Forest Whitaker isn’t the kind of actor who needs to prove himself. He solidified his place in history back in 2006 collecting an Oscar for his gripping portrayal of former Ugandan president Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Still, he was looking for something that would inspire him. And he’s turned in another performance that will likely inspire millions.
This week he stars as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film inspired by the life of real-life butler Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents in the White House. The film is already earning plenty of Oscar buzz, though Whitaker is trying his best not to think about future red carpets come the New Year. And for good reason: The Butler is an incredible slice of African-American history.
EBONY: What made you say yes to this project?
Forest Whitaker: It’s an amazing story, and I think that humanizes and puts a face on people who went through all this struggle for the nation. It’s a story about love and family, about tenderness and care between a husband and a wife, between a father and a son. So for me it was an amazing opportunity. I knew that with it in Lee’s hands, it would be a really special film. Oprah and I had been trying to work together. We were going to do a play at one point. And so everything came together.
EBONY: How you rank this performance with The Last King of Scotland or with all your work?
FW: It’s hard to rank, because they’re so different, and I try to find the soul of every character. But honestly, this was one of the most difficult parts I’ve ever played, because it was very specific, very detailed. I [had to figure out] how to be a butler, and I trained with someone to understand that. And then trying to understand the history, the history in the film, so that I can place those emotional moments inside of me.
I also listened to the recordings of Gene. And then finding the accent of the person. And then how to age. I needed to find an organic way to do that in a way that I was putting all these events and moments and feelings inside my body, so that I would carry it with me at the end of the film, so that hopefully you’d get a look at me and feel the weight of all the things that had happened with this man in his life. So for me it was very, very challenging because I can’t show a lot of emotion. But I’m trying to let you understand what I’m thinking, and I can only do that by projecting my feelings and hoping you, the audience, will catch it.
EBONY: Has anyone from the White House seen this yet?
FW: I did get an email from someone who saw it in L.A. who’s from the White House. They said they had goose bumps watching the film throughout.
EBONY: There are so many elements to this film. What should our big takeaway be?
FW: I think that the movie is a lot about family and healing and love, and sort of the background of the civil rights movement moving through it. So it’s like an expression of the difficulties and the problems that they’re struggling through. In some ways, the house and the healing of this family is also what’s happening in the spirit of the U.S.
Lee did something pretty brilliant in this movie. He had the struggle between a father and a son as one of the elements of the movie. The movie is about love in that sense, because the movie deals with caring. I love and care so much, so deeply for my son that I don’t want anything to happen to him, because I want him to be able to have a better life. And his love for himself and the community forces him to push to try to allow there to be a better life for himself and the others because of his love and caring.
So it’s this beautiful tapestry… and I just love the way it flows from our family into the civil rights movement and those emotions, those feelings, into an emotional thread that continues the journey of the family itself.
EBONY: There are eight presidents portrayed in this movie, and they all at some point confide in the butler. Why?
FW: I think there’s an intimacy between the butler and the president that is very unique. There’s a really strong code of secrecy. We heard from different people in the administration. I think the code is so entrenched, people were not allowed to speak about anything that was going on.
I think when you have men in power, they have insecurities and fears, and they want to turn every once in a while and reveal the vulnerability or reveal their thoughts. They need to be able to turn to somebody and do it and know that nothing will happen. I tried to talk to the butlers for so long to try to get information, details, and it was one of the strictest codes of any group that I found at the White House. I was actually amazed by it.
Luckily I was able to get a chance to talk confidentially with people. But they get to see the way the president and his wife discipline their children. They know when the president is making a decision that will change the face of the planet while they’re bringing coffee. They’re hearing all the conversations, and they’re having no judgment and stepping in when the president just wants someone to be a sounding board that won’t harm, that cannot harm, but is just there to support, to serve. Which is sort of the dignity of the task: to serve selflessly.