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Lee Daniels’ The Butler – Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and the witness to history

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The Butler - Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker
The Butler - Gloria Gaines (Oprah Winfrey) and Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) ©2013 The Weinstein Company

Already being touted as a multiple Oscar nominee, Lee Daniels’ The Butler hasn’t even opened yet. The movie is inspired by real life White House butler Eugene Allen,  who served 34 years and 8 presidents.

In the film, Forest Whitaker takes on the role of Cecil Gaines, who serves 7 administrations between 1957 and 1986, becoming a firsthand witness to history as the civil rights movement unfolds. Oprah Winfrey portrays Gloria, Cecil’s wife.

At the press day in New York, Forest and Oprah spoke of their momentous movie, which opens this Friday, August 16th. 

What attracted you to this project?

The Butler - Forest Whitaker
The Butler – White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) ©2013 The Weinstein Company

Forest: I thought the story of Eugene Allen was amazing. It was the original inspiration that this amazing script was written from.

How did you transform yourself into Cecil?

I started to do research on the period, so that I could make that an organic part of myself. I started to work with a butler/coach to learn how to serve, and the way of thinking that they would have.

Then I started working on the dialect to find the right speech. What was the right voice for this person, and how [could I] combine it with the original person?

Then [I worked on the] physicality of the aging, which I thought was a big part of this drama. [I wanted to] age in a way that would feel organic. I think the thing that made it work was [I got to] walk on the set and work with extraordinary actors in every phase of the piece, every President, everyone was so powerful.

It was an unbelievable experience.

Oprah, what made you want to be involved?

The Butler - Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey
The Butler – Howard (Terrence Howard) and Gloria Gaines (Oprah Winfrey) ©2013 The Weinstein Company

Oprah: I was telling Lee (Daniels, Precious) ‘I’ve got a network (OWN) going on,’ and he wouldn’t listen to me. But I’m glad I finally said yes because of the story itself. He’d been talking to me about the story and Gloria for quite some time.

I’m a student of my own history, of African American history, and I believe that when you know who you are you have an ability to move forward, because of the strength of your entire ancestry.

The opportunity to show who the women of that era were [was wonderful], because Gloria for me is not just herself, but a composite of women of that era who sacrificed, who also were the stabilizing force in the family. The butler couldn’t have been who he was had it not been for her.

What was it like to have Oprah as your wife?

Forest: It was an amazing experience for me. She was so committed to the role and so committed to our relationship. We had wanted to work together and this gave us an opportunity.

In between the scenes we were trying to develop our rapport and continue to build our connection and she would be so generous. We’d be in the trailer and she’d rub my back or we’d walk hand-in-hand to the set and talk. I think it led to the magic of us being able to really be connected in the film.

Oprah: Thank you Forest.

As White House butler, Cecil develops personal relationships with Presidents and First Ladies. What positive effect do you think that has in the bigger picture?

The Butler - Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker
The Butler – Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) ©2013 The Weinstein Company

Forest:  In this sense, I think the character of Cecil is a good example of an individual contributing towards shifting larger opinions on race. In the film, Kennedy’s tie and Johnson’s clip are the two gifts Cecil gets and keeps. Both of those Presidents shifted policy for civil rights in the country.

There’s a powerful line in the movie that says black people use two faces, ‘one is ours and one we show the white people.’ Is that parallel to your experience?

Oprah: I don’t feel that at all. I feel that I have made a living being myself. When I was 19 years old I interviewed Jesse Jackson, and he said to me, ‘One of your gifts is being able to be yourself on TV.’ So I have made a career out of my own authenticity.

I don’t have one face that I present to the white world or the black world. I talk to my dogs the same way I’m speaking right now.

It’s always been the same for me, and I say that with great pride, homage and honor to the people who were the generation before me. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be in this movie, it is because I am the daughter of a maid, my grandmother was a maid, her mother was a maid and her mother was a slave.

I feel validated by their courage, by the war that the butler and his entire generation fought in their own way.