White House butler sets Forest Whitaker on right track again

Forest Whitaker is back in form after playing the man who served eight presidents, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 4:05pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 4:05pm

Put it down to the curse of the Oscar. As so many actors have discovered in the past, winning an Academy Award doesn't always guarantee you the pick of gilt-edged scripts. When Forest Whitaker took home the best-actor Oscar for playing Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 2006's The Last King of Scotland, it was no more than he deserved. And then? A series of forgettable roles in second-rate movies such as Vantage Point, Street Kings and Crossfire (aka Freelancers); Whitaker was left downcast and despondent.

"Up until two years ago I was thinking 'Maybe I don't want to do this anymore'," he says. You could hardly blame him. Sure, his film career which began with an appearance in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) also includes a best-actor triumph in Cannes for playing jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's Bird and has seen Whitaker working with major directorial names such as Martin Scorsese (The Color of Money), Oliver Stone (Platoon), Robert Altman (Prêt-à-Porter) and David Fincher (Panic Room).

I wasn't inspired by the roles I was playing. I couldn't jump to the next level
Forest Whitaker

Yet the fallow period after The Last King of Scotland hit hard. It didn't help that as an occasional director, his last outing in the chair was 2004's presidential comedy First Daughter, and his creative juices were drying up. Looking back, "I didn't think I was growing", he recalls sombrely. "I wasn't inspired by the roles I was playing. I couldn't jump to the next level. I felt like I was going backwards, not forward, in my work. I wasn't getting better, I was getting worse."

Thankfully, the 52-year-old actor has found his mojo once more, largely thanks to The Butler. The latest film from Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy), it tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a character based on Eugene Allen, who served under eight presidents in the White House across 34 years. "I think it's some of the most specific work I've ever done in my career," says Whitaker, who got to play Gaines across six decades of his life.

"You see the transition of age and the difference and how the experiences have changed his life, where he carries his pain, how he starts to move differently, how he starts to behave. So I had to be very specific about all that, and make it come from an emotional place. If I'm physically moving differently, I needed to come from an emotional experience from my past. I let that shape my body. The way I grew older was shaped by my experiences in my life, so it was very specific."

Then there was the training to be a butler - a profession that's all about being specific. Whitaker invited a butler coach to stay at his house, and accompany him to the shoot in New Orleans. "I thought his philosophy was really interesting. I hadn't looked at service in the way that he did; the different ways of giving and giving with abundance - that was his motto. Never giving for equality, never giving to get something back, but to give, over and above, to bring joy … It was very powerful."

The story begins on the Georgia plantation where Gaines grows up, but it takes off when he wins a job in the White House, first serving under the Eisenhower administration (although in reality, Allen began at the tail end of the preceding Harry S. Truman's second term). As the presidents come and go, Gaines is a silent witness to some of the most momentous events in modern American history - from the Kennedy assassination to Vietnam and Watergate.

With a remarkable supporting cast - including Oprah Winfrey as Cecil's wife, Gloria, Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan - there was always a danger The Butler could've been a novelty, as a parade of "presidents" pass by on-screen. But what makes it so compelling is Gaines' relationship with his volatile son, Louis (David Oyelowo), who is out fighting for African-Americans in the civil rights movement - and Whitaker's towering portrayal of Cecil Gaines.

The Texas-born Whitaker, who was raised with his two brothers and sister in Los Angeles after his family moved there when he was an infant, had his own experience with civil rights. Living in the notorious South Central district Whitaker remembers the presence of militant action groups such as the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), famed for their kidnap of Patty Hearst.

He can still remember the SLA's building, behind his grandmother's apartment, after it burned down in a shoot-out. "I walked through the place afterwards and it was wrecked. I also remember it very clearly when they blew up the Black Panther office. I remember the guys, I remember them all. And I was a little kid - they used to pick me up and talk to me."

If anything, his experience planted the seeds of a social conscience in Whitaker, who would become a spokesperson for the Hope North Ugandan orphanage and Human Rights Watch.

Although his parents urged him to head for Yale University and become a doctor, Whitaker, who's blessed with a tenor voice, undertook a classical musical scholarship at the University of Southern California. Appearing in a production of The Beggar's Opera, he gained an agent and started to audition, but in those early years was paralysed by fear. "I was deeply insecure," he says. "I was scared I couldn't act at all." Only when he went to Cannes in 1988 with Bird did things change. "It was the first time people started recognising me as an artist," he says, "so that was important."

With his softly-softly voice, wide girth, "lazy eye" and contemplative look, Whitaker doesn't automatically strike you as leading man material. But he's always been capable of surprise, whether it's directing hit female-friendly films Waiting to Exhale and Hope Floats, or producing Fruitvale Station, a hard-hitting drama about real-life police brutality, which has been winning prizes since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival last year.

"I feel so fortunate to have Fruitvale Station and to have The Butler," says Whitaker, who has clearly been revitalised by the experiences. When we meet, he's just come off the New Mexico set of Enemy Way, the story of a Muslim ex-con who befriends his parole officer, co-starring Harvey Keitel. "I feel so strongly about the film," Whitaker says.

Other films in the can include South African cop drama Zulu, musical Black Nativity and the superlative small-town thriller Out of the Furnace, co-starring Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck. "It'll be one of those films that people talk about," Whitaker promises. He's even getting back into the filmmaking groove again, working on biopics of comedian Richard Pryor and musician Louis Armstrong.

While he grew up on Armstrong's tunes, Whitaker admits he doesn't listen to music as much as he used to. He looks a mite embarrassed. "My daughter was trying to figure it out - 'How can you not listen to music?' It's impossible to her … It is kind of weird. My daughter … she's like 'Do you have a soul?'"

If it went missing in action, he might just have found it again.

The Butler opens on Thursday