After a whopping 15 years Oprah Winfrey is finally back on the big screen this Friday in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” Since her last feature, 1998’s Oscar-nominated “Beloved,” Winfrey has seen her career skyrocket, making her one of the world’s richest women. But given how commanding Winfrey is in “The Butler,” opposite a cast of industry stalwarts like Forest Whitaker and Jane Fonda, you’d never have guessed she took a break from acting. (Indiewire’s Eric Kohn praised her performance as “surprisingly palatable”)
Loosely based on the real-life experiences of Eugene Allen, a black presidential butler who served through eight administrations from Eisenhower to Reagan, Lee Daniels’ follow-up to “The Paperboy” stars Whitaker as the titular butler and Winfrey as Gloria Gaines, his neglected, stay-at-home wife.
I sat down with Winfrey in New York to discuss her return to acting, working with her good friend Daniels, and surviving the heat of the New Orleans-based shoot.
We’ve been waiting since “Beloved” to see you bite into a role this
meaty, though I did love you as Madame President on Jimmy Kimmel and on “30 Rock” as yourself.
It’s the hardest thing in the world to play yourself. Because
you don’t know what is the self. I mean, you’re not a caricature to
yourself. You’re not an image to yourself. I think that is harder than
anything, well, it’s one of the hardest things. Because who is Oprah to other people? But anyway, that’s not the question.
What’s it like to be back in this capacity?
Well, I was really nervous about it, and to hear people respond to
Gloria, I feel that I’ve already been victorious because my real goal
was not to embarrass myself. And that is the truth. When Lee was in the cutting room, he’d say, “Oh, I’m cutting the
scene and you’re so great.” I’d say, “Look. I just don’t want to
embarrass myself.” So I started to irritate him. “Why do you keep saying
that?” And I’d go, “Because that was my goal.”
It’s like picking up an instrument. Imagine you
play an instrument. You haven’t picked it up. It’s been in the corner
buried. In 15 years, you haven’t picked it up. And then the first time
you pick it up, you’re not going to play for your neighborhood. You’re
going to play on a national stage. [She screams.] So I was a little anxious
about that because look at what’s happened in 15 years. Look at what’s
happened to my life in 15 years. I haven’t thought about acting in any
way. So can I do that again? The burning heart space that I used to hold
for it, I had to let that go because I could see that the life of “The Oprah
Winfrey Show,” two shows a day, and all of the requirements on my life
at that time was not going to let me have that dream career as an
actress that I thought I was going to have as a younger adult. So I was
Lee said, “I think you should call Susan Batson.” Because I
said, “Listen. I see all these scenes in here where she has to cry, and
I’m not a good cryer.” I know people think I can cry because I’m Oprah. I can cry as Oprah. I can cry on a commercial as Oprah,
empathizing with people. But I don’t know about that crying on queue
thing. I’m scarred from “The Color Purple,” because Steven [Spielberg]
had asked me to cry and I couldn’t cry. Then I went to the hotel and I
cried all night because Steven asked me to cry and I couldn’t cry. So I
brought in Susan Batson, who you know has worked with lots of people.
Tom Cruise —
Tom Cruise, Nicole [Kidman], and she came to Santa Barbara. She sat on the
sofa, and she was saying, “So what do you want out of this?” “Well, you
know, I really have problems crying. I really can’t access that emotion
in time.” And I was bawling [imitates sobbing] in 20 minutes. So I
learned how to do that, to prep myself. I still am anxious if there’s a
scene with crying in it. You know, getting myself to that space and
holding that space inside. Putting those little places where you can go
to and pull up on. So I was nervous about it. I’m not kidding! I really
was nervous about it. So the fact that there’s any kind of good reaction
at all, I just go phew. I didn’t embarrass myself.
I know Lee had tried
to get you in previous films of his, like “The Paperboy” — he wrote the
Macy Gray part initially for you. What made you say yes this time?
Well, I read that part and I go, “I am not doing this.” This movie,
“The Paperboy,” I couldn’t put myself in that space. I couldn’t do it.
And he sent me several other things that I’ve said to him, “If you do
that film you’re going to have the worst karma ever.” Because I think
all of your life is about energy, and you have to be careful about the
spaces you put yourself in. So what made me say yes to this after him
being relentless and it was a very tough time for me. As you know, I was
being slaughtered in the media about OWN at the time.
Which, congratulations is doing better than ever now.
[Winfrey reaches over to give a high-five.] Thank you! Turned that around. So I said, “Lee, this is the worst
possible time.” He goes, “Well, this is how we’re going to do it. We’re
going to do it. We’re going to do it.” So I said yes because of the
scope of the film because one of the things that really excites me about
this film is being able to introduce and reaffirm to other audiences,
but to introduce to younger audiences, such as yourself, this part of
our history that most people don’t know.
I mean, you come out of the
theater and people say, “Was that true?” Are you kidding? Are you
kidding?! Are the freedom riders true? The people who were younger than
you? Had the courage to get on those buses, and those are the kids that
led the fight. Those are the kids that paved the way for me to be able
to be Opraaaahhh Winfreyyy! So to be able to tell that story
through the context of a family, these people I knew — I know Gloria as
my aunts and neighbors and cousins and friends and sister friends —
who were part of a middle class, sometimes poor community, but had such
grace and dignity and pride in taking care of their families and their
homes, wanting their children to have a better
life. I wanted to be a part of sharing that story. So to be able to have
people have the opportunity to see that, I mean the tenderness between
Gloria and Cecil.
[Spoiler alert!] That’s what broke my heart. The final scene between the two.
Oh my gosh. Let me just tell you. It still, just to to think about
it, does that for me to. I mean, I’m there and I’m dead, I’m there in that final scene and when he says, “Gloria,
honey, you all right?” He
did that many, many times that take.
This interview is continued on page 2.
And you couldn’t see it.
And I couldn’t see it. But I could hear it. Oh my gosh. And that was
it. That was the final. Wasn’t that perfect? Because he didn’t go, “Oh!
Gloria!” You know? Which Lee wouldn’t have let us do anyway. [Spoiler over.]
that was cut from the film, the very first take of when the military
comes to the house, I dropped to floor and went into a primal, rocking
scream. Even as I’m pulling myself up off the floor from coming out of
that space, I knew that Lee was not going to use that because Lee is
always looking for less. Looking for less, looking for less, looking for
The arc of that scene is remarkable.
The way it starts out on such a high note —
Yeah, soul train? Dancing. The party. But she knows it’s gonna,
that’s why I did that gesture, pulling the wig off. Because when that
phone rings and he’s on the phone with him, you just know. “Party’s
over. We ain’t going nowhere. There will be no disco tonight.”
My favorite look of yours was in that scene, with you sporting your big fro and black-and-white jumpsuit. How did you come up with the look for Gloria? She turns it out in every scene.
It was not me. That is Ruth Carter pulling out all those polyester
outfits. I think that one she actually designed. Getting through the
polyester was really hard some days. With the heat in New Orleans and the sweltering humidity, and the polyester stuck to your body… yeah. At one point I said, “We shall overcome polyester someday.” [Claps and starts singing, “Oh polyester, deep in my heart.”]
Did you sing that on set?
No, I didn’t sing it [laughs].
So what was your favorite look in the film?
My favorite is in the orange party dress that we’re celebrating Cecil’s going to the White House. Because you know he didn’t ask for that himself. The White House called him, he didn’t call the White House. So that’s actually I think my favorite. And what is another favorite scene? I liked going to the White House in that eighties getup, with all the glitter and stuff. By that time I was aging a little bit. But the most uncomfortable was that jumpsuit watching “Soul Train” because we, I swear, I think we shot that all night. And Lee is on the side going [claps], “Faster! Faster! Dance! Harder! Harder! I want more! I want more! You’re having fun, Gloria! You’re having fun!” I was going, “Lee, how much damn fun can I have by myself?!” Oh my god. He’s going, “You’re feeling it, Gloria! You’re feeling it Gloria!” And he’s on the side doing this, doing this [claps]. You don’t see that. And I’m going, oh my god. Over and over, take after take. I think a part of him loved the idea of having me under his control and being able to say, “Faster, faster, faster!”
We had many discussions about the character. Because I had worked on who she was and I was alive when Kennedy was shot. Originally he had in the script when Cecil comes home after Kennedy’s been shot, she says to him, “F you, f the White House, f everything,” and I… that’s impossible. That’s impossible, Lee. She would never do that. And he says, “No, she’s upset, he’s been gone three days.” And I said, “But during those three days Lee Harvey Oswald was shot, she was in front of the TV, she saw Jack Ruby shoot him, I mean, it’s impossible.” Finally he said, “OK, you don’t have to worry about it, because I only get one f-word and I’m not giving it to you.” [Laughs.] So I won’t the argument on a default.
And then he really wanted her, as Lee — because, you know, he’s always pressing the envelope — he really wanted a major love scene between Terrence [Howard] and I. And I said, “If she does that, Gloria…” I went in to fight for Gloria. He goes, “You just don’t want to do it.” I go, “It’s not about me. If Gloria does that, you will not be able to bring her back in terms of empathy from the audience.” I go, “She wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t do it. She’s just flirting with him. She’s just seeing how far she can walk down that path. But she really doesn’t want to abandon her values and everything that she believes in, just because she’s lonely. She knows. She knows who he is, and she’s not going to do that.” But if he had his way I would have been naked.
And saying the f-word.
Saying the f-word many times over.