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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.
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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