Exclusive: Oprah Winfrey Talks Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Exclusive: Oprah Winfrey Talks Lee Daniels’ The Butler
By Wilson Morales
August 5, 2013
Coming out on August 16th is Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which tells the story of Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who served eight American presidents over three decades. The film traces the dramatic changes that swept American society during this time, from the civil rights movement to Vietnam and beyond, and how those changes affected this man’s life and family. Directed by Daniels, the film stars Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as the butler and David Oyelowo as his son Louis.
Playing the role Cecil’s wife, Gloria Gaines and in her first dramatic and acting role since 1998’s Beloved is Oprah Winfrey. Throughout her husband’s journey, Gloria battled with alcoholism, loneliness, depression, and family issues.
For Ms. Winfrey, who, in 1986, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, her performance in ‘Butler’ shows that she hasn’t lost a beat while coming back to the acting world. In 2009, the Mississippi native, along with Tyler Perry, came on board to be executive producers to Lee Daniels’ Oscar nominated film, “Precious.” That relationship there led to her casting for this film.
In speaking exclusively with Blackfilm.com, Winfrey talks about her preparation for the role after a lengthy absence from acting, the wardrobes she wore in character, and her working relationship with Daniels, Whitaker, Howard, and Oyelowo.
This is the first time that you’ve been on the big screen in fifteen years. Can you talk about getting back into the acting world, and what you learned in working with acting coach Susan Batson?
Oprah Winfrey: I started to work with Susan because years ago when I was in ‘The Color Purple,’ Steven Spielberg had asked me to do…I was watching my character, the character Harpo in the juke joint do a scene, and I was so moved by him that I started to cry. The camera was only on him and I was just an observer, just standing because I came to work everyday because I loved the process so much that I just wanted to be there even when I wasn’t working. So Steven said, ‘When we turn the camera around you, I want you to cry this afternoon,’ and I didn’t have the technical skills to do that. I ended up crying all night long because I couldn’t cry when he asked me to cry. Literally, I could feel the film moving in the camera and everybody standing by, waiting for me to cry and I could not cry. I thought I was going to be thrown out of the film. I was back in my motel room in Monroe, North Carolina that evening. Adolf Caesar came to me, banging on the walls, saying, ‘What’s all that goddamn noise?’ literally. G-d noise. He said, ‘Stop all that noise.’ He came into my room, and I said, ‘Steven Spielberg, he asked me to cry. I couldn’t cry, and I wanted to cry and I couldn’t cry. I didn’t know how to cry.’ He said, ‘Learn to give yourself over to the character. You have to give yourself over to the character and let the character take control. If the character wants to cry, she’ll cry. If she doesn’t, not even Steven Spielberg can make her.’ So that was my first and only acting lesson ever. It carried me through ‘Purple,’ and after fifteen years of not picking up the instrument, I thought I needed somebody to help me. So I called her in to say, ‘How do people do that? How did they cry on cue?’ I said, ‘I have such trouble crying, Susan. I really do.’ She sat me down on the sofa in my little cottage in Santa Barbara and had me bawling in twenty minutes. So I learned how to do it. If I know there’s a crying scene, I have to start prepping myself hours before. I have to start putting that in spaces within myself where I can go in and get it. But that’s what she taught me how to do.
Can you talk about playing Gloria Gaines, and did you talk to her son in regards to what his mother was like?
OW: I did not. I worked with Susan in prepping for the character, her asking me questions, and before, I learned in my process to create my own diary of the character. The reason that I said yes after Lee [Daniels] was relentless in asking me to do this, it was a very difficult time for me. As you know, in the media I was getting slaughtered daily for OWN’s lack of progress at the time. So I said to Lee, ‘Lee, I’m trying to but I’ve got to build this network. I’ve got so much going on. I really cannot now take this new thing on,’ but he was relentless and relentless, and I finally said yes because to be a part of a vehicle that would allow people to see the African American family in a way that is not just redeeming, but is truly who we are, that’s why I said yes. So Gloria to me represents my mother, my aunt, all the women where I grew up in my neighborhood, in the middle class neighborhoods that I wasn’t allowed to be in because I was in a poor neighborhood. They represent every church lady I ever saw. She represents and embodies the spirit, soul and texture of the women who stood by, gave up a lot of their own dreams, lost their own ambition for anything other than holding their families together, and did that with a kind of grace and a kind of dignity that we never honor. The other reason I said yes is because you never get to see African American families being tender. Years ago I walked in the room at the end of a ‘Cosby Show’ and I was looking at the credits, and Dr. Huxtable was lying in Claire’s lap, and she was stroking his forehead. I started to cry. I hadn’t seen any other part of the show. The credits were rolling. ‘Why am I crying? I’m crying because I’ve never seen that before.’ I’d never seen two black people on a screen being tender with a sense of intimacy, that thing that comes when you’re just stroking somebody’s head. I’ve seen them kissing. I’ve seen them having sex. I’ve seen a lot of videos. I’ve seen a lot of ‘Back That Thing Up,’ but I’d never seen that moment of that thing that you know you feel when your heart opens. You say, ‘Wow, that’s who we are.’
Can you talk about the different costumes you got to wear, and all the different makeup that you had to wear for this role?
OW: Well, [costume designer] Ruth Carter brilliantly constructed the architecture of design for that period, for all of us. Some of that stuff was crazy and uncomfortable. I mean, how did we ever wear polyester? How did we ever wear polyester?! And how could you possibly wear polyester in the humidity of a hundred and four degrees in New Orleans? I mean, is there anything more uncomfortable than polyester, scratching and itching? But at the time, we all thought that was great, the new fabric. You didn’t have to iron it. So there was a lot of polyester involved, and I think she did a great job. A lot of those things were authentic, pulled up from somebody’s wardrobe. Somebody used to wear that, including that horrible tracksuit, that ’80s tracksuit that we wear toward the end of the film. So that’s all Ruth Carter. It was fun. It was fun to sort of live that, have everyday be your own costume party. It’s like, ‘What do you got for me now, Ruth?’ Some days I would just go, ‘I’m not wearing that. I am not even putting that on. I’m not putting that on, and Gloria wouldn’t be caught in that.’ Yeah.
What was it like being directed by Lee, someone you’ve worked with as a producer?
OW: I would have to say my number one word would be stimulating. It’s very stimulating and exciting, in a way, to work with Lee because you know you’re going to be pushed. He does not take one single breath of anything that’s fake, and will start in his own cray-cray way yelling, ‘Fake, fake, fake,’ which at first is intimidating and embarrassing. But you just know at the end of the thing sometimes you go, ‘Was that okay?’ You never have to worry about that with Lee because he literally, and I’ve told this story before so you will not be the first person I told it to, but one day he called me in, and he works with the actors and so he calls you in to look at the monitor. When you finish a take he says, ‘Come look at this. See where you lean in right there? See where Gloria did that? You leaned in. You took a breath.’ I go, ‘I took a breath?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, drop the breath. Too much.’ So over and over again, the scene where Cecil is coming home and the riots and Dr. King has been shot, the first time we did that we were on the porch and it’s like, ‘Are you alright?’ He was like, ‘Cut, cut, cut. Fake.’ I go, ‘What?’ I go my husband has come through the riots,’ and he goes, ‘When you have the kind of intimacy that you have, you don’t need to go, “Darlin’, are you alright?” Just seeing him and seeing that he’s alright is all you need. We just need to see that you see it.’ Isn’t that great?
Most of your scenes are with Forest [Whitaker], Terrence [Howard] and David [Oyelowo]. Can you talk about what they each brought to the table?
OW: Forest is not just the lead, he is the soul of this film. When I saw it for the first time, I sent him an email saying, ‘You were able to evoke…the ancestors are so proud of you because you were able to evoke the spirit of them.’ Through the life of one man, he was able to reach in and pull up the lives of everybody who’s ever been through that. That’s what you see when you see that film. That really is what you see. It is to me a holy thing that he did. It’s a holy thing. It’s just sacred work that he did. So I am in awe of that. It is a manifestation of something that I really had reached for and not even knowing what form it would take, because when he was in ‘The Last King of Scotland,’ I’m the kind of person that when I see things that I really admire and appreciate and because I am who I am, people take my calls; I called him up. I didn’t know him. I said, ‘Forest, you are going to get the Academy Award, and even if you don’t, I want to celebrate you, but you’re going to get an Oscar for this because that is an Oscar winning performance. So I’m going to have an Oscar party for you whether you win it or not.’ So before the Oscars I had him to my house. I had a celebration for him. ‘Bring your family, all your friends.’ I didn’t know them, and just to say, ‘Bravo, brother.’ He said, ‘One day we should do something there. We should work together,’ and we had contemplated the idea of doing ‘Fences’ together on Broadway. The problem is that I had a little day job, and so that day job kept me from being able to do it. So it showed up with Denzel [Washington] and Viola [Davis]. But we had talked about doing that on Broadway. That would’ve been interesting, to do that kind of work. But then this showed up, and it was a happy opportunity to once again…not once again, but to have an opportunity to actually fulfill that dream of being able to work with him. So that’s Forest.
Terrence Howard. Cray-cray. I love him. He is a genius in another way. I mean, Forest is a genius, and Terrence Howard, he is a scientist and he’s an inventor and he is a brilliant mind. You sit with him for ten minutes and he’s telling you about how his theories are better than Einstein’s, like Einstein has it wrong. It’s like, ‘Really? Einstein had it wrong?’ So that scene in the movie where he does the whole thing, showing the evolving of the moving of the hangers, I’d seen him show somebody else that in an experiment earlier in the day. I was like, ‘There’s Terrence being Terrence.’ Then it shows up in the scene. So he’s brilliant, and as an actor, he absolutely for me opened me up in places that I didn’t know I had. His whole thing is that you never know what he is going to do. That whole scene is adlibbed. Every scene that I did with him, you have a line or two lines and it turned into ten minutes. It turns into ten minutes, and you’re like, ‘Cut. When is Lee going to cut this thing?’ because you know it’s not going to run. Lee was howling on the floor from that porch scene, that porch scene where we’re out there and he’s like…so he’s brilliant. Layers and layers and layers. I’d love to work with him again for something because he’s just so much fun. He is fun. Sexy. Fun. And talking about my boobs, yeah. Yeah, I have big boobs.
Then there’s David who plays the son and you have a great scene with him.
OW: Okay. David played my son and has now become my son. We really, really bonded. I would say of the people who I have maintained there, we’ve maintained a really strong relationship. We spent holidays together. His kids now call me Auntie O. We had the kids on the spring break with all of my girls. So he became a son to me. We started talking about a lot of things, and I could see that I could be a strong mentor for him, and I’ve had wonderful mentors. So to be able to do that for somebody else is really kind of exciting for me. The other day, somebody said, ‘What? Are you his agent?’ I’m his agent mama. You really can’t have a better agent, in my mind. So I’m his agent mama. You’re going to hear big things about that guy. You’re going to hear big things about him. He is, when I say brilliant I really do mean the light of him comes through in every experience. You’re going to hear lots of things. Get to know how to spell that name. It’s Oyelowo. It’s a strange name, but you’re going to hear big things about him. He’s going to be huge. He already is in his own way, but you know why, he is hungry, but for all the right reasons. And he’s so talented and is always reaching for the truth for himself and for the characters. I just love him. He’s now my adopted son.