Interview: Forest Whitaker Serves Up ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’

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CHICAGO – In person, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker is a man at peace. His talent has created a demeanor of a guru – soft spoken with transcendent thoughts. His latest film is “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” in which he portrays the title character. As a black man caught between two eras in American history, Forest Whitaker does relate.

Born on family land in Longview, Texas, in the early 1960s, Whitaker’s father staked a claim to the actor’s future by moving his immediate family to Carson, California. He went to college at Cal Poly Poloma on a football scholarship, and switched to voice and drama after a back injury. He was typecast as a football player in his first notable role in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), but put such an interesting spin on the small part that breakthrough performances in “The Color of Money” (1986), “Platoon” (same year) and “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987) soon followed.

Forest Whitaker
Forest Whitaker on the Red Carpet in Chicago for ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

There have been a number of unforgettable characters that Whitaker has played which he made his own – “Bird” (as Charlie Parker, 1988), “Ghost Dog, The Way of the Samarai” (Title Character, 1999) and “The Last King of Scotland” (as Idi Amin, 2008). For his blistering recreation of Amin, he received the Academy Award for Best Actor. His latest role in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a perfect example of his intense preparation as an performer. The precision that is displayed in his character belies an internal conflict with his only son. Whitaker astutely plays this conflict with a rare dignity and subtlety. He is the glue that binds the film, and uplifts every element surrounding him. got an incredible opportunity to sit down with one of the finest actors working in film today. Forest Whitaker was candid with his impressions and characteristics regarding Cecil, a White House butler caught between two worlds. What impresses me about your style of acting is that you always seem to find a unique characteristic regarding each persona you create. To me, that characteristic in ‘The Butler’ was his bearing as a successful White House butler. What was the key to finding the character of Cecil, and how did you turn that characteristic in your performance?

Forest Whitaker: It was a character that had a sense of self, and his own placement in the world. He carried that within him during his lifetime, and that is what his ‘bearing’ is about, the ease and comfort with himself. The disquiet comes from his son and wife. Did you seek to understand his time in history – an African American man born in the 1920s who emerges into a different social consequence in the 1960s?

Whitaker: I looked at the time, and I worked on his movement accordingly. Alonzo Fields was a butler in the White House for a long time, he’s the one that hired Eugene Allen, who was the inspiration for ‘The Butler.’ I read Fields’s book, and studied photographs of the butlers in the White House over time – in the way they held themselves, whether their hands were on the front or the sides, based on different eras inside the White House.

I also did my research in general history, I had a dramaturge working with me to paint out all the events that were going on in the country, from places like Birmingham [Alabama] to groups like the Panther Party. I was using all these tools to map out the character. We see a moment in which Cecil loses his cool. What element of the actor’s well did you use to create that moment, and how many ways did you try it before landing on the precise feeling in that sequence?

Whitaker: There were so many things between Cecil and the character of his son that happened before the explosive moment. The son gets arrested, he wasn’t listening to Cecil and wasn’t appreciating the opportunity that Cecil had given him to go to school. There was also the uprising in society, and Cecil’s position at the White House.

In the scene, I was trying to be cordial and contain the anger. But the character of the son was being so rude, not respecting Cecil’s house. He was also insulting people, which was offhandedly also insulting Cecil. And I held it, trying to be good, but at a certain point the son pushes it over the edge. I just let out what I was holding back in the scene. It begins with me holding it in, and comes out when it needed to. The notion of ‘invisibility’ is a a theme in Cecil’s role as a domestic. How does that nature of ghostliness become shattered when the reality hits him during the D.C. riots after Dr. King’s assassination. How did you want to express that particular journey from being invisible to creating visibility during those riot scenes and the relationship with Cecil’s son and his situation?

Whitaker: It symbolizes a lot, because Cecil is trying to get home, on the streets as the world is in chaos. He was dealing with so many losses at that point, and when he saw it in front of him he wants to make sure his family is okay. It was back to a primal instinct, as he was racing home there was that budding of awareness in the ways he was going to express himself. I was trying to find Cecil’s place and his own sense of self, and deepen it. That’s how the voice came, by recognizing he had to stand up. You had a stellar cast of fellow African American actors portraying your domestic colleagues, friends and family. What truths came out of the discussions regarding the civil rights era you were all portraying, and what commonalities did you all relate to them, as far as persons that had come of age in a different era?

Whitaker: Lee [Daniels] did a great job in the way he cast the film, the actors were all amazing, and living in the moment of the time. Together, we were sharing a sense of reality that meant moving forward. What Cecil is basically doing is moving upward from where he came, and he wants his son to do the same. The cast shared the aspirational thought that we can have the good life, that we can live as part of the American Dream and that we deserved to be a part of the opportunity that this country offers. At what point did your own life intersect with the era, as far as what you remembered and how you felt about the role of African Americans in both subservient positions that Cecil represents and the leadership of the civil rights movement?

Whitaker: I had different experiences. My Dad moved from Texas, because we lived in a town which was separated racially by a river. We just didn’t go to the other side of the river. So my Dad made a choice, which became very influential in my life, he moved us to Los Angeles. That was a big deal, because my family generally stayed on the same plot of land. That was my first experience in sort of addressing the issue.

And as a kid, I was being raised during a interesting transition, both during and after the civil rights movement. I remember the death of Dr. King, and I distinctly remember the Panther Party, because I lived in South Central Los Angeles. Every day when I would walk to school, the Panthers would be on the corners asking us if we wanted to participate in their free breakfast program. I also remember walking by their burnt out building after the police altercation that blew it up [1969]. I also remember the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and walking through that charred building [in association with the SLA kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst in 1974]. I remember those things. Did all that was happening have a direct influence on a key point in your life?

I was supposed to go to Compton High School, because I lived in Carson, but Mom sent me across town to be ‘bussed’ to another part of town. I went to my cousin’s address into Adams, and we took the bus into Palisades, which was a big shift in my life. So I saw the movement from several different angles.

Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels
Oprah Winfrey Portrays the Wife of Forest Whitaker’s Character in ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company You were so memorable in a small early role in the partially Chicago-based film, ‘The Color of Money.’ How did you collaborate with Martin Scorsese to get that unforgettable moment that your character of Amos had, or was that all your own doing?

Whitaker: That was the first time I ever came to Chicago. Paul Newman was great in that scene, wasn’t he? Here’s a quick story, they had hired another guy to play that part, but he couldn’t play pool well, so they fired him. When they called me, they wanted me to fly to Chicago and audition in about two weeks. From that point on, all I did was stay in the pool hall for 14 hours a day, because I couldn’t play either. [laughs] I soon as I flew here, I checked in and found another pool hall.

As luck was having it, the ‘nine ball’ consultant was trying to convince Martin Scorsese to play eight ball pool in the scene. As a result, I played Newman in eight ball, not nine ball, which is how I learned and had played for weeks. It was like heaven. I was walking around the table like I was a pool shark. In regard to race relations, we look to the past in ‘The Butler,’ we see the present in the elections of Barack Obama and in contrast, the Trayvon Martin incident. Are you optimistic for the future of the marginalization of races, or does poverty and a lack of education keep the future from coming sooner, despite the reflections and changes of attitudes?

Whitaker: I think that we have to keep pushing forward to make improvements and help society get better, and give more opportunities. We need to progress together as one culture and one group. I do have hope. Will it take more work and more progress. Yes. But I came from a time when there was only one prominent African American actor on screen and people weren’t allowed to sit in front of the bus.

Now we’re in another time when we need to address some deeply entrenched issues in regards to race. We have to address them straight ahead and stand up and be vigilant, to speak out about it. We all have to address it as a whole to correct it.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opens everywhere on August 16th. Featuring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda, Alan Rickman, Terence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey, John Cusack and Lenny Kravitz. Screenplay by Danny Strong. Directed by Lee Daniels. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2013 Patrick McDonald,

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