History, and character, is served

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With respect to Ralph Ellison, Forest Whitaker plays an invisible man in the new movie "Lee Daniels' The Butler." Not a Hollywood ectoplasm, but a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibers and liquids. Nevertheless, his character, Cecil Gaines, White House butler to seven presidents, remains invisible. Not because, as a black man in pre-Civil Rights Washington, people refuse to see him, but because, as his mentor insists, a room should feel empty when he is in it. His job is: Serve, then recede into the sandstone.

Repeat, for decades.

Which — and this is typically where irony comes in, and it's explained how the actor who plays the character is impossible to miss as he walks into a room — is not especially ironic: The other day, as Whitaker sat in a booth at a Gold Coast restaurant eating breakfast and wearing a dark suit and dark-rimmed glasses, he was soft-spoken, polite and modest, not the brooding chameleon you might expect. Indeed, considering how well-known Whitaker is for transforming — for his Oscar-winning role as Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" (2006), for playing the troubled Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's "Bird" (1988), for imprinting himself on the brains of Generation X as Charles Jefferson, star football player eager to avenge a trashed Camaro in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982) — Whitaker himself is less of a leading man than the men he plays.

To play Gaines, for instance, Whitaker explained, his voice quiet, almost ethereal: "I was trying to grab something from my grandparents, a slouch, a way of being, so when I walk in certain scenes — and I realized this after watching the film — I am almost torqued. Because I would take moments from Cecil's life and deliver them to parts of my body, until slowly, as the film goes along, I'm carrying weights in physical places. Which I mean almost literally: the death of a son (in the film) goes to this part of my body, watching another son mistreated by police goes there, until over the years, I'm carrying a lot of hot spots of agony."

He paused for a long minute, then continued: "The bigger challenge — because Cecil doesn't speak a lot because he is in the business of service — the bigger challenge was making sure an audience knew how he felt. It's an active role internally. You're not seeing expression, but hopefully you get a sense of what's going on inside. I was nervous about it. Lee encouraged: 'Don't do much.' But I had no idea if I was coming across."

Lee Daniels, the filmmaker, himself in a dark suit, slipped sleepily into a seat across from Whitaker.

"Just talking about Lee the Magnificent," Whitaker said.

"Who?" Daniels asked.

"Lee the Magnificent!"

"Oh," Daniels said, rubbing his eyes, tired.

Whitaker laughed and returned to his knack for not standing out. "Basically I worked with a movement coach on how to not look visible," he said, then hopped in his seat, remembering something: "When I was a kid, my parents took me and my brother to see 'Fritz the Cat' at a drive-in. You've seen it? Animated? Racy? It would come to certain scenes and me and my brother would just sit there, like rocks — so quiet!" His face drained of all expression. Never mind a thousand-yard stare; Whitaker now imitated a billion-yard stare.

Daniels erupted in laughs.

"Yeah!" Whitaker said. "Yeah! Like, get quiet enough, you too can be invisible!"

Daniels laughed louder: "Didn't they know that movie!?"

"No! No!" Whitaker said. "Thought it was a cartoon!"

Daniels convulsed in laughs.

A table behind us turned and shot a cold glare. Daniels shouted for coffee. The table looked up again, wary. Whitaker realized Daniels was asking for coffee because Whitaker had accidentally taken his cup, and said:

"I took your coffee, man!"

"No! No!"

"Yes, yes, I didn't think you wanted that coffee, man!"

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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