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Q&A: 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' star Forest Whitaker

August 13, 2013|Matt Pais, @mattpais | RedEye movie critic

Forest Whitaker certainly isn’t yelling, but the temperature of his soft-spoken calm has increased a few degrees.

“If we have a few minutes, let’s get a [newspaper], and I want you to go through the films,” says the star of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” opening Friday. “And I want you to show me the ones that happened yesterday.”

The dispute rises from the question of whether films that connect to current issues should look backward or directly address modern times. The Oscar-winning actor (“The Last King of Scotland”) bristles at the notion that history would ever be taken for granted. This appears ironic for two reasons:  One, because “Butler” includes short mentions of the Little Rock Nine and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and many more civil rights touchstones but will neither enlighten those familiar with these incidents/people or educate those who aren’t. And two, because the movie adapts the true story of Eugene Allen, who served more than three decades as a butler in the White House, into the fictionalized tale of butler Cecil Gaines, whose wife (Oprah Winfrey) is now an alcoholic and son serving in Vietnam is—spoiler alert—killed in action. On his dad’s birthday.

Seriously: Allen’s son came to the set of the movie in which the character based on him dies.

At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Whitaker, 52, talked about working with Oprah, the importance of depicting history and the rarity of films that comment on today’s events.

In this film, your character’s mom is Mariah Carey and you’re married to Oprah. What would someone’s life hypothetically be like if they were in that position?
You mean the real people? Oh. [Laughs] I have no idea what their lives are like. They’re both unbelievably talented [and lead] really blessed lives. They’re very public figures, so I guess that’s the only thing I can probably safely say is there would probably be a loss of privacy. [Laughs]

What’s something that surprised you about working opposite Oprah?
I think I always thought she was a good actress, but I think she’s a great actress. She has such emotional depth.

That was surprising to you?
We had always wanted to work together before. We had talked about doing a play together actually. So I had great respect for her as an actress. It was just for me when I’m in a scene and when the scene is going so honestly and truly that I can get thrown, you know? I was a little thrown a couple of times. That was amazing because that doesn’t happen. I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and it doesn’t happen that often.

How often did you two finish a scene and she was like (in Oprah voice), “That take was AWESOME!”
Uh, no, never. She was totally in character, in the space pretty much. She was this character almost the whole time.

I found it interesting to see that Eugene Allen, the butler who inspired this film, lived his life very humbly. He declined book offers and speaking requests that were sent his way. Of course he’s not with us anymore, but what do you think he would think of this movie?
I hope he would like it. Hopefully he would feel that it captured the spirit of who he is and the experience that he went through. It’s a large life, and I don’t know what it must feel like for someone to watch themselves on screen.

Well, especially because there are a number of things that are adjusted from his life.
A few big ones. The death of Charlie because Charlie is not dead. He came to set in New Orleans and he gave me some of his thoughts.

Was that weird for him, that he dies in the movie but he’s watching it happen?
No, it’s clearly inspired by a true story. So he knew that. He felt like the script really depicted that experience. He came and he was moved by it and stuff. His mother wasn’t an alcoholic so that’s a big difference too in the fabric of the story.

Actor Harry Lennix was critical of the movie. To quote him, he says, “[Daniels] bastardizes history for a horrible end and purpose. So what if [Eugene Allen] was a servant in the White House? God bless the man, but in an effort to make it seem somehow profound they bastardized the actual history of the man … enough of this retrogressive poison. It’s horrible. Let’s talk about today.”
See, I’m confused by that because the movie is not about Eugene Allen. It’s a fictionalized story. It’s inspired by someone’s life--

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