In “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” Forest Whitaker plays the title character, Cecil Gaines, who goes from working on a plantation to being a longtime, loyal employee of the White House. Oprah Winfriey plays Cecil’s alcoholic wife, Gloria, who loves her husband but resents his devotion to his job, which requires him to work long hours away from home. Meanwhile, Cecil’s sons Louis (played by David Oyelowo) and Charlie (played Elijah Kelley) have very different views of the U.S. government and Cecil’s job in the White House: Louis is rebellious and anti-establishment, while Charlie is obedient and patriotic.
The movie’s huge ensemble cast also includes Yaya Alafia, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber and Robin Williams. Many industry pundits are saying that “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is Oscar-worthy. There was a massive press conference in New York City for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” that featured the following people from the movie: director Daniels, screenwriter Danny Strong and co-stars Whitaker, Winfrey, Oyelowo, Gooding, Howard, Kelly, Marsden, Schreiber, Carey, Kravitz, Alafia and Jesse Williams. Here is what they said at the press conference.
Lee, how did you decide to direct “The Butler”?
Daniels: It came to me from the late Laura Ziskin, who produced “Pretty Woman” and the “Spider-Man” franchise. She had optioned it from Sony from a Washington Post piece that Lee Haygood wrote about a butler. Danny Strong wrote an incredible script that we developed. It was from the moment I read it.
Forest, what attracted you to your role in “The Butler”? How did you change yourself for this role?
Whitaker: I thought it was an amazing story. The story of Eugene Allen was amazing was the original inspiration that they wrote this amazing script from. This character serving eight presidents in the White House allowed me the opportunity to deal with my family, the love of my family, my wife, my son, our relationship — and also at the same time my own stance on the world and how I wanted to be able to live and everybody deserves the quality of a good life, and moved into the civil rights movement and trying to strive for that.
So what I did was I started to do research on the period and time. I started to look at that as a whole so that I could make that an organic part of myself; so the experiences of that would be inside me. I started to work with a butler coach to start to learn about how to serve, the concept and the way of thinking of thinking that they would have.
And I started working on the accent, the dialect, to find the right speech, which I spoke to Lee about, to try to find what was the right voice for this person and how to combine it with the original person. And the physicality of the aging, which I thought was a big part of the drama, like the part of the history and the moments in the script to get to work with all these people and try to put them inside of myself, so that I would be able to age in a way that would feel organic.
I think the thing that made it work was these artists are so talented. So it was a great, fortunate thing to get to walk on a set and work with extraordinary actors, every phase of the piece, whether it was these guys Cuba [Gooding Jr.] and Lenny [Kravitz] and the humor and all these presidents, with Liev [Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson]. Everyone was so powerful. And, of course, family with Oprah [Winfrey] and David [Oyelowo], it was this thing of intimacy that we were trying to find, so we would be able to convey our deep desire to stay together as a whole family and to be one.
And with that family we’re trying to do and my son was trying to deal with making the family of the United States, to bring them together in a healing way at the same time. All these people were bringing it together to make it happen for me. It is an extraordinary, unbelievable experience. I feel so fortunate to get to work with all these people and work under Lee.
Danny, what kind of research did you have to do to dig in deeper to write “The Butler” screenplay?
Strong: It was inspired by Eugene Allen. I interviewed Eugene Allen, and it was an amazing experience. And I also interviewed many other members of the White House staff. I did about 25 interviews in total. I [read] memoirs of people who worked at the White House. This composite character started to bubble up. I started getting so many amazing stories from so many different people that I felt like it would be a disservice not to try and use as much of this as possible in creating this family.
And it felt like the more stories of people I could use, the more it felt like a universal truth would be created for this experience. And I like to say that the film is not inspired by a true story; it’s inspired by many true stories.
Oprah, what made you want to get involved with this movie?
He was relentless, right?
Winfrey: He was. I was telling him, I’ve got a network thing [OWN] going on. He wouldn’t listen to me. I’m glad I said yes. I finally said yes because of the story itself. He had been talking to me about the story and Gloria for some time.
I’m a student of my own history, of African-American history. and I believe when you know who you are, you have an ability to move forward with the strength, not just of yourself but the strength of your entire ancestry. So 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 that made our nation who and what we are — and to demonstrate the love story of African American families, to show that tenderness and to expose to the world that we are all more alike than different.
When you see the two of us at the bus station sending our son off to college that’s how every parent, regardless of race, regardless of economic background feels when you have to let go of your son. When you see us sitting at the breakfast table in the morning, I wanted to communicate that sense of love and connection and tenderness. And I also wanted to allow the spirit and integrity of all African-American women — “colored,” “Negro” at the time — who stood by their men and held the families together with their grit and their determination, and allowed their own dreams to be repressed.
I thought a lot about what it means to be a woman in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a woman like Gloria, or a woman like myself, or any of the other women in this room — all of us got a little fire inside. Gloria had a little fire inside of herself, what it’s like to be that kind of woman. You have that fire, but what do you do with it? You just can’t watch “Edge of Night” all day long and make a tuna fish sandwich and make a beer, so that’s why you tiptoe with the next-door neighbor Terrence [Howard] a little bit.
When he looks like that, it doesn’t hurt, does it?
Winfrey: He didn’t quite look like that! Terrence was such a brilliant actor, he came to set that first day, and he had removed the cap from his tooth, so he has this big gaping hole. And I went [she says in a skeptical tone], “OK.”
Daniels: I said, “Kiss her. Ask her for a kiss with your tooth missing. That’ll show who Gloria really is.”
Winfrey: But the opportunity to show who the women of that era [were]. Gloria, for me, is not myself but a composite of women of that era who sacrificed, who also were the stabilizing force in the family, because the butler could’ve been who he was and still had a family had it not been for her. So I loved all of that about the script.
Mariah, what led you to take this small but important role in “The Butler”?
Carey: Well, anything with this group of incredibly beyond fascinatingly talented people, for me to have a chance to be sitting here, it’s like, “OK, is this reality? Is this happening?” So I’m so grateful to Mr. Lee Daniels for thinking of me. I won’t call it “small.” I’ll call it an important part, because it’s integral to the story. Forest, you character did have to be born at some point. [She laughs.]
But honestly, Lee has been so passionate about this particular project. It really takes a lot. I don’t mean to speak for you, Lee, but it really does. As a friend, I just need to say that Lee had so many opportunities thrown at him after doing the incredible — I don’t want to talk about “Precious” too much, but we can’t help it, sitting here, but it was such a phenomenon and massive. [There were] so many opportunities thrown his way. And it took him a while for him to decide on what to do. And I was so glad when I was able to see it.
Now, mind you, for me to be able to see this movie, I was watching it on the computer the other night. This was like Fort Knox for me. Oprah can get anything, but I had to go through Fort Knox, to get this and to see this movie. And to finally watch it, knowing what Lee’s been going through, just even putting this movie together, this is, I feel, like your opus. And it’s just such an incredible thing to be able to say that I’ve been a part of it. And this [she waves her hand at all of her co-stars], mu goodness! Everybody sitting here? Forget it! I almost kidnapped Lenny!
For more info: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” website