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An Afternoon with Oprah

The media giant is the same in life as she is on television: articulate, empathetic, formidable, humane, and, yes, god-like. Yet she's still somehow able to vanish into her groundbreaking role in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which is poised to put an Oscar on her mantle.

...the first thing I said to friends and family after this interview? "I...met...Opraaaahhhhh!"

I didn’t get the Oprah handshake. You know the one: Where she and a guest lock fingers in a grippy high-ten, then turn a reverse tug-of-war into a kind of push-pull joy-gasm. But I did shake hands with Oprah, which is almost as surreal to type as it was to do. Meeting with Oprah Winfrey is the sort of thing that, as a friend told me shortly afterward, completes your day. “You can go home now and sleep,” he said, and I totally got what he meant. No two celebrity interviews are ever the same, but a fairly reliable constant among them is that, by the end, you feel as though—surprise!—you’ve gabbed with an actual person as opposed to some unknowable alien who only exists within a screen. At the risk of making the “Queen of All Media” sound inhuman (she’s anything but), this isn’t the case with Oprah. There are some people—very few, most likely—whose level of fame and, more importantly, respectability, leaves their god-like personae fully intact when they’re seen in the flesh, as their very mortal selves. You walk away from a chat with Oprah with the same feeling induced by any given episode of her 25-year-long talk show—that you’ve just spent time with a peerless possessor of tremendous power, insight, and empathy.

As it turns out, there’s a greater reason for this. While Oprah’s virtues do indeed dwarf those of many others, a sit-down with her is unique because unlike, say, a movie star, or even a musician, whose profession requires varying degrees of performance, and who suddenly startles when seen out of character, this woman is steadfastly, uncannily the same, no matter the venue in which she’s encountered. There’s none of that typical diminishment of grandness, or proverbial yanking down to Earth, because down to Earth is where Oprah’s always been, and that grandness, it seems, is an innate part of her character. Such utter transparency is a very rare gift, and it’s one Oprah says she was lauded for, by legends, long before she became one herself.

“When I was 19 years old, I interviewed Jesse Jackson as a young reporter in Nashville, Tenn.,” Oprah says, “and he said to me then, ‘One of your gifts is being able to be yourself on TV.’ So, when I moved to Chicago, and I was up against the then “King of Talk” [Phil Donahue], my boss at the time called me into his office and said, ‘Listen, we know you’ll never be able to beat him. So just go on the air and be yourself.’ So I have made a career out of my own authenticity. I feel that I have made a living being myself.”

Oprah did, of course, “beat” Phil Donahue on the talk-show front, and just about everyone else in the wide world of media, and the utter inability to imagine a boss imposing limits on Oprah Winfrey is a testament to how far she, and by extension, black Americans, have come in terms of racial equality in our country. Oprah and I are meeting at New York’s Waldorf Astoria as part of her promotion of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film that traces the black experience in America in unprecedented ways, and features Oprah in her first on-screen film role since 1998, when she played Sethe in the underrated adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In The Butler, she plays Gloria Gaines, the wife of Forest Whitaker’s titular White House aide, Cecil Gaines, whose story is based on that of Eugene Allen, a real-life butler who served eight presidents during his tenure at 1600 Penn (in the film, the butler’s employment is condensed to cover Eisenhower’s reign on through to the Reagan era). Oprah didn’t initially want to do the film, but director Daniels, a friend and colleague with whom she’d worked as a producer on his 2009 sensation Precious, wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she was ultimately sold on the film’s historical vitality.

“Lee was relentless,” Oprah says. “And I told him, ‘Lee, I got this [OWN] network thing going on,’ but he wouldn’t listen. And I finally said yes, and I’m glad I said yes. We’d been talking about the story and about Gloria for quite some time. I’m a student of my own history, of African-American history, and I believe that when you know who you are, you are able to move forward not just with the strength of yourself, but with the strength of your entire ancestry. So I embraced the ability to tell that story in an entertaining way that would offer an opportunity for the rest of the world to experience a part of our history. It’s a part that made our nation who and what we are, and I also wanted to demonstrate the love story of African-American family in a way that exposes its tenderness to the world. The film allows people to see that we are all more alike than different. When you see [Gloria and Cecil] at the bus station sending their son off to college, it’s how every parent, regardless of race, regardless of economic background, feels when you have to let go of your son. When you see us sitting at the breakfast table in the morning, I wanted to communicate that sense of love, and connection, and tenderness.”

If you ask any Oscar pundit, the end result of Oprah’s efforts, beyond whatever horizon-broadening wisdom the film will—and should—impart on viewers, will be an all-but-certain Supporting Actress nomination, and, quite possibly, a win. The truly amazing thing is that despite all of that transparency, and all of that lack of disconnect between Oprah’s in-the-media and in-person demeanors, she proves in The Butler that, when called upon, she can still vanish within a character. It’s such a cliché to describe a performance in that way, but Oprah embodies Gloria as if she’s been appearing in films for years, when she really only has three notable film roles to her name (beyond Beloved, she played Sofia in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film The Color Purple, which led her to her first Supporting Actress nod). Her work in the film genuinely suggests that, had she wanted to, she could have successfully pursued an entirely different career. What’s more, she gives life to a woman who is both specific and representative of a throng of African-American women, who struggled, like anyone else, with the balance of personal identity and familial responsibility.

“I wanted to convey the spirit and integrity of all of the women—colored, negro—of the time,” Oprah says, “who stood by their men and held their families together with their grit and their determination, and allowed their own dreams to be repressed. I thought a lot about what it means to be a woman in the ‘50s and ‘60s—a woman like Gloria, or even a woman like myself. All of us got a little fire inside. Gloria had a little fire inside of herself. I thought a lot about what it’s like to be someone who...you have that fire, but what do you do with it? You can’t just watch Edge of Night all day long, or make tuna fish sandwiches or drink a beer. So that’s why you tiptoe with the next door neighbor. [Gloria has a subtly implied affair with her neighbor, played by Terrence Howard.] Gloria, for me, is not just herself, but a composite of the women of that era, who sacrificed and also were the stabilizing forces of their families. Because the butler couldn’t have been who he was and still have a family had it not been for her. So I loved all of that.”

Oprah’s performance continues what seems to have become a trend in the films of Lee Daniels: knockout supporting turns from actresses who go places, dramatically, that no one ever thought possible. In Precious, Daniels drew a scarily great performance from comedienne Mo’Nique, who collected virtually every industry trophy—including an Oscar—for her role as a horrifyingly abusive mother. In The Paperboy, the vanguard filmmaker showed us an uncommonly daring and shocking side of superstar Nicole Kidman, who braved a jaw-droppingly sexualized performance as a bombshell with a thing for murderous inmates. And now, in The Butler, the director heroically coaches Oprah, arguably the most recognizable woman on the planet (except, of course, in the confines of a certain Zurich boutique), in an alternately wrenching and spirited disappearing act, parlaying her real-life credibility as a beacon of hope for colored women into a bold expression of their forebears.

“After working with Lee on Precious behind the scenes, I wanted to just be in his hands, really,” Oprah says. “What’s exciting about Lee is he is a truth-seeker. He will literally not let any of his actors get away with a breath that’s a false moment. And I can testify to that, because he pulled me over to the monitor one day [during production], and he said, ‘You see how you’re leaning in there? You see how Gloria’s leaning in there? And you took that breath? Drop the breath. I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to see it.’ In every moment, he doesn’t allow you, as an actor, to get away with anything that even remotely appears to be fake. And if he does, he’ll start yelling, ‘Fake!’”

The way Oprah shouts that last word is a manner of excited speech that’s become so familiar to the masses, that it need only be casually imitated to be instantly recognizable. (For instance, the first thing I said to friends and family after this interview? “I...met...Opraaaahhhhh!!!”)

But through much of our encounter, such singular boisterousness is curbed for Oprah’s more sobering and deeply articulate observational side, which she largely employs to look back on the women who came before—the women represented in this film. Oprah is now part of a landmark year for black cinema, wherein there isn’t just an abundance of black-themed films, but an abundance of black-themed films created by black artists (see also: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, and Andrew Dosumnu’s Mother of George). It’s a year in which we’re being gifted movies, popular movies that people are actually going to see (The Butler has proved itself a box-office juggernaut), that take an unflinching look at the racist atrocities that have stained our nation’s past, and dig deep into a culture that’s never gotten its proper due. The phenomenon is something of which Oprah is highly aware, and one she undoubtedly helped to foster, but one she’s keen to credit to those illustrated on screen. There’s a quote in The Butler that, while addressing Cecil’s role as an attendant to elite white men, observes that blacks wear two faces: the private one and the one they show to whites. While hers is, of course, a very atypical case, Oprah looks to her parents, and their parents, and people like Gloria, as the collective reason why she’s never had to resort to a mask.

“I don’t have one face that I present to the white world and one I present to the black world,” she says. “And I never have. I talk to my dogs the same way I’m speaking right now. It’s always been the same for me, and I say that with great pride and honor and homage to the people who were of the generations before me. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this movie. You know, 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. I feel validated by their courage, and I feel validated by the war that the butler and his entire generation fought in their own way. And then there was another generation of Freedom Riders [also depicted in the film] who, because of growth and change, decided, ‘We’re not going to do that anymore.’ And I think that was also necessary. Both wars were necessary for the time. Because of the courage, and because of the conviction of generations whose shoulders we all stand on, I never had to do it.”

This article is from the October 2013 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.