'The Butler' star Forest Whitaker talks Obama and Oprah

By Helen Barlow

In The Butler, Forest Whitaker plays a long-time member of the White House domestic staff. His Cecil Gaines starts out under Eisenhower and lives to see Obama in the Oval Office.

In real life, the Academy Award-winning actor has been in service of the present incumbent too. He just wasn't dishing him soup.

"I'm on the President's committee," the proud Obama supporter says. "I was one of his main surrogates, probably the first. I was the person they sent out to speak for him in the very beginning, two years before he was elected the first time."

Whitaker's been a president himself, winning a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin in 2006's, The Last King of Scotland. And it's likely Gaines will earn Whitaker another nomination.

Inspired by a 2008 Washington Post article and Wil Haygood's book, The Butler : A Witness to History, Lee Daniels' film follows the 34-year tenure of a black White House butler, loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen who died in 2010 at age 90. We watch as Cecil starts out under Eisenhower (Robin Williams), undergoes a transformation via the Civil Rights Movement at the time of Kennedy (James Marsden) and Johnson (Liev Schreiber) and retires just as Obama is elected President.

The Butler has been called an African-American Forrest Gump.

"I guess it's because he goes through so many time periods and it seems impossible that this man would have met so many different Presidents," says Whitaker. "Yet Eugene Allen worked under eight Presidents. Then after he'd retired he was invited by the current President to go to the inauguration, so he actually met Obama. His wife died the night before Obama was elected. They were campaigning for him all the way. Eugene went and voted the next day."

Daniels made a splash with 2009's Precious (two Oscars out of six nominations) which was executive produced by Oprah Winfrey. In The Butler he cast Winfrey as Gaines' wife.

The world's most famous talk show host delivers her most impressive performance to date (she received a 1986 supporting actress nomination for The Color Purple) and is likely to figure in 2014 awards.

How did it feel to have Oprah as a wife? "She and I have had a long relationship and had wanted to work together for a while," Whitaker replies. "She's so good in the movie, starting from the 30s through to when she has alcohol issues and deals with the death of her son. It's a very complicated performance. It's raw."

So which of the movie Presidents got his vote?

"I've worked with Robin Williams before and there was something poetic about Ike when he was painting. I had some really intimate moments with James Marsden's JFK. I had good connection because the Kennedys were so personal. When he died I had such a personal reaction to it in the movie. The scenes with Jackie with her not wanting to get out of her dress that was covered in blood were very painful. But somehow I developed an affinity with all of the Presidents and wanted to protect them."

As for his own career resurgence Whitaker says The Butler helped him figure out the next step and how to keep growing as an actor.

"There have been periods where maybe I wasn't as comfortable about the work I was doing and I just got reignited over the last couple years where I started to feel strong again. I think the Butler is a really special film where I did some of my strongest work."

Who: Forest Whitaker
What: The Butler
When: At cinemas now

- NZ Herald

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