LOS ANGELES – Oprah Winfrey almost turned down the role in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” that is generating Best Supporting Actress buzz for her. This was revealed in a recent interview by Lee, who directed the film about Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a White House butler who served eight presidents, and his boozy wife Gloria (Oprah).
“We have become friends and we were looking for something to do,” Lee said of Oprah, who served as the executive producer of his acclaimed film, “Precious.” “When I found it for her, she got scared and said, ‘No, I got a company called OWN to [run].’ She was like, ‘I don’t want to. I got a TV company.’ They were having problems at the time. I begged her. I pleaded. I stalked and harassed her. I cried. I bullied her. She was in Hawaii, relaxing and I went for the kill.”
Lee finally got Oprah to say yes to the role. “But then, when she came to work, I was like, ‘Oh, goodness, she’s here,’” Lee recalled. “It’s time to direct her. That was terrifying. It was like, how do I ‘un-know’ her? Because she’s so known. So we began a process of ‘un-knowing’ her. And through that, she became vulnerable. She became nervous, fragile and like a little girl. I became very protective because her guard was down and she trusted me. She wasn’t Oprah. She was Gloria and she was complicated. She became someone that I felt protective of.”
According to Lee, part of the strategy was for Oprah’s entourage to stay away from the set. “She came with only a driver. She wanted to be part of the crowd. It’s hard to imagine this billionaire eating with the crew, PAs, extras and actors. We were all eating together. It was a really wonderful experience. She was able to forget her problems for a minute.”
A crucial part was finding the actor to play the title role, one who would play well opposite Oprah. “She was attached [to the project], before Forest,” Lee explained. “We were trying to find someone who was going to have chemistry with her. I didn’t know who it was going to be. Then Forest came in. I said, ‘Do you mind if I test you?’ It was sort of an audition, really. I was embarrassed to test this Oscar winner. He’s one of the premier actors of our generation. But he came in. I knew immediately that [he was the one]—his humility, the fact that he would actually come in to test with Oprah. To me, that said he was willing to go and jump off the ledge with me.”
Lee also credited the script for contributing to the cast’s strong performances. “I think the actors were attracted to the script. Danny (Strong) wrote an incredible script. The film spoke for itself. It spoke the truth. Actors really want to work on stuff that’s honest. They want to work with good writing. It starts with the words. I’m just the puppeteer.”
Well, in that case, Lee has succeeded very well. Oprah is generating Best Supporting Actress talk the way Anne Hathaway did last year for her role in “Les Miserables.” The first and last time Oprah got Oscar and Golden Globe Best Supporting Actress nods was in 1986 for Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple.” Forest is also being bruited about as a Best Actor contender.
While Lee talked animatedly about his cast’s performances, he admitted that he was “terribly nervous” discussing race relations today in the United States, a topic that often crops up in his media interviews. Since Cecil’s story spans over eight decades and touches on the history of civil rights in that period, Lee is asked frequently for his opinion on the issue.
“It is easier for me to have the conversation with my children about sex, the birds and the bees than about race,” Lee admitted. “When we are trying to get a taxi in New York City and our neighbors are able to get it faster than we are, I have to look at my kids in the rain and explain to them. Or not explain to them because I don’t know how to explain it to them. I hope this movie does explain to them.
“When my son asks me, ‘Why am I being followed in a 7-Eleven? Why are people watching me, dad?’ I don’t know how to answer that. It’s very ugly. I guess I’m not a good enough parent. My dad didn’t know how to answer that for me, either. It’s an ugly conversation to have and I choose to ignore it. I think the movie addresses it.”
Not an angry black man
He added: “The way for me to deal with racism is to act like it’s not there. You will never understand what it’s like as an African-American to be at a store and to be ignored. For them not to turn around. To take their time before they wait on you. It slowly chips away at your spirit, ego, at who you are as a human. So I choose to ignore it. Because if I embrace it, then it becomes real to me. I can’t sit up here with a smile on my face.”
As the interview wound down, Lee stressed, “I don’t want to seem like an angry black man because I’m not an angry black man. But when you speak about it, people think that you’re angry. So you must be like Cecil and be humble, quiet and stoic. I must be proud of the ancestors who have died for me to be where I am at today.”
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