For Lee Daniels, 'The Butler' Was Personal

The director of the civil rights saga says “The Butler” is a father-son love story at its heart .

Forest Whitaker stars in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
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Lee Daniels is disappointed when I tell him that for 40 minutes his movie had me almost crying.

"But did you tear up is the question?" Forty whole minutes, I assure him, I was really fighting back the sobs. "Well I didn't hit you home then. What would have made you cry?" he asks.

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I suspect I will be in the minority of viewers who do not shed a tear when watching "Lee Daniels' The Butler" (the film's full-length title is not a blandishment of its director's ego, but a workaround of a copyright issue). The movie tells the story of Cecil, a White House servant who works for seven presidents, inspired by a real-life butler. The film follows the civil rights movement from his perspective of himself and his son, a Freedom Rider. It features of dizzying array of stars appearing as presidents and other historical figures, as well as moving performances by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, who plays Cecil's wife Gloria. Lee Daniels sat down with U.S. News to talk about the film:

Do you have a certain philosophy when it comes to casting?

I like working with actors that I know, that I have a relationship with, that they love me and I love them. It's all about the relationship. If we can't connect with each other – spiritually, emotionally – then I don't want to work with you. Also, I think that the script – Danny Strong's script – for the new actors that I hadn't gotten the chance to work with, they're not just celebrities. They're not just actors. But they're political activists in their own right – from Vanessa Redgrave to Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, John Cusack. These people stand by what they believe in. This movie isn't just a movie. It stands for something.

I didn't intend to make it stand for something. It was just like a father-and-son love story. I didn't set out to make an important civil rights movie, because that would have bored me. It's all about family at the end of the day for me. And the political system, the civil rights movement really was in the backdrop of what was going in the family. We were shooting on and on and on, I was like, "This is something important now. I've got to get this sh-t right. I'm going to be criticized if I don't get this right," which means more homework and research, and I was not in the mood for that. [Laughter] I was really angry.

It's interesting you didn't start out knowing that this was going to be such an important movie.

I'm not trying to make it an "important" movie, I don't want to, because then that draws eyes to any of the flaws. It wasn't about that. It was really just about the love that they all experienced, like what families go through. I knew this family because I grew up in this era.

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With "The Butler" you're also casting these actors to play people that everyone knows. Everyone knows the presidents, everyone knows Martin Luther King. Was that intimidating?

I can't work unless I'm intimidated, because that's how I try to get better at my craft. I like walking the tight rope. I like rolling the dice. Casting Oprah, for example: Everybody said, "What are you doing? No one is going to believe her as Gloria. We know her as Oprah." And what I try to do is get to un-know you, to make people un-know who they think that they know. The artist in me wants to change people's perceptions of who they see these people acting as. And the producer in me wants people to come to see my movie.


"The Butler" follows two different attitudes to the civil right movement, Cecil's, and his son's, who is more of a political activist. How did you approach those two different attitudes? How did you reconcile them?

I compare this with me and my son's relationship. That's what moved me so much about this in that it's generational. I showed it to him – he's now 17 – and he said to me, "You know, I understood it in so many ways, the story, that it's all about generation and what people want. They want more." I was nervous that he wouldn't like it. This movie was impossible to get made. It took everything out of me, to get this movie made. And I understood that he wants more, and he deserves more.