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Forest Whitaker hopes ‘The Butler’ enlightens youth about civil rights

Forest Whitaker hopes 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' reaches younger audiences who will “engage this time emotionally.”

Forest Whitaker hopes "Lee Daniels' The Butler" reaches younger audiences who will “engage in this time emotionally.”

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Oprah Winfrey talks about her role in 'Lee Daniels' The Butler'
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Updated: September 14, 2013 6:20AM

There were many reasons Forest Whitaker and Lee Daniels wanted to make “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” but for both the Oscar-winning actor and his Oscar-nominated director, one continues to resonate — even now, long after the movie has been finished.

“Children and young people today just don’t know enough about the struggle for civil rights in this country, and what went into it,” said Daniels, chatting over a recent Chicago breakfast with Whitaker.

“I have a 30-year-old nephew who looked at me after a screening of the film and said, ‘Uncle, did this really happen?’ It made me feel kind of sad, that this was a 30-year-old man that questioned where this was fiction or reality.”

Whitaker jumped into the conversation, adding, “What Lee says is very true. I think it’s unbelievably important to educate younger people, because the history books don’t allow for many personal stories. Sure, there’s a paragraph here, a few words there about civil rights, but seeing this film allows for younger audiences in particular to engage in this time emotionally.”

“I know for myself. My two daughters came to a screening I went to in Los Angeles. One’s 15, one’s 18. They left with a much deeper understanding and emotional connection to the experience of what was happening to those individuals who were living back in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.”

The central character of Cecil Gaines in the film (opening Friday) is a fictionalized creation based on the late Eugene Allen, the head butler at the White House under eight presidents and the subject of a 2008 Washington Post story, written by Wil Haygood.

But Daniels stressed that while screenwriter Danny Strong invented Cecil Gaines, his wife, Gloria (played by Oprah Winfrey), and their sons, “the entire script is absolutely built around the real events that took place during the time period in which our film is set.”

Also important was depicting an African-American family and the conflicts that arose as they lived through the decades of great debate and upheaval as the nation dealt with the civil rights struggle and the war in Vietnam.

Whitaker loved the “beautiful generational difference” that is represented by his Cecil character and his son, Louis, played by David Oyelowo. “My character just wanted my kid to be safe and OK and have a better life than I did. … As Louis matures, like many young people, he’s frustrated and impatient with the slow pace of change. He comes to believe that black people need to be more forceful in achieving their rights, and that’s where his more militant attitudes developed.

“Of course, things are further complicated because Cecil works for the president — at the White House. He believes his good example will help make change happen by influencing the one man who can do so much to make that occur: the president of the United States.”

Since “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is filled with so many famous actors, including Winfrey, Jane Fonda (as Nancy Reagan), Robin Williams (Dwight Eisenhower), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon Johnson), John Cusack (Richard Nixon) and Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan), it was a big challenge for those well-known stars to lose themselves in the real-life people they were portraying.

“Of course, the biggest challenge was for Oprah, since she is so iconic and millions have come to see her as that television phenomenon she created over a quarter-century,” said Daniels. “We worked hard in finding moments that were not Oprah — and we just chipped away at making her disappear into Gloria Gaines.

“We chipped away at everything, every movement. I studied every eye flash, the way she turned her head. It was really a study of making sure we found the moments of her that we had never seen before — and thus America and the world had never seen either.”

While many of the actors playing the various presidents are only in one or two scenes in the film, it was important to Daniels to make them authentic.

“After all, many people still remember those presidents and first ladies like Jackie [Kennedy] and Nancy Reagan,” said Daniels. “I love the scene with Robin as Eisenhower, doing that painting of flowers in the Oval Office. I truly felt he captured the quiet strength of President Eisenhower in that moment. … Another is the scene with John Cusack playing Nixon right before he resigned, and he’s playing with his tape recorder. Forest, as Cecil, comes in and says, ‘I have your martini, Mr. President.’

“I think John picked up on the importance of communicating how out-of-it Nixon was at that point. He kept playing with that damn tape recorder for one minute, two minutes, three minutes. I thought Forest was going to drop the tray with the martini on it; his hand was literally shaking so much.

“And finally John just grunts at him and signals him over — almost like an animal — and Forest is so elegant and just glides over.”

For Whitaker, his favorite scenes include the one where he’s just arrived home the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. “I’m hurting so badly and I simply want my wife to hold me, to comfort me, but she’s mad at me and she won’t deal with me — at first.

“I just go and sit down on the bed, and she walks back in, because she realizes my pain. I go and hug her and we kiss. That was really powerful for me and makes me emotional inside even now, thinking back on that scene.”

Whitaker also explained that he did a lot of research to prepare for his role as Cecil Gaines. Since it was based on Eugene Allen — and there are recordings of him speaking — the actor “studied the rhythm of his speech and worked on physical aspects of it, trying to imagine how my body would move, based on his voice. And, of course, I had to do that over many years, as I play him from when he was very young up through his 80s.”

On top of that, Whitaker worked with a man he called “my butler coach, to teach me the details of serving. Like, how you serve a person a cup of tea or coffee is so interesting. You want it to be at like this 5 o’clock angle so that when you hand it to the person they reach up and it goes right into their fingers.

“It’s all about the details.”

At times those “details” bugged Daniels, who recalled a day when Whitaker turned overzealous in his pursuit of just the right technique.

“There’s the scene where Forest is Cecil in the kitchen preparing to bring a pot of tea to President Eisenhower in the Oval Office. We had done all the prep work for the scene and now it’s showtime, but Forest keeps cutting lemons and cutting lemons and then more lemons and Lenny [Kravitz] and Cuba [Gooding Jr., playing other White House butlers] are looking at Forest and going ‘Really!’ with their expressions. We thought he’d never stop cutting those freakin’ lemons!

“Trust me, that wasn’t acting — that was how we all felt at that moment,” said Daniels with a huge laugh.


Twitter: @BillZwecker

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