For The Paperboy director Lee Daniels, a “no” from Oprah was a blessing in disguise.
The auteur has made it no secret that the role of the maid, Anita, was first offered to the daytime maven -- who turned it down -- before ultimately going to Grammy Award-winning singer Macy Gray.
“In hindsight, I can’t imagine Oprah on the floor trying to masturbate,” Daniels laughs. “Everybody has [their] own interpretation. She would have played it very stoic, you know, something very different. I think Macy Gray was the right choice after all.”
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Daniels admits that he expanded -- or “evolved,” in his words -- the role of Anita significantly after Gray was cast. (Says Gray: “I had four lines… he sent me another rewrite, and my part was a lot bigger.”)
Indeed, Gray’s character is the narrator and backbone for the story of love, deception and murder in the Deep South, opening in select theaters on Oct. 5. Wearing a stocking cap and no makeup for the part, Gray’s on-camera appearance couldn’t have been further from the glamorous movie star she had envisioned. “I wanted to be Diana Ross, the glamorous housekeeper, but he wasn’t feeling it,” says Gray.
Asked for his side of the story, Daniels howls with laughter. “Let me tell you, this is the funniest,” he begins. “We're experimenting with wigs. So she's in the makeup trailer, hair trailer, and there's this row of eight or nine wigs. And she's sitting there all excited about which Diana Ross wig from the '70s she's going to put on.
“But she had a stocking cap on, and I go, ‘Uh uh, you're going out just like this,’” he continues. “She said, ‘Please don't make me. Please don't make me.’ I said, ‘Not only that, she's not going to wear any makeup.’ She said, ‘Please!’ And she was literally grabbing my leg as I was walking out of the trailer. I was kicking her off like a dog. I laugh at that moment. It's a typical moment in the making of any film of mine. It's a fun memory.”
Anita did get her glamorous moment, albeit during a heartbreaking scene in which she’s en route to a baby shower. The lady of the house (played by a venomous Nealla Gordon) requires her to stay and pick up shards of glass before she’s allowed to leave.
“It was a very tragic moment,” says Daniels.
For the role, both Daniels and Gray drew on past experiences of housekeepers in their own lives. Aside from working on an appropriate accent for Florida in the 1960s, Gray also observed those who currently care for her own house.
“I learned a lot from like people who clean your house or do your garden, and you don’t always pay them a lot of attention. I just watched them,” she says. “They’re part of the family, but they’re a little bit irritated because they don’t want to be cleaning your underwear and stuff like that. It was good to get to know that side of it, for sure.”
Says Daniels, he wanted to show a different sort of maid than Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in The Help.
“I just didn't think that the maids were right [in The Help], because I had so many family members that were maids. I really wanted to tell my version,” he says. “[The maids] that I knew that really took care of these white kids. They loved them deeply as their own.”
“I think the most powerful scene in the movie is when Macy hears the ‘N-----‘ word, and she's not fazed by it at all,” he adds. “She loves her son so much -- I mean, she loves Zac [Efron] so much -- that she's somebody who would probably even laugh over that. She's more protective of him for saying the word than insulting her.”
The film is a departure for many of the actors involved, including Nicole Kidman as a sex-crazed woman betrothed to an alleged killer (played by John Cusack), Efron as a young, directionless man infatuated with Kidman, and Matthew McConaughey as a reporter with a secret.
“Matthew is like this sex god, but when they had him on set, they had him all greasy and it was kind of gross,” Gray recalls with a laugh. “I was really star-struck with I met Nicole Kidman. I just caught myself staring at her. It was kind of embarrassing.”
As for Efron: “As sweet as he is good-looking,” says Gray.
And for what it’s worth, Daniels did eventually wind up directing Oprah for his recently wrapped project, The Butler.
“She’s so sweet,” Daniels says of the OWN boss. “She sent me a beautiful letter because when we wrapped, she said, ‘I can’t believe you still wanted to work with me after we turned you down for Paperboy.’”
Email: Sophie.Schillaci@thr.com; Twitter: @SophieSchillaci