As Cecil Gaines, the fictional character loosely based on Eugene Allen, a black White House butler who served through eight administrations from Eisenhower to Reagan, Forest Whitaker gives a performance so powerful in its subtlety that it's dumbfounding to realize that this is the same actor who won an Oscar for playing the larger-than-life brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 2006's "The Last King of Scotland."
Since winning his Oscar, Whitaker has remained busy on screen, both big and small, appearing memorably on "The Shield" and opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Last Stand." We also profiled him as an Indiewire Influencer for co-founding JuntoBox Films, a collective that funds, produces and distributes films created and chosen by as chosen by the JuntoBox community, and for producing this year's Sundance Grand Jury Prize sensation, "Fruitvale Station."
Indiewire sat down with Whitaker in New York to discuss his award-worthy turn in "Lee Daniels' The Butler," working opposite Oprah Winfrey, who plays his neglected, stay at home wife Gloria Gaines, and the hopeful message of the film.
The scope of the film is something to behold. How long was the shoot?
I think it was 40 days.
It was really, in that respect, tough. They were still raising money while we were shooting. So Lee would need more money to get extra days, you know, and that's why I think there's so many producers on the film. But I'm glad he did it that way because he was able to follow his own idea of what the film should say.
But at times you know, take for instance me, they would spread out different ages and makeup and stuff, so sometimes in one day I might play three different ages. I might play a 90 year old and a 50 year old and a 30 year old. And I would just go in so I would work 20 hours a day. I was working at least no less than 15 usually, to 18 hours a day.
How do you prepare for a challenge like that?
[Laughs] I didn't do it like I usually do.
I broke the script down to such a degree so I could see exactly where I was at any time and know what I was thinking and what had happened before. I have never worked that specifically. It was one of the most challenging roles I’ve had ever played and as a result it kind of revitalized me a little bit as an artist. It brought the joy back to acting in a way.
You deftly managed to convey so much in the film, despite having to keep your emotions in check while in the White House. How challenging was that aspect of the role?
That was one of the tougher things. I just had to trust. Lee was telling me, "No we can see, you don’t realize that we can feel what you’re thinking." I worked so hard on putting certain feelings inside of myself and having certain thoughts. And I would just have to trust that the audience would be able to hear it. I hope that’s what occurred for you.
You rang loud and clear.
Oh good. [Laughs]
Lee’s known for being a very hands-on director with his actors. Now you’ve directed films before. Is it hard for you to give over to a filmmaker like that or does it come easily to you?
It’s not a problem for me. I kind of trusted him. He’s so present emotionally and raw. And sometimes you finish a scene and you go over to him and he’d just be weeping tears in his chair, crying. Coming over to say, "Was that OK?" So he’s so present and sometimes he just screams out laughing in the middle of a scene. It's kind of exhilarating and sort of unbalancing at the same time. But I think that was good for me working on this particular part.
Oprah and you have this beautiful, believable bond in the film. You knew her prior to making the film, right?
Did your own personal history together inform that of the characters?
For sure. I had known her from before when I did "The Last King of Scotland." She called me and asked to have a dinner for me before all the award stuff and everything. She saw the film and did this really beautiful gathering for me and we got to know each other a little bit there. Through the years we said we wanted to work together. We were going to maybe do a play together. But still the kind of intimacy in this movie we needed to have was deeper than that. I would be in the trailer, she’d be rubbing my back. We walked hand in hand to set together. Share moments like that. I think there was a trust that was happening. She trusted me as an artist too -- that I would always be in a true space, you know what I mean? So that allows her to do the things that she did, which honestly I thought was amazing sometimes. Some of the scenes she did were so true when I was doing it with her that I’d be kind of startled.
There was a scene where she’s on the phone. When she hangs up the phone, she starts crying and she’s drunk and I don’t know what to do with her. I’m like, "How do I help her? Do I bring her to a chair? Try to move her somewhere?" And also the scene where we find out our son dies, she screamed and fell to the floor -- I didn’t know how to comfort her. When you see somebody in so much pain and you can’t fix it. She had moments like that.
"The Butler" ends on a hopeful, uplifting note with Obama's inauguration. "Fruitvale Station," which you produced, did not for me. It left me angry and dispirited, especially in light of what happened recently in Florida. Where is your mindset right now?
I’m always hopeful. I am hopeful because I think when we look at the history, we look at is as a living history as opposed to a history that’s died. The car is moving. There’s a lot of great things that have happened, but there’s a lot of injustices and we have to stay vigilant. And I think people are, the dialogue is occurring, people are trying to find a way to respond.
I’ve talked to different groups who are in social activism and stuff and I would say to them, "You take your photograph right now of the ten of you. You may think yourselves anonymous and maybe sometimes you might be. But I want you to remember that each step you take is a part of history. That as we live and breathe history is occurring. The fact that those photographs we used to see in the 60s of those individuals that you admire; that you didn’t know their names but saw them marching down the middle of the streets -- those are us."
Now what are we going to do? We need to have our voices heard, acknowledge things for what they are because acknowledgment is a big part of the healing of the nation. And then we have to make a conscious choice so that we can move forward to some form of repentance -- some form of recompense so that we can move into a forgiveness space of compassion. I think that those things are occurring. So no, I think that we are still in the same movement of trying to get to that promise that opens the thread. It hasn’t opened yet. And we can’t ignore it. How can you? Look at the pain it causes the country. How to solve it is a deeper conversation.
I wish I could talk more, because it’s a deep question because when you look at it -- you have to go back to the basest level of humanity. We have to look at our own tribal natures. Inside of our tribal natures is our issue of survival and people separating themselves out so they can have and make sure that they have. In this pyramid over on this side you have a person who feels that in order to be at the top, they have to acquire everything and nobody else maybe deserves it. And this person is of this type, maybe it’s a pink person, yellow person, purple, you know what I mean. And then at some point we’re moving forward to the line you realize you already have everything in the first place. And that by acknowledging that, we’re all one. And it’s this oneness that we’re reaching for which is a hard thing to fight for because inside of it people are frightened. They’re afraid. There’s a fear, and we have to pass by the fear. And that's what these people are trying to do in the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall St. and all these different things that are going on. This thread, this thing, this machine, this movement that we have to recognize has not stopped, and it’s continuing to move on. We are a part of it now we have to continue the drive forward to get to that place.