Lee Daniels' THE BUTLER movie poster | ©2013 The Weinstein Company

Lee Daniels' THE BUTLER movie poster | ©2013 The Weinstein Company

Chances are excellent that you’ve seen James DuMont in something, or even many things. The actor, who was born in Chicago and raised both there and in New York City, has credits that include SPEED, LOIS & CLARK, PRIMARY COLORS, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, SEABISCUIT and MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE.

At present, DuMontcan be seen on the big screen as Sherman Adams in LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER. The title character Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, is fictional, loosely based on real White House butler Eugene Allen; Cecil’s wife Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey, one of THE BUTLER’s executive producers, is likewise a creation of screenwriter Danny Strong.  DuMont’s Adams, however, is a real historical figure. He was Chief of Staff to U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, played in THE BUTLER by Robin Williams. Adams had such power during Eisenhower’s presidency that, as a joke reported on Wikipedia goes, if one man said, “What if Eisenhower dies and Vice-President Nixon starts running the country?” another replied, “What if Adams dies and Eisenhower starts running the country?”

In a telephone interview, DuMont says he’s aware of that joke. “Absolutely. That’s how powerful he was.”

ASSIGNMENT X: How did you become involved with THE BUTLER?

DuMONT: Initially, I’d been on a series called TREME on HBO for the last four seasons, so I was down in New Orleans; awhile back, I was down there when they were auditioning for THE PAPERBOY [directed by THE BUTLER’s Daniels]  So I went in for a role in THE PAPERBOY, and I was the second choice for one of the larger roles. Then last summer, around this time, around August, I heard THE BUTLER was [casting] in New Orleans and Lee Daniels was [directing] it. So I went in and auditioned, and when I walked into the room, Lee Daniels’ sister, who’s a casting director, and Megan Lewis, who’s a local casting director [said], “James was in here for THE PAPERBOY, he was your second choice.” And [Daniels] he says, “Oh, yeah, I remember you!” And this time, I was bold. I said, “Maybe this time around, I’ll be the first choice.” And he goes, “I certainly hope so.” And we just started working on the scene and one thing led to another, and he said, “Look, I don’t make any promises, because there are a lot of big stars in this movie.” I said, “Even more reason to put me in. With Oprah, I think you’re kind of done, aren’t you?” [laughs] Because I’d heard all these movie stars were signed up for the project, so I figured even more reason to put a non-name in the movie. “You’ve got all the names you need for the marquee.” It has more Oscar winners than any other movie that I’m aware of. This time around, because I put so much in my PAPERBOY audition that I was surprised that I didn’t get it, this time around, I didn’t want to have anything prohibit me from getting the best opportunity and doing my work.

AX: Did you do any research into Sherman Adams?

DuMONT: Absolutely. The minute I got the role, I just started going online to documentary stuff that I’d seen on YouTube. I went to Wikipedia and I found out … Eisenhower was very pensive about making the decision to send in the 101st Airborne [during World War Two], and Sherman Adams was very influential in pushing him in that direction. So he really was like Cheney to Bush, very influential in terms of, “We really need to do this and make this decision.” He set a precedent down there in the South that Federal law trumps Southern law. I think his [political undoing] came when he received a fur coat that from someone he shouldn’t have received it from and gave it to his wife, which I felt was an interesting little thing. He had such a higher moral standard and then he had to get [undone] by a bribe over a fur coat for his wife, something kind of wonderfully human and flawed that way.

I find it interesting how the person who’s not necessarily in the public eye, the guy behind the scenes, can sometimes be the most powerful. I remember when my dad was in sales and he would say, “I’m going to go into this room” – I worked with him on a sales call, he was a photographer and he would sell identification [photos], and he said, “The guy that speaks the least in the room is probably the guy who’s the most powerful.”

Robin Williams and I created some stuff that Lee wanted us to do. “We got what we want, so why don’t you guys just go?” And I’m like, “Wait a minute, you’re telling me I’ve got free license to improv with Robin Williams?” [laughs] So we improv[is]ed this whole set-up scene where a little piece of it was still in the movie, but I think that the piece of information that was most telling to me was what he says with his eyes, and those two words that he chooses.

AX: How was it improvising with Robin Williams, especially when it’s not supposed to be particularly funny?

DuMONT: No. But you go, “Lee?” “Yes. I just said that you can improv with Robin Williams” was what he screamed out from behind the monitor, in his most lovely way. “Yes, I’m letting you guys play.” Every time I do a project, I come to play. And “come to play” means I know his lines, I know my lines, I’m aware of the whole scene, but now let’s just kind of see where this takes us. The main thing we worked on was one particular scene. [Eisenhower] was asking questions of Forest’s character, looking for help to make a decision. So I kept pushing him. “Sir, we need to really move here, we need to do this [send in the 101st Airborne]. It was beautiful and freeing, and we both had a great time. We were like, “We’ll see how much of this stays in,” and not much of it did, but that’s one of the things I love about Lee, is that he is a beautifully creative director., and I also think there were other scenes in the movie that I don’t remember from Danny Strong’s script, which is fantastic.

AX: Have you seen THE BUTLER more than once?

DuMONT: I’ve seen it five times. I brought my daughter to this movie, because she knows nothing about the historical context of the twentieth century as this amazing time in civil rights. And then there’s this father and son kind of love story here, so I brought my nine-year-old son, even though it’s PG-13. Mostly because on the playground, the n-word just started showing up, and there’s no historical context [for white schoolchildren] of what it means. I wanted him to have a historical context for what it means when it’s said or spoken, and how there’s never a need for you to ever have to speak it. He’s young, but I wanted him to see what people went through. And there are amazing scenes in this movie that cut back and forth. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but it’s probably the most powerful cuts and edits and flow to the movie that I’ve ever seen. And it has nothing to do with me being in it. Each time I’ve seen the movie, there are more and more nuances and performances that I find. Forest Whitaker, Robin Williams, Oprah and David [Oyelowo], who plays their older son, the work is just phenomenal, but I think direction-wise, the tone of it, the generations of African-American history and those who were fighting for civil rights – there are many stories going on, but there’s a great job of cutting from archival footage to created footage, and those are some of the most powerful moments in the movie for me.

AX: How was working with Forest Whitaker?

DuMONT: He’s fantastic. He and I have a mutual friend – I went to college with Michael Chiklis from THE SHIELD. I told Michael that I got the job and Michael was, “Say hi.” He and Forest have produced stuff together and worked on THE SHIELD [together] and so I said [to Whitaker], “I’d be remiss not to say hi from Michael Chiklis, I went to college with him.” Forest and I just started talking about kids and family. They talk about Forest Whitaker losing weight and aging sixty years [in THE BUTLER]. I mean, it’s just a phenomenal performance. But he is in person just warm and gentle, sincere and kind of shy.

AX: You’re also in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB …

DuMONT: DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is – that’s another movie that will be a huge Oscar contender, as a film, the director Jean-Marc Vallee, who’s brilliant and a phenomenal director, and Matthew McConaughey I think is going to go toe to toe with Forest. And the big surprise that I’ll tell you is, Jared Leto. I play his estranged father. And the scene between he and I will probably be the scene they will use to get him an Oscar nomination. [Leto’s character] has not had any operations; he does have the desire to be a woman and works in that direction, but he ends up having AIDS, and so does Matthew McConaughey[‘s character, the real-life figure Ron Woodruff], who’s also homophobic, which is another human flaw, a womanizing rodeo gambler, and then he creates his own AIDS cocktail and ends up fighting the FDA [to move] things forward. It’s an amazing story.

AX: You’re also in the new home video release ROCK JOCKS …

DuMONT: That’s just a fun movie. There are all these references to STAR WARS and STAR TREK that only really big, good geeks are going to get. That came my way because the producer Sheri Bryant and I had been working on this other movie together for years that we still have not got off the ground. She said, “Hey, do you want to do this thing? You get to play the douchebag boss.” “Yes, I’m in!” [laughs] I’d been doing so many dramas lately and this was a comedy. I welcomed the opportunity to do it.

AX: Who do you play on TREME?

DuMONT: TREME, I played Captain Richard LaFouchette. He is the sheriff’s captain of the OPP, and over the last three seasons and now we do a half-season that we call “three-point-five,” all my scenes have been with Melissa Leo, who won the Oscar for THE FIGHTER and was Oscar-nominated for FROZEN RIVER. So she is a lawyer, a public defender, who goes after the cops periodically for brutality and illegal activity, so I’m actually a person who she turns to for inside help and information in regards to anything that happens at the Orleans Parish Precinct. Unfortunately, during the time of post-Katrina, there are six or seven people who check into the OPP when they’re arrested and never check out. They die. So it’s a dark little secret, but I’m her inside guy who gives her the information that she needs to further the cases that she’s working. And so the good news for me is, this last season, I was in five episodes. In previous seasons, I’ve been unavailable, because I was working on MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE with Ray Romano. At a certain point, I was recurring on both shows at the same time, which was amazing.

AX: Do you have anything else coming up?

DuMONT: I’m in this movie called LITTLE BOY, which is this beautiful World War Two story about this boy whose father is about to go off to the war. WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL, I just finished working in that film. It [is based on] a book about the winningest coach in football history – well, actually, in sports history. I think they won consecutively a hundred-and-twenty-six games over a five-year period. And then I’m in this movie called SHREVEPORT. SHREVEPORT is Ryan Philippe’s directorial debut. I play a Harvey Weinstein kind of producer. And I’m in a movie called BAREFOOT with Evan Rachel Wood and Scott Speedman and J.K. Simmons, who’s one of my favorite character guys, is in there as well. BONNIE AND CLYDE is a Lifetime miniseries that I’m in. And my daughter actually is in the film as well, playing Clyde’s little sister. That’s probably going to be in spring of next year. And Season 3.5 of TREME is coming up.

AX: And is there anything else you’d like to say about THE BUTLER or your career overall?

DuMONT: I think in general, I’m kind of an Everyman and I’m just proud and happy and appreciative of the way things are going. I’ve put in a lot of hard work and a lot of time, so it’s a matter of, when preparation and opportunity meet, things start to happen. This one quote that somebody passed on to me that really hit home was, “Two things define you. Your patience when you have nothing” – there are many times as an actor when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere – “and your attitude when you have everything.” So now, I’m not a huge star, which is actually to my advantage [laughs], because I can kind of do anything and people won’t go, “Oh, yeah, there’s that guy doing that same thing again.” But it’s your patience when you have nothing and your attitude when you have everything. I have a beautiful wife and children and a home and I’m able to make a living at what I want to do, I’m in the Number One movie in America, and my attitude is nothing but appreciation, an attitude of gratitude. I was very patient in the times when things weren’t really happening, it could be tough, because I do five hundred job interviews a year, and it’s hard to keep your spirits and your belief in yourself up when you’re questioned and evaluated and selected or not selected, and now when things are really happening, I just feel gratitude and appreciation. It’s wonderful. I’m very grateful that I’m still doing this.


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Article: Exclusive Interview with THE BUTLER star James DuMont



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