What with all the brouhaha over the title of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” entertainment reporters haven’t had the time to write about much else regarding the star-studded historical film from the director of “Precious.” With its August 16 release rapidly approaching, a press conference was held on Monday, August 5 to promote the film. Many of the cast and crew were in attendance, including director Lee Daniels, Forest Whitaker, Liev Shrieber, Terrence Howard, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, David Oyelowo, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Jesse Williams, Yaya Alafia, and screenwriter Danny Strong. Below are the highlights of the hour-long session.
1) The original cut of the film was three hours long. An intimate JFK and Jackie moment got cut; LBJ on the toilet stayed.
Reports of the first cut being close to four hours are nothing new, and the cast was more than happy to joke about what they wished had made the final edit. After James Marsden, who plays President John F. Kennedy, discussed the different sides of JFK illustrated in the film, Lee Daniels jumped in and said the director’s cut of the film was about three hours long. He then mentioned a scene that was cut from the theatrical version involving the President and wife Jackie Kennedy fighting in bed and how that was one of the rare sides of their relationship yet to be illustrated on film. Liev Schreiber, who plays President Lyndon Johnson, chimed in to say, “Another good example of that is seeing President Johnson take a dump.”
2) To add an extra layer of realism to the picture, Terrence Howard removed the cap from his tooth before coming to set on his first day.
Oprah Winfrey briefly talked about her character “tip-toeing” with the next door neighbor played by Terrence Howard despite his less than movie star-level looks. “Terrence is such a good actor that he came to set the first day and he had removed the cap from his tooth, so he has this big gaping hole [in his teeth].” Daniels jumped in and said, “[To Howard] Give her a kiss with your tooth missing. That’ll show who Gloria [Winfrey] really is.”
3) Mariah Carey thinks “The Butler” is Lee Daniels’ opus.
Granted, this comes from the star of “Glitter,” but the humble pop singer and occasional actress had nothing but high praise for her director, saying “it’s such an incredible thing to say that I’ve been a part of [this film].”
4) Lee Daniels’ uncles were Black Panthers.
After a film critic challenged Daniels about the casting of his film and how the Black Panthers in it were dressed, the director became defensive of his choices. “I’ve had uncles that were Panthers, and Louis (David Oyelowo, whose character becomes a Black Panther) was based on them. So you might have interviewed Panthers, ma’am, but I’ve lived with them. And I’m proud of my uncles who were Panthers.”
5) Forest Whitaker worked with a “butler coach” to prepare for his role.
Actors receiving coaching from people who professionally perform the roles they’re only imitating is perfectly common. Most actors want to be as authentic as possible with their choices on film, and Forest Whitaker is no different. “I started to do research on the period and the time,” he said. “I started looking at that as a whole so I could make that an organic part of myself. I started to work with a butler coach to start to learn about how to serve and the concept of their way of thinking.”
6) Daniels said he had to use his white people face to break into Hollywood.
The mention of a few lines in the film sparked a lengthy debate over how each African American cast member felt they had to act — in a predominately white industry — to get where they are today. The lines were, “We’ve got two faces. One is ours. One we show the white people.”
Lee Daniels discussed what he called “the two faces of the African American” in a New York Times piece already, but the director of “Shadowboxer,” “Precious,” and “The Paperboy,” admitted during the press conference, “as I grew in Hollywood, I had to put on a face. I had to talk with a certain diction. I had to dress a certain way. I had to present myself in a certain light so that I could get ahead. It wasn’t until I found myself — and Obama was elected — that I was able to be me, and the two faces met.”
Oprah provided a counter argument. “I feel that I have a made a living being myself. When I was 19 years old, I interviewed Jesse Jackson as a young reporter in Nashville, Tennessee, and he said to me then, ‘One of your gifts is being able to be yourself on TV.’ So when I moved to Chicago and I was up against the then “King of Talk” [Phil Donahue], my boss at the time called me into the office and said, ‘Listen. We know you’ll never be able to beat him, so just go on the air and be yourself.’ So I have made a career out of my own authenticity. I don’t have one face that I present to the white world or the black world. I talk to my dogs the same way I’m speaking right now.”
7) David Oyelowo used food with large amounts of salt to look older and then spent hours on the treadmill to look younger because Daniels didn’t want to use makeup to help with aging.
Oyelowo said in early conversations with Daniels about the film, the two agreed they wanted the film to deal with the characters emotionally and not rely heavily on makeup. What the actor didn’t know was that Daniels meant there would be no makeup.
“Literally, the days before I was shooting anything in my teenage years, I had to get 10 hours sleep, and then days I was a bit older I’d get five hours sleep. I learned this trick of eating very salty food, lots of salty food, drinking lots of water, the water clings to the salt and puffs you out so the scenes where I’m with King I look a bit puffier. I managed that over the course of three days. Then I would suddenly have to go younger again, so I’d go in the gym for three hours and just be in the gym for three hours to drop five to eight pounds.”
Oprah then interrupted (jokingly) demanding to know how he managed to lose that much weight in just three hours.
8) Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey walked hand-in-hand to set.
Which is just adorable.
9) Lee Daniels didn’t even want to consider Minka Kelly for the role of Jackie Kennedy.
When “Friday Night Lights” actress Minka Kelly was asked what it took to land the role of Jackie O., the young actress admitted it certainly wasn’t easy. “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.” The director then interrupted in what sounded like an initial rebuttal. “Aw, Minka. That’s…well, that’s sort of true.”
Kelly continued, ” I was lucky enough to get the meeting with him, and in a few hour conversation we had a beautiful exchange and I was able to get this role.” Daniels again stepped in this time saying, “And I fell in love with her. It was a love affair.” Kelly confirmed. “It absolutely was.”
10) A parrot was employed simply to confuse the actors, but eventually became a part of the movie.
The actors were eager to talk about the ways a Lee Daniels’ run set differed from others. One of particular note was the director’s choice to put a live parrot in a scene without notifying his actors. Many remembered the moment, but Lenny Kravitz was the one prompted to speak up about working with his unique collaborator (Kravitz plays a butler in this film and played a nurse in “Precious”).
“There was the scene where we were all in the house together, and I think Lee thought it would be nice to have a parrot. I don’t think Lee meant for the parrot to have lines and to act, but the parrot did what the parrot wanted to do because he’s a parrot, and ended up becoming a very interesting part of the scene. I got to act with the parrot.”
Cuba Gooding Jr. then quickly chimed in, “He got so frustrated with the parrot he was throwing stuff at it, and then they put it in the movie.”
Winfrey then followed up with, “How about the moment when we’re all in the room and we’re all trying to act like the parrot’s not in the room, and then you hear on the speaker Lee go, ‘There’s an f’n parrot in the room people!’?”
“I put the parrot in the room for a reason,” Daniels said. “To throw them off. To confuse them. To make it real. To make it honest. And everybody is acting like the parrot ain’t squawking! I said, ‘The parrot is squawking. It’s freaking squawking! React!’ And so Oprah finally said, ‘Shut up, parrot.'”