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Danny Strong went from being in the background in the cult favorite “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to having an episode written for him and becoming one of the series’ villains.
Though he still acts, he’s become more well known as a screenwriter, winning two Emmys for his work on HBO’s “Game Change.”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Danny Strong is one of those actors whose name you might not be familiar with but whose face you might recognize from shows like "Mad Men" or "Gilmore Girls." But he's probably best known as the hapless Jonathan in Joss Whedon's cult TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." As "Buffy" fans know, Jonathan started off as the kid in the background who almost gets killed - a lot - as in this scene where Jonathan's seduced by an evil mummy disguised as a beautiful teenage girl.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER")
DANNY STRONG: (as Jonathan Levinson) Your hands feel kind of rough. Aren't you with Xander?
ARA CELI: (as Ampata Gutierrez) Does it look like I'm with Xander?
CHAKRABARTI: Later on, writers gave Jonathan a lot more to do. He even gets to be a villain. But actor Danny Strong has gone way beyond the character of Jonathan. He's also the Emmy-winning screenwriter of the HBO film "Game Change." He's a writer on a new "Hunger Games" movie that's in the works. Danny Strong also has a major film opening this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BUTLER")
CUBA GOODING JR.: (as Carter Wilson) Hey, there he is. Heard you were coming. What's your name, my brother?
FOREST WHITAKER: (as Cecil Gaines) Cecil. Cecil Gaines.
JR.: (as Carter Wilson) Cecil Gaines. Well, I'm Carter Wilson, the head butler.
CHAKRABARTI: Lee Daniels' "The Butler" stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, an African-American butler in the White House who witnesses history for 30 years but is never a part of it. At the same time, Cecil clashes with his son, who's active in the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Danny Strong wrote the film based on a Washington Post article about a real butler in the White House. But as Danny told HERE AND NOW producer Emiko Tamagawa, he also had a much bigger story he wanted to tell, and he wanted to tell it in the right way.
STRONG: There seems to be a rich tradition in Hollywood of making movies that deal with civil rights or race issues centered around a generous, benevolent white character who is so kind to an African-American character and helps them rise up and defend them or fulfill their potential, and aren't white people great, you know? And I didn't want to do that. I wanted to tell a story about African-American characters that were not aided by the kind, generous white man or woman. They did it themselves.
EMIKO TAMAGAWA, BYLINE: You won Emmys for "Game Change," which is 2008 political election. This is both political, you know, from the sidelines, and historical. Is there something about, I don't know, political history that attracts you as a screenwriter?
STRONG: Yeah. I really love these political films partly because I find the stories extremely dramatic because the stakes are so high for these characters. And what I like to do, and my goal is to find a way to find a human element within the story to make the story not just intellectually important, but extremely emotional.
TAMAGAWA: At the center of "The Butler" is, of course, the butler. He's the White House butler in administrations from Eisenhower all the way up to Reagan. His son is deeply involved in the Freedom Riders and the Black Panther movement. This is all in the 1960s and '70s. You were born in 1974, and you are not African-American. And I'm thinking, was that daunting at all when you approached the screenplay?
STRONG: Well, it wasn't daunting because of my race or because of my age. It was daunting because it was such a complicated story to tell. Sony Pictures and the great producer Laura Ziskin, who is sadly no longer with us, had optioned this article by Wil Haygood about Eugene Allen, a White House butler. And they offered it to me, and it was just, so what's the movie? What do you think the movie is, Danny? And my response was: I have no idea.
And as soon as I figured out that the spine of the story was going to be the civil rights movement, and it was going to be the civil rights movement through the eyes of a White House butler and through his son, who is a civil rights activist, figuring that out was the true breakthrough for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BUTLER")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) That judge just sent you to 30 days in the county workhouse? (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) If I can't sit at any lunch counter I want, then I might as well be dead. We're fighting for our rights.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Rights? What are you talking about?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) We're trying to change the nation's consciousness toward the American Negro. (Unintelligible)...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Who do you think you're talking to? I brought you into this world. I'll take you out of it.
TAMAGAWA: Just to backtrack, you've done so much work as an actor. Did you come to screenwriting after acting? Or I mean, did they sort of come at the same time? I mean...
STRONG: No. I was always an actor first, and I did high school theater, and then I was a theater major in college. And then after I graduated from college, I started working as an actor. And then when I was around 26 I had been supporting myself as an actor for a few years at that point, which is kind of the dream. And I found that I was unhappy, and I thought, wow, this is everything I've dreamed of since I was probably five years old, and it's actually happening. And so why is this not fulfilling for me at all?
And it wasn't completely unfulfilling, but I was, you know, just - there was a certain misery that I had underneath all the time. And I realized it was because my entire life was waiting for someone to call me. And you only got the phone call that you got the job a few times a year. So that means the rest of the year, the phone call is bad news over and over and over again.
And so I started writing to basically take my mind off of it, to just give myself another creative outlet, and I wrote a script for me to star in. And then I gave it to some producers, and they said, wow, this is really great. Can we try and get this made without you attached? I was like, no, you know? This is my "Rocky." This is my "Sling Blade." But I was so encouraged by the response that I decided to pursue a writing career independent of my acting career.
TAMAGAWA: I do have to ask you just a little bit about your future project. You know, you've been working on these historical, political things, and then you're going to be going into the big franchise - now that "Harry Potter" is gone, now the "Twilight" is gone - the third "Hunger Games" book, "Mockingjay." Is there going to be change in your approach because you've been doing all of this historical stuff?
STRONG: I actually can't talk about those at all.
STRONG: And so I apologize, and I'm sure that you'd like to hear answers to it. All I can say is, I was hired to write "Mockingjay - Part 1." And then they - I turned the script in, and then they hired me to write "Mockingjay - Part 2." And that's all I can say.
TAMAGAWA: That's fine because I actually wanted to ask about the other thing that I'm sure people ask you a lot about. It's been years, but I have to ask specifically about "Buffy," because what interests me about you in the sort of arc of "Buffy," as it were, you started out as pretty much a glorified walk-on. You have a couple of lines or whatever. And then within a couple of seasons they write an episode for you where you are suddenly a superhero and you're a chess grandmaster.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER")
STRONG: (as Jonathan Levinson) I think we have a plan. Buffy, you go in first. Let him get a look at the slayer. Xander, the Nimzowitsch defense. And let's see if I remember. Mm-hmm. Mate in four. You almost got me that time, Rupert.
TAMAGAWA: A couple years later, you're a villain. I mean, it's sort of like the actor's dream, isn't it?
STRONG: Well, I am a chess grandmaster in real life, so they just - that's not true. I'm lying to you. And I apologize to you and your listeners. How could I say that? Yeah. "Buffy" was amazing for me. That was an amazing experience. It was a really, really wonderful progression. And I'm really grateful to Josh Whedon because he basically started my career.
TAMAGAWA: Do you have sort of a future project in your eye for the horizon?
STRONG: Right now I'm writing something small for me to direct. I've had three films made as a writer. In all three films I was very close with the director. I was heavily involved in post-production. And now I would like to see if I could get behind the camera myself.
TAMAGAWA: Do you want to be a writer, actor, director, triple threat, or do you want - I mean do you sort of see yourself in all three? Do you see yourself continuing to act? I mean where do you see yourself going?
STRONG: My goal as a writer-director is not as a writer, director, actor to put myself in movies, primarily because I don't want to have to watch myself. When I watch myself I kind of cringe and I don't enjoy it. So the idea of directing myself and having to watch dailies sounds horrible to me.
But I do want to continue acting. I still do act. I was on "Mad Men." It was fantastic. This is my favorite show. But I'm just much more selective now on the acting front because the focus of my energy is my writing projects. So I only want to act when it's on something that I really like.
CHAKRABARTI: That's actor and writer Danny Strong, speaking with HERE AND NOW producer Emiko Tamagawa. Strong is the screenwriter behind the new film "Lee Daniels' The Butler," which opens in theatres on Friday. Strong also makes a cameo appearance in the movie. You can see him on one of the Freedom Rider buses portrayed in the film. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.