Chatting with The Butler’s Director Lee Daniels, Forest Whittaker, and Oprah Winfrey
By: Ellis Nassour
Part Two: Lee Daniels and Oprah Winfrey
Even on a shoestring budget and what amounts to a cast of hundreds that included a roster of A-List screen and stage names, Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels, shot The Butler last summer in New Orleans, more often than not in his PJs, where he completed photography in an amazing 41 days – somewhat of a miracle in the annals of Hollywood films.
The epic film is inspired by a 2008 Washington Post article about Gene Allen, a White House butler over seven administrations, starting with Harry Trumann. Mr. Allen died in 2010. The screenplay deals with fact with a lot of fiction thrown in. The true story of Mr. Allen has been expanded to make him a composite of many men in his position through the years.
Presidents come and go as the civil rights movement unfolds, in the film from Eisenhower through Reagan, but Cecil and the butler staff remain, serving as firsthand but silent witnesses to history and the inner workings of the Oval Office.
One aspect of The Butler is the African American struggle for racial equality, which in the case of Cecil Gaines, played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, and wife Gloria, multiple Emmy-winner and Oscar and Golden Globe-nominee Oprah Winfrey in an astonishing performance, sets off a war at home between a conformist father and an activist son.
Daniels says he didn’t set out to do a political film, that he only wanted to educate that segment of the public who are too young to remember. But in the middle of the shoot, he had his ah-ha! moment while filming the Freedom Riders heading into Birmingham to protest.
"We were on the bus," he recalls, "and it was stifling hot. There was no air conditioning because we were using a period bus. I had already set up the scene outside there this angry mob of several hundred and hooded KKK members were to block the bus with a burning cross and torches. It got real intense and I looked the kids and saw true fear. I began yelling ‘Cut! Cut!’ but they kept coming because they couldn’t hear me. They were shouting insults and rocking the bus.
"In that moment, which brought me to tears," he continues, "it suddenly dawned on me what it was like to be one of the kids and knowing that at any moment you could be beaten and killed. I realized what my parents and grandparents had gone through." happened when we were shooting the Freedom Riders bus scene.
Lee Daniels: "Working with Oprah was a joy," says the director. "She’s an incredible talent. I wanted her do something that would shake things up. I love women. They’re so complicated and beautiful. Black women are especially fascinating to study in how they’ve been able to evolve from slavery and adapt. We needed the black woman’s voice in this film, and we needed a complicated, powerful woman like my mom, my aunts. I developed Gloria specifically for her, with the voices of those women I grew up with and knew so intimately.
The Butler is also a love story. Daniels describes Gloria as complex. "She’s tempted to have an affair because Cecil’s not always around, might drink too much, might smoke too much. What the story tells historically was important, but Oprah was interested in exploring family and love. She does an amazing job. I can’t imagine having done it with anyone else."
"When you’re working with an actor," he adds, "I can’t shoot a scene unless I have the trust of the actor. It’s an art form, like creating a dance or painting a portrait. With Oprah in particular, she hadn’t worked as an actor in a long time."
There was the scene where Oprah as Gloria has been waiting and waiting for Cecil to get home. She’s a little drunk and starved for affection, not to mention a bit jealous of the reigning queen of the White House: Jacqueline Kennedy. She’s in bed and gets up and goes to her vanity and begins applying layers and layers of lipstick, as if she’s about to be whisked off to a ball.
Daniels was so nervous shooting the sequence. "The world knows Oprah Winfrey, so how do I get the world to not recognize her as Oprah? How do I get her to disappear? She sarcastically asks Mrs. Kennedy, as if Cecil is an intimate. She jokes if she should speak French, and wants to know how many pairs of shoes Mrs. Kennedy owns. She is resentful that her husband is in the White House tending to the Kennedy instead of tending to his wife. I was terrified and nervous because it’s intimidating to critique her. It was nerve-wracking carrying the burden of her performances in The Color Purple and Beloved. She was a genius in both."
But he soon threw all his worries out the door. Winfrey continues to prove that in the acting department she’s a force to be reckoned with.
She certainly arrived ready to work, says the director. "On Oprah’s first day, she came with guns blazing. She never held herself differently than any other actor, even standing in line for catering. She arrived every day on her own, without an entourage, fully-prepared and supportive to the entire process. More often than not, she met me head to head the character we created for her."
Daniels, crew, and cast always had Winfrey’s back and were extraordinarily supportive; however, there were some butting of heads. After all, she’s quite a strong-willed and savvy person. Daniels, knowing her and realizing this, didn’t hesitate to listen.
OPRAH WINFREY, who’s been offered many roles while she was building her OWN, is returning to the screen for the first time in 15 years. "I became involved because Lee was relentless. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. In desperation, I finally said yes. He told me the role would take a lot of time. He approached me saying Gloria would be a small part, but it kept growing. She went from loving, happy wife to discontented housewife. ‘I’m going to shoot all your stuff at one time,’ he said. That didn’t happen. I had a lot of apprehensions. I just didn’t want to embarrass myself."
In the end, regarding the arc of the story, it came down to being a student of her African American history, "knowing who you are. If you do, you have the ability to move forward with the strength not just of yourself but also the strength of your entire ancestry. However, an appealing aspect of the film is that our characters have a deep bond of love through all the strains, through Gloria’s alcoholism, and all else. I wanted to convey a parent’s love for their children – that we ‘re more alike than different."
Winfrey, speaking of the cruel and inhuman events of the civil rights era, observes, "I was fortunate. I left Mississippi when I was six, to live in Milwaukee. I never went to a segregated school. I was never called the n-word. In Chicago, when I went on TV, I was told to be myself. I made a living being myself. My career created my authority."
Winfrey says she saw the film as "an opportunity to pay tribute to the spirit and integrity of the women in the South – like my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother who were maids, and her mother who was a slave. It’s a way to validate their courage. They had this fire within them and stood by their men and held their families together with grit and determination. None of us would be here were it not for them. They’re the connection we all stand on. They paved the way for the generations that followed."
She looked at the role of Gloria as "an opportunity share so many of those women’s stories and lives. I look at the film as an offering to our nation." She further explained that she saw the film "as a way of letting audiences see the tenderness and love between a black couple and their love for their family, which is something you rarely see."
In one of The Butler‘s most memorable scenes, Cecil and Gloria’s son Louis, now, after being a lunch counter protester, beaten and arrested several times, an entrenched activist with the Black Panthers, comes home for a visit. Everything goes well until he insults black trailblazers of being Uncle Toms. Cecil grows violent and goes to kick him out. He insults his father for being a butler in the service of the white man. Gloria wallops him good!
She tells him, "Everything you are, everything you have is because of that butler!"
"Everything I am, we are," Winfrey says, growing very emotional, "is because of that generation. They got up every morning, went to work, and maintained their values. Even though they led restricted lives, their goal was to make a better world for their children. All that when, at the White House or wherever, in the face of knowing that when they walked into a room, those they worked for didn’t even consider them human."
Winfrey’s often as dramatic as she’s over-the-top. At a dinner party, she’s hilarious as Gloria brags about her secret ingredient in her potato salad [dill] as if it’s a sexual stimulant. In Cecil’s birthday sequence, she relives the past in a specially made black-and-white disco jumpsuit with hoop earrings and a giant Afro and boogies to "Dance Fever." In the poignant third act, when she and Cecil visit the plantation he worked as a child, she sports a neon track suit.
She also has an Oscar worthy moment, heavily aged and on oxygen, when Gloria is looking at a photo of her granddaughter and calls her the ugliest child she’s ever seen. Cecil disagrees, saying with humble sweetness that the child looks just like her. Gloria brings the house down when she replies, "Let me take another look" and makes an about face.
There were things in the script Winfrey wasn’t comfortable with, "that I didn’t know I could do." At the New York premiere, she laughed that her long-time companion Steadman "hasn’t seen the film. I don’t know what his reaction is going to be when he sees me smoking and drinking." Not to mention those wifely kisses with Cecil, and those tempting moments before she fights off advances of her neighbor (Terrence Howard).
She wasn’t happy with some of the language Gloria was to speak, especially in the wake of JFK’s assignation. "The script had her being such a bitch that I said, "Lee, I lived through the assassination. Everyone was affected. The country was in mourning. Gloria would show empathy."
Daniels also wanted a scene where Gloria would be sitting on the sofa in only her bra and panties. Winfrey complained, "Nobody wore bra and panties then! She’d be in her slip. Otherwise, she’d be afraid the kids could come in.’ Lee was just trying to push the envelope."
Winfrey has great dislike in hearing the n-word. "I’m not saying the word should be banned, but the context for me, growing up in the 60s,knowing so many who suffered, were harmed, damaged, and that it was the last word far too many heard before they were hung from a tree, is that it’s just not a part of me."
To warm up for the romantic moments with Whitaker, "where we were going to be kissing or in bed together," Winfrey would arrive early at his trailer, where she found him already made up and ready to act. "We would walk hand-in-hand to the set." Before takes she would be seen rubbing Whitaker’s shoulders or holding his hand.."
Then there were the tears. Winfrey told Daniels, "Gloria cries a lot, and I have real trouble crying."
She recalls watching a scene being shot in The Color Purple. "I couldn’t help myself, I was crying crocodile tears." Steven] Spielberg was very impressed, and told her when she stepped into the next shot he wanted her to cry just like that. "But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it! I went back to the motel and cried all night for not being able to cry." Veteran character actor Adolph Caesar, who played Harpo’s father, came to her door and advised, "You just have to give yourself over to the character."
Winfrey didn’t wish to be in that position again so she was advised to see an acting coach who told her "to think about this and that I should do that, but it didn’t help. Then she suggested that I focus on loss and past feelings of uncomfortable events. That did it. But to this day, if I know there’s a crying scene, I start two days earlier thinking about it, which you can’t do. You’ve got to surrender to it in the moment."
She cannot heap enough praise on her co-star who delivers an incredibly nuanced performance. "I could talk all day and night about Forest. He’s brilliant. People throw that word around. ‘Brilliant! He’s a genius!’ He is. I saw him every day. He delivered. He’s truly one of the greats."
Rodrigo Leāo’s score, including the film’s haunting theme and assorted period songs, is being released on Verve Records.