Lenny Kravitz and Lee Daniels’ The ButlerDecember 3, 2013 • By Jackson Truax
My eleventh birthday was at the beginning of 1998. I remember a series of very formative years growing up, where Lenny Kravitz was a dominating force on what we didn’t know at the time was the dying breath of commercial radio and televised music videos, both of which still felt like art forms. Kravitz had already spent a decade reaching increasing cultural significance with a sound and style that combined, yet furthered, the musical visions of the likes of Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Wonder. “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” “Believe,” and “Always On the Run,” were just a handful of the songs that propelled the artistic and commercial ascension of ‘90s Kravitz. After the 1998 release of 5, Kravitz won four consecutive Grammys for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. “Fly Away” and Kravitz’s cover of “American Woman” by The Guess Who were getting so much airtime on radio stations and VH1 that it felt like George Orwell had been right. Except Big Brother’s name was Lenny Kravitz. One late-summer afternoon, a P.E. teacher at my middle school opened the trunk of his car, cranked up the radio, and blasted these songs over an epic game of Capture the Flag. I knew in that moment what Kravitz’s music meant, at least to me. A perfect blend of a deeply-felt spirituality and a pure sense of joy.
There’s a new generation of Kravitz fans, who know his work from The Hunger Games, and see him as a celebrity despite not having heard a note of his music. If Kravitz’s work in Lee Daniels’ films Precious and The Butler serve as any indication, his work onscreen may soon equal his work on record. With Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Kravitz does impressive work in the year’s largest ensemble cast. He also wrote, produced, and arranged “You And I Ain’t Nothing No More,” performed in the film by Gladys Knight. I recently enjoyed an in-depth and insightful chat with Kravitz, discussing his approach to recording, portraying White House butler James Holloway, and how the best is yet to come. Here’s what Kravitz shared with me about his work in Lee Daniels’ and the The Hunger Games films, his upcoming album and film with Christopher Walken, and his performance and song in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Jackson Truax: In Mathieu Bittons’s 2011 documentary Looking Back on Love: Making “Black and White America,” there’s a scene toward the end where you reflect on some of the challenges in your life leading up to the making of the album. You ended by saying, “What’s to come is going to completely outweigh what’s already transpired. So I’m really looking forward to the next twenty years.“ Is that what you’ve experienced so far? In what way has your acting career been a part of that?
Lenny Kravitz: I feel like the first twenty-five years, which will be the next year, of my career was a great learning experience. It was school, man. I did a lot of things. I accomplished a lot of things. I had a lot of dynamics going on in my life. Experienced a lot of warmth, and just wonderful things, and blessings. Had a lot of dark periods as well, and heartache and sadness. Everything together, which makes it a wonderful soup. But I feel like with what I’ve learned now, and what I’ve learned, also, in my creative life, I’m opening up. And it’s going to go deeper. So that’s what I mean. The best is yet to come. We’re just getting warm. Acting is part of it. It’s something that I didn’t see coming. If you asked me five years ago if I’d be making movies, I wouldn’t have thought so at all. But I’m really looking forward to what’s coming… I have this film coming up with Christopher Walken, which I’m really excited about, to work with somebody of that caliber. And The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Butler. Everything that’s going on, it’s exciting.
JT: As Lee Daniels’ career has progressed, he’s assembled a sort of extended family of cast members, and it feels like you’re very much a part of that family. What is it about working together that you and Lee enjoy so much? How does each of you bring out the best in the other?
Kravitz: We have fun. We’re both crazy. We’re both perfectionists. We’re both very passionate. And have an eye for details… And because I believe in those things creatively, when he’s running around like a chicken with his head cut off, I get it. And I’m with it. And I’m there for him to mold me. I really do respect the director… It is a director’s medium. He’s just fun. He’s just real. He’s of the moment. There’s nothing stock with Lee Daniels.
JT: It’s been well-documented that the civil rights struggle and the evolution of race relations in America has been a real part of your life and your family’s life. Was being involved in Lee Daniels’ The Butler a chance for you to say something very personal about those themes?
Kravitz: It was an opportunity to be a part of telling the story, again. In a different way; in a different time. I got to tell the story of my grandfather, my grandmother, my aunts, my uncles. People that went through this. In a very deep way, I got to tell their story. I got to draw upon them for my character… It was a wonderful opportunity. And the actors involved…everybody’s in this movie except Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters, or Charlton Heston. It’s an all-star cast. It’s like one of those ‘70s films. Everybody was in it.
JT: Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a film in which many actors make a great impact with not a lot of screen time. You did that by making what seemed to be a lot of specific choices about James Holloway. How much of who he was did Danny Strong write in his screenplay, and what choices did you make in building that character?
Kravitz: The words are there. But Lee really brings these people forth. Brings them to life. And we discussed the character. Deeper than what his screen time is. Or what he shows. So there is some kind of background. So you feel like you know who this guy is. So between Lee and myself, we figured it out.
JT: What was your interpretation? How did you build James Holloway through those discussions?
Kravitz: He’s a guy who, as Lee says in the film, has to wear both faces. His face that he wears in front of the white folks; and the face he wears in his life. He’s a guy who’s well-read. Who’s smart. Who, like my grandfather, became a scholar on his own. You see when he’s in the locker room talking to Cecil (Forest Whitaker) and Cuba (Gooding Jr.’s) character. How he thinks they’re ignorant. And they don’t know what’s going on. And they don’t understand this. And they don’t know about this cellist who’s coming to the White House. He’s a guy who just wants to better himself.
JT: Precious was made very independently. Lee Daniels’ The Butler had a much bigger budget and a much larger cast. Did the experiences of making the two films feel similar? Or were they very different?
Kravitz: I didn’t feel a difference. Just whatever set you needed, that’s the set you were on. Whatever it took to make the scene. But it didn’t feel like one was a guerilla movie done cheaply, and the other one was a big production. They felt like the same sort of thing… On [The Hunger Games], that’s a whole other thing. When you show up and you’ve got all these sets and things and costumes. It’s a much different thing. But that’s what it requires to tell that story. They’re both rich experiences.
JT: You mentioned the generations that came before you. What kind of research were you able to do, in a general sense about being a butler in the White House, and specifically as an African-American in the White House in the 1950s and 1960s?
Kravitz: There was a gentleman that actually worked at the White House. Whose job was to run all these guys. He was on-set. We got to talk to him. He would show us things. He would come up and say, “You don’t serve that there.” “We wouldn’t have done it that way.” He would say, “If a guy was bringing a sandwich to the President [here’s] how he would do it…” There was a certain way you walked, or put your hands. Or presented things. He was there to give us that education. So that was cool.
JT: One of the great things about the film is that it deals in different ways with the personal racial politics of Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Were these things you knew about already? Why was it important for the film to explore that?
Kravitz: That’s the time, and all that was going on. Yeah, I did know about it. I remember distinctly being at summer camp when I was a kid, and us being on the lawn at night. And listening to Nixon giving his farewell speech. It was interesting to see how the butlers were really in their lives. Were really sitting there in front of major decisions, historical decisions. Things that would change the world. It was important to show that. To show the interaction.
JT: Your main two scene partners in the film were Cuba Gooding Jr. and Forest Whitaker. The three of you portrayed a great sense of comrade and sharing an occupation and experience. Did you guys do any sort of rehearsal or bonding to build that before filming those scenes?
Kravitz: Absolutely not. I remember showing up the first day. I flew from Paris. I had just finished a world tour. And I flew…from Paris to New Orleans. And went to the costume department to get my costume and put it on. I went to get my wig…the stuff for my face… And then I went to set. And the first scene that we did was the scene where we’re at my house playing cards and hanging out… And Cuba comes out dancing like James Brown and our [movie] wives are there. I [thought] “Here I am. Day one. There’s Cuba Gooding. To the left of me, this…Oscar award-winning actor. Here’s Forest Whitaker, this great actor. An Oscar award-winning actor. And here I am. Sandwiched in between the two guys. Okay. Action. Day one. Let’s go.” And we just hit it.
JT: You wrote a new song for the film, “You And I Ain’t Nothin’ No More” which you also produced and arranged. How did you come to write a new song for the film, and then have the legendary Gladys Knight perform it?
Kravitz: That came about at the end of the film. Lee and I talked about doing a song. So the question was, “What’s the song going to be about? What’s the theme?” We decided that it was really about the father and the son. And their relationship at that point where things just went sour. The movie really is, beside the whole historical lesson and everything, it’s a love story between a father and a son. And they get pulled apart and they come back at the end. That was what it was going to be about, the father and the son. So I sat at the piano and came up with this tune. And I sang the demo. And then Lee heard it. And it was all good. But we decided it would be really great if there was a female vocalist singing this. Even though it’s about a father and a son. Gladys Knight…we called her. She just showed up and sang the song. And brought it to life.
JT: One of the other things you talked about in Mathieu Bittons’s documentary is wanting to make sure the personality of the musician is felt in each instrument. As you were recording the instruments on this song and producing it, how did you make sure that personality was coming through on every track?
Kravitz: Just by the feel. You take one instrument at a time… You just know intuitively. I lay the piano [track] first. And then I lay the bass, and so on, guitar, drums. And each time you lay an instrument, it brings whatever you had before to life even more. You just kind of feel it. It’s hard to explain.
JT: Lee Daniels’ The Butler has already been very successful and gotten a lot of great reviews. Why is it important that anyone who hasn’t seen The Butler makes a point of seeing it, and that critics, Guild, and Academy members are thinking of it when evaluating this year’s films?
Kravitz: It’s a great story. It’s a great piece of history… The thing that I found interesting, and that I didn’t understand, is that there are so many people that don’t know the history. I assume they know it. So many kids didn’t know about Selma. Didn’t know about the Freedom Riders. Didn’t know about the Panthers. Didn’t know about sit-ins. Didn’t know about Jim Crow etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Didn’t know. And I’m talking about teenagers. I think that…in the world we live in now, where if you’re a kid and you’re born into Obama being President, you’re thinking, “What’s all this about?” It enables everybody to take a breath, look back, and appreciate the history and the evolution.
JT: You mentioned earlier the evolution of your acting career, and it’s reaching a new pinnacle, with filming a new movie opposite Christopher Walken in a few weeks. What can you share about that project and getting ready to work with him?
Kravitz: We’re going to rehearse. He’s intense. He’s such a legend. And he’s such an amazing actor… When I see that wave coming, I’m going to jump on it with him. And I’m going to ride it… He’s going to help me to lift my game, I know that.
JT: Black and White America was such a satisfying album. And a really fulfilling experience that left fans wanting more. To my knowledge, your next album is completed, but waiting to come out so you can tour behind it. What can you tell us about the new album?
Kravitz: The new album is hot. It’s a rock n’ roll album. It still has rhythm and blues infused it in, of course… It’s a guitar-based, drum record, with a little bit of horns, here and there. Really raw. Really stripped down. It’s a real feel-good, uplifting record.