Oprah Winfrey says starring in ‘The Color Purple’ was ‘the best $35,000’ she ever earned

Oprah Winfrey sits on a chair in a light purple outfit with her legs crossed and her hands folded over crossed knees
Oprah Winfrey says her turn in the 1985 movie ‘The Color Purple’ provided the best $35,000 she ever earned.
(Christopher Smith / Invision / Associated Press)
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Oprah Winfrey says debuting in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 movie “The Color Purple” resulted in one of the most meaningful paychecks she’s ever earned.

Winfrey sat down with Essence for a cover story published Tuesday to discuss the upcoming movie musical (which she’s executive producing) based on Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer-winning novel, and revisited her experience debuting on the big screen as Sofia. “This is a full-circle moment,” she said. Winfrey landed an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of the fierce and defiant Sofia. The film, she said, “changed everything.”

Winfrey was joined by Fantasia Barrino, Danielle Brooks, Taraji P. Henson and H.E.R. from the movie musical’s cast while discussing the forthcoming project. “This story lives forever,” said Henson, who takes on the role Shug Avery in the 2023 film reimagining of the novel. “It’s like Shakespeare. It’s never going to go away.”


Three years after Walker’s acclaimed novel was published, Spielberg pivoted away from his usual blockbusters to helm a film adaptation. The movie earned 11 Oscar nominations, and then went on to be adapted into a Broadway musical in 2005 and again in 2015.

“I can’t even begin to tell you what it means to me — a person who wanted nothing more in my life than to be in ‘The Color Purple.’ And God taught me to surrender — that was the big lesson for me,” Winfrey said. “They were only offering $35,000 to be in this film, and it is the best $35,000 I ever earned. It changed everything and taught me so much. It is God moving through my life.”

Winfrey’s 1985 character will be played by “Orange Is the New Black” star Brooks, who played Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson in the prison drama. Brooks thanked the actor and television host for “leaving space for me but also being there, to hold my hand and answer that phone call when I needed you.”

Winfrey responded by thanking the cast of the forthcoming adaptation.

“To have all of you beautiful Black women bearing witness to the story, as the story moves forward, means so much,” she said. “I believe that what Fantasia has said is true: Everybody who comes to see our film is going to be touched. They will be moved. And they will be healed.”

In 2017, Winfrey spoke with The Times’ columnist Glenn Whipp about her experience during production of the 1985 film, and believe it or not, Winfrey said she was completely intimidated.

“I was terrified,” she told Whipp. “There was another movie — was it ‘Mask’? — where somebody had recently been fired, and it had never occurred to me that you could be fired from a movie. But I did know that if there was anybody who could be fired, it would be me, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Period.”


She said that on her first day of acting for the big screen, she brought a little too much of her daytime-TV hosting experience with her.

“My first day on set and I am in the first scene and I walk in and look directly into the camera and say my line. ‘Cut! Cut!’ Steven asked, ‘Why are you looking into the camera?’ I had been on TV since I was 19 and that’s what you do. You look at the camera. Anyway, I learned. But I’ve never stopped being intimidated.”

The new movie musical rendition of “The Color Purple” opens in theaters on Christmas Day.