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Oprah Winfrey On Working With Lee Daniels On 'The Butler': 'If he had his way, I would have been naked, saying the f-word many times over.'

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire August 13, 2013 at 10:40AM

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 (Indiewire' Eric Kohn praised her performance as "surprisingly palatable"), you'd never have guessed she took a break from acting.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler"
TWC "Lee Daniels' The Butler"

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. 

The Butler

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 scared.

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.

The Butler Forest Whitaker Oprah Winfrey

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.

Lee Daniels' The Butler

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.]

The scene 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 less.

The arc of that scene is remarkable.

Isn't it?

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!"

Lee Daniels' The Butler

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.

This article is related to: Oprah Winfrey, Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Lee Daniels, Interviews, Weinstein Company, The, Awards, Forest Whitaker, Terrence Howard, Academy Awards