Just before I interviewed director Lee Daniels (HERE) I spoke with actor and producer Forest Whitaker about his new film The Butler, as well as Fruitvale Station and a few other things.
Though this was the first time I had ever met him, one thing was for sure: It’s definitely true what everyone says about him in the business. Whitaker is genuinely one of nicest and warmest guys you’ll ever meet (and as you will see later during our talk) quite profound as well.
(Warning! Some plot spoilers are revealed in the interview so you’re forewarned)
SERGIO: I have to tell you first of all those final scenes in The Butler when you’re playing your character, Cecil Gaines, in his 80’s reminded me so much of my father at that age. You even sort of look like him. But there’s a certain way that old men have, in particular black men at that age, when they walk with that weight of history and experiences they have had though their life. There’s a way that they move with a particular gait with a dignity and pride of themselves. How did you get into that mindset?
WHITAKER: Thank you so much. I worked on it a couple of ways. I did work on the physical movement and the character, but the difference was that I made the physical aging of the character based on the experiences that he goes through in the movie. So the loss of my son would resonate here (Whitaker touches his heart) in this part of my body. So for the rest of the movie I would carry something in this part. And then later I would carry something else (touches his side) here.
So finally all this stuff from my past takes a toll which is probably why you feel the weight of it. Because actually I really put the weight of all the life and the moments into my body and my speech. It changes everything. For example I’m young, but then this thing happens when my mother gets raped and it changes the way I talk. Then my son dies and then my voices changes again it come down here (points to his stomach), but I’m still the same. It’s just putting those things together.
It’s those life experiences that Cecil goes though that changes him physically.
Yes, you always carry your experiences and pain. And that was one aspect of the things I was doling while I was working on this part. It’s one of the most complicated characters that I’ve ever worked on, though some people will perceive it as such a simple, simple character.
Speaking of acting there are basically two methods - there’s the Lee Strasberg Actor’s Studio method where you “become the person” style of acting and then there’s the more technical more “British” or old fashioned Hollywood way of acting - a sort of no fuss, know your lines, hit your mark and move on. Which one would you consider yourself to be?
Well one of the schools I went to originally was the Drama Studio London. But the reality is that people would consider me a method actor because I stay in character a lot and I do a lot of homework and immerse myself into the role. But I use the other more technical side too, so it’s a blend of the two things. I may know physically my body might digress and I still have to emotionally put in memories and things so it’s a blending.
Now when I was doing The Last King of Scotland everyone would tell you that I was that character always off the set when you talked to me on the phone, or whatever. And I guess with this character of Cecil, Lee and other people would tell you me that I was always sort of talking with that accent or voice.
So you’re one of those actors who stays in character always or can you switch it off when the director yells “Cut! Print!”?
I just can’t switch it off, but I can say that I don’t inflict my behavior on people. Like if the character is nasty, I’m not nasty to people in my life off camera. But there are certain aspects that stay with me, the way I move, the way I say a certain word or the way I laugh. Like it took a long time to get rid of one sound: “Uh” when I was working on Last King. It took like a year. It would be there in my speech. And with Cecil, because of the meticulous nature of it I would keep some of it but also because I broke it down so specifically too it was easier for me to recognize that I was keeping some of it and I could let go of it. Like “Oh why am I walking like this? I know this is not the way I normally move or speak.”
As you know there are people who have some trouble with this film: “Oh why are we playing servants again?” sort of reaction. First of all how do you deal with that controversy and second where does that come from?
Well I think people have been striving for their sense of identity and sense of power and feel that in order to move forward that you have to negate certain things in the past. I think that you have to look historically and recognize that there are figures who maybe we’ve misjudged, but they are figures who have been the building blocks of your culture. And besides the fact that to relegate that this particular type of job doesn’t have dignity or doesn’t require us to recognize that it is something that special and divine as any other job might be, you know what I mean? It is a question in itself. Because these people still exist, maids and butlers.
But I think for the people to feel that we need diverse images, that is the bigger question. That we can have films that depict this particular character who happens to be a butler or this particular character who happens to be human rights leader or this particular character who happens to be a slave or this particular character who happens to be a drug dealer. I think the palate of diversity is what people really want. They want to see all the faces of who they are.
Now recognize that in all those faces are the faces of humanity because we come in so many variations, you see? That, to me, is a legitimate question. Are we seen enough in the faces of who we are, the depth of who we are? And if we examine a particular character, do we go inside of him enough to understand more about him and ourselves? The connection that that character might have with ourselves.
Finally I have to ask you about Fruitvale Station, of course, which you executive produced. The writer and director Ryan Coogler said that he pitched to you several projects but when he told you about the Oscar Grant project he had in mind that was the one that got you excited. What was it about that project that made you say “You’ve got a film here” that I want to get on board?
Because I felt he was going to put a human face on an issue that would deepen our understanding of this situation you know what I mean? The paint a story as a real human story. The person, yes, is flawed because of the choices that he has to make in his environment. But we still explore him and find out his human nature besides all of those things, besides the prison, besides the drug deals, besides wherever he's going on.
We latch and feel for this human being and recognize that he deserves qualities of life. The certain kinds of qualities of life - of life, liberty, food, education for the mind, all these things. People deserve those rights. And this person, in a way, is trying to reach for those rights throughout the whole movie and then those rights are taken away from him, He is a symbol of our own humanity so that when we watch him, we feel for him.
And also let me say this. These things should not be ignored. Empowerment come from acknowledgement. One of the first steps of healing is for us to see ourselves and to have our voices be heard. For a person to say “I’m here” is important This movie says “I’m here” and not just “I’m here, but “I’m here with you. Do you feel me? Do you feel me?”