Lee Daniels Explains Why Jimmy Carter Got Left Out Of The Butler
Lee Daniels has something he swears he has to do, but he's got to talk to me first. It's late in the afternoon of the first of many long days of interviews Daniels will do for The Butler-- sorry, that's legally obligated to be Lee Daniels' The Butler-- and Daniels is getting through it by taking off his flip-flops, laying down horizontally on the couch in his hotel suite, and laughing a lot throughout our conversation. At one point he told me that our site has not been kind to him in the past-- and he's not wrong- but he was completely lovely anyway, giving long rambling answers, getting emotional when recalling intense moments on set, and at one point telling me I would have been a good producer for his movie (I would not have been, but it was nice of him to say).
The Butler is Daniels' fourth feature, and by far his most ambitious in terms of story, following White House butler Cecil Gaines as he works for every President between Eisenhower and Reagan. Daniels, a former casting director and producer who knows the value of selling a film, has said that he had to cast as many big names as possible to sell the film overseas, so he not only has Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker in the title role and Oprah Winfrey as his wife, but a huge cast of names playing various Presidents, including Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, and John Cusack as a very memorable-- and very sweaty-- Richard Nixon. Diehard Jimmy Carter fans, though, might be disappointed-- the famous peanut farmer only makes an appearance as himself, in old TV broadcasts.
Why did he leave Jimmy Carter out? Why is Cusack sweating so much? What moment on the set sent Daniels into a blind panic and made him realize he never could have been a Freedom Rider himself? Find out that and more in our conversation below, and see The Butler in theaters this Friday.
So, what happened to Jimmy Carter? Why isnít he in this?
Umm, what happened to Jimmy? Because it would have felt too episodic and I had to skip over some of the presidents. Itís so hard to not make this feel like a movie of the week or a miniseries. I tried really hard to make it cinematic so that it didnít seem like I was trying to tell a history lesson or a miniseries or a movie of the week about what happened in the White House.
Did you ever want to have him there?
The way it was scripted originally, Cecil comes in and heís cooking collard greens and heís teaching Cecil how to drink pot liquor, which is the juice from collard greensÖ
Thatís a good moment. I wish that you at least shot it for the DVD.
You know what, youíre gonna be a good producer because I should have.
No, but thatís a salary that you didnít have to pay. I would be a terrible producer. Youíve said that to get this movie made you had to put these famous faces in there and get enough people that would sell it internationally, but theyíre so much fun. Was it people that you knew already? Beause John Cusack doesnít really look that much like Nixon. Heís not the first person youíd think of, so it seems like you picked people that you liked.
And that Iíve worked with and that I like and that weíre friends. Because you have to sort of know me before we work together, because itís a unique experience.
Thatís what I keep hearing. I talked to David just now. He said you push him more than anybody else, but he likes that. He said anytime you call, heíll come.
With John it was about trying to make these people sort of, just gave nuances of the presidents and not do caricatures of them. And youíre also dealing with great actors, actors that are incredible, so it was easy. If you know me you know Iím into the subtle-- Iím not into just anything thatís big, and that starts with the makeup and moves to the costume to the actor.
WIth John it seemed like he kind of had some of his Paperboy sweat leftover.
Iím probably the only one that feels that. I felt it when he was doing that. I said, ďOh my God, this is reminiscent to The Paperboy.Ē I turned to my assistant and said, ďThis feels like The Paperboy,Ē but that was Nixon. Nixon sweated.
Famously in the JFK debate.
Yeah, and he sweated all the time and John came in with all of this information about Nixon. All these actors came so prepared, but John knew all about Nixon, because heís been played so fabulously before by Hopkins and Langella. We just wanted to make sure we nailed it in a way that was subtle.
Back to top