‘The Butler’ movie: Forest, Oprah and me
NEW ORLEANS — It’s after midnight on a side street here in this Southern city. There’s moonlight and klieg lights touching the front porch where Oprah Winfrey and Terrence Howard are sitting. They’re chatting a late night away, dressed coolly inside of a movie scene. Terrence sports a short-sleeve knit shirt like hipster Negro men used to wear in urban neighborhoods in the 1960s. They’re filming “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a major motion picture adapted from a story I wrote for The Washington Post in 2008. I’m standing across the street — blocked off by police cars — watching with crew members and actors as the scene unfolds.
“Okay, that was lovely,” yells the director, Lee Daniels. “But let’s do it one more time. One more time.”
As the long night shoot finally ends, Oprah walks down off the porch. She comes right for me.
“Well, how was it?” she asks.
“It was beautiful,” I honestly answer.
“Oh, thank you, honey,” she says, sounding as sincere and grateful as can be.
The moment, like the moonlight, washes over me: Oprah Winfrey calling me “honey.”
I am on set with what may be a record number of Oscar winners in one movie. There are six: Oprah (honorary Oscar), Forest Whitaker, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr.And the director has been nominated. Oprah is acting in her first full-length role since “Beloved” in 1998. The movie opens nationwide Aug. 16.
I felt bound for the acting life myself once. I left my home town of Columbus, Ohio, for New York City in 1979 with an armful of acting school brochures. I had gotten nice reviews for appearing in community theater productions. The bus that took me away smelled like urine, but I was Broadway-bound. And, like many thousands, and thousands more, I flopped.
But now here I am, and the cameras are rolling. Over there is Lenny Kravitz, and there’s Alan Rickman, David Oyelowo and Clarence Williams III, all in this movie. One day, I spot Fonda walking out of a tent. I’ve not yet been introduced to her. I must tell her about the time, when I was a young wannabe actor, that I walked her dad, Henry Fonda, to his limo after I had seen a Broadway performance of “First Monday in October.” I bum-rushed the man as he exited the stage door. She’ll just love hearing this little story. She gets closer to me, then closer. Then she shoots me one of those not-now looks. Oh, well.
I’ll save the story for Lee Daniels. He’ll love hearing it. And when I tell him, and tell him about my own acting background, he’ll probably want me to be an extra!
Producers Laura Ziskin and Pam Williams are sitting across from me at the Willard hotel in Washington. It’s early 2010, a little more than a year after my story about Eugene Allen appeared in The Post.
He was born on a Virginia plantation in 1919, arrived in Washington during the Great Depression and got himself a job at the White House in 1952, where he stayed for 34 years as a butler, serving eight presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. After the story, Allen would receive letters from around the world. We’d read them together by lamplight in his Washington home.
Allen, 90, died on March 31, 2010. “During his many years at the White House,” President Obama will say upon his death, “he witnessed great milestones in our nation’s history, and his life represents an important part of the American story.”
“We’re talking to A-list directors,” Ziskin says.
I ask who is at the top of the list.
There is a long pause. Ziskin says to Williams: “Should I tell him?” Williams says yes.
“Spielberg wants to do it,” Ziskin says. “He doesn’t know if his schedule will work out. But he has already told us how he would portray all the presidents.”
When Steven Spielberg talks in Hollywood, everyone listens. Before the end of our gathering, Ziskin asks me to get her more photos of Eugene Allen “for Steven to see.”
But in the coming months, Spielberg decides his schedule simply won’t work. He offers regrets and goes on to film “Lincoln.” Lee Daniels, Oscar-nominated for directing “Precious” — and only the second black ever Oscar-nominated for directing — gets the job. “He has an amazing vision for the film,” Ziskin later tells me.
The hellishness of raising money filters through to me. One week it seems as if the movie is a go, the next it seems to be struggling to stay afloat because of a certain investor’s pullout, only to be fully resuscitated the following week.
Then Ziskin gets very sick. Breast cancer. She seeks commitments from everyone that no matter what, they will not abandon the movie. She has long been upset about the lack of diversity in Hollywood movies, how rare it is for movies about the dynamics of politics and race in this country to get made.
Everyone makes promises to her. But it is Hollywood, where more promises come with the weight of feathers than boulders.
Months and months pass. Laura Ziskin dies on June 12, 2011.
Everyone keeps their word, and filming begins in the summer of 2012. The power of the boulders won.
As I step off the elevator of the production offices, I spot a yellow sign — “THE BUTLER PRODUCTION OFFICE” — and make a mental note that I’ve got to beg someone for that sign!
Lee Daniels sits on the sofa. His office is full of civil rights research — books, photographs, old newsreels — emblems of the arc of time Eugene Allen and his eight presidents lived through.
“I’m terrified,” Lee tells me about the start of filming, one day away. “I’ve got to get this story right. The material is so rich, so sacred.”
Hmm: Terrified? Maybe this is not the right time to tell Lee about my community theater experience.
In the outer production room, computers glow as technical crew and location scouts pore over maps and diagrams. Walking around, I notice a tall figure on the phone: Forest Whitaker. He’s playing Cecil Gaines, the role inspired by Eugene Allen. That night, Forest’s assistant reaches me at my hotel. Forest wants me to come out to where he’s staying to talk about Allen.
Forest tells me how intimidating the part is. This comes from the actor who portrayed brutal dictator Idi Amin.
Next morning I hop a streetcar. Forest’s assistant ushers me inside. It’s one of those big New Orleans houses, full of sunlight. The owners are away, having rented it out — a home away from home for Forest.
I had interviewed the actor years ago when he was on a press tour for “The Last King of Scotland,” the movie that garnered him the best acting Oscar. I ask him if he remembers me.
He tells me how excited he is about the White House butler role, but how intimidating the part is. “It’s really the most challenging role I’ve ever been asked to play,” he says.
This comes from the actor who portrayed brutal dictator Idi Amin.
Forest says the challenge is playing a man who had to keep his emotions in check inside the White House as the civil rights movement churned all around him. A man who had to adapt to eight different presidents, eight different personalities. (Only five presidents are portrayed in the movie, which is a blend of fact and fiction. “We can’t make a four-hour movie,” as producer Williams put it.)
The dining room table, just feet from where we are sitting, is set lavishly — gleaming silverware and china, beautiful candles, cloth napkins — as if company is expected. Moi?
“I’ve hired a butler to teach me how to be a butler, how to properly set the table and serve,” Forest explains.
He talks about the butler things he has learned so far: How to glide around a state dining room table as the dishes are being served. When to replace silverware. How to reach for the wine glasses.
He pulls thick notebooks from a shoulder bag. They’re full of research materials and photographs from the civil rights movement. He also has a good many pictures of Eugene Allen and copies of the stories I wrote.
“I wasn’t happy with the roles I had been getting,” Forest says. “My career wasn’t going in the right direction. This part has reenergized my love of acting.” He has thus touched upon the challenge for the black actor in Hollywood, the same conundrum Laura Ziskin had long talked about.
One hour has turned to two. We get to talking about black men, about the old black men who had been in our respective lives. About the good black men who must have worked as hard and as steady as Eugene Allen, though not at such an illustrious address. Forest mentions his father and grandfather. “Allen reminds me a little of them,” he says, and talks about their sense of a work ethic, of honor.
Actually, we’re both referring to the sheer fortitude of black men like Eugene Allen through brutal, unjust times.