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Oprah Winfrey returns to the screen for 'Lee Daniels' The Butler'

Oprah Winfrey, who co-stars in "Lee Daniels' The Butler," discusses the civil rights movement and the women who stayed at home in the '50s and the '60s.

Oprah Winfrey (opposite Terrence Howard) plays the wife of Forest Whittaker's titular character in "Lee Daniels' The Butler." Credit: The Weinstein Company Oprah Winfrey (opposite Terrence Howard) plays the wife of Forest Whittaker's titular character in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
Credit: The Weinstein Company

There was one major reason Oprah Winfrey returned to screen acting for her first prominent role since 1998’s “Beloved”: “Lee.”

Winfrey worked with director/producer Lee Daniels behind the scenes of his breakout work, “Precious,” which she also executive produced. She was coerced in front of the camera for his fourth directorial work, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” playing the wife of a man (Forest Whittaker) who works at the White House from the 1950s through the ‘80s.

“I wanted the opportunity to be in his hands, really,” she says. She said she was relentless in pursuing her. “I was telling him, ‘Lee, I got a network thing going on. But he wouldn’t listen to me. He’d been stalking me for some time.”

Of course, there was also the subject. The film spans the beginning of the civil rights movement and ends with Obama’s election. “I’m a historian of my own history — of African American history. I believe that when you know who you are, you have the ability to move forward not only with your own strength, but the with the strength of your entire ancestry,” Winfrey says.

While specifically about black culture — and in a way that doesn’t portray it through white eyes, despite a Caucasian screenwriter (Danny Strong) — it’s also, she says, universal. “You see the two of us at the bus station sending our son off to college. That’s how every parents, regardless of race, regardless of economic background, feel when you have to let go of your son.”

There’s also her character: the long-suffering wife of a workaholic, who spends days with drink. “I thought a lot about what it meant to be a woman in the ‘50s and ‘60s. All of us got a lot of fire inside us. What is it like to have that fire but have nothing to do with it? You can’t just sit around watching ‘The Edge of Night’ all day long, make a sandwich, have a beer, tiptoe with the next door neighbor,” Winfrey explains. This gave me the opportunity to show the women of that era. Gloria for me is not just herself but a composite of the women of the era, who sacrificed herself to become the stabilizing force of her family.”

In terms of race relations today, Winfrey doesn’t feel like she has a side she shows white — or black — audiences. “I feel I have made a living being myself. I’ve made a career out of my own authenticity. I don’t have one face I present to the white world or to the black world. I talk to my dogs the same way I’m speaking right now.”

But she understands that her being able to feel that way was heard-earned, by others. “I am the daughter of a maid, and my grandmother was a maid, and her mother was a maid, and her mother was a slave,” she says. “I feel validated by the war that the butler and his entire generation fought in their own way. And the fact that there’s another generation of freedom writers and freedom fighters that, because of evolution and growth and change, decided they weren’t going to do that anymore. Both wars were necessary for their times.”

On rumors that she's too hands-on:
"Contrary to what everyone assumes about me, I’m really not a control freak. I like to hire someone who knows what they’re doing so I don’t to do it. Then they come back to me and tell me it’s done. That’s how I like to operate."

On her director:
"What is exciting about him and why we love him is he is a truth seeker. He will not let any of his actors get away with a single breath that’s a false moment. I can testify to that. He doesn’t allow you as an actor get away with anything that’s remotely fake. And if you do he’ll yell, ‘Fake!’”

 
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