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 isn’t 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. It’s 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 didn’t 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 he’s cooking collard greens and he’s teaching Cecil how to drink pot liquor, which is the juice from collard greens…
That’s a good moment. I wish that you at least shot it for the DVD.
You know what, you’re gonna be a good producer because I should have.
No, but that’s a salary that you didn’t have to pay. I would be a terrible producer. You’ve 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 they’re so much fun. Was it people that you knew already? Beause John Cusack doesn’t really look that much like Nixon. He’s not the first person you’d think of, so it seems like you picked people that you liked.
And that I’ve worked with and that I like and that we’re friends. Because you have to sort of know me before we work together, because it’s a unique experience.
That’s 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, he’ll 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 you’re also dealing with great actors, actors that are incredible, so it was easy. If you know me you know I’m into the subtle-- I’m not into just anything that’s 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.
I’m probably the only one that feels that. I felt it when he was doing that. I said, “Oh my God, this is reminiscent to The Paperboy.” I turned to my assistant and said, “This feels like The Paperboy,” 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 he’s been played so fabulously before by Hopkins and Langella. We just wanted to make sure we nailed it in a way that was subtle.
You said you had to fight to get a PG-13 for this, right?
Like an animal for it. I don’t know why it was, I mean, I know that you can only use one fuck.
Yeah, Nixon gets it. I noticed that.
Did you? You watch people fight for PG-13s a lot. The Weinstein Company does it all the time, it seems like.
Yeah, I mean, there were a lot those, there were a lot of F-bombs in this film. A lot.
Well, there’s a lot of room for them.
Yeah, I regret some of them being out.
Yes, it adds humor. What I’m bringing to this film is humor through the darkness, because there’s so--what we experience with this film is dark, man. It’s dark. I cried a lot on the set. The actors cried on the set, at what had happened. We were on that bus [a Freedom Riders bus that gets firebombed by the KKK) and I was in the bus with the actors, sweating, sweaty, sweaty, sweaty. And I yelled, “Action,” and all these KKK members were coming out and Nazis were coming out, and it was scary with the crosses and everything. And I was scared and I yelled, “Cut,” and they kept coming. And for an instant, for a moment, I knew what it was like to be one of those kids.
So, they just didn’t hear you and they kept going?
Yeah, cause they couldn’t, because I was inside. And I knew what it was like for those kids, both black and white, that they were heroes, that those kids were heroes on that bus. I don’t know whether or not, that I could be a hero. I guess it was this wake-up call for me, that I didn’t think I’m man enough, that I could ever be man enough to die for a cause, you know what I mean.
Anytime you watch a movie about this stuff, you think about the kids …
How the fuck did they pull it off?
I have no idea. It’s amazing.
(Lee Daniels red carpet images via Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com)