Sometimes, people ask, ‘Where is he coming from?’” says Lee Daniels, auteur of some of the darkest movies in recent memory. His last project, a little film called Precious, grossed $63 million worldwide and garnered six Oscar nominations and two wins (Best Supporting Actress for Mo’Nique and Best Adapted Screenplay for Geoffrey Fletcher—the first African-American to do so). He also produced Monster’s Ball, for which Halle Berry became the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar.
Clearly someone understands his work.
“You see my life and are watching my world,” he says. Daniels is a 52-yearold African-American, openly gay man, with two kids (he adopted his niece and nephew). He grew up in Philadelphia and slid off to Studio 54 and gay house balls in Harlem à la Paris Is Burning in his early 20s. All of his films carry assorted-size pieces of his biography.
“My experiences vary from drag queens to French presidents,” he says with a laugh, and without irony. “My life is European. My life is Hollywood. It’s crack cocaine; drugs. Doing them and overcoming them.”
As a director, writer, and producer, Daniels scatters his truth throughout his films, which endears actors to him. His devotion to honesty creates a sanctum for his players in their portrayal of the works’ multilayered, often deviant, and typically emotionally brittle characters. Mo’Nique, as Mary Lee Johnston, the psychotic mother in Precious, had to throw her grandbaby down a flight of stairs. At first, the actress refused.
“She said, ‘What? Lee, I am not throwing this baby!’” he remembers about filming the pivotal scene. “I said, ‘The baby has Down’s syndrome, she does not know that she is being thrown.’ Well, you know, the baby was thrown and that was that.”
Similar to his relationship with Mo’Nique, Lee had to convince Nicole Kidman of her character’s DNA in his new movie, The Paperboy, opening in October. The film, based on the novel by Pete Dexter, tells the story of Ward Jansen, a reporter (Matthew McConaughey), and his brother Jack (Zac Efron) who are investigating the murder of a police chief in hopes of exonerating the man they believe was wrongly convicted of the crime and sentenced to death row (John Cusack). It also stars David Oyelowo and Macy Gray.