Past, present and a parrot

The cast of Lee Daniels' The Butler on authenticity and moments of discovery.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Lee Daniels' The Butler billboard
Lee Daniels' The Butler billboard Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
During the press conference for Lee Daniels' The Butler at New York's Waldorf Astoria, director Daniels, Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, Mariah Carey, David Oyelowo, Lenny Kravitz, along with screenwriter Danny Strong discussed the film, which offers an unusual perspective on life in the White House. They talked about authenticity, how the past informs the present, make-up, parrots, polyester and moments of discovery.

Cast of The Butler at the Waldorf Astoria press conference
Cast of The Butler at the Waldorf Astoria press conference Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
The previous day, I had the chance to speak with Lee Daniels about how he tailors his style of directing to bring out the best in his actors. He gets surprising performances out of his prominent cast with anything but black and white portrayals.

Anne-Katrin Titze: In The Paperboy, Nicole Kidman's "Swamp Barbie" seems to be constructed from the white shoes upwards. Oprah Winfrey's performance in The Butler starts with her hands. The first time you show her, she drinks orange juice, smokes and peels a potato, seemingly all at the same time.

Lee Daniels: Nicole [Kidman] moves her feet a lot! And, yes, you are right, with Oprah it's all in her eyes and her hands.

Oprah Winfrey: I did not know this!

Winfrey continued to explain how during the first time she had to smoke for a scene, she had put the cigarette backwards into her mouth. Some of that distaste is still visible in the movie.

OW: The costumes were a fire hazard… We shall overcome polyester!

Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines and Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines
Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines and Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines
At the press conference the following day, Winfrey explained why, despite her "day job" she wanted to be part of Lee Daniels' film: The ability to tell that story of the butler in an entertaining way that would offer the opportunity for the rest of the world to experience a part of our history that made our nation who and what we are. And to demonstrate the love story of an African American family in a way that tenderness is exposed to the world…. I thought a lot about what it meant to be a woman in the 50s and 60s. Gloria to me is not just herself, but a composite of that era, a woman who sacrificed, who also was a stabilising force in the family.

As the wife of Forest Whitaker's White House butler Cecil Gaines, Winfrey's Gloria combines the struggles of many women of her time.

"We'd walk hand in hand to the set and talk," Whitaker said.

Screenwriter Danny Strong explained his construction: I interviewed Eugene Allen [the White House butler portrayed in the Wil Haygood's Washington Post article, A Butler Well Served By This Election] and many members of the White House staff. I was getting so many amazing stories from so many different people that I felt it would be a disservice not to try to use as much as possible in creating this family. It gave the story more of a universal truth. The film is not inspired by a true story - it's inspired by many true stories.

David Oyelowo as Louis Gaines in The Butler
David Oyelowo as Louis Gaines in The Butler
David Oyelowo, who plays the Gaines' oldest son Louis and ages almost half a century during the movie talked about the process: In early conversations we both [he and his director] agreed that we wanted it to be more about what's going on emotionally rather than relying heavily on make-up. I didn't realise that Lee was going to say 'No make-up' when I'm playing the 17-year-old… sometimes I had to go from 15 to 17 to 37 in a day.

Mariah Carey, who plays Hattie Pearl, the butler's mother, interrupted Oyelowo, touching her face to show how Daniels used to check up on her if she didn't cheat and put on make-up for her scenes.

DO: It led to this very unorthodox thing I had to do. Literally the day before I was shooting anything in my teenage years, I had to get 10 hours sleep, when I was older, five hours sleep. I learned this trick of eating very salty food, lots of salty food and drink a lot of water. The water clings to the salt and puffs you out…Then I'd go to the gym for three hours on the treadmill to drop five to eight pounds.

OW: Three hours? I want that one, that's a good diet.

In the film is a line about "the two faces," the butler has to put on display.

LD: As I grew in Hollywood, I had to put on a face. I'd talk with a certain diction. I'd be a certain way, dress a certain way. I had to present myself in a certain light so I could get ahead. It wasn't until I found myself and could be myself that I could present that. Not until Obama was elected, was I able to be me and the two faces met.

OW: I have made a career out of being myself. I have only one face I present to the white world, the black world, you know. I talk to my dog the same way I talk to you. I say that with great pride and as an homage to the people who were the generation before me. That's one of the reasons why I wanted to be in this movie. I am the daughter of a maid and my grandmother was a maid. And her mother was a maid and her mother was a slave. So the domestic worker in the speech that Dr. King gives to my son in the movie - I feel validated by their courage, by the war the butler and his generation fought in their own way.

Mariah Carey as Hattie Pearl and David Banner as Earl Gaines
Mariah Carey as Hattie Pearl and David Banner as Earl Gaines
Mariah Carey: My mom is Irish American my father is African American…I think it can be healthy for kids who grow up now to see this movie… You look at those times and think how glamorous that was, how that must have been for certain people. My mom was very active in the Civil Rights movement but she was the one who had to go and get the house, when they wanted to buy a house. Because my dad wanted to kind of assimilate and give his children a chance.

In a central protest scene, a woman behind the counter at the drugstore spits in the face of the character of Carol, played by Yaya Alafia.

MC: That actually happened to me. That was almost the deepest thing for me in the movie. It happened to me on a school bus.

Lenny Kravitz who plays James Holloway, a member of the White House staff, talked about how Daniels' fabricates authenticity and the parrot in the room: There was the scene where we were all in the house together. 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.

OW: How about when we were in the room with the parrot, ignoring the parrot. And then you'd hear over the speaker Lee go: "There's an f…ing parrot in the room, people!"

LD: They kept acting as if there weren't. I put the parrot in the room to confuse them, to make it real. And everybody was acting like the parrot wasn't squeaking.

Authenticity did not stop with the performances. Lee Daniels described the moment he understood his own film and much beyond: We were shooting that bus scene. It was hot. We were shooting where black men were actually hung from that bridge. I yelled 'action'. I was in the bus with these actors, these kids. From nowhere come the Nazis and the KKK and the cursing and the spitting and the shaking of the bus. And I yell 'cut' and they can't hear me and they continue on. And David and Yaya and I are looking at each other like 'what the hell?' For that millisecond I understood what it was like to be them. Not just the black kids that were there, but the white kids that were there, that were willing to risk their lives for freedom. They were heroes. I broke down crying because I knew then this [movie] was not just a father and son love story.

Race is a complicated issue, and knowing the past, Lee Daniels' The Butler seems to say, is as important as making up your mind to act in the present.

Lee Daniels' The Butler is out in the US on August 16. There is no scheduled release date for the UK yet. Read what James Marsden, Minka Kelly and Liev Schreiber had to say about the film here and see Terrence Howard give us a twirl.

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