Lee Daniels' The Butler boasts one of 2013's starriest acting lineups, stacked with Academy Award winners, cultural icons and rising stars. For Daniels, casting was a key marketing tool for a movie based on the true story of an African-American butler serving eight U.S. presidents — Harry Truman isn't depicted — during the civil rights era.
"Anything to put people into the seats, to tell them this history lesson, and American history to me is the civil rights movement," Daniels said during a telephone interview from Atlanta.
"I made a very distinct choice when I was starting to cast this: Do I go completely with unknowns to play these roles, or do I go into the hearts of America where people know these (actors), in Oklahoma and Idaho, in Nebraska where people identify with them?"
The decision to bank on big names was obvious.
"I wanted to do everything I could to ring the bell as loud as I could," Daniels said. "If it meant putting my mother in there playing Nancy Reagan I would've done it."
Aside from Oscar winner Forest Whitaker in the title role and Oprah Winfrey as his wife, the most celebrated actors — and their renowned characters — make only brief appearances in The Butler.
Makeup effects turn Liev Schreiber into a convincing President Lyndon B. Johnson, and James Marsden's Camelot handsomeness works for John F. Kennedy. Daniels discussed eight other castings, and the challenge of hiring famous stars to play even more famous people.
"What I enjoy doing is getting to un-know you," he said. "In other words, getting the audience to change their perception of who they think this famous person is."
Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey as Cecil and Gloria Gaines
In reality, the White House servant in question was named Eugene Allen, and his wife Helene. Screenwriter Danny Strong made the roles composites of Allen's family and others, including his own. "They represent two strong American citizens that individually have experienced the civil rights movement," Daniels said of Whitaker and Winfrey. "They were able to bring light from their own personal experiences and help paint the tapestry of what I was trying to get across. They lived it, as have I."
Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Not the only president Williams has played (he was Teddy Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum movies) but the first serious one. Daniels believes viewers can suspend their memories of Mork and the comedian's manic improv on talk shows. "Casting Robin is as dangerous as casting Oprah because they're so well-known and embedded into our heads," Daniels said. "How do we together as a team, an actor and a director, how do we change your perception? Hopefully I've done that."
Alan Rickman as President Ronald Reagan
The idea of casting Severus Snape from the Harry Potter saga, and the Die Hard franchise's best villain ever, as Reagan hasn't raised doubts in online chatter. Some have wondered why an Englishman is playing a beloved U.S. president. Did Daniels have any qualms about hiring Rickman to portray the Gipper? "No more than Ronald did when he was playing an Englishman in a movie in the 1950s," he said.
Jane Fonda as first lady Nancy Reagan
"That was a tricky one," Daniels conceded, since Fonda's "Hanoi Jane" image still offends some remembering her antiwar stance during the Vietnam era. "I was not going to cast Jane because of that (possible scrutiny). That was the one (casting) when I felt I was pushing the button. But then I realized: What are we talking about? Jane's an actor. She looks like this character, she is this character. Her political beliefs may be different, but she's an actor at the end of the day."
John Cusack as President Richard Nixon
Probably the longest stretch on the casting call sheet. Cusack looks nothing like Nixon and doesn't cake on makeup or adopt familiar poses to change that. "Look, we know who Nixon is," he said. "We've seen him portrayed beautifully by Sir Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella and so on. For me, it wasn't about doing 'Tricky Dick' but capturing just a moment, a nuance of who this man was, the complicatedness of him."
Nelsan Ellis as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Daniels stifled a laugh when asked about casting Ellis in a role so different from the one that made him famous on HBO. "Fans of True Blood will be able to see this very flamboyant homosexual ... playing this icon, Dr. King," Daniels said. "Again, it's to un-know who you know."
Minka Kelly as first lady Jackie Kennedy
Known better for being New York Yankees star Derek Jeter's ex-girlfriend than for her acting, Kelly didn't even have that connection going for her during auditions. "I'm not a sports fan," Daniels said. "I don't know who Derek Jeter is." Kelly's performances on TV's Friday Night Lights and Parenthood also escaped the filmmakers. "Minka was the first lady who came in to meet with me for the role and she won my heart."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.