08/12/2013 08:18 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2013

Forest Whitaker On 'Lee Daniels' The Butler': 'One Of The Most Difficult Roles I've Ever Played'


Oprah Winfrey has received the lion's share of buzz for her performance in "Lee Daniels' The Butler," but it's Forest Whitaker who holds the film together with understated and awards-caliber work as the film's title character.

Not that it was easy for Whitaker: "I was really scared," the 52-year-old actor, who won Best Actor at the 2007 Oscars for playing Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," told HuffPost Entertainment. To overcome that fear, Whitaker worked with a dramaturge to prepare for his role of Cecil Gaines*, a butler who was employed at the White House through eight presidential administrations, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. (The film, written by Danny Strong, is based on the life of Eugene Allen.)

Before the release of "The Butler," HuffPost Entertainment spoke to Whitaker about the difficulty of playing Cecil Gaines, why the film made him a better actor and what he thought of Winfrey's much-discussed performance.

Danny Strong spent four years researching the script, but you didn't have that luxury as an actor. What did you do to prepare?
I literally had all the history broken down, all the way through the movement -- from Birmingham to the Congress of Racial Equality to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the South Christian Leadership Conference to the Black Panthers. I studied it all, as well as the history of the White House, like Alonzo Fields, the butler who hired Eugene. I would chart what was going on at different ages for my character. Some of those historical events, I saw them impacting me physically, mentally and spiritually. So I would carry some of those with me. I would add them to the tapestry of trying to speak as the character. I did a great amount of research in that area.

Then I also had to do the work studying and understanding Cecil. The physical work of trying to understand how to age. There was a lot: I would put the history stuff and things Danny wrote in the script together and place those things inside of me -- in a physical point in my body -- so I would carry that with me. So that each time and age happened, I'd be carrying a different weight from the experiences in my life.

That's interesting, especially because Cecil is so internalized for much of the film. How much of a challenge did that aspect of the character pose for you?
I was really nervous that I wasn't going to be able to accomplish this. For me, this is the most specific work I've ever done, and possibly one of the most difficult roles I've ever played. Part of that is because of the silence. Part of that is because I needed to convey what I was thinking and feeling without doing anything or saying anything. Part of it is the complexities of the relationships with my alcoholic wife, all the presidents and my son. But honestly, I was grateful, because at that point I needed a challenge like this for myself as an artist. I needed to be afraid. Being afraid is good. I knew I was going into new territory. I thought maybe I'll expand myself.

Did you expand yourself?
I think I'm becoming a better actor. I feel like, because I had to learn all these different ways of working that if I played a really great role -- if I have one coming -- I'll be able to do something very special just based on this learning experience. [...] Maybe some people would think I'm crazy, but I just do all this stuff until, as Malcolm Galdwell would say, I get to a tipping point. At that tipping point, I fall, and then it's purely spiritual. I'm falling into the character and creating the person. All that other stuff serves to bring the character forward in me and outside of me.

With that level commitment required for a role, would you consider yourself picky about parts?
I think I've made some choices that maybe I wasn't so sure about for some reason or another. But I'm one of the lucky ones. Even when I was young, I played Bird, and that's a role people wait for for their whole lifetime. Even "The Crying Game" and obviously "Last King of Scotland" and "Ghost Dog." I've been fortunate.

How did winning an Oscar affect your career?
I think positively. Everybody wonders about roles, but the thing is that I was already playing really diverse characters. There was little difference, but it was a while before I could find something that I thought was really special. It affected me -- people know me more than they did, studios have different feelings as far as wanting to put me in their movies -- but it didn't really change the pursuit of what I'm doing in looking for my parts and my art. I don't think about it.

This is a different kind of movie for Lee Daniels. What was it about him that convinced you he could do a film like this?
I knew his other movies, so I thought it was great he was directing this because I knew the movie wouldn't fall into sentimentality. That's what I trusted. He was kind of pushing me to trust myself more. I was able to convey what I was thinking without doing that much. He said, "I'm telling you, Forest, we can see what you're feeling; we can feel what you're feeling." That was important. I trusted him when he would say, "Forest, give me 50 percent of that. Now give me 10 percent of that. Just throw it all away. Come on!" He's very alive and very present. At times, when he was directing, you would hear him laughing. Then you would go over at the end of the scene and he would be weeping. He was so present. It's a great thing to be with somebody who is so vested in things. He knew I was very meticulous about homework.

At a recent screening, Oprah said this film would be considered history -- that people will be watching this decades from now. Is that something you guys thought about while making it?
I try not to put much on it. That's not fair. I put a great deal on it, but it's all about trying to make something magical happen. So I will surrender myself to the project completely, but not with the expectation that it's going to live. We know now that all films are going to live forever [laughs].

The good ones and the bad ones!
They'll be around!

Oprah is really incredible in this movie. Did her performance surprise you?
I'm always surprised when an actor goes so deeply into the truth that they shake you to your core. That they force you to go deeper into the reality. I felt like Oprah did that on so many occasions. I don't know if I expected that -- I expected her to be good, but I don't know that I expected her to be so true that I would be searching to live in the same truth.

We had wanted to work together before. We had talked about doing "Fences" together at one point. We didn't end up doing that. She had been really supportive of me -- before the awards, when I first did "Last King of Scotland," she invited me and some friends over to her house because she liked the film. That's when I started to get to know her, but doing the movie, she really opened herself and she really seemed to trust me; I felt really confident with her as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

'Lee Daniels' The Butler' Premiere

*CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this post had the word dramaturge in quotation marks. This was because Whitaker used that specific term -- normally reserved for someone who helps develop the scripts of plays and musicals -- to explain his acting preparation for "Lee Daniels' The Butler." It was not an attempt to make the profession appear illegitimate.