Lee Daniels stunned the world with the 2009 film Precious, even snagging an Oscar nomination for Best Director. The openly gay 52-year-old is back with The Paperboy, an equally dark tale set in the southern Florida swamps revolving around a reporter (Matthew McConaughey) and his brother's (Zac Efron) quest to prove the innocence of a convicted cop killer (John Cusack) who marries a nymphomaniac obsessed with criminals (Nicole Kidman). Sounds wild? Yes, it is. And Daniels' comments when we talked recently about the film, his superstar cast, and gay people being "third-class citizens" are just as untamed.
Lee, you have Zac Efron basically naked throughout your new film, The Paperboy. Talk about blatant!
Lee Daniels: I know. It's blatant, but it's not. When I grew up, I was in my underwear all the time in my mother's house. I did not look anything like Zac! She would say, "Put some pants on!" So, with this coming-of-age story, I was replicating what I know from my childhood.
Are you concerned that people will think you are pandering to gays?
I am not sure if that was something in the very back of my head. People will say, "He is gay, so this is where they went." Not sure if there is some truth there. I cannot direct if there is no truth there.
The clip of Zac in his underwear dancing with Nicole has gone viral.
It was Nicole's last day, and it started raining, and I thought it was beautiful. I started crying. God told me to play a song. It was a tearful moment for all of us. Then I was like, "Zac, your dick print is showing, and your ass is showing, and this is the reason why people are going to say I did this on purpose." Did I? I don't know.
Did you want to work with Efron before this film?
I did not really want to work with him. Zac Efron was not my first choice for the role. But he really wanted the job. I [pushed] him. I would tell him, "No, do it again. No, do it again." And he brought it each time. I was so proud of him. I think this is his best work.
Your films are very textured, nuanced, and specific. How does your sexuality inform your work?
Gay people see the world differently. As a black person, you see the world differently. It's a unique perspective. When I make movies, it's from a very specific place, and it's layered in context. You see my life and are watching my world. If you look at my films, you see life through the eyes of a black, gay man.
Do you feel a responsibility to the black and gay communities to represent their interests with your work?
I owe it to African Americans to bring my A game. Some of this shit [that is released] is just wack. I take movies very seriously. And I speak for people that do not have a voice, and I owe it to my comrades that are bullied and beaten and that are told that they are nothing.
Your success is the result of decades of hard work. How difficult has it been for you personally as a gay man chasing his ambitions?
[Gay people] are third-class citizens; I don't care what anyone says. We are nothing to many people, especially in the African-American community. We are told, especially as black men, that we have to live up to certain expectations. The churches say it's not good. Our neighbors say it's not good. Our friends and family say it's not good. I am living in my truth, and I demand that in cinema, too.
Why did you choose The Paperboy as your follow-up to Precious?
It was not expected of me. I needed to stick to character-driven pieces that would touch people in one way or another. And I always loved the book. Pedro Almodóvar, my favorite director, was going to direct it. He bowed out, and I jumped.
Nicole Kidman really goes for it as Charlotte, who not only urinates on Zac Efron's character but also has a fetish for felons. Did Kidman campaign for the role?
How could you not fall in love with Charlotte? She writes and solicits prison dick! Yes, Nicole did go out of her way, but it was her role to lose. She sent me a videotape of herself in character. She knew other actresses wanted the role.
There is a scene when her character, Charlotte, reaches an orgasm in front of almost the entire cast. What was it like filming it?
The orgasm was the second day of shooting. It was like we were all having sex; it was like a foursome, an orgy. Because we did it so soon, we became very protective of each other.
What do you think about the whispers of this being Kidman's comeback vehicle?
People think that it is always about the work, and you have to stay in magazines and work. She is a mother. She is an artist. She takes risks. Some of her stuff has been good, some not so good, but it has been risks. This is what makes her a legend, and the fact that she does not give a fuck.
Your next film, The Butler, based on the true life story of an African-American butler who served eight American presidents over 30 years, sounds like a PG-rated PBS documentary compared with your previous projects.
I know. I tell my crew, "Don't put on your seat belts; we are only at Disneyland." It's PG-13; it's my first. It's a challenge for me. I felt that I was handcuffed and muzzled. There is no sex, no cursing, but it is important to show the other side of me and that I can do other things.
Is it true that you worked on Prince's film Purple Rain?
Yes, I was a casting director, then I was fired, because I was strung out on drugs. Then they hired me again to head minority talent at Warner Brothers. It was pre-Spike Lee and post-Blaxploitation, so there was nothing for me to do. I just sat there with a pencil in my hand.
The Paperboy is set in the early '70s and deals with racism, homosexuality, and the politics of Southern life. All of these issues are relevant to the current U.S. presidential campaign. Coincidence?
Things have not changed, and that is why I show it. I was watching CNN and someone made the comment that Obama's reelection would bring about another civil war. It's fascinating, the deep-rooted racism that exists in this country. I am living in my truth, and I hope it inspires other filmmakers and other people to live in such a place.