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