Interview: Forest Whitaker - The star of The Butler refused an offer to play President Obama

The actor is part of the US President's Committee for Arts and Humanities

In The Butler, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a character loosely based on Eugene Allen, a butler who served at the White House from 1952 until 1986. The name change is down to director Lee Daniels taking liberties with dates, and giving his butler a torrid domestic life – a murdered father, an alcoholic wife and a son at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement.

The fact that Whitaker is no stranger to the White House demonstrates just how much times have changed from the era depicted in the film. "I was on the Urban Policy Committee for the current President at the beginning of his first term," says the 52-year-old. "I'm now on the President's Committee for Arts and Humanities. I'm not policy making, but I'm interested in political engagement. I have a foundation called PeaceEarth and we are currently working in the Sudan, where we are training youths in conflict resolution and peace. We are about to start work in Mexico." Whitaker is also the Unesco ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation.

While many claim that President Obama hasn't lived up to the heightened expectations that came with his election as the 44th President of the United States, Whitaker remains firmly behind his man. "I support the President. I think the landscape of the country is so vast; there are so many areas to deal with."

Moreover, Whitaker reveals that he's already been asked to play the first black president in a film. "I was asked if I would play President Obama in My Name is Khan. I didn't feel comfortable with doing it. Partly because he was still in office, but mainly because I felt that there were other people who were better suited to doing the role." Karan Johar went on to cast The First Family star Christopher B Duncan in the role, but the actor Whitaker would like to see play Obama is "Will Smith; I think he would be really interesting."

One of the joys of The Butler is seeing various actors essaying White House incumbents. Daniels has made some interesting and counterintuitive choices. Robin Williams plays a contemplative Eisenhower, James Marsden is Kennedy, Liev Schreiber essays Johnson, John Cusack is a deranged Nixon – and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda mimic Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Whitaker is almost apologetic when he talks about Kennedy, the President in the film he most admires. "I think that Kennedy was a really interesting figure. I know he is the darling of everybody – but I didn't know about all the things he said, and now I find myself quoting him quite often."

The actor tried to speak to staff working in the White House to prepare for the role, but says that he met with limited success. "It's very difficult when you're dealing with butler staff, because they are the ones who have the most intimate knowledge of what is going on. They are really a secretive society. They know what's going on better than any of the secretaries. They would know if the President spanked his kids or not. I was able to get some people to help me out and talk to me."

The upstairs/downstairs set-up has some kinship with British period dramas. "It's kind of like that. I like them. I can't say I follow it, but I've watched Downton Abbey a couple of times and loved it."

There is one conversation in The Butler in which the status of Sidney Poitier is deconstructed. Was he a trailblazer or an Uncle Tom? Whitaker's own view is that, "Poitier opened the doors to so many artists, not just black artists. There is a line that goes from black to Latin to Asian with regards to roles."

Brace yourself: Whitaker with Oprah Winfrey in ‘The Butler’ Brace yourself: Whitaker with Oprah Winfrey in ‘The Butler’ Whitaker has been a trailblazer himself. His parents (his father was an insurance salesman and his mother a special-education teacher) moved to South Central LA when he was four, just before the Watts Riots. He went to college on a sports scholarship. He is a big man, both in height and width, and it takes little to imagine him terrorising opponents on a football field. It was these attributes that served him well when he gave an Oscar-winning performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Yet he speaks so serenely and calmly that it's no surprise to learn that he came to film through music: he played the trumpet and trombone before singing in musicals at high school. This led to him appearing in a stage adaptation of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood – after which, he knew that acting was his game.

Despite appearing in Amy Heckerling's much-loved Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money, his initial years in film were a slog. Roles in the Vietnam movies Platoon and Good Morning, Vietnam would provide his breakthrough. Then, in 1988, came the role that would combine his love of music and acting: playing Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's Bird, for which he won the Best Actor prize at Cannes. The notable turns – The Crying Game, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Panic Room – kept coming, before he became only the fourth African-American to pick up an acting Oscar in 2007.

Whitaker also has a successful career as a producer. His name appears on the credits of the critically acclaimed Sundance hit Fruitvale Station, a drama based on the death of Oscar Grant III, who was fatally shot by a policeman in San Francisco while out celebrating the New Year in 2009.

"With regard to Fruitvale Station, I believe that character can exist in any city with different cultures and social groups. I care about it because it's a personal story for me, but we could just as easily be talking about Algerians in France. If there is inequality and that equates with colour, then I'm going to deal with it."

Whitaker will next be seen playing a reverend in Kasi Lemmons' Black Nativity, based on the libretto by Langston Hughes. Following that, he plays a detective in the South African post-apartheid thriller Zulu and appears alongside Christian Bale and Casey Affleck in Scott Cooper's thriller Out of the Furnace.

"The theme of inequity, the theme of racial equality, the theme of economic inequality are things that interest me when choosing characters," says Whitaker. "It's important to me because I care about humanity and connecting with humanity."

It's been almost a decade since Whitaker worked as a director. The three films he has helmed – Waiting to Exhale, Hope Floats and First Daughter – have all been female-led. Next year, he tells me, he'd like to go behind the camera again. He's developing two biopics of iconic black figures: Richard Pryor and Louis Armstrong. On Pryor, he says, "Ever since I was a kid, I've been enamoured by his humour and politics. I have his diary. He kept a diary about a lot of stuff and his wife brought it to us."

Nonetheless, he admits that it's a third film about child soldiers in Uganda that is most likely to get made. "I've been working on Better Angels for a couple of years and maybe that's the one that I'll end up doing, because it's small and has an intimate, tiny crew."

'The Butler' is released on 15 November; 'Black Nativity' is released on 6 December



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss