Forest Whitaker may be the star of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, but he’s in illustrious company… In fact, so many famous faces crop up in this film that you’d be forgiven for overlooking appearances from the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Mariah Carey.
The 52-year-old actor plays presidential butler Cecil Gaines in a story based on the life of Eugene Allen, who served seven presidents during his 34 years working at the White House. And among the many stars on show, Whitaker says he developed a special bond with his on-screen wife, Oprah Winfrey, whose character Gloria is in turn based on Gaines’s real-life partner, Helene.
“Oprah wanted us to have a close, tight-knit relationship,” he explains, “so sometimes she would just be there in the make-up trailer, rubbing my shoulder or talking, we’d take walks to go to the set.
“And then she just committed emotionally in a raw way and exposed herself and walked through her fears – she was amazing.”
Allen passed away in 2011, never getting a chance to meet with the man who would bring his life to the silver screen, but what would Whitaker have wanted to know, given the chance?
“I think I would have asked him how difficult it was for him to balance his family and being in the White House because they had to spend so much time there. I’d have liked to understand how he did that and what it really made him feel inside – if it jeopardised any parts of his family and his home.”
The film, which opens in UK cinemas on Friday 15 November, moved current president, Barack Obama, to tears when he saw it during a special screening earlier this year.
“I was really moved to hear that because it means a lot,” says Whitaker. “He understands the history and the pressure and for him to say that… it’s pretty extraordinary for any president to comment on a film like that.”
Whitaker – who won an Oscar in 2006 for a magnificent turn as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland – recently revealed he turned down the chance to play Obama in My Name Is Khan. But would he be interested in starring as America’s first black president when he’s no longer in office?
“He deserves to be dealt with in film in the most pristine and perfect way,” Whitaker told RadioTimes.com, “but if it was the right opportunity and the right way of doing it and I didn’t feel that there was somebody else who could do it a lot better, then sure.”