SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – After dancing across the stage at the Arlington Theatre to start a two-hour salute to her work on the big screen, Oprah Winfrey sat down across from moderator John Horn of the LA Times and made it clear from the outset that she was under “no illusion” about her “body of work,” as she playfully referred to her scant work as a film actress throughout the evening. “God bless the editor who put that together,” she said of the typical introductory clip package that kicked off the Montecito Award tribute off.
Yes, Winfrey has only starred in four films (“The Color Purple,” “Native Son,” “Beloved” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) and has offered her voice to a handful of others (“Charlotte’s Web,” “The Princess and the Frog”). But volume isn’t important, Horn said. Quality is. That, among many things throughout the evening, drew applause from the hometown crowd, as indeed, this year’s Montecito Award recipient at the 29th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival is a resident of, well, Montecito, just a few clicks up the 101 freeway.
Winfrey worked the room like it was a Chicago studio audience, often seemingly forgetting that the tables were turned on the legendary TV interviewer, as Horn had to force a number of questions to the fore before the charismatic icon got ahead of herself. Unlike a number of other honorees at this year’s festival that happened to miss out on Oscar nominations a few weeks ago – Emma Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Daniel Brühl and Adèle Exarchopoulos among them – Winfrey threw on her game face and delighted a capacity crowd.
Discussion naturally began with Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film “The Color Purple,” which Winfrey made it a point of saying a number of times changed her life entirely. “‘The Color Purple’ was a seminal moment in my life,” she said, recounting how she woke up one morning and read the local paper’s review of Alice Walker’s book and didn’t even bother to get dressed before throwing a coat over her pajamas and heading down to the book store to pick up a copy and read it cover to cover.
It became an obsession. She would purchase multiple copies and just hand them out to people, she said. She knew all of the characters inside and out – particular Sofia, who she would ultimately portray – and when news came that a film adaptation was in the works, that obsession turned into an intense drive to be a part of the production.
But Winfrey wasn’t an actress. She was the host of a tiny local Chicago talk show and she had a weight problem, which she surmised probably kept her away from the top of casting agents’ lists when it came to these parts. She turned up for an audition of “Moon Song,” the secretive working title of Spielberg’s adaptation, and waited two months before calling the casting agent back. She was crushed by a dismissive person on the other end of the phone who told her, “You don’t call us, we call you. You know who I just had in my office? Alfre Woodard. A real actress.”
Winfrey retreated to a “fat farm” in Wisconsin, she said. She wanted to get her weight under control, but more than anything, she wanted to be okay with not landing a role in a project she said she prayed intensely for. “I wanted to let it go,” she said. And the moment she thought it would be alright, the moment she finally found herself at ease with potentially seeing someone of Woodard’s caliber in the role she so desperately wanted, she got a call from Spielberg.
“I hear you’re in a fat farm,” he said, before conveying to her that not only did he want to cast her in the part of Sofia, but that if she lost one pound, she might lose the role. “Honey, I packed my bags in seven minutes, stopped at the Dairy Queen and went to audition,” she said. “I learned the principle of surrender” from that experience, she went on. “The principle of surrender is after you’ve done all you can do, you have to release it. I have used that principle about a millions times in my life.”
Despite the fact that she was very green – so much so that she thought she should look at the camera during takes, because that’s what she did as a TV host – Winfrey said that, to this day, she has never been happier in her life than when she worked on that film. And she learned so much, particularly the secrets of the craft of acting that she couldn’t seem to uncover in the countless Stanislavski books she had been reading.
She recalled a scene where Spielberg wanted her to cry, but she didn’t have the skill to find that moment. It wasn’t until she clued into, again, the idea of release, of surrendering herself to the character – and that if Sofia was going to cry, she was going to cry, and if not, then not even Steven Spielberg could make her – that she was able to fully grasp the paradoxical concept of telling the truth through acting.
She didn’t even attempt to conceal embarrassment over her work in Jerrold Freedman’s 1986 Richard Wright adaptation “Native Son,” which she called one of a long line of “nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” roles she was offered in the wake of “The Color Purple,” but about a year later she read and loved Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved.” She was very interested in adapting it for the screen, but even calling up the author didn’t do much to move the needle, as Morrison was skeptical over whether her work could be translated to film.
“If I did that film now, I’d do things differently,” Winfrey admitted. “I was very adamant about maintaining the integrity of the book. Now I know a book is one thing and a movie is another.” It took 10 years of hard work to finally realize the project on screen, and the experience ended up being as much a milestone in her life and career as “The Color Purple” was. It was at a time, 1998, when she was feeling tired of her daily talk show (which had become a huge sensation in the wake of her first film role) and she was thinking of stepping away from it.
“Putting myself in the spiritual space of what it’s like to be a slave, I said, ‘I don’t know what tired is,'” she said. “I came into a deeper understanding of who I am. That is when I realized the show is bigger than me…My role is to inspire, encourage, uplift and let people see the light in themselves. All those years [with ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’], that is what I was trying to do.”
Nevertheless, the box office disappointment of “Beloved” sent her into a “numbing depression.” She realized, she said, that the value of the system in place – test screenings, etc. – whereby she was being told what elements didn’t work. But there again, she was interested in maintaining the integrity of Morrison’s work. The result was a movie that didn’t reach as wide an audience as she had hoped, and that, she said, is what she would change now.
Eventually “The Oprah Winfrey Show” ran its course and she went out on top. “I didn’t want someone dragging me out of the ring, taking the mic out of my hand,” she said. She wanted to end it on her own terms, and she took a moment to consider a similar position “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno finds himself in now.
“Jay is going to have a moment,” she said. “When you do it and it’s your life and your routine – it took me a year to separate the show from myself and understand who I am separate from that show.”
While she was in the heat of building The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), that’s when movies started to call again. She had a relationship already with director Lee Daniels, who had considered her for the Mo’Nique role in “Precious” and even, she revealed, asked her to star in the role that Melissa Leo would eventually take in “Prisoners” when he was considering helming that film. That’s when “The Butler” finally came around.
She was worried that she hadn’t even thought about acting in 15 years at that time but she found her way into the character and thought it was a vital project. It was also one reflective of a history that many in our country seem to be more and more ignorant of. Is that depressing, Horn asked her.
“No,” she said. “It’s just who we are. Is it shocking that a news organization can’t do news today? No, because we’re not a culture that wants news. We’re a culture that wants entertainment. So that’s why CNN is having trouble. It’s who we are.”
Winfrey seemed most happy to have shared the screen with co-star Forest Whitaker in the film. She was taken by the actor’s “quiet dignity” and the whole experience may have ignited a desire for more film work in the future.
“I think I will do other films and make choices that are meaningful to me,” she said. “I have some specific things I won’t do, though. I won’t kill people [as a character in a movie]. Energetically, I don’t want to go to the place where I exert violence on somebody…For me, life is about energy.”
And here she sits, a woman born in the “apartheid state” of 1954 Mississippi who can live her life in the hills of Montecito, a trajectory she more than once called a “miracle.” Perhaps that fortune is why she can so easily trade in philosophies that, out of anyone else’s mouth, might read as platitudes. “The real goal in life is to become more who you are, so you can make decisions that matter to you and enhance who you are,” she might say. Or, “Anyone who’s ever believed in anything knows it doesn’t matter what other people think.” Or, indeed, her reasoning behind doing “Beloved”: “In spite of slavery, we’re still a people who can love.”
On that last point, it’s interesting to note that that very element – love – is what director Steve McQueen has consistently said lies at the heart of his Best Picture nominee “12 Years a Slave.” There was discussion early on about that film, and about the great year for African American cinema 2013 has been. She praised “12 Years” for being both entertaining and informative, going on to declare that she hopes it will win the Best Picture Oscar in March.
“I was having a conversation with Spike Lee about this recently,” she recalled. “He was saying that every five to 10 years, people talk about this abundance of black films, but then it goes away. So I hope [that’s not the case this time]…The fact that we’re open to hearing other people’s stories really excites me.”