Fifteen years had passed since Oprah Winfrey had walked onto a movie set as Sethe, the ex-slave who becomes haunted by her daughter’s ghost in “Beloved.” So when she got to New Orleans for shooting on “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” last summer, it was challenging enough to tap back into those acting instincts. But doing it opposite an Academy Award winner was another matter entirely.
Winfrey decided to get crafty.
“I worked on being close because Forest, he’s an Oscar winner, and that’s a little intimidating,” the OWN network boss playfully told MTV News about Forest Whitaker, the titular butler and her onscreen husband. “I did not want to appear on the set with an Oscar winner for the first time, have to get into bed with him and you know, [say to him], ‘Good Morning!’ [makes awkward handshake motion], how are you? Let’s climb into bed.’ So I actively worked at trying to establish some camaraderie through touch.”
In the film opening Friday (August 16), Winfrey plays Gloria to Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who dutifully serves seven presidential administrations between 1957 and 1986, from Eisenhower to Reagan. And while Gaines hopes the job will help shield his wife and two sons from an increasingly violent Civil Rights-era America, racism seeps in through the crevices. Cecil’s demanding work for the various First Families also keeps him away from his own fracturing family.
Still, the actress told us she wanted to be sure the love between the spouses was palpable. With Whitaker hitting the makeup trailer each morning during the 41-day shoot, Ms. O took to channeling Mrs. Gaines — even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
“I would just go over and rub his shoulders, or I’d wait for him outside the trailer,” Winfrey explained of getting into character. “Sometimes I’d just be standing there — in the heat [thinking], ‘It sure is taking him a long time,’ ” she joked. “I’d be standing there and he’d say, ‘What are ya doin?’, ” imitating a slightly confused Whitaker. “And I’d say, ‘I’m just waiting on you to walk to the set,’ and I’d take his hand.”
For Whitaker, those first few early-morning visits from his leading lady, who happens to be one of the most influential public figures, took some adjusting to.
“I guess it was out of body, she’s such an immense figure, a world figure,” the soft-spoken actor explained with a smile. “[But] you know, I think when we were working on the scenes, I’m not really thinking about it. I’m so occupied with me and her becoming closer.”
All those off-screen walks and back rubs from the “so generous” talk show empress paid off for the film. In one particularly poignant scene, Gloria comes to her husband’s defense when their eldest son accuses the devoted butler of being an Uncle Tom. It’s a powerful moment, and the chemistry between the two leads bolsters it.
“There’s a connection that built up, that deepened our friendship from before but, like, gave us a trust, an ability to feel comfortable even touching each other,” Whitaker affirmed. “I think that was crucial, ’cause the movie’s a lot about love.