When Details met with Forest Whitaker, the 52-year-old actor was as sedate and soft-spoken as his on-screen character, Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels' The Butler (out August 16). The film is based on the real-life tale of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who played silent witness through the terms of five American presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan. For Gaines, that persona was a way to quietly subvert the on-the-job inequality. For Whitaker, it seems to be a way of life, reflected in how he eats, stays fit, views the world, and, yes, chats with interviewers.
The Butler might just be the most important film of Whitaker's career, and moreover, it may put him back in the Oscars race. Already a Best Actor winner for 2007's The Last King of Scotland, Whitaker shared what it would mean to be nominated again, who he thinks he might be up against, how the film's themes relate to his own life, and the designers he'd turn to when it comes time to swap out the butler duds for a red-carpet-worthy suit.
DETAILS: The script for this movie struck some deep and resonant chords for everyone involved. In regards to civil rights, is there something specific you can share about your own family's history that was stirred up by the material?
FOREST WHITAKER: [My family] originally came from Longview, Texas, and moved to South Central L.A. Pretty much every morning when I'd walk to school, the [Black] Panther party would be there on the corner. They'd invite me and my sister to their breakfast program, and they'd pick us up and ask about us. That's one of the earlier touches that I remember about some of the things that were going on with the civil-rights movement, but there were many.
DETAILS: You've already won an Oscar, in 2007 for your role in The Last King of Scotland, and this role in The Butler looks like it might just put you in the running again. What would it mean for you to be nominated twice, specifically for this film?
FOREST WHITAKER: I don't know what's going to happen with that, and I try not to project much, but obviously, if my peers acknowledge me, it means a lot. And I worked really hard on this part. It was one of the more difficult roles I've ever played, so of course I'd be really appreciative if people care enough about the part to feel that it's worth [an Oscar]. But I'm sure there are a bunch of amazing roles that'll be coming out this year, and I'm excited to see them.
DETAILS: Are there any you've seen, or want to see, that seem like Oscar contenders?
FOREST WHITAKER: I'm curious to see what [director] Steve McQueen has done with 12 Years a Slave. I've always liked Matt Damon, and he seems to have some good things coming out. I'd love to see Mandela [Long Walk to Freedom]. And I've heard that Leo did an amazing job in The Wolf of Wall Street.
DETAILS: Lee Daniels has said in the past, specifically about Precious, that it was the kind of film you could feel on set that it might have some awards potential. Did you get the sense when you were making The Butler that it could achieve something similar?
FOREST WHITAKER: I don't know. I was kind of frightened of the part, so I was just trying to meet the demands of the character. Most of the time, I was working 18 to 20 hours a day, because in one day, I'd play, like, three different ages. I'd be 90, and then I'd be 40, and then I'd be 30. So I was just trying to keep on track and make sure I didn't miss a beat. So, I gotta be honest—I wasn't thinking about any of that. I was swallowed up by the part.
DETAILS: Your character, Cecil, hangs on to JFK's tie and LBJ's tie clip. Did you happen to keep those props? Maybe you could wear them to the Oscars.
FOREST WHITAKER: [Laughs] I didn't get to keep those! Lee is really conscious of those kind of historical mementos and auctionable items. At one point he said, "Where's the jumpsuit?" Because there's that jumpsuit that I wear [in a disco scene with Oprah], and I thought it would make a great Halloween costume. And he said, "Oh no, you're not getting that!" [Laughs]
DETAILS: When it comes to clothes, do you have a favorite suit-maker or a go-to designer?
FOREST WHITAKER: At most of the big events in the past, I was wearing either Domenico [Vacca] or [Hugo] Boss. And I do like Prada, but there are a lot of big people I like. I hate to single anyone out. And this is Details? Oh, man. I probably shouldn't have said anybody!
DETAILS: You'll be fine. It's been written that in college you had a variety of interests, including football and music. What do you think you'd be doing today if the acting thing hadn't worked out?
FOREST WHITAKER: I'd probably be teaching, like my mom. On my mom's side and my dad's side, people are either teachers or preachers, so I guess I would have followed one of those two professions.
DETAILS: One of the films you're best known for, especially in cult circles, is Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai. You even have a black belt in Kenpo. Do you still practice it?
FOREST WHITAKER: I haven't practiced or trained in about two years, but I'm just about to start training again. I do like martial arts. But I prefer Kali, which is my first martial-arts style. It's a Filipino martial art. I was doing it up until a couple of years ago, but I stopped because I've been so busy. When I get back home, I'll start working with my trainer again.
DETAILS: I understand you're also a vegetarian and a PETA supporter. Would you say you follow a vegetarian diet for health reasons or political reasons?
FOREST WHITAKER: My 15-year-old daughter is a vegetarian too, so we made that choice together. When I first started, it was about health, but at this point in my life, it's about not causing pain. I have no interest in causing pain if I have no need to. I have no interest in killing something. I'm not somebody who goes around preaching about it. I come from Texas, so I don't have a problem with anybody eating whatever they want. But for myself, I made that decision. And now, in my family, it's not very uncommon. My son is a vegan, my mom and dad are vegetarians now, and my brother and sister are vegetarians.
DETAILS: As a performer, as a father, as a filmmaker, and as an American, what are the main things you hope people will take away from this movie?
FOREST WHITAKER: I'm hoping they'll have a deeper sense of wanting to achieve a good life, with love. I'm hoping that people will see that they cannot stand idly by or live in a world of gradualness. That they have to be able to stand up for what they believe in, and that when they see social injustices, or anything of that nature, that they need to make their voices heard. In whatever way that may be.
—R. Kurt Osenlund is an arts and entertainment writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him at @AddisonDeTwitt.
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