History, and character, is served

Daniels waved him off and sipped his new, just-arrived coffee. Whitaker passed him a napkin.

"Thank you, Cecil," Daniels said.

"He sees me," said Whitaker, brushing off the jibe, "and it just kicks in."

OK, here's where the irony comes in: Though Whitaker has the title role in "Lee Daniels' The Butler," Daniels — whose name is in the title (partly to avoid a lawsuit with the copyright-holders of a 1916 silent film, "The Butler"), and who spends every day of production on his movies wearing pajamas (including on "Precious," for which he received an Oscar nomination for best director) — is the more outsized figure here. And even Daniels is nowhere near as prominent as Whitaker's co-star in "Lee Daniels' The Butler." Indeed, Oprah Winfrey, who plays Gloria, Gaines' discontented and long-suffering alcoholic wife, seems to receive not only equal billing in the movie's marketing but nearly as much screen time as Whitaker.

"That's not really true," Daniels said when it was suggested that Winfrey — who served as a producer on "Precious" and is in her first movie role since 1998's "Beloved" — gets more close-ups than Whitaker.

He leaned in to make a point: "No, here's what you're seeing: Where Gloria is very, you know, forward, Cecil is not. They are yin and yang. Subliminally, you are imagining Oprah has more close-ups than Forest, I think. You are watching Oprah Winfrey and maybe you can't believe she made this transformation? That's what's going on? Her residue, because she is Oprah, has remained with you, maybe."

Maybe.

To be fair, any remotely receding actor would become invisible in a cast this Oscar-y: John Cusack is Nixon! James Marsden is JFK!! Robin Williams is Eisenhower!!! Alan Rickman is Reagan!!!! Jane Fonda is Nancy Reagan!!!!! Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr. are White House butlers!!!!!! (So overstuffed is this cast that Melissa Leo, as Mamie Eisenhower, was cut from the final film.) As you might assume, there's a lot of acting involved here: Winfrey, for instance, must pretend as though she has never visited the White House.

"To be honest with you," Whitaker said, "I never thought of Oprah as Oprah during filming. She is a large presence, yes, but I didn't think of her that way. I just thought of the scenes we had together, and Oprah was totally in character during most of those scenes. She was so present, and any time I get to stay in character, that's good. Because a lot of actors take you out of character during filming, so then you have to re-enter that space again when you resume shooting. But with Oprah, the truth was just happening and —"

"It was startling!" Daniels said.

"It was startling!" Whitaker said. "I would be forced to do something with her that wasn't in the script, and she was with me the whole time. Oprah plays an alcoholic, and there's a scene where she's got all these emotions and I was trying to figure out: What do I do with Oprah here? What do I do? Do I help Oprah, playing someone drunk, over to the couch? Or do I carry Oprah there? What do I do with Oprah? I didn't know what to do with Oprah! Which is what happens when another actor keeps you in character. The scene where we see the two of—"

"The two of them just sitting down after (a death in the film)," Daniels said. "Getting to that point was …"

"Incredible! These men come to the door (in the film) and tell us what happened," Whitaker explained, "and when we shot that, Oprah wailed. She let out this scream, fell to the floor. It was an overwhelming moment, and it's not in the film. I think Oprah was nervous about the role. I would be nervous after not being in movies for so long and then you find yourself in a role that intense. But I got to be honest: I know Oprah is across from me, and I'm not saying she stops being Oprah. She is a very powerful, very impressive person. But I am focused when I am working and I am staying close my character, and as a result, I feel somewhat shielded from the concerns that someone else might have. Oprah is right over there, yes, but I live to serve the role."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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