Lee Daniels Talks Trust And Stardom With Alex Pettyfer

Lee Daniels Talks Trust And Stardom With Alex Pettyfer

The visionary who has defied the film/TV divide by simply going all out speaks with actor and friend Alex Pettyfer about achieving the American Dream

The visionary who has defied the film/TV divide by simply going all out speaks with actor and friend Alex Pettyfer about achieving the American Dream

Everyone is talking about Empire. A modern day Machiavellian tale of a hip-hop dynasty beset by familial intrigue, it’s the kind of show that you can’t stop watching, a masterwork of plot twists driven by larger-than-life characters that could only come from the mind of creator Lee Daniels. And indeed, from Gabourey Sidibe’s Oscar-nominated part in Precious to Forest Whitaker’s standout performance in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the director/producer has a gift for telling stories that resonate with audiences both on the big screen and at home. Daniels is currently producing the multiracial Dreamgirls-meets-genderqueer drama, Star, a pilot that will air on Fox. It’s long been rumored that Alex Pettyfer, who had a part in The Butler, will someday star in a Daniels joint. Here, the actor and director reconnect about what it means to make a movie, just as Pettyfer’s Elvis & Nixon begins its long-awaited press cycle.

LEE DANIELS Now you be kind, Alex.

ALEX PETTYFER You’re going to love my questions. Your career in our industry has been quite a diverse one. At points you were a manager, a casting director, a producer, and a director. You’ve managed to build an empire, no pun intended. What is the key behind your success and what are the most valuable things you’ve learned along the way?

LD I’m not really a businessman. I mean, I come from a family of gangsters. For African-Americans, back when I was a kid, there really weren’t many opportunities aside from minimum-wage jobs, so many of us resorted to shady sorts of dealings because that was the only way to survive. I think crafty is the right word for me. I knew that I wanted to be a director, so I did whatever it took to make me a director. I didn’t go to school, as I couldn’t afford it, and I just used the craft, the skills that were passed down to me. So, as opposed to being a pimp, I hustled actors. I did it very well and learned while on the sets of these films how to direct. I was always directing theater while I was managing, while I was casting. I think that the will to survive, coming from poverty, and knowing that I had nothing to lose motivated me. I was comfortable with nothing and I am comfortable with nothing. I think that you have to be okay with going back to nothing to roll the dice and pursue your dream, the American dream.

AP There have been many times in my career that I’ve been very fortunate with success and I’ve also had nothing as well—gone back to nothing—and, for me, that journey of going back, trying to make something again, is almost as enjoyable as being there. Our industry is rapidly changing. The lines between TV and film undoubtedly are being blurred. What’s your view on the likes of Netflix and Amazon and their impact?

LD The first time I had to shoot on digital was for television and I didn’t even know what I was doing, that’s how rapid things are. I jumped into TV as a fluke, not knowing that Empire was going to be what it is. I just wanted to check it off my bucket list. I know nothing about the net-streaming thing. I am, at the end of the day, a theater director. I know the human condition and I know how to make people laugh, I know how to make people cry, and I know how to make people feel sexual. That’s my gift. Also, the minute I start overthinking the way the world works and the way the entertainment business works, that’s when I’ll begin losing sight of my art and what it is that I want to tell. So, whether it’s TV, Netflix, or film, I choose not to engage in the medium of what the business of it all is.

AP I’ve been directed by you and it was one of the most unsettling experiences, in a positive way.

LD Alex! I agreed to this interview because you said you were going to be nice.

AP In a positive way! You cut to the core of an individual’s insecurity and deepest emotions, drawing out some of the most unexpected performances. You are the quintessential actor’s director.

LD That makes me feel good. You know, when you work with someone, it’s a very strange feeling. It’s like making love without touching—it’s like tangoing. That person is on your journey with you and willing to throw theirself off a cliff with you, and there is nothing more fulfilling. I watched you transform because you were willing.

AP What are your insecurities as a filmmaker?

LD The key to my magic is trust, so I guess what makes me insecure is an actor that doesn’t trust. I will never hire an actor that doesn’t trust me. But sometimes I’m tricked. Sometimes I’m misled in the initial meeting, where they make me believe that they trust [me], and then they don’t. That is terrifying because why are we there? And trust me, if I have to trick the actor into getting what I want, that’s when the gangster in me comes out.

AP The relationships that you can form, the relationships that you have on set with people, the communal love that everyone has for one another on a set—[The Butler] was one of the only sets that I didn’t have any trouble on.

LD Do you want to know why? I’ll tell you why. It’s because of trust. And when you trust, your beauty comes out and you’re not guarded because when actors—and you have been one of them—get fucked by a director, nothing is worse. You clam up and then you can’t trust, and that’s a bad thing. That’s a bad thing because there are a lot of hacks out here that call themselves directors.

AP The trust in which you empower the people you work with gives you something that is magical, something that comes across on screen and that makes you a visionary. When I watch The Butler, or Precious, or The Paperboy, even movies we won’t mention [cough] Monster’s Ball—that trust is something that every director is always looking for.

LD So this wasn’t a naughty interview after all. Look, I don’t pretend to know my story; I know the story that I’m going to tell. I know the actor that I’m going to work with. I know the character I’m playing with. I trust my art department. I trust just like I expect the actors to trust. I have to.

AP My next question is going to make you laugh.

LD Well, all your questions make me laugh, but go ahead.

AP You were known for wearing pajamas on set. What was the reason behind that?

LD Well, I was fat.

AP But now you’re in beautiful black cashmere jumpers and you look suave and chic. I saw the photo shoot that Hedi [Slimane] did with you [for V] and you are handsome as fuck.

LD I don’t know what it was, but I woke up and I was like, What the fuck? I didn’t expect to be successful and I don’t even think I wanted to be successful, but over time, I learned to love myself, which is a very hard thing to do after I didn’t for so long.

AP I had a very similar mentality to what you’re saying. When I had all of the success coming my way, I wasn’t prepared for it and I wasn’t, I guess, happy with who I was yet.

LD You’re so young, with such a bright future ahead. You want it now, you always want it now. You want it yesterday. I see that in you, and I think people around you see that eagerness, too. All I can say is that I wish I made the changes that you have made at your age. You have nothing but the sky, baby.

AP What does the future hold for Lee Daniels?

LD I’m very excited by this Richard Pryor project [Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said?] I’m working on. But I think my fantasy, my dream project, is to do my life story: an original musical told from the perspective of this black kid who dared to dream. From that rat-infested room in which I grew up, to where I am today. No one would believe it, but that’s the American dream.

AP That would be amazing to see.

LD Wouldn’t it be fun? Maybe you could play me!

This is an excerpt from V101

LEE DANIELS AND ALEX PETTYFER ILLUSTRATION BY SILVIA PRADA

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