Based on the Washington Post article "A Butler Well Served by This Election," Lee Daniels' The Butler is an expansive film that tells the life story of our country's civil rights revolution through the eight presidents-long employment of a black butler in the White House. With the butler played by Forest Whitaker, he is joined by a cast list that includes Oprah Winfrey playing his wife, David Oyelowo as his son, Robin Williams doing a Dwight D. Eisenhower impression, John Cusack waxing Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda embodying Nancy Reagan, and much more. Whitaker won the Oscar in 2006 for "Best Actor" for his work in The Last King of Scotland. His filmography going strong with two more upcoming performances in 2013, his list of films already features a strong highlight reel of appearances, in movies like Platoon, Panic Room, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, The Crying Game, and Bird.
I sat down with the soft-spoken Whitaker in an exclusive interview to discuss the beauty of service, working with such a free-spirited director as Lee Daniels, how The Butler reinvigorated his love for acting, and more.
Lee Daniels' The Butler opens nationwide on Friday.
I just came from my interview with Lee, and he asked me to tell him straight-up what I thought of his movies. He was very adamant that I be as honest as possible. As someone who has worked with him, does that surprise you?
He is a very emotionally present person. He is always very curious, and in the moment. Sometimes, you know, overwhelmed by the moment. He becomes very affected by feelings and thoughts, and first moments when he says he likes something, or when something is painful. He quite often expresses his emotionality, and I just laugh sometimes. When we were working, we would do a scene, and you'd come back to him and say, "How was it?" and he might be just crying.
With his established free spirit, especially from his previous films, what were your inklings about leading a Lee Daniels project? Were you excited, or scared?
I guess was excited, you know? I was curious. I needed it. For myself, artistically, to just to do something that pushed myself that was a different universe, and I feel that is what he does. To work with him, you realize how present he is, and how sort of meticulous he is. He'll have you in make-up and he'll come in and get this close to you, [Forest gets approximately four inches from my face]. I'm serious! All the time! I wish someone would have captured that on film. I just submitted to him, because I trust him. I feel like he is a unique filmmaker, and I think the unique combination of him and me, we balance each other well.
Has portraying a butler changed you perception, or made you more aware of, your own celebrity, as the one who is being served?
No. What it did was, because I was training a lot before filming about being a butler, it let me understand even more deeply the power of service, and how beautiful service is. The guy who was training me was saying, "You want to give, in abundance. You don't want to give where it is equal, or where you are looking for something for yourself."
There's something beautiful about service. And to just take one quick side step - yesterday I heard this wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings talking at a fundraiser. And he talked about what we all have in our hearts is love, and the one gift, whether you have money, or whether you don't have anything, is service. Anyone can serve, anyone can help. Anyone can reach out their hand. And there's something for me, because I try to live my life with the concept of service in place. I have a foundations and I go work for them, and am always constantly trying to work with people and keep up with service. And that night, the one guy the wide receiver was talking about, he gives 100,000 hearing aids away, he does it all himself, he carves them and sticks them in people's ears, all over the world. It's that kind of service that is a beautiful thing about humanity. You can politicize it, if you want to.
I heard that you auditioned for Lee and this part. What did you use to audition for this role?
I came in and they were at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. I auditioned with Oprah, and read some scenes for the movie. She was already cast. Her and Lee were conducting auditions, and I was one of the last people they auditioned. I auditioned for Last King of Scotland as well.
I also wanted to thank you for 'Fruitvale Station' and introducing us to the film's writer/director, Ryan Coogler ...
Oh, thanks. Ryan is amazing, isn't he?
What was it that struck you about Ryan?
To me, Ryan is one of the true voices of this next decade. He has so much to offer because he understands about humanity, about showing the face of humanity, and the different sides of humanity. He technically is also an auteur filmmaker, and he really understands the making of film, and how to tell a story, and does have his own style of storytelling. But I think most importantly, it's his point of view on life, and it is exemplified because he works in juvenile halls, and the films he was talking about when I first met him, were all revealing and touching and showing the humanities in people's lives. Talking about Ryan in relation to this, and service, many times we have talked to people who are working on a project, and I would say to them, "If I were to take a picture right now, that picture is the picture that you've seen before. It is a historical moment, because every moment we walk is a piece of history. All these photographs you saw from the '50s, '60s, '70s, of the people watching and you didn't know those names, that's you. Right now. Those people who shaped and forged history, as you are forging history right now." For me, it's to be able to put a personal face on those people, in different walks, and to also not judge. To recognize that life is diverse, and that survival is the motivating force. We balance that later in life, but ultimately when we come out of the womb we want air, we want food, and we want comfort. Those primary desires. To be able to take that and to say, okay, maybe this thing is legal, this thing is not, but to put a face on [a person] for you to understand who they are in their soul? Very important. I think Ryan does that. I think that's what they're trying to do when you see this poster, and you don't see my face. It's just a figure. But I think hopefully that, and what he represents, and what my son represents. The world is an amazing place.
'Fruitvale Station' and now 'The Butler' are both films that take place in the past, but link themselves to the present. What do you think are the benefits in moving forward by referencing the past?
I think that to be able to look back into the past and learn from it is one of the most important things we have; to look at history and to see what we need to do. With history, these issues of, unfortunately like the tribal issues of separation of who is good or who is not, who should be allowed, issues that have plagued man from the beginning of time, even with his own family. And so when you find a story that allows you to explore it, and also says stand up for those things. You deserve a good life, and I think the stories are important that we have to reflect on as we have to do the same thing in a different incarnation, in a different cycle of life, with similar issues, maybe refined? Because we're not actualized, we haven't reached the light yet, or at least some have, you know what I mean?
If you were David Oyelowo's age when this character was up for grabs, would you have wanted to take that role?
Yeah, it would have been great. I think his performance is great. And his character is an amazing character. He's got the family struggles right? But then he has his own integrity issues, like when he is struggling with murder, and what that means, and is wondering what is the right route, but still carries on in a really aggressive progressive way. His relationship with his mom. What a great character to get to play.
Would you have been particularly scared to play that character if you were his age?
How old is David? 30? I think when I made Bird [playing Charlie Parker in the biopic] I was around the same age, and I was unbelievably frightened. I was just like "Oh my god, I can't do this. I've never done anything like this." And the fuel it was good for me, because the fuel of fear really helped me become a better artist. And it's by losing my fears that I know I am testing myself and pushing myself forward, so I think fear is a good thing. Like for me, I would say I'm dancing on a limb, and if I fall, the tree is only like 40 feet up, I don't think I'll die. I'll just break my arm and my leg, but at least I danced on that limb, you know what I mean? That's how I felt when I was making Bird. And I'm sure if I was David's age playing a role of such significance, I would have felt the same.
Were you more comfortable performing in 'The Butler' because of your past acting experience? Or was there still that driving element of fear?
Oh yeah. I never played a character where I aged like that, like sixty years. It's really difficult to do. I've got an accent, and physical, verbal work. I had to figure out how to move, how to speak, the history, and the details. And that is why I think it revitalized me. When I did this, I think I wouldn't say I was discontent, but I wasn't motivated. I lost my love for my art, and because of the challenges that Lee made for me, which were immense, even the simple things seemed really hard. I was walking through fear all of the time with this one. I figured out a whole new way of acting that I had never tried before. I think it worked better, to figure out why I was in a scene, and why I talked a certain way. Dictated how my body would move. I had never done that before, I was so specific. In this particular part I was so specific. Trying to figure out how to do that and then have the emotional resonance, and then communicate to the audience in silence without mugging. And to trust myself that maybe I can make my energy and my thoughts so strong that they'll know what I am feeling. And that was a big challenge.
Quick Questions with Forest Whitaker
Favorite fruit? Peaches
What did you have for breakfast this morning? Greek yogurt with honey.
Age of first kiss? I don't know if I remember. guess I must have been 18, 19? I was a very slow bloomer.