TO BRING THE TRUE STORY OF LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER TO THE BIG SCREEN, THE ACCLAIMED DIRECTOR HAS ASSEMBLED A STAR-STUDDED CAST, HEADLINED BY SUPERSTAR (AND OSCAR NOMINEE) OPRAH WINFREY. EXCLUSIVELY FOR V, THE TWO FRIENDS DISH ON HOW THEY SPUN HISTORY INTO HOLLYWOOD GOLD
One of the most fascinating figures in African-American history is a person whose work went unnoticed by most. For more than three decades and through eight presidential administrations, a man named Eugene Allen worked as the White House butler, occupying a front-row seat to the unfolding of history. A witness to the civil rights movement—from Brown v. Board of Education through the 1963 March on Washington and far beyond—Allen watched as America, and his place in it, changed for the better. He served entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Elvis Presley, shook hands with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and celebrated a shared birthday with President Gerald Ford. During Reagan’s administration, Allen became the first butler to be invited to a state dinner. In 2009, he was given a VIP seat to President Obama’s inauguration, where he tearfully watched the nation’s first African-American president being sworn into office. From his first day on the job as a pantryman, in 1952, to his last, as maître d’, in 1986, he apparently never missed a day of work.
This fall, the tale of the noble steward will be immortalized in Lee Daniels’ The Butler (the maniacally brilliant filmmaker’s name was added to the title following a legal scuffle with Warner Bros., who produced a silent comedy titled The Butler in 1916). Known for his provocative work with big-name actors, Daniels has again unleashed an arsenal of star power with his ensemble cast, which includes Robin Williams, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Melissa Leo, Vanessa Redgrave, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, and many others. The roster is anchored by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker and none other than Oprah Winfrey, in the central roles of Allen and his wife, Helene, whose names have been changed to Cecil and Gloria Gaines, respectively. So what does it take to get an Oscar-nominated media legend to take on only her fourth live-action film role in nearly 30 years? Daniels and Winfrey took time from an ADR session for this hysterical chat about relentlessness, nudity, and a lesson in finding “bone-marrow truth.”
Having done so few films over the years, Oprah, why did you decide to take on this movie? Why Lee Daniels?
OPRAH WINFREY Nothing quite prepared me for Lee Daniels, let’s start with that! Lee is relentless, with a capital “R”! I was skeptical, because I hadn’t picked up the acting instrument that is myself for 15 years—since 1998. I was also in the midst of trying to get my network [OWN] on its footing, so taking on the responsibility of a role was not something I was really keen on. But because he is capital “R” relentless and said, “No, this is Gloria, Gloria is you, you should do this, and it’s not going to take up a lot of your time...” Ha! [both of them laugh] And he has been kind to me, because there have been other movies that he was doing that he offered me roles to do and I turned him down—
LEE DANIELS [interrupts] —like a serial murderer.
OW Like a serial murderer! So, this was something that I felt I could at least wrap my brain around, this story and this period, and also to have the chance to work with him. I can honestly tell you that had it not been him, I wouldn’t have done it. I really do think he’s a genius. A little crazy! But genius. He’s cray-cray with a lowercase “c.”
What appealed to you about the story?
OW I love what you end up seeing in this story. I just sent an e-mail to Forest Whitaker after seeing the film for the first time. You’re able to witness the butler’s evolution, and witness this man’s soul. Through his soul you get to experience the spirit of the time, the story of what the civil rights movement meant to working people, like butlers and teachers—people who were going to work every day who were part of the African-American middle class. That’s what was exciting to me about this story. You get to see it through the eyes of real people.
What was it like working with Lee?
OW We had to keep trying to tame Lee. You have to harness him in a little bit. Because if it were up to him, I’d have had three love scenes and been naked on the couch, smoking marijuana! But I talked him out of it.
Well, Lee is known for getting his actors to depart from expectation and do things you wouldn’t necessarily imagine they would do. Does Gloria have any surprises in store?
OW I think some things will surprise you about the character, but still, I fought with Lee to maintain the character’s character, you know?
LD I wanted her naked!
OW He wanted me in a naked scene with Terrence Howard! Get out of here! And he would have had the f-word coming out of my mouth every other sentence if it weren’t for the PG-13 rating. It’s calmed down.
LD It was a compromise of calming down.
OW I said to Lee, “For goodness’ sake, who is this woman?!”
Lee, how do you make things work when you have an ensemble of actors of this magnitude?
LD It’s very hard! They’re coming and they’re going. First you have the leads, but then you have these movie stars coming in and you really have to pay them a lot of attention. They’re there to be a part of the family, and the family already exists with the Gaines family. And they’re usually nervous, because they’ve heard all these things about me, they’re terrified.
OW Lee doesn’t care what your name is! The fact that he can make me—for a dance scene that now lasts less than 40 seconds—dance for six hours straight, and is going, “Faster! Faster! More! More!” I think he gets a kick out of it.
LD Shut up!
OW The very first day on set I had a small scene with Jane Fonda, and she said, “This is just terrifying!” And I said, “What’s terrifying?” And she said, “Lee is!” She said, “I thought I was doing a good job and Lee came up and said ‘stop acting.’” I said, “Oh, he says that to everybody, and he’s especially gonna say it to you, Jane, because you’re Jane Fonda. And he likes to put you in a position where he can let you know ‘It’s MY set!’”
LD [laughing] It’s not true! I just look for the truth, I look for the truth all the time, in every scene.
OW I will say that. The reason why actors love working with him is because he forces you, in every breath. He is looking for bone-marrow truth. He hates the word “acting.” Every actor’s horror is to be told that they’re acting. There was one night when Forest and I were on the porch, and Lee goes, “I am going to roll this film until you stop…this…acting!”
LD Did I say that?
OW Yes, you did.
LD Oh, no.
OW In his pajamas! He rules from the pajama roost, so there he is walking around in his pajamas, which have lost their crispness after the 14th hour. But no, we’re always in search of the truth and whatever it takes to get to that. Actors love him because he lets you watch the monitor afterwards and he says, “You see that? That’s really good. You see that? Horrible, horrible, horrible!” And I say, “Did you say ‘horrible?!’”
LD Now let me tell you what it was like working with Oprah Winfrey.
OW OPRAAAAAH WINFREY!!!! Oh God, Oprah Winfrey.
LD Here’s the thing. You assume she’s going to come in with the entourage of the President of the United States, and she comes in solo! With just one person, thank God. And she disappears. I knew that this was going to work when I looked over my shoulder and I saw her standing in line, in back of eight other people, to be served prison food. Because that’s what the food is like, it was like prison food, what we had to eat.
OW The beets were good!
LD Watching it, I think it relaxed everybody and I think everyone was rooting for her. It was like having a family there. It was a grueling shoot, in the swamp that was New Orleans, and when she wrapped it was sort of like the light had gone for a minute.
OW It was a wonderful ensemble, but the love of my life, Forest Whitaker, he, boy…he brings it in this film. He just brings it.
LD She’s deflecting. They both bring it together, and it’s magical.
OW Oh, Lord.
LD Well it’s a story about the butler, but it’s also about his family.
OW That’s why I liked it. You get to see black people at a time when we weren’t seeing what it was like in the homes of Negroes, as we were called at that time. You get to see that we’re really just like everybody else. We love our family and the things that matter: your kids going to school, making breakfast and dinner, sitting at the table, being together as a family, caring about your country. It’s all really important in ways that are both subtle and profound.
Your character also seems a bit glamorous. She keeps up with the style of the era.
OW Lee wanted her to be that way, that’s Lee’s doing. When we had a party at the house, Lee wanted her dressed up with her nails and her hair done. I would have just had on my flip-flops and my pedal pushers, but Lee wanted to add a level of glamour to her so you could see how important this time—and her husband being given this position as a butler in the White House—how much it meant to this family. And she felt like, you know, she wasn’t the First Lady, but it was the period of Jackie Kennedy, so she was sort of imitating some of that Jackie stuff.
LD She takes direction very well. That’s the other thing I was shocked about. I’d say do it again, and she’d do it again. And I would say do it again, and she’d do it again. Oh my God [to Oprah], I’ve got some great stuff on you. It’s hysterical. At one point the camera is rolling and I’m telling her to do something and she goes, “I just did it!” I have her looking in the camera. She doesn’t know it, but oftentimes she’s mocking me.
OW My character progressively becomes an alcoholic and there was this scene where—good LORD today—Lee is saying, “Drunker! Do the line, she’s drunker!” And at one point I go, “Lee, if she’s any drunker she’s not sitting up anymore.” And he’s like, “DRUNKER!” I’m like, “Oh my God, what is happening here?” But anyway, I suppose it would surprise a lot of people that I can take direction so well, because it’s very hard for me to stay out of it!
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER IS OUT NOW IN THEATERS NATIONWIDE
Photography Anne Marie Fox courtesy of The Weinstein Company