When Lee Daniels' The Butler opened in the US, the $30 million African-American themed movie, like The Help two years before it, was a huge box office success at the end of the US summer, taking $114 million in the US alone. Sure there was a star-laden cast, yet there had been too in Daniels' previous movie, the raunchy white-centric The Paperboy, which even Nicole Kidman's outrageous Southern belle couldn't save.
I found a joy inside of me.
With The Butler Daniels returns to the African-American realm of his breakthrough award-winning 2009 movie, Precious, and has given one of Precious's producers, Oprah Winfrey, a starring role as a kind of desperate housewife, a role the world's most famous talk show host was born to play. Soft-spoken Forest Whitaker was also ideal for the role of the unassuming White House butler, Cecil Gaines, who was told to “see nothing, hear nothing and only to serve” at the start of his 34-year tenure under Eisenhower (Robin Williams). Over the years Cecil exerts a quiet kind of power not unlike that of Whitaker, an actor who astounded audiences with his Oscar-winning portrayal as despot Idi Amin in 2006's The Last King of Scotland.
Since then the 52 year-old, who was a brilliant scholar in his youth and could have turned his talents to anything—he in fact started out on a football scholarship until injury changed his direction--has been laying low in Hollywood. He has largely been dedicating himself to humanitarian concerns in his role as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation and via his PeaceEarth Foundation and the International Institute for Peace. He has long considered Winfrey a friend and has close links with President Obama.
“I'm on the President's committee and am a huge supporter of the President,” Whitaker explains. “I was one of his main surrogates, probably the first person they sent out to speak for him in the very beginning, two years before he was elected the first time.”
Obama does not appear in The Butler though figures behind closed doors right at the end, when the retired Gaines is invited to meet him. Obama's election as the first African American President marks the film's climactic triumph after showing years of racial unrest under the various Presidents (James Marsden is JFK, Liev Schreiber is LBJ and John Cusack is Nixon) and via Gaines' activist son Louis (British actor David Oyelowo).
Inspired by a 2008 Washington Post article about the real life Eugene Allen and Wil Haygood's book, 'The Butler: A Witness to History', Daniel's film is a soapy epic. Committed to making a commercial film with a US PG 13 rating, this outspoken, openly gay director was never going to tread lightly. Ultimately he has delivered a rousing journey through America's recent history as seen through the eyes of a very humble man, who has been likened to an African-American Forrest Gump.
“I guess it's because he goes through so many time periods and it seems impossible that this man would have met so many different Presidents,” admits Whitaker. “Yet Eugene Allen worked under eight Presidents. Then after he retired he was invited by the current President to go to the inauguration, so he actually met Obama. His wife died the night before Obama was elected. They were campaigning for him all the way.”
Unlike Winfrey's Gloria, Allen's wife was more dutiful; while Cecil and Gloria have two kids in the film, Allen and his wife only had one son, Charles, who is nothing like Louis. Luckily Charles approved of the film, as Daniels' initial focus was on the father-son relationship.
“We don't often get to see African-American father-son love stories in movies,” Daniels notes. “But it wasn't until we started shooting some of the atrocities like the bus scene when those kids were being beaten, that I realised this was also a bigger story about the Civil Rights Movement in American history.”
Whitaker, a spiritual type, views acting as a means of personal growth. “I'm always searching for this kernel that everyone has that connects us all together," he says.
“Eugene's philosophy was really interesting because he was talking about service and I hadn't looked at service in the way he did, the equity of service, the different ways of giving and giving with abundance. It's about never giving to get something back, but above all to bring joy. It was very powerful. I don't now what Eugene's religion was, but his philosophy was really strong and I use it in the film.
"Even if there was a great degree of difficulty in developing the Cecil character, very specific things, I found a joy inside of me. Whereas there have been times when I played a character like Charlie Parker [in Clint Eastwood's Bird, which won Whitaker the 1988 Cannes best actor prize] where I would be so depressed I would wake up feeling like I didn't want to exist any more. Lee's an amazing, funny guy, he's intense and wild and he really pushed me.”
Terrence Howard, who plays Cecil's neighbour (and currently appears on screens in Prisoners), was astounded by Whitaker's precision in aging his character.
“Forest did something that I've never seen before,” Howard recalls. “He isolated the pain in different parts of his body. At 40 he walked a particular way with the pain in his shoulder and at 60 he'd put it in his liver and it would cause him to stay a bit cramped. Working with him I realised I am a novice in this business.”
Whitaker says he has done some of his best acting in the film. “I've pretty much worked consistently since I started and there have been periods where maybe I wasn't as comfortable about the work I was doing. I just got reignited over the last couple years where I started to feel strong again.”
He sure has been busy. In the US Christmas release, Black Nativity, this son of a preacher even sings, alongside Jennifer Hudson who plays his daughter.
“You know, I started out as a singer. When I was in college I got my first acting agent from doing an opera. In Black Nativity I play a preacher in Harlem; it's about reconciliation. In my father's church they don't use any kind of instrumental music; they only do voice. Whereas this church is more like an old southern Baptist style, which uses more music.”
Whitaker soon will be seen as the town sheriff in the thriller, Out of the Furnace, which was produced by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott and features Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as brothers in the central roles. He was also a producer on Ryan Coogler's Sundance winner Fruitvale Station. “I could see that Ryan really had the ability to do something special,” he says.
An internationalist at heart, Whitaker, who famously played a captive British soldier in Neil Jordan's IRA 1992 thriller, The Crying Game, recently appeared in two films by French directors, Jerome Salle's Zulu alongside Orlando Bloom and Rachid Bouchareb's Enemy Way.
“In France they don't have the studio pressure and they seem to be able to tell their stories loosely based on their on thoughts and feelings," he says. "Maybe someone visited Rachid's set for a day or two, but really they were kind of just there; they visited Jerome maybe once. The filmmakers really are taking the responsibility. It was the same when I did a film with Oilivier Dahan [2010's My Own Love Song co-starring Renee Zellweger]. I'm sure somebody came but I don't remember. That's the difference.”
Whitaker lets it be known that he likes working outside America. “No, I've never actually been to Australia. How are the filmmakers? I know there's Baz Luhrmann.”
Also an accomplished director, Whitaker is best known for his work on 1995's Waiting to Exhale, which boasted an entirely African American cast including Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett.
“I'd like to direct again, probably next year,” he says. “I've been developing projects about Richard Pryor and Louis Armstrong, but first I hope to direct a story about a conflict internet journalist who deals with conflicts around the world. The film's tells of him finding his soul after he's lost it. It'll be the first time I'll star in a movie I've directed. I've never even done a cameo, so it will be interesting.”