Q&A: Oprah Winfrey was ‘terrified’ making ‘The Color Purple’ and has ‘never stopped being intimidated’

Oprah Winfrey runs her OWN television network but still finds time to act.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Oprah Winfrey guides you into her office and, after a welcoming hug (Winfrey’s a hugger, but you probably already knew that), she immediately anticipates where your eye is going to land first. Over in the corner, overlooking her Oprah Winfrey Network studio lot, there’s artist Whitfield Lovell’s “Having,” a charcoal on wood panel image of two African American women that has three wood boxes of pennies placed in front of it.

“These women were early entrepreneurs,” Winfrey says. “I looked at this every day from my desk in Chicago to remind me and inspire me that, yes, it can be done.”

The spacious West Hollywood office contains scores of Emmys (not all of them), shelves and shelves of books, many dotted with framed photos of Winfrey with the likes of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela. Everything here has a story, and Winfrey, a consummate teller of tales, her own and others’, will happily share them with gusto.

“You see that photograph of me and Madiba over there?” Winfrey says, pointing to a picture of her and Mandela, telling of the time she went to South Africa to help AIDS-stricken children for a project called Christmas Kindness. Once there, Winfrey, her hair braided, waited with a town mayor for Mandela to arrive via helicopter.

“I am so excited,” the mayor told her. “Nelson Mandela is coming and he’s bringing Oprah Winfrey from America.” Winfrey looked at him, confused. “I’m already here,” she told him. “I’m Oprah.”

The mayor looked at her. “You? You look like a girl from the village. Where is the Oprah we know?”

Winfrey laughs, but it’s not enough to stir her beloved cocker spaniel, Sadie, sprawled out on the sofa next to her. It’s a good story. And, of course, for Winfrey it’s not just a story but a lesson because Winfrey finds lessons everywhere, and she absorbs them and then passes them on because she loves, to use a word she adores, “pontificating.”

The town mayor’s lesson: Rise for the moment. Give people the Oprah they know.

Over a long, discursive conversation, Winfrey, 63, did just that, touching on the movie she just made for HBO, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” in which she plays Deborah, the daughter of the title character, an African American woman whose cancer cells became crucial to medical research. We also talked about her next movie, “A Wrinkle in Time,” made with her friend, Ava DuVernay, who created the beautiful, character-driven drama “Queen Sugar” for OWN. And other movies too, ones that Winfrey has made, might one day make, as well as films dear to heart.

Deborah is searching for her identity through finding out about her mother. Did playing her make you think about your half sister, Patricia, and what it was like for her to find you and your mother after so many years?

You’re the only person who’s ever brought that up! But you are right. I thought of her a lot. There’s a line where Deborah says, “The only thing I care about is my mother and my sister.” I know that my sister has said those words.

Her longing for family informed your work?

Definitely. That was part of my process. Because I don’t have that longing. I’m the exact opposite. Like, probably when I was 20-something, I was told by a cousin that my father wasn’t my father. And I said, “The only father I have is Vernon Winfrey and he’s in a barber shop in Nashville, Tenn.” And if somebody who said they were my father came to my front door, it would not matter to me.

I don’t have any of that longing to know. Partly because I just do have this deeper sense of belonging to something bigger than my parents. Because my parents were together only one time. So it wasn’t like, “Oh, gee, we wanted this daughter.” (Laughs)

I’m glad my father did lay claim to me when he didn’t have to. And I’m glad my mother didn’t abort me because it would have been easier to do as a poor colored woman with no education in Mississippi. So I’m grateful for that but I don’t feel this deep sense of belonging to them. I think I belong to something bigger. The coming of me has been in the making for a long time.

I don’t feel this deep sense of belonging to them. I think I belong to something bigger. The coming of me has been in the making for a long time.

— Oprah Winfrey, discussing her parents

You’re talking generations.

I never read it thoroughly when it was done, but I just recently looked at Henry Louis Gates’ book, “Finding Oprah’s Roots.” Looking at it, I am a descendant of not just slaves, but slaves who loved land, which I now have a thing about land. I like it better than shoes. I’d rather have a nice piece of land than a great pair of shoes!

The fact that my great-great-grandfather could come out of slavery and end up a land owner, my great-great-grandmother would come out of slavery and end up a teacher and built a little school on a property … and I had this yearning to build a school for girls. That’s what I mean: It all comes from something bigger. Deeper.

Going back to Deborah and the movie … if you made that connection with your half sister, why did you have so many reservations about taking the part?

I always have reservations about acting. I don’t want to embarrass myself.

But you’ve acted in movies directed by Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme and Ava DuVernay…

I started with Spielberg. So I started pretty high in the food chain.

Oprah Winfrey, left, and Ava DuVernay at the Warner Bros. Studio Lot Steven J. Ross Theater on Aug.29, 2016 in Burbank, Calif. (Mike Windle / Getty Images)
Oprah Winfrey, left, and Ava DuVernay at the Warner Bros. Studio Lot Steven J. Ross Theater on Aug.29, 2016 in Burbank, Calif. (Mike Windle / Getty Images)
(Mike Windle / Getty Images)

And you’ve said that you were terrified every day he was going to fire you on “The Color Purple.”

I was terrified. 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.

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 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.

What about acting for Ava in “A Wrinkle in Time”?

Well, that was different. That was just a fun thing to do. I’m so proud of her. You know why? Because it mirrors my relationship with Maya Angelou. She used to tell me she was proud of me, but I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t receive it. I didn’t really know what that meant until my friendship with Ava. Every time she does something, I think, “Oh. This is what Maya felt about me. That’s what it means when you feel enlarged by someone else’s successes.” Her growth makes me feel broader.

Tell me about Mrs. Which, your character in “A Wrinkle in Time.”

She’s a cross between Glinda the Good Witch and Maya Angelou. (Laughs)

You know, it all started because I love New Zealand so much. So when Ava went there to scout and she’s telling me about the ice caves and glaciers and mountains and turquoise lakes, I told her, “I am coming to visit.” And she said, “If you’re going to visit, why don’t you work? Would you mind reading the script?”

So I did. And I believe I am Mrs. Which! You know, she’s born of the stars and she’s a wise woman coming from another cosmos. So, c’mon! And she loves pontificating.

For the Record, June 15, 4:05 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misspelled Oprah Winfrey’s “A Wrinkle in Time” character’s name as Mrs. Witch.

Next thing you’re going to say is that she loves desserts and Toni Morrison.

She probably does! Anyway, it was done out of friendship in the beginning and turned into a great experience. I just saw it in its rough stages the other day, just a piece of it, and I started to cry. She’s put her soul into it. And Disney has given her the luxury of time, which she has never had before. It’s going to pay off in ways you can’t imagine.

“It’s going to pay off in ways you can’t imagine,” Oprah Winfrey says of the time Disney gave her friend and director Ava DuVernay to make “A Wrinkle in Time.” (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

[In an email, DuVernay writes: “This is my second time working with Oprah as an actress. The first was with her poignant portrayal of the real-life civil rights legend Annie Lee Cooper in ‘Selma.’ This time around we worked together on her portrayal of an all-knowing, all-wise celestial being who brings good and light to the Universe. Tall order for most. But she dazzled me and everyone on set with the ease and effortlessness of her performance. It’s saying a lot when you can make all-knowing and all-wise look easy! But she did just that.

“Oprah is a lot of things. Leader. Legend. Mogul. But we should really add a formidable actress to that list. She has a tremendous toolbox. I believe her work as an actor is imbued with the knowledge of all her hundreds of thousands of human interactions and interviews over the past three decades. She’s looked into people's eyes and heard their stories face to face. The triumphs. The tragedies. And everything in between. She’s heard and seen it all. And she brings that to her acting. Because she’s achieved excellence in her career in other areas, it’s easy to overlook her acting work. But when you really look closely, it’s quite clear. She’s a real actor with real gifts. A force. And I consider myself fortunate to have worked with her in this way.”]

What about this talk of you playing the Shirley MacLaine role in Lee Daniels’ remake of “Terms of Endearment”? Is that going to happen?

It’s just a rumor. I spoke to Lee actually this morning who told me that somebody is writing it. And I go, “Lee, you’re not doing a thing until you have a script.” And I don’t think it should be called “Terms of Endearment,” that’s for sure, especially if you’re doing a whole other script. It’s about an African American family and the girl gets AIDS from the husband. That’s not “Terms of Endearment.” It’s something else.

So you’re not stepping into Shirley MacLaine’s shoes?

What I am saying for sure is that I am not going to try to step into Shirley MacLaine’s shoes. It’s unnecessary to do that. She’s already done it as well as it could be done for that role.

I just watched “Terms of Endearment” recently with my girls [students at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa]. I sit down with them, telling them all the movies you need to know. (She pounds her hands) Movies you … need … to … know. “Terms” might be my favorite movie of all time other than … well, “[One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest” is one of my favorites.

When I first opened my school, I made everyone watch “The Wizard of Oz,” and they were like, “Mom O, why are we watching this white girl run up some yellow bricks?” That’s when they were 12 or 13. Now they get it. Because I teach, “You’ve always had the power. You spend your whole life running around, looking for the perfect yellow brick road and it’s always right here.” Now they’re college graduates. We were just talking about this the other day. “Remember when you made us watch ‘The Wizard of Oz?’ ” What was that all about?

Same thing when I first showed “To Kill a Mockingbird” to my kids. “It’s in black and white? Nooooo!”

What’s your favorite line in that movie? Come on. Tell me!


“Stand up. Your father’s passing.” Still gets me every time!

I normally don’t watch movies more than once. That one I probably saw three or four times as a little girl. Scout. Why didn’t someone name me Scout? I just love the idea of being a Scout. You can never be mad at a Scout, you know.


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