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Two bodyguards – built like NFL players, dressed like high-end-overcoat models – greet you at the door of the Templar Hotel. They give you the standard "I'm being overly polite because I can kick your ass" nod and wave you inside a boutique establishment so new and discreet (this is in September, late in the Toronto International Film Festival), it doesn't have a sign. In the lobby, sleek youngsters holding clipboards cross your name off lists and usher you into the keycard-only elevator.

On the top floor, more clipboarders scan more lists. Tapas arrive on plates so beautifully arranged, so photo-shoot ready, you could be here to interview them. Eventually, just as your eyes have adjusted to the chic dimness of the hallway, you are ushered into glass-walled aeries so filled with light you have to squint, furnished with chairs so achingly hip you're not sure how to sit on them.

You don't know what all the security is for, but it lends the next half hour a behind-closed-doors, hush-hush intimacy that turns every utterance into a confidence. And that's fitting, because the movie you're here to talk about, The Paperboy, is singularly personal, though it may not seem so.

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Directed by Lee Daniels, who got everybody's attention with Precious (from Oprah Winfrey to Oscar voters), and written by Daniels from Pete Dexter's novel, it's 1960s-era, sweat-soaked swamp Gothic. There's Hillary, a Florida killer (John Cusack, terrifying); Charlotte, a slinky cat who gets off on writing to convicts (Nicole Kidman, snapping gum); Ward, a reporter who likes to howl at the moon (Matthew McConaughey, wired tight); and Jack, Ward's hormone-stoned younger brother (Zac Efron, in his undies, far from his squeaky-clean High School Musical role). People get peed on or cut up, they masturbate in jail, and everybody likes it rough. Some reviewers don't know what to make of The Paperboy's moonshine-laced-with-PCP mood, but it sure stayed with me, especially its grainy 1960s-style cinematography and the sophisticated geometry of its characters. (Every major character has a compelling, complicated relationship with every other one.)

Daniels, 52, is a rather complex anomaly himself. He's a bear-hugger in a cashmere sweater, a knee-gripper (that is, he grips yours) and belly-laugher whose brown eyes frequently go liquid, an abused Philadelphia kid (his father, a cop, was not supportive of his homosexuality) with Hollywood A-listers on his speed dial. Over his varied career – he started as a casting director and producer, and Bill Clinton tapped him to film public-service announcements inspiring people of colour to vote in the 2004 election – his actors have tended to earn awards, including Halle Berry (Oscar winner for Monster's Ball), Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique (Oscar nominee and winner, respectively, for Precious). "I have to find these fragile people with tragic lives to have this playground in," he says.

His specialty is grounding the lurid in the real. "Lee is constantly, almost to a fault, searching for the truth from his actors in every scene," Efron says in one of the aeries, alongside his co-star David Oyelowo, a British newcomer who plays Yardley, a sinuous associate of McConaughey's. "He'll sacrifice elements of the story if there's a better take for an actor. So everybody shows up with his game face on.

"I don't think I was hungry to prove anything drastic to anyone," Efron continues. "But I was searching for something of quality, work that would challenge me. People treat me with kid gloves at times. But that was out the window with Lee. He's uncensored, so you can skip the niceties."

"Lee will never let you settle," adds Oyelowo. "He will not move on until he gets his truth. That gives you confidence to go big, go small, be led by him, go off script. When you watch a Lee Daniels movie, you're seeing actors who've been given the licence to be brave."

Daniels won't rehearse. Instead, he "instigates friendships with his actors," Oyelowo says. "You'll get a call from Lee at 1 in the morning because he's been thinking about the character, and you'll talk for three hours, about the movie, about life. He builds trust, which builds an emotional map for your working relationship."

He'll demand things of actors that other directors don't. He made Kidman, for example, do Charlotte's floozy makeup herself. "I said, 'If you can't do your own makeup, I can't have you play this character,' " Daniels remembers. "She thought I was crazy!" (Knee grip.) "I thought I was going to lose her over it." But he wanted Kidman to experience how Charlotte girded herself for her life, and she soon embraced it.

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Mainly, Daniels has to have a personal connection with each of his characters. So Anita (Macy Gray), Jack's family's maid, is "like my aunts and my grandma. They're the real [versions of the characters in] The Help to me. They would tell me stories that were unfathomable to me – 'This is the way white people live?' " (Belly laugh.) He modelled Charlotte on his sister, who communicates with "many, many men" in prison. (Kidman spent time with her as research.) He based Hillary on his own brother, who's in prison. (Daniels adopted his brother's twin children, Clara and Liam, in infancy.)

He based Yardley on himself. In the novel, the character was white, but Daniels made him black, "because in the 1980s I had to change myself so I could succeed, because of the racism," he says. "I had to put on this face that wasn't really me and talk a certain way that wasn't me." He based Ward, who is gay, on himself, too. "I dated so many white men," Daniels says, "one of whom killed himself, because he was from Kentucky – he had problems dealing with his homosexuality as it was, but to have a thing for African-Americans was too degrading." (Liquid eyes.) "So he killed himself." Suddenly, Daniels's scripts don't seem so lurid.

"I can't tell a story if I'm not personally involved," Daniels sums up. "I have to know it. I have to know it."

His next film, however, will be a departure from that: It's The Butler, based on the true story of a man who served eight U.S. presidents. Its cast includes Forest Whitaker, Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., and features Robin Williams and Melissa Leo as Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, Cusak as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Oh, and some woman named Oprah is in it.

"But I'm having a difficult time with it, my God – all this research has to be done, 'cause I ain't never been to the White House," Daniels says, chortling. "So I'm nervous about this one."

I'm not worried. If Daniels wants to go to the White House, I'm quite sure he'll get there. Hey, he's already got the bodyguards.

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