The Actor’s Screenwriter: Danny Strong and the Rise of Next-Wave Nonfiction

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game Change

Danny Strong in Mad Men and Buffy (insert).
Danny Strong in Mad Men and Buffy (insert).

“There’s always that fear that somebody is going to take your work and well … you know how Hollywood people can be,” Mr. Heilemann, who fondly referred to Mr. Strong as “the angry jockey,” explained. “But Danny treated our story as the assignment and then went out and did his homework.”

“He’s a real journalist,” Mr. Roach recalled, noting that it’s not unusual for the writer to spend six months to a year researching and chatting up sources. “During Recount, he’d be interviewing senators, I don’t want to say which ones, and he’d be correcting them about the facts.

“Not in a mean way,” the director quickly added. “He just needed to know what they were thinking at the time.”

When it came time for the duo to work together again on Game Change, that lack of meanness (of taking the easy, cruel joke) worked in Mr. Strong’s favor. “For Palin, he didn’t want to do the Tina Fey thing, because Tina Fey already did it,” Mr. Roach said. “He went out and interviewed everyone who had interacted with her on the campaign that was willing to talk to him about what she was like—everyone. And what he came back with was this portrait of a woman put in a situation that was like an anxiety nightmare: having to cram to go against Joe Biden with only a couple weeks’ training. I couldn’t do that. I don’t know anyone who could do that.”

In fact, there’s a heartbreaking scene in Game Change when Sarah Palin (played by Julianne Moore) watches Tina Fey’s impression of her with a shell-shocked expression, which is why it would be a mistake to confuse Danny Strong’s writing with reporting. The biggest bylines at The New York Times would have a hard time creating this kind of compassionate stories about their subjects. The reason for going out and doing months of sourcing is less about his finding out the facts—being a voracious political junkie, he already knows them—and more to do with his drive to find out what these people feel as they become part of history, if only as a footnote.

“I spent so many years as a working actor, keeping employed with plays, working on TV shows,” Mr. Strong told The Observer over breakfast in the West Village. “Now I’m coming at [scripts] from a perspective of going through the material in terms of character, how to make the dialogue work for an actor.”

Still, it’s hard to imagine that Lee Daniels’ The Butler wasn’t a new kind of challenge. The film is based on a 2008 Washington Post story of White House butler Eugene Allen, a black man who worked in the White House in eight administrations and spent the majority of his life—and the entire civil rights era—cleaning up after the most important white men in the country. It’s the kind of difficult story that is neither heartwarming nor necessarily of interest, at least on the surface. Even when Wil Haygood wrote the profile of Mr. Allen in 2008 (the year Obama won election to become the first black president of the United States), he declared his subject to be “a story from the back pages of history. A figure in the tiniest of print. The man in the kitchen.”

It took Mr. Strong eight months to write the first draft of a fictionalized account of the real-life Allen, who passed away between the time of the original article and The Butler. After four years of labor, the result is a movie that’s so instantly recognizable in spirit that both its star Forest Whitaker and several critics have begun referring to it as “the black Forrest Gump.” That had to be a daunting prospect for a white Jewish man from Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Mr. Strong maintains that race issues played no factor in his decision to take the project. “The only hesitancy I had is the same hesitancy I have with everything I ever write,” Mr. Strong explained. “Which is panic, fear—oh my God, how am I going to do this?”

Though Mr. Strong admits racial tension was an important element of the film, he said he was more interested in portraying “the totality of the family experience.” Which is a long way from where he was at when he started shopping scripts in his late 20s. By then, he’d established a solid reputation as an offbeat character actor by appearing in everything from Seinfeld to 3rd Rock from the Sun and Pleasantville.

“In some ways, [the writing] was almost like a hobby to help me deal with the pressures of an acting career,” he said. There was interest in his romantic comedies—“vehicles for myself, really” —and it got him a manager but not a deal. By the time he had his fourth script, he was fed up. “I had this sort of mini breakdown when I was probably 30 because that’s when one does these sorts of things.” A lifelong California boy, Mr. Strong moved to New York to get serious.

“I had this kind of life epiphany moment,” he said. “I was looking at all the scripts on my shelf, and I thought, What am I doing wrong? And then it hit me: none of these movies are movies I would go see. I’m not writing anything that interests me personally. I made a declaration to myself: I’m not going to write anything until it’s a movie I would actually go see.”

The Actor’s Screenwriter: Danny Strong and the Rise of Next-Wave Nonfiction