Apparently, Oprah Winfrey’s acting was a bit rusty when she stepped onto the set of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” — some 15 years after her last big screen appearance in “Beloved.”
The TV mogul said she was hampered with so much doubt about having to cry on cue when, in 2010, Daniels offered her the role as the wife of a White House butler who served eight U.S. presidents and lived to see Barack Obama take office.
“I get real anxiety when I know I’m gonna cry,” Winfrey told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’ve carried that since ‘The Color Purple’ [the 1985 film that earned Winfrey an Oscar nomination], when Steven Spielberg asked me to cry on cue and I couldn’t. And I cried all night long because I didn’t have the technical skill to do it.”
But Daniels’ daredevil spirit was infectious — and his suggestion that she hire ace acting coach Susan Batson (who has worked with Nicole Kidman and Juliette Binoche, among others) was persuasive. “I said yes to ‘The Butler’ because Lee Daniels was relentless. I did it to stretch myself,” says Winfrey. “I did it to say, ‘All right, can you do this again?’ ”
Despite her Batson-honed skills, Winfrey may have had more misgivings when the camera rolled on her first scene — seeing off her son (David Oyelowo) on a bus South to join the 1960s civil rights fight.
Daniels was unimpressed. “I said: ‘No! That sucks! What are you doin’? It’s not real! It’s fake!’” says Daniels, chuckling. “She was like, ‘Huh?’ — just sort of reeling from that. It took her a minute to understand not being in charge. But I think she almost got off on it.”
Daniels, for his part, gets off on risk. “He loves an element of chaos and unpredictability,” says Butler producer Pam Williams. Winfrey quickly got into Daniels’ startlingly emotional, spontaneous directing style, and her performance wound up real enough to trigger Oscar buzz. “She became fragile, raw and vulnerable — her eyes are so seductive and hypnotic,” says Daniels.
Later, for a party scene, Daniels showed her how to shake her moneymaker. “He had a very particular idea of how she should dance,” says Williams. “He was out there dancing for Oprah in his pajamas — he wears pajamas every day on set.” Adds Forest Whitaker, who plays Winfrey’s husband, the titular butler, “He was constantly pushing her to dance more crazily.”
Boldly opening in 2,933 theaters in August, the film has since grossed $115 million domestically, plus $31 million abroad.