‘I’m sure the publicity people are spinning out of control because I’m having this conversation with you. But life is too short for me not to keep it real,” the director-producer Lee Daniels tells me, and it is neither the first nor the last time during our interview that he says words to that effect. (And he is right: the publicity people don’t like our conversation, but we’ll get to that later.) We are talking on Zoom, me in my home in London, him in his decidedly more impressive-looking home in Los Angeles, with lovely artworks, big sofas and glossy wooden walls in the background. This is where Daniels has spent the past year in lockdown, with his boyfriend, stylist Jahil Fisher. A famously sociable guy whose close friends include Oprah Winfrey and Mariah Carey, Daniels has not enjoyed being grounded. “Locked down and really losing my mind,” he says, glumly. “But then, I think about my cousins who are in jail, and my brother who’s recently out of jail, and a lot of my friends who are dead or in jail, and I’m in Beverly Hills. So shut up and stop complaining, because life is good.”
No one could accuse Daniels of not making the most of his life, and his extraordinary achievements are studded with firsts: he was the first African American to solely produce an Oscar-winning movie, 2001’s Monster’s Ball, for which Halle Berry became the first (and so far only) African American to win the best actress Oscar. Eight years later, Daniels was nominated for the best director Oscar, for Precious, undoubtedly the first film about an abused, obese black teenager to be up for six Oscars. Lee didn’t win, but the film won the best adapted screenplay Oscar, by Geoffrey S Fletcher, the first African American to win that award. Daniels doesn’t just smash his own ceiling; he smashes the ones of those around him. Five years later, his deliciously OTT TV series Empire, about a music mogul’s family, and the first US network show to make a soap opera out of hip-hop, was nominated for the best TV series at the Golden Globes.
Talking to him should be intimidating, but it feels like having an intimate chat with a good friend. He snuggles up to the laptop, as though we are sitting next to one another on the sofa, his face as open and cheerful as a sunflower. He gossips about himself and his celebrity friends so freely that the aforementioned publicity people interrupt to tell us to talk more about his latest movie, The United States Vs Billie Holiday. (We both ignore that directive.) When I mention my fondness for the first film he directed, the critically panned and very weird Shadowboxer, he puts his hand on his heart: “I love that you love that movie, that makes me feel good. But that movie,” he says, moving closer, confidingly, “I was definitely not sober during that. Hahaha!” Daniels, 61, is fully sober these days: “I just feel so blessed that desire has been lifted today,” he says, solemnly.
The United States Vs Billie Holiday is an elegant, gorgeous-looking biopic – and, as is Daniels’ way, absolutely nothing like any of his other films. While directors such as Wes Anderson and Tim Burton are defined by their aesthetic consistency, the only constant about Daniels’s movies is that he makes the films no one else would dare to, eliciting performances that make the eyes pop. For Shadowboxer, he persuaded Helen Mirren to play a woman having an affair with her gangster stepson (Cuba Gooding Jr). Mirren once explained how she ended up in the film: “One day I was walking in Manhattan. I got a tap on the shoulder, and I jumped. This mad-looking man with wild dreadlocks says, ‘I love you and I have a movie I want you to do.’ I thought, this is a complete madman. But Lee, due to his charm and belief, makes his fantasies real.”
Daniels has since ditched the dreads, but not the charm and self-belief. When studios refused to finance Precious – based on the novel by Sapphire – he convinced a wealthy couple in Denver to cough up $8m. Then, as if looking for extra challenges, he cast Mariah Carey as a social worker and Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse, and got terrific performances from both. Meanwhile, Mo’Nique, who played Precious’s (Gabourey Sidibe) sadistic mother, got the best supporting actress Oscar.
Where Precious had a pared-down, fly-on-the-wall feel – wobbling cameras, washed-out blue and grey aesthetic emphasising the cold urban setting – his follow-up The Paperboy (2012) was all woozy southern lushness, undercut by horrific sexual violence, largely perpetrated by an uncharacteristically repulsive John Cusack. Nicole Kidman played his naive, minxy bride Charlotte, and in one now infamous scene urinated on teen idol Zac Efron, after he is stung by a jellyfish. Kidman later confirmed there was no fakery: “That was what Lee wanted,” she said in 2012. In 2013’s The Butler, Daniels switched tack again, making a glossy historical drama inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, an African American who worked as a butler in the White House under several administrations. As well as recasting Kravitz and Carey (as a butler and slave respectively) he convinced Winfrey to play the butler’s (Forest Whitaker) wife, ending her 15-year break from acting. I was not the only one to be excited by that casting choice.
“I sat between George and Barbara Bush watching that film,” Daniels cackles, “sharing popcorn, and he was shouting, ‘Is that Oprah? Honey, is that Oprah?!’” Wait, I say. You watched The Butler with the Bushes? “Yeah, we became friends during Precious. She said, ‘Precious is my movie.’” Barbara Bush loved Precious? “Yeah, I still got the letter! Then she sent me another letter saying, ‘You’ve done it again with The Butler.’ I think she missed The Paperboy, hahaha! But she invited me to their compound and I sat between them watching that film among a whole group of white people. Let’s talk about that! I was the only black person in a 400-seat theatre and it was fascinating.” Was the audience a bit drier than he was used to? “Oh no, they were into it! The jokes all landed, people were crying. One of the highlights of my life.”
In The United States Vs Billie Holiday there are no starry cameos, because Daniels wanted to keep the focus on Holiday, played by the relatively unknown singer Andra Day, now nominated for a Golden Globe. As usual, it’s an independent film, “because studios will give you about $10 to make a black movie. I’m exaggerating, but you get the point,” he says.
It’s not exactly a biopic, although it does manage to get in most of Holiday’s wretchedly difficult life. Instead, the film, which was written by the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, focuses on the still shocking attempts by US government agencies to stop Holiday from singing Strange Fruit, her song about the lynching of African Americans that is often credited with kickstarting the civil rights movement. Federal agents paid associates to plant drugs on her and a black agent, Jimmy Fletcher, went undercover, in all senses of that term, to gather dirt. Holiday was sent to prison for a year for possession, derailing her career. When she was later caught with drugs, Fletcher’s testimony helped save her. But she was pursued until the end, and when she was dying in hospital, at the age of 44, she was handcuffed to her bed.
I’m guessing it’s not a coincidence that you made a movie about the racism of the US government in the Trump era, I ask Daniels. “Yeah, right,” he says drily. “I made The Butler [during the Obama presidency] because there was a feeling of hope. But this is a call to arms, because we’re in dangerous times.”
Daniels’ movies are extremely sympathetic to women, whether it’s the tender depiction of damaged characters such as Billie and Precious, or the complexity of Gloria, Winfrey’s character in The Butler. “All my friends are women. It’s a damn shame I’m not straight, because I’d be a great husband,” he says.
The sex – and sexual assaults – in his movies often focus on the women; we see their faces contorted in anguish, such as when Holiday is shown having aggressive sex with a club owner, getting pushed up against a mirror. I think it’s interesting the way you show sex being painful for women, I say. To my surprise, Daniels gets a little jumpy.
“Painful? Mmm, I don’t see it like that. Gosh, you’re gonna make me look at all my sex scenes. Wow!” he says. Well, like that scene with Billie in the club, I say. “But that’s what she enjoyed. I never looked at it like that – I guess he was grabbing her by the throat. Interesting. I never thought about it like that. But I think, look, what happens with black women, it ain’t pretty, and I’m here to tell the truth, and maybe you see it as painful, and maybe it is,” he says.
That’s what I meant, I say. That you’re showing the truth. “Yeah, I got nervous, because I don’t want people to think that I glorify that,” he says.
The film also shows Holiday being told off by a black character for being an addict, and not behaving more like Ella Fitzgerald. Similarly, Daniels has been criticised for featuring too many characters of colour behaving in less-than-perfect ways. “People misinterpret my intent. It’s so hard to show the truth, because the truth is interpreted in so many different ways. But I’m OK taking the hit – because Billie Holiday took bigger hits from black people,” he says.
All of his films feature parts of his life, and The United States Vs Billie Holiday is no exception. Most obviously, it is a very compassionate – and detailed – depiction of drug addiction. Within moments of the film starting, we see Holiday injecting herself with heroin, the pain on her face easing to bliss. Daniels has long been open about his struggles with addiction. The night he was up for an Oscar for Monster’s Ball, instead of celebrating afterwards, he went to the Chateau Marmont to smoke crack. Halle Berry called him: “She said: ‘Big Daddy, you coming to the Vanity Fair party?’ I didn’t think I was worthy of being there. I had two hookers on the side of me with a crack pipe. I said, ‘I’ll see you there, baby. I’ll be there.’ And I had no intention of showing. I didn’t think I was worthy to show,” he said in a 2017 interview. A few years later, he had a heart attack: “I’d been using a lot of cocaine,” he told the New York Times.
“Part of the reason I wanted to tell Billie’s story is, I understand addiction and the artist. I also understand the feeling of a lack of self-worth, thinking that you aren’t talented. When your father tells you things like that at a young age, no matter how old you get, that voice is in your head,” Daniels says quietly.
He had stayed away from drugs when he was young, because he’d seen too many people die or get sent to prison when he was growing up in Philadelphia. But then Aids hit in the 1980s, when he was in his late 20s. “I didn’t understand why so many of my friends were dying, who were far greater people and nicer than me, and they were just dropping dead. So I think I began taking drugs to anaesthetise the pain, and that spiralled into a dark place, and it took me a long time to get out of it,” he says now.
True to form, Daniels’ story of how he cleaned up is anecdote-worthy. “Patti LaBelle was the cause of my sobriety. I called her one night at 3am – it was when I was doing Precious [in 2008], and I kept rambling at her, just rambling. Ha! She said to me, ‘You know God and you know Jesus,’ and I said, ‘Are you really gonna ruin my high now? What are you talking about, lady?’ But I said a prayer and that was the beginning for me.”
The publicist interjects, telling me to move on from drugs and get back to Billie Holiday, which seems a little ironic, given Holiday’s story. But I apologise to Daniels if I was prying too much.
“I’m a little nervous talking about it. But it is important because it affected Billie, it affected me, and addiction is real. Unless I am talking about it, I am not going to stay sober,” he says.
Twenty five years ago, Daniels and his then partner, Billy Hopkins, adopted his brother’s then three-month-old twins, Clara and Liam, when his brother couldn’t look after them. “They were a part of my recovery, too. I was very open with them about my situation and they were really supportive,” he says.
The movie makes clear that drug addiction is as much an emotional need as a physical one. I ask Daniels if that need for him came from his father telling him he wasn’t good enough, as he mentioned earlier. “Yes. For sure. You’re put in the trash can when you’re five years old because you came downstairs in your mother’s heels,” he says. This exact scene played out in the pilot episode of Empire. Was it based on his life? “That scene,” Daniels says, “was very real.”
Quite how difficult Daniels’ childhood was is a matter of some debate; he has implied he grew up in a ghetto, but relatives have disputed this. Still, there is no doubt it was tough, especially after his police officer father was killed by gunmen in a bar while off-duty. Daniels was 15. It had always been a difficult relationship. “My dad would say, ‘It’s hard enough being a black man in America – why do you have to be a fag? It is going to be so much harder being disliked by black men, why are you doing this to yourself?’ I think he wanted to beat it [out of me],” he says. It was, he says, “a relief” when his father was suddenly no longer around. “But I miss him now, because I know he loved me the best way he knew how.”
Daniels dropped out of university in the hope of becoming a screenwriter. In the meantime, he became a receptionist, eventually saving up enough to open a home health care services agency. After three years, he sold that, and became a casting agent, then a manager, before moving into producing, and shifting finally into directing when he was 47.
Of all his work, Daniels has especial fondness for the first season of Empire, describing it as “my soul”, not least because of the central relationship between the tough father Luscious (Terrence Howard) and his gay son Jamal (Jussie Smollett). Smollett is also gay, and in January 2019 claimed he had been the victim of a homophobic and racist attack in which two men had put a noose around his neck and shouted, “This is Maga country.” The huge outpouring of public sympathy curdled when it transpired that Smollett had staged the whole thing, possibly in an attempt to increase his Empire salary. He was fired from the show and found guilty of filing a false police report. Empire ended the following year.
Initially, Daniels supported Smollett. Are they still friends? “No. I don’t dislike him. He’s directing a movie now, so I sent him a text congratulating him. That’s my extent,” he says. For the first and only time during our interview, he looks very uncomfortable and asks to move on, so we do.
The question people always ask Daniels is, how does he do it? How did he get Winfrey to break her acting retirement, and Kidman to pee on Efron? “Sometimes people make fun of my openness. But sometimes people embrace me for the person I am, and they open up. I don’t know how to live any other way,” he says. This sounds corny, but I also think it’s true: after just an hour with him I find myself sharing private details about my life, which is not something I’ve ever done before with an Oscar-nominated director. When you’re talking with someone so delightful and open about themselves, it’s hard not to reciprocate, if only because you want the conversation to continue.
We talk about what projects he has coming up, and I ask about his long-rumoured remake of Terms Of Endearment, with Winfrey in the role originally played by Shirley MacLaine. “Possible! That is still possible!” he says with enthusiasm. He is also working on a miniseries adapted from Mariah Carey’s memoir. I tell him I really enjoy that Carey is keeping up her decades-long feud with Jennifer Lopez, referring to her in the book as “a female entertainer (whom I don’t know)”, and Daniels laughs. “Isn’t she funny? If we’re out in a public place and she doesn’t like someone, and they could be really big and famous, she’ll just shoot me a look and smile, and I almost have to wet myself. It’s priceless!”
Daniels makes a “Should I or shouldn’t I?” pause, and then tells me an idea he has for a project starring two mega celebrities that is so ludicrously fabulous I feel my mouth salivate with anticipation. Because if anyone can pull this movie off, it’s him. “People would lose their fucking minds,” he says rightly, thumping the sofa. “Just the making of that movie would be a movie!”
Alas, I cannot reveal what the movie is, because a day later I have a rather intense back and forth with “Daniels’ people” about whether this was on the record, culminating in a personal plea from Daniels, uncharacteristically begging for discretion. Maybe, in his seventh decade, Daniels is developing some professional caution. But only some.
I tell him I heard there was one movie trick he couldn’t pull off – when he tried to convince Winfrey to take Kathy Bates’ role in a remake of Misery. He makes a small smile and another “Should I or shouldn’t I?” pause, before giving in to his true nature. “It wasn’t Misery. It was that movie with Hugh Jackman and a hunt for a serial killer [Prisoners, presumably]. I said: ‘I can get her to [play the killer],’ and Paramount threw me out of the room, they thought I was nuts. So I called Oprah and said: ‘I want you to do this,’ and she said: ‘You’re crazy, I’m not doing that.’ So then I called Gayle [King, Winfrey’s best friend] and said, ‘Gayle, tell her she’s gotta do it.’ And everyone looked at me like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I kept hounding [Winfrey] for a couple of weeks until I realised, oh my God, she’s really not gonna do it. She’s not under my spell!” he says, still sounding a little shocked.
Was that the first time he couldn’t get someone to do what he wanted? He pauses, for a moment looking genuinely astonished. “Yes!”
• The United States Vs Billie Holiday is on Sky Cinema from 27 February.