Lenny Kravitz talks Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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Lenny Kravitz talks Lee Daniels’ The Butler
By Wilson Morales

August 13, 2013

Coming out on August 16th is Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film traces the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond, and how those changes affected this man’s life and family. Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker stars as the butler. The film is loosely based on Eugene Allen’s life.

The film is filled with an all-star cast that includes Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, Melissa Leo, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, Colman Domingo, Michael Rainey Jr., David Banner, and Pernell Walker.

For Kravitz, who plays a butler in the film, this is his second collaboration with Daniels. The New York native made his feature film acting debut in Daniels’ 2009 Oscar nominated film ‘Precious.’ Since then he’s gained more film exposure playing Cinna in the blockbuster franchise ‘The Hunger Games’ and its upcoming sequel ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.’

In speaking with Blackfilm.com, Kravitz talks about his role, working with Daniels, and a new respect for butlers.

How would you best describe James Halloway?

Lenny Kravitz: He’s sort of a middle-of-the-road cat. He’s cool. He’s smart. He knows how to maneuver within the politics that are around him. He’s not afraid to speak up. When Nixon asks him what can he do for him and the other butlers, he opens his mouth and talks about how they don’t get paid on the same scale and so forth. That’s the kind of guy he is.

Is this a role that you did research on?

LK: Luckily we had a gentleman there who ran the men at the White House. In the beginning when we first got to New Orleans, we got with him and he would tell us how things were done and the protocol and the etiquette. When we were on set, he would come and tell us that the way we are serving or walking is not authentic and he would tell us and Lee and show us the correct way.

This is your second film with Lee Daniels. Have you seen any changes in his directing style?

LK: In working with him, his style is the same. He knows what he’s looking for. He definitely has a vision; and at the same time he’s not afraid to rip up a scene right before you are doing it and say, “I don’t like this. Let’s make it up.” He will make it up or ask us to improv or whatever. That whole scene in ‘Precious’ where I’m in the hospital room with the girls and that whole banter, that was all improv. He tore up the scene right before and told us to make it up.

Can you talk about working with Forest Whitaker and Cuba Gooding Jr.? And what you learned from two Oscar winners?

LK: My first day on the set was with Forest and Cuba and we’re playing cards and I’m smoking cigarettes. Oprah is there and the wives are there and I was like, “Wow!” I had just got off the plane from Paris and it was a 12 hour flight and “Bam!” I was right into the set. They are so natural and so good; it brings your game up. It sets the tone. I just dropped right in to the place where they were. Just watching Forest and Cuba, and they’re both such professionals. The beautiful things are that they are so humble. They are really regular guys. They have become friends.

How do you describe this film to others? There are so many themes covered in here, from father-son, husband-wife, and right-wrong.

LK: It’s all of that. I describe it as a journey of one man and a journey of African American history, and a journal of political change. That’s the beauty of it. You have the story of one guy, who comes from the fields to the White House, and his whole journey in getting there. You have the evolution, the time, which is moving on, the son is born. The son is a different time, different vibe. They then split because of two different views. He views the father as an Uncle Tom, sell out for a moment. You have this bug story of African American history and civil rights and change, and then you have a personal story and how they deal with change, how they view each other and how that all works.

Did you give yourself a back-story to James?

LK: Lee and I discussed that before we started. There’s not a lot of meat in the sense that don’t know his personal life. He’s there and you get a vibe of him, but that James was slick, knew how to smile and knew how to maneuver, but at the same time he was outspoken and a little uppity. Not a bad way, but when they are in the locker room, he keeps talking about how ignorant they are because they (Cuba’s character) doesn’t know things, and he’s well read and knows all the music. He also prides himself in being informed.

Do you have a new-found respect for butlers?

LK: Yeah. Actually, when I went to the White House to see President Obama and now I look at these guys in a different way. I used to go to the White House to see Bill Clinton and at one point I got to go into the kitchen and other places and see what’s going on; but now that I have this whole experience from playing the role of a butler, I look at the guys and I understand.

You have ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ coming out later this year. What’s like to come back and play Cinna?

LK: The whole Cinna thing is very interesting. I didn’t know anything about ‘Hunger Games’ when I signed on and then I read the book when I got offered the part. I taught the book was great and decided to do the movie but I still didn’t understand the phenomenon around it and how kids were invested in it. One time we were filming, and the movie wasn’t even out yet, kids were at the hotel waiting and following us with posters and books. This whole Cinna has certainly been interesting. I walk around the streets and people call me Cinna. It’s been a great experience doing this film and being part of the franchise.

What do you want to do next?

LK: I just want to do good stories. I started out this way purposely. Humbly taking on supporting roles, to learn, and give it the respect it deserves. I feel I’m ready now to take on characters that you get to see really developed into their personality and so forth.

What’s next in the music world?

LK: I have a new album coming up in the spring. I’m just finishing it now. I’m very excited for the new music. It’s a bit more of a rock album. The last one had rock but was more of a funk, r & b, inspired album. This one is more rock.

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