'Lee Daniels' The Butler' Cast Talk About the Basis for Their Characters (Video)
Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr. and David Oyelowo discuss the real and fictional inspirations for their roles while the film's director speaks about capturing the emotional reality of the civil rights movement.
Although the main character in Lee Daniels' The Butler was inspired by real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and other stars admit that they drew inspiration for their roles from multiple real and fictional sources.
"[Whitaker's character] Cecil [Gaines] represents the archetype of a whole group of individuals that have been moving forward and helping to progress the civil rights and human rights movement," castmember Terrence Howard explains to The Hollywood Reporter.
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Indeed, screenwriter Danny Strong told THR at the film's New York premiere that there were other people who informed Whitaker's character.
But Whitaker notes that a lot of his character was based on Allen. "He did serve eight presidents. He was invited by Ronald Reagan to come to a state dinner … He was a witness to those moments in history behind the scenes but also in life because those scenes were what were going on," he explains.
As for Gaines' wife, Winfrey says her role was a mix of real and fictional inspirations.
"I think we took a lot of liberties with Eugene Allen's wife," she tells THR. "I know that she was a homemaker. I know that she and [her husband] were very, very connected. They, like, finished each other's sentences. I took some liberties with her drinking, and I took some liberties with her flirting with the next-door neighbor."
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Similarly, Gaines' son, played by David Oyelowo, who's intimately involved in the civil-rights movement, had a broader basis, saying his character is "illustrative of a lot of young people at that time and what they were going through. They were part of the faceless multitude of young people who decided, at very young ages, that they were going to stand up against this injustice and got organized and did things that affected change."
Daniels said he tried to make audiences feel the emotions that people involved in the civil rights movement felt, including fear. And on one take, due to a miscommunication, he felt a very real sense of terror.
"I yell cut and [extras playing members of the KKK] can't hear me because I'm on the bus, and they keep coming," he explains. "And for that split second, I knew what my mother and her mother before her went through. I was terrified."
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Although Whitaker has played other historical characters, including an Oscar-winning role as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, this one, he says, was different because of the amount of time covered by the film.
"There's a lot of depth that I tried to understand, decades upon decades, I had to go from my late twenties to my nineties and fill myself with all of the experiences of what went on during that time," he tells THR. "So by the time I'm ninety-something years old, you feel that I'm carrying the weight of all this time."
To learn more about the actors' inspirations for their characters as well as why Winfrey agreed to take on her role, and how Lenny Kravitz plans to keep balancing music and movies, check out THR's interview above.