Cecil. I wouldn’t know what to do, based on the way she was behaving. In one of the scenes, she was really drunk and on the phone, and I tried to get her to the couch. I didn’t know what to do.
Q: Mariah, what brought you to your smaller, but important, role?
Mariah Carey (MC): Well, anything with this incredible, fascinatedly talented group of people, makes me question, is this reality? So I’m grateful for Mr. Lee Daniels for thinking of me for what I won’t call small, but more of an important, part, because it’s integral to the story. Forrest, your character did need to be born. (laughs)
But Lee has been passionate about this project. I don’t mean to speak for you Lee, but as a friend, he had incredible opportunities thrown at him after doing ‘Precious.’ I think it took him awhile to decide what to do after that, and I was so glad he chose this one.
I was watching the movie on the computer the other night, because this is like Fort Knox for me, but Oprah can get anything. (laughs) Finally watching it, and knowing what Lee’s going through with putting this movie together, I feel like this is your opus. It’s incredible to say that I’ve been a part of it.
Q: Live, can you talk about the historical prospect the film brought to this period?
Liev Schreiber (LS): Great pieces of art filter through the viewer. So for me right now, father and son relationships are important, and this movie does fathers and sons in a compelling way. When I first saw the movie, what I thought was intriguing was the dedication the film has towards its perspective. It clarifies and defines history through its own unique perspective. That’s how I think we come to understand history, through our own relationships, through political change and how these things evolve in our own lives.
What’s so unique about ‘The Butler’ is that it takes a compelling and intriguing tact on perspective, of being so close to the center of the political universe in the White House. This man has a unique perspective on this political universe, and it’s a very intimate and personal one. That’s the timeliness of that right now, given what’s going on in the world right now.
Q: Is there a moment in the film that shifted your perspective on how African Americans were treated during the civil rights movement?
LD: For me it was a father and son story. It was a father and son love affair, which transcends race. It wasn’t until we were on the bus, and we were shooting that bus scene. I yelled “action” and I’m in the bus with these actors, these kids, and from nowhere come the Nazis and the KKK, and the cursing, and the spitting, and the shaking of the bus. I yelled “cut” and they didn’t hear me. They continued on. David, Yaya, and I are looking at each other like, “What the hell?” and for that millisecond, I understood what it was like to be them.
Q: The film showcases the duality of faces African Americans were forced to put on throughout the 20th century-the face they wore for the white people, and the face they wore for themselves. Do you still that duality is present in today’s society?
Cuba Gooding Jr. (CGJ): There is that very aggressive aspect of my life that I have a very specific face for. I’ve been in organized sports all of my life, especially ice hockey. People don’t think of ice hockey as a predominantly white sport, but it is. I played in certain leagues, and I know people want me to be present with them. So I know that if I act the way I act in a boxing gym, which is aggressive behavior, there’s a different face that I put on in that environment.
There’s a certain face I’m wearing in that locker room to people who have certain opinions about black people.
Then there’s a very different face that I wear with my children in these very expensive schools that I have them in. The film is indicative of the faces black people had to wear in this specific time.
Terrence Howard (TH): As long as human beings are fragmented, and not solid and whole within themselves, and haven’t come to terms with themselves, like Oprah has, even white people have a face they show to white people. Everyone shows what they hope will gain them acceptance into the world.
But once you’ve accepted yourself, and recognized your connectedness to your entire being, you can move in a cooperative matter, as shown by Cecil in the film. He waited on the universe’s hands for his purpose. It wasn’t accomplished at a time when he hoped it would be accomplished, but it was accomplished when it was necessary. We have to move as a solid people, but until then, we will be fragmented. We’re going to blame everyone when we see them have a false face and tone, when it’s really the reflection of our own tone.
Q: For the cast, do you feel that Lee sought to tell the whole truth of what African Americans experienced while living during that time?
OW: I have lived through the Kennedy assassination, so I definitely had some opinions about that. But Lee is a truth seeker. He will literally not let any of his actors get away with a breath that is a false moment. He doesn’t allow you as an actor to get away with anything that remotely appears to be fake.
MC: Like the scene where Yaya Alafia’s character, Carol Hammieon, gets spit on during the sit in at the diner, I was spit on in grade school: That actually happened to me, and I know people would be in shock and not really believe or accept that, but it did. That was almost the deepest thing in the movie. It happened to be on a bus.
Q: Speaking of the Kennedy assassination, James, what was the process of becoming JFK for the film?
James Marsden (JM): On one hand it was daunting, and on the other hand it was one of the most special experiences in my life. We didn’t have much time-it was a couple of weeks-and then it was like, “Okay, you’re playing Kennedy!” We did a bit of a prosthetic nose, and some plumpers in my cheeks.
Q: Minka, how did you become involved with the role of Jackie Kennedy?
Minka Kelly (MK): Well, first I had to convince Lee that I would work hard enough to be able to step into her shoes. Lee didn’t even want to meet with me.
LD: Aw, Minka. That’s, well, sort of true. But I love her.
MK: I was lucky enough to get the meeting with him, and in a few hour conversation we had a beautiful exchange and I was lucky enough to able to get this role.
LD: I fell in love with her. It was a love affair.
MK: It absolutely was. I knew how lucky I would be to be able to work with him. I think to play this character, the only help in being able to play this role, besides experience, was having Lee be my director. It afforded the opportunity for some authentic moments. The spontaneity of working with Lee allows for a lot of honesty. His passion for that authenticity is very exciting as an actor to be pushed the way he pushes you, and I’m very grateful for that experience.
I think his approach in wanting to explore the Kennedys in a way they haven’t been seen is exciting. You never know what to expect on a Lee Daniels set. You may show up, and he may decide to do a scene that wasn’t even in the script. Like I didn’t even know we were going to do the scene after the assassination.
It’s really exciting as an actor to be pushed. I think that’s why he likes to get to know his actors, because he wants to know what he can get out of you. I think it’s exciting to watch and explore.
Q: For the cast, what was the overall experience of working with Lee on the set?
Lenny Kravitz (LK): There was a scene in the movie where we are all in the house together, and I think Lee thought it would be nice if there was a parrot there. I don’t think Lee thought the parrot would have lines, but the parrot did what the parrot wanted to do. It became a very interesting part of the scene. I got to act with the parrot and it was a good moment.
David Oyelowo (DO): I’ve had the privilege of working with Lee on both ‘The Paperboy’ and ‘The Butler.’ No other director I’ve worked with makes me feel like I’m infinitely better as an actor. He gets to know you as a person, and then he makes it a point to bring you to places you don’t know you can get to.
He doesn’t like to rehearse, because he wants all the truth on screen. He finds your truth through three-hour conversations. Then on set, he pushes you. He’ll bring you to the monitor and say, “David, watch this. False! Eww! Genius! Splendid! Yes! Do not do that again in my movie!” (laughs)
TH: Lee was so serious about nothing being fake. I had a cap on one of my teeth, and he said, “Fake! Get rid of it! I want the little brown thing, that’s truth!” (laughs)
Jesse William (JW): What’s really interesting about being on set with Lee is the balance, which I haven’t found on another set. Directing is such a delicate balance, and there’s such a thing as having too much freedom, or being in an environment too rigid. But what Lee really provides is a place that’s really sound, secure and rooted. As an actor you feel security.
Q: When I saw the young man who was to portray JFK, I was concerned because there was a disconnect between the president and what I saw. That was also true for Regan and LBJ. Can you explain the casting process for the film?
LD: I’m sorry you feel that way. In regards to the presidents I think they have done tour de force job, and I think that’s what makes me a filmmaker and you an interviewer.
FW: I have played historic characters a number of times. This is not a documentary. These are artists trying to convey a spirit of person in a time. Liev and James did, I think, beautiful jobs.
I didn’t look anything like Charlie Parker (in ‘Bird’). I don’t really look anything like Idi Amin (in ‘The Last King of Scotland’) and I feel like what we’re trying to find is like the spirit and the soul of the character.
LS: I am authentically sorry that you didn’t like what we did, I really am. But I think part of the task was in those particular roles was to be present in those historical figure. This is where I’m talking about perspective and context, where they may not be as you or history remembers them. They are seen through the eyes of the Butler and his family.
I agree with you. Watching the film, there is a huge disconnect from what I remember about Lyndon Johnson, who was one of the most prolific presidents of our time in terms of passing legislation. But that wasn’t the story.
It was important as actors that we contextualize our performance and everything that we were doing around this very tough nut of a perspective to make the film unique. So I appreciate your perspective but I think that what we were trying to do was a little more difficult.
CBJ: There’s a serious disconnect with today’s youth, in terms of what happened during the civil rights movement. Lee and I were in an interview in Philadelphia, and there was a white, 27-year-old college graduate radio disc jokey who had a sea of 13-year-old listeners. He’s a fan of the rapper Mac Lamar, who has a lyric in his song about the sit-ins.
The DJ told Lee and I during the interview that he didn’t understand what that lyric was until he saw ‘The Butler.’ A lot of the actors probably didn’t resemble the people at the actual sit-ins, but they informed this young man who already had a college education of the atrocities on American soil. He hoped to inform young people that there were white and black people who did fight for a cause.
Q: Also, when Louis was presenting himself at the table as a Panther, I interviewed Panthers. They did not look the way he was dressed in attire.
LD: I had uncles that were Panther. Louis was based on my uncles that were Panthers. So you might have interviewed Panthers but I have lived with them. I am proud of my uncles who were Panthers.
DO: We are dealing the world of specificity. If you look at history from a distance you can make all sorts of decisions. But we are dealing with a very specific family. When Louis turns up to that house to sit around that table with his hat on, he chooses to keep his hat on. He turns up in a mesh-leather shirt with his nipple showing. That is a statement that he wants to make to his specific father because of their specific relationship.
To have that broad view I think you have drunk the Kool-Aid. You have been indoctrinated into a way of looking at black people that we are trying to defy.