The day before Oprah Winfrey began shooting Lee Daniels’ The Butler, she was at the White House, talking to the president.
Her access to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (this particular trip was for a 2012 campaign interview) is considerably greater than her character’s in the film. She plays Gloria Gaines, the wife of a long-serving White House butler (Forest Whitaker), whose service spans seven presidents and decades of civil rights sea changes.
“They said, ‘Do you want to talk to some butlers?’” Winfrey recalled in a recent interview. “I said, ‘No. You got some butlers’ wives? I’ll talk to them.’”
It was 15 years ago the last time Winfrey was on the big screen, in the 1998 adaption of Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, produced by Winfrey’s Harpo Productions. In the time since, she’s been slightly busy. The Oprah Winfrey Show grew into an enormous cultural force. Her work on the side in film (most memorably in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, for which she received an Oscar nomination) took a back seat to being a television icon and an entrepreneur.
“I would only give my time to something that really mattered to me,” she says. “I’m not interested in being in the movies for movies’ sake.”
But Daniels was persistent. He had sought Winfrey for the role Macy Gray ended up playing in 2009’s Precious (Winfrey became a producer) and several other projects.
“It was hard,” Daniels says of the pursuit. “I was looking for something to do with her, and I kept telling her: ‘You have got to come back to work,’ because she was magnificent in The Color Purple. I wanted it selfishly for myself. I wanted to see her on the screen.”
“I gave her a script she couldn’t refuse,” says Daniels of Danny Strong’s screenplay. “I hooked her in. Once I got her in, it was over.”
The timing was poor for Winfrey, who was then trying to get her cable network, OWN, off the ground. Though the network is now running more smoothly (it recently became profitable), the start was rocky, trying to find a programming identity and lure viewers to a new destination on the dial.
“I thought it was an important story to tell, even though I was in the midst of cra-a-a-zy business with my network,” says Winfrey. “I said to Lee so many times: ‘Lee, Lee, Lee. I cannot do this. This is not the time for me.’ He was like, ‘I’m doing it. I’m going ahead. And you told me, you promised me, Oprah!’”
While Winfrey was making The Butler, she was knee-deep in running OWN: prepping shows, shopping for others and negotiating to bring Tyler Perry in as a producer (a move that’s been a big factor in OWN’s turnaround). But she regrets the balancing act.
“The way to do film is to take yourself out of your other life, do it, and then go back to your other life,” Winfrey says. “I almost had a nervous breakdown.”
“I hope something else comes along that will mean as much to me as this does, so that I would take the time and the effort to get it right,” she adds. “It’s work. It’s no plaything.”
Picking up acting again after a decade and a half wasn’t easy, either, even for a seasoned show-business performer like Winfrey. She hired an acting coach (Susan Batson, who has coached Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), she says, “because I was scared.” Though OWN made for constant distractions, Winfrey otherwise revelled in acting again.
“On the days that I was in it, in it, in the character, it felt really good,” she says. “It’s a wonderful muscle to get to exercise again. I really do feel like that’s exactly what I was doing. It’s like putting away your instrument and not touching it, and then going back in and pulling it out. It felt rewarding.”
The smoking and drinking Gaines is a rollicking departure for Winfrey. She’s a sometimes surly housewife, flirting with an affair and overflowing with jealousy that her husband spends so much of his time wrapped up in another family’s domestic life. She mocks Jackie Kennedy’s shoe closet and, with in an obvious wink to audiences, begs: “You know I want to go to the White House.” In one memorably scene, she dances to Soul Train. Had Daniels had his way, the part would have included nudity — a line Winfrey refused to cross.
But Winfrey, 59, has tirelessly promoted the film. Men like Whitaker’s modest, dignified character, she says “were the foundation of the African-American community.”
“That is who we are,” she says. “That is the heart and soul of who we are.”
In recounting 20th century African-American history, the film encourages conversation about racism. Many in the cast have been asked in interviews about their experiences, including Winfrey, who made news when she cited a Switzerland boutique that wouldn’t show her a $38,000 [Dh139,500] purse. Her comments went around the world, bringing scrutiny, denials and apologies.
At the film’s Los Angeles premiere on Monday night, she told The Associated Press that she’s “really sorry that it got blown up.”
“I was just referencing it as an example of being in a place where people don’t expect that you would be able to be there,” Winfrey said.
It is, though, the kind of dialogue Winfrey thrives in nurturing. It sounds almost like an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, one that would carefully tease out the viewpoints of everyone involved.
“I don’t know whether I’ll ever do a movie again,” Winfrey says. “What I do know is that my role in life is to open the heart space for people. That’s what I tried to do for 25 years on the Oprah Show is to let people see, through the stories that we told every day, a way in for themselves and a way out, if necessary. This movie also allows an opportunity for that in a way I didn’t expect.”