The Source Magazine sat down with ‘Lee Daniels’ the Butler’ star and Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker to discuss tackling the role of Cecil Gaines (who is inspired by real life White House Butler Eugene Allen), his preparation for the role, why this film is more important today than ever. Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which is truly one of the best films of the year, is now playing.
Q: Why was it important for you to play this role?
Whitaker: It’s a beautiful character, you know. Not only do you get to do a movie about your love for your family that shows the intimacy of that but you have this batch up where you get to show the look into the history of this country and the people working towards social justice and everyone living a good life. So that was a big push for me. To get a chance to do something like that is extraordinary.
Q: And this is loosely based on a real person. Can you speak about your research and preparation?
Whitaker: I didn’t meet him because he died a few years back. He actually did live to the President and he got to go to the inauguration. In the film, my wife dies the night before we vote, which is true. And then he voted and the President invited him to the inauguration. I got a chance to talk to his son, talk to many people who knew him, you know, people who worked with him. I got a chance to talk to Wil Haygood who wrote the article and did all this research on him. And I listened to all these tapes, also of him, talking about his experience. Even though the character, Cecil Gaines, is inspired by that…by this man…he represents more. He represents all of those men who were in service to the country and to others.
Q: Did you learn anything about yourself by playing this butler?
Whitaker: I did. I learned so many things. I learned…cause in order to be older, in order to grow older each time…to go from late 20’s to the 90’s, I started placing experiences inside of my body physically, you know, like this pain of my loss of my son, and I understood how you carry these things more than I realized. Because the way I aged the character was purely by giving him experiences, not by thinking I’m bending over or anything like that. It’s just the weight of the experiences made me become older. And so now I realized in order…to be able to live in good health, I need to try to cleanse out these experiences and try to deal with them and let them go, or else I’ll carry them for the rest of my life. So it’s a great lesson.
Q: Can you speak about working with Ms. Oprah Winfrey? You both are incredible together.
Whitaker: Yeah she’s amazing. I loved working with her. Actually, I haven’t had a lot of love relationships on screen. I’ve had a couple. But none, of course, none is as intimate as this one. This is the most intimate one I had where, by intimacy I mean intimacy in all ways of discussion; to talk…we’re lying in bed and sharing. Where I’m touching her, without thought, where were there for each other through all our pains. She committed to this part 300%. And so inside the scenes at times, as Cecil Gaines, I would be startled by my wife. I was like, “Whoa, how do I help her?” You know, like, when she got the phone call, and she was yelling at my son, and she was drunk afterwards I just wanted to comfort her, I didn’t know what to do I was like, “How can I get her to her chair? I don’t want her to fall, I know she’s drunk. What do I do? What do I do?”
Q: Why do you think this film is important today more than ever?
Whitaker: I think its important today because there’s two points. One is it deals a lot with love and family and trying to hold a family together, you know what I mean, through all these difficulties. And I think it’s also a call to us to recognize that social injustice in any form, we need to stand up. We need to make our voices heard, to stand up, make a choice and move forward to try and make it better. To shift our country and to shift the world until every individual has certain rights that they deserve.
Set against the tumultuous political backdrop of 20th century America, Academy Award nominated director Lee Daniels’ historical epic “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” tells the story of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who serves during seven presidential administrations between 1957 and 1986. Inspired by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election” about the real life of former butler Eugene Allen, the film begins in 1924 with a young Cecil living in the fiercely segregated South and facing the tyranny of the region’s prejudices. After years spent working in a hotel, Cecil is discovered by a White House employee, which leads to landing the opportunity of a lifetime: a job as a server at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There, Cecil becomes a firsthand witness to history and the inner workings of the Oval Office as the civil rights movement unfolds. At the same time, he and his volatile but loving wife (Oprah Winfrey) must grapple with the rebellious spirit of their son Louis (David Oyelowo) whose tenacious hunger for activism and equal rights often puts him in dangerous situations – and at perpetual odds with his father. While Cecil remains fiercely committed to his duties at the White House and to providing for his family, his determination leads to increasing tensions between him and his anti-establishment son. Through the eyes and emotions of the Gaines family, Daniels’ film follows the changing tides of American politics and race relations; from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., to the Freedom Riders and Black Panther movements, to the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, Cecil experiences the effects of these events as both an insider and a family man. With an incredible supporting cast that includes John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr, Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber and Robin Williams, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a story about the resilience of one man, the growth of a nation, and the power of family.