Shortly after I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I discussed it with a fellow journalist at an unrelated event, and he complained that the title character, Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, was “too much of a cypher.” It’s an easy conclusion to draw. Based on Eugene Allen, a White House butler who worked for eight U.S. presidents over the course of 34 years, Cecil is a character defined by silence and docility, instructed as he is to be virtually invisible while serving the white elite. But while Whitaker may not be as vividly forthright as co-star Oprah Winfrey, who plays Cecil’s loyal but tempestuous wife, Gloria, what he delivers is just as crucial to the emotional tapestry of the film, which is as memorable for what’s not said as what is. That very dichotomy sits at the core of how Cecil interacts with his eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), a revolutionary who mocks his father and joins the Black Panthers, and it speaks to the varied, under-explored roles so many black Americans have assumed in our nation’s history.
Meeting Whitaker, it’s immediately apparent why he was the essential actor to don Cecil’s tux. Mild mannered to the point of giving off an infectious calm, Whitaker makes you want to bring your own voice down a notch or two, and this is the same guy who all but channeled the devil in his Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. In a suite at the Waldorf Astoria, Whitaker talked about where most of that peaceful demeanor comes from, what he thinks about the current state of black cinema, how The Butler’s ties to the Obama era proved emotionally overwhelming, and just how much goes into the portrayal of someone like Cecil, who, however quiet, can still speak great volumes.
I read that you were born in Longview, Texas, but raised in South Central L.A. Did you return to Texas often?
Oh, yeah. I would spend every summer with my grandfather on his farm back in Longview.
And do you remember noticing any differences between the two places in terms of racial acceptance?
You know, I couldn’t really say, because when I was a kid, in my area [in Los Angeles], I only used to walk to and from school and stuff like that. I only spent my time within about four city blocks. And there were no white people in the neighborhood, so I didn’t deal with them at all. I mostly just saw them on TV. As I grew older, that changed as my life expanded a little bit, but still, most of the schools were segregated.
Walk me through the experience of immersing yourself in this character. Because I think that, since the role requires so much passivity, it would be easy for someone to overlook, or misunderstand, how much can go into this kind of performance.
I was swallowed up by it. I was swallowed up by the experience. I thought the story of Eugene Allen was amazing, and I felt the same way about the script that was built from it. I started to do research on the period and the time, and I started to try to make that an organic part of myself, so the experiences of the day would be inside of me. And I started to work with a butler coach, to learn about how to serve, and about the concepts and the way of thinking that butlers would have. And then I started working on the dialect and the accent, trying to find the right voice for this person and how to combine it with the voice of the original person. And, of course, there was the physicality, and the aging, which I thought was a big part of the dramaturgy, and part of all the history and historical moments in the script. I wanted to be able to age in a way that felt organic. I was trying to live in the experience, and trying to figure out how to make it better. I kept thinking, “Make it better. Find the little details.” You know?
Watching this movie, I kept thinking about Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog and wondering if any of the Zen-like virtues you gained from your martial-arts training were helpful in playing Cecil. Because even as an actor, in a fictional setting, it must have been hard to remain so still and silent amid so much inequality.
When I worked on Ghost Dog, I really learned a lot about silence from my meditative practices, many of which are from the east. And I think that the usage of these practices, and the understanding of silence, and the projection of energy and attention, was helpful. I think I’ve really learned my first understanding of energy and projection from martial arts.
One of the few scenes—or maybe the only scene—that sees Cecil get fired up takes place at the family dinner table, where Sidney Poitier, whom so many people have seen as a pioneer, is labeled by Cecil’s son Louis as “nothing but a rich Uncle Tom.”
Yeah, and it’s too much for Cecil to take. It’s a lot for me to take too, because Sidney Poitier’s done so many amazing things. As a kid, he was one of the people I could look up to, and his performances are unusual and, I think, revolutionary. Like in A Patch of Blue. At that time, for his character to have a love affair with a white woman was just crazy, you know? And then he did Brother John, where he’s traveling all over the world, and then there’s In the Heat of the Night and To Sir with Love. Just so many. He’s an amazing, amazing artist.
Lee Daniels has said that he initially viewed The Butler as being mainly a father-son story, and in it, we get these two characters who take vastly different approaches in how they choose to live in the civil rights era. Was that dynamic particularly affecting?
Yeah. I didn’t even expect, when I was doing some of those later scenes, that I would be so overwhelmed, particularly in the scene where I’m yelling for Louis to come down [from a podium], and I’m like, “Louis! Louis!” And it shows a great reconciliation between me and my son there. The movie deals with the father-son dynamic so much.
And David is a really terrific actor, who looks like he’s on the path to having a career like yours eventually.
David’s amazing in the movie, right? I think he’s great, and I’m really glad that I got to do this with him. Beyond our characters’ relationship, there was the intimacy that the immediate [on-screen] family, including Oprah, was really trying to find, so we could convey our desire to stay together as a family. And meanwhile, the son, David’s character, was trying to make the family of the United States come together in a healing way.
Father-son stories always get me. They’re my weakness.
Yeah, me too. We all have different issues with our dads, even though we love them.
Is there a way to compare working with Lee Daniels to working with other directors?
You know, I haven’t worked with anyone else quite like him. He’s so present and emotional. And so observant. But he’s unusual. Like, he’ll be laughing at a scene while you’re doing it, and then you’ll walk over and say, “Lee, is that okay?” And he’ll be in tears, just weeping in his chair uncontrollably. It was such an unusual experience. He’s a great guy though. Have you interviewed him yet?
I’ve met him before, yeah.
[laughs] Well, then you know! He typically wants more from his actors, but with me it was, “Less, less. Give me 50 percent of this, give me 30 percent of that.”