Last night, after a screening of The Butler hosted by O, the Oprah Magazine at the Hearst tower, Gayle King moderated a discussion with Forest Whitaker, who stars as Eugene Allen, the real-life White House butler who served eight presidents; Oprah Winfrey, who plays Allen’s wife in the movie; and director Lee Daniels. Both director and co-star agreed Oprah did a great job of disappearing into her first major movie role in over a decade. But when it came time to call on audience members for questions, Oprah leaned forward in her chair, drawing out syllables enthusiastically in her signature style: “Ay-a-na Ma-this! Amazing author of 12 Tribes of Hattie, Oprah Book Club selection!” “Oh God,” said Daniels. “She’s back.” More from the post-screening conversation:
On getting an acting coach:
Gayle: This is the first time you ever hired an acting coach.
Oprah: Well, at [Lee Daniels’s] suggestion. [Laughter from the crowd.] It was Tom [Cruise]’s, and Nicole Kidman’s [coach] and Lee had worked with her and used her for other actors before and he said, “It’s an instrument. And you haven’t picked up the instrument in what, seventeen years? And if you’re going to pick up an instrument you need to tune that instrument.” … It’s a hard thing, to pick up the instrument and to go do it again, and everybody saying, “You should have stopped with The Color Purple!” I just hadn’t done it — and as you know, I was trying to build a network in between.
On crying on cue:
Oprah: I, as you know, have problems crying. Everybody thinks that I’m a good crier, an easy crier, because I cry, I cry. Gayle, at one point called during the Oprah years, and said, “You’re cryin’ too damn much. Every day I turn on the TV, you’re cryin’ over something.” I go, “Well, I’m just feeling it!” “No, you need to stop all that cryin’.” So I can cry if I’m in the moment with somebody and feeling it, but as an actress that was one of my biggest fears, so [the acting coach] Susan came in to help me be able to cry on cue. So she came to my house, and you know the story, I’m not telling y’all the story. But in twenty minutes I was like [blubbering sound]. So I worked with Susan to try to retune the instrument.
On taking direction:
Gayle: How does Oprah Winfrey take direction, Lee? Because listen to me, I know she’s somebody who likes to be in control. I know she’s somebody who likes to be in charge.
Lee: [Emphatically.] Yes.
Gayle: Was it hard to direct her?
Lee: No. In the beginning it was.
Oprah: It was not!
Lee: It was. For me. It has nothing to do with you. It’s me.
Gayle: Because didn’t she ask a lot of questions?
Lee: Too many damn questions! Oprah is just full of questions. I couldn’t answer enough questions. They’re in the bed — it’s the scene where she and Forest were together and they’re making love. So she looks around and she says, “What time is it?” I said, “It doesn’t matter what time it is.” “What time is it, Lee?” I said, “It doesn’t matter. You’re getting laid. Shut up!” She pulled the covers up over her head.
Oprah: Is it morning?
Lee: What difference does it make?!
Oprah: Is it morning? Do I have the rollers in? Am I trying to get breakfast done?
On onscreen nudity/likability:
Gayle: It was interesting to see Oprah have a lover in this movie. [Terence Howard plays the neighbor who comes on to Oprah’s character.]
Lee: But the thing is, we pulled it out. I wanted it all. It’s Lee Daniels.
Oprah: He wanted me in my panties and bra.
Lee: And I was not going to let her talk me out of it. But then, you know —
Oprah: I did talk you out of it.
Lee: You did. We went to a place where it was just sort of a kissing moment.
Oprah: You know why? I said to Lee —
Lee: But you were right! Hey, you were right. That’s right. Yeah.
Oprah: First of all, she’s a mother and she loves her husband, so she’s not gonna be sitting up in the middle of the day watching her soaps in her bra and panties, smoking. And once she does, the audience can never forgive her.
Lee: And I was like, “They can.” But then in early test screenings Oprah and Terrence [Howard, who plays her neighbor] were kissing and making out and people were not happy.
Oprah: [Looking at Forest.] It’s not about you at all. I wasn’t cheating.
Oprah: The thing about Lee is that less is always more. No matter what scene you’re doing, he would say [yelling], “Cut it in half! Give me half of that!” And you’d do it and go, “What half? What’s half?” And then he’d go, “Give me an eighth of that!” And then he’d say, “Throw it away! Nothing! Nothing! I want nothing!” And we’re sitting there going, “What is nothing?”
Forest: It’s true.
Gayle: What do you mean by, “Give me nothing?”
Lee: It means just don’t do anything. Feel each other. Don’t even use the words. Just use each other.
Oprah: So the scene where he’s coming home after the riots, and King has been killed. Obviously I wanted to run up all [blubbering], “Darling! How are you?” Lee goes, “Fake, fake, fake!” Which, as an actor, is the worst thing. And so we kept cutting it in half until that scene — neither of us says anything. ‘Cause his point was, when you love somebody and you care for them, and they’re finally there, and you’ve been together so long, you don’t need to say anything. They’re just home, and you know it.