Lee Daniels on Casting the Commander in Chief in 'The Butler'

Anne Marie Fox/Weinstein Co

Casting the most familiar figure in America—the president—is problematic. The performance has to reflect reality, but it should also transcend impersonation. There is a lot, in other words, that can go wrong. And when it does, everyone can tell.

Which is why Lee Daniels was "absolutely terrified" when it came time to cast his new movie, The Butler. He didn't have to cast one president. He had to cast five.

"There were two ways to go about it," he tells Newsweek. "Either I could make the actors disappear, or I could make a big fuss about it. I wanted to make a big fuss about it. I wanted people to talk. So I rolled the dice."

The Butler tells the fictionalized story of a real African-American maître d'hôtel—a character who witnesses and participates in many of the landmark civil rights moments during his 34 years as a White House employee. Dwight D. Eisenhower, John and Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald and Nancy Reagan: Danny Strong's uplifting script requires all of them to appear on screen.

But instead of following the usual Hollywood playbook—hire little-known impersonators and have them blend into the wallpaper—Daniels and casting director Billy Hopkins went for the biggest stars they could get, regardless of whether those stars actually resembled the presidents they were being asked to portray.

The results are a little disorienting. Squat, antic Robin Williams as the calm, lean Eisenhower. Teen-movie dreamboats James Marsden and Minka Kelly as John and Jackie Kennedy. Haunted Liev Schreiber as earthy LBJ. Loquacious, adorable John Cusack as Tricky Dick. And English movie villain Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, with liberal firecracker Jane Fonda playing his prim, conservative wife, Nancy. It's the biggest and oddest Oval Office roster ever assembled on film—more SNL special than Hall of Presidents.

But in many ways that was Daniels's point. "It was chancy," he says. "Sometimes the idea of Robin Williams or John Cusack can take you out of the film. But do you remember those old movies like The Poseidon Adventure?"—the 1972 blockbuster starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, and Leslie Nielsen, among others. "The subject matter of The Butler deserved people like that."

It's strange, no doubt, to hear the same guy who played Lloyd Dobler snarling about "the Negro vote," his nose prosthetically enhanced to Nixonian proportions. But Daniels's decision ends up having its own particular charm. As a viewer, you are so aware of who is portraying each president that you start to pay attention to how they're portraying them, too, and observing the actors' choices—rather than taking them for granted—helps you see each president a little more clearly: the sadness in Nixon's eyes as he asks the black butlers for their votes; Reagan's self-aware, actorly poise as he refuses to budge on apartheid.

Then there's the other benefit—less artistic, perhaps, but no less important—to Daniels's big-name approach: selling as many tickets as possible. "I wanted everybody I could to come out to see the movie because the subject matter is so important," he admits. "The Robin Williams fans, the James Marsden fans. If my Aunt Millie were famous, I'd put her in a wig and make her Mamie Eisenhower."