On a recent Friday in New York City, Oprah Winfrey was walking down a hallway at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel with a huge smile on her face. No, she wasn't handing out free cars or trips to Australia, just high fives and heaps of positivity. If you said something she liked or agreed with -- hell, if you were simply introduced to her -- she would raise her hand in the air and wait for you to make contact, looking to transmit some of that coveted, feel-good Oprah energy into your soul.
Winfrey was in town gearing up for the initial round of press for "Lee Daniels' The Butler," her first movie in 15 years (she last appeared in Jonathan Demme's "Beloved" in 1998), and she was feeling good. Clearly, Winfrey was excited to be back on the big screen, taking on a role in a project she truly believes in.
Of course, saying that Oprah has a magnetic personality is a bit like calling Steven Spielberg a brilliant filmmaker -- it's just taken as fact at this point.
In her 25 years on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," the 59-year-old media mogul transformed herself into America's de facto therapist and life coach. She became an extraordinary motivational speaker, a shoulder to cry on, and a friend to those in need. But, in 2011, she decided it was time to move on, shutting down the show for good. It wasn't surprising, particularly for someone who's constantly looking to challenge herself; she was just ready to move to "the next level."
And what did that next level look like? Well, it came in the form of a television network (OWN), additional charity work, and, much to her surprise, acting. Even Winfrey, a woman completely in charge of her own brand and reputation, didn't see that last one coming.
"I had given it up. I had positively given it up," Winfrey told Moviefone, about acting in feature films. "Because trying to figure out a way to have a director's schedule fit into my schedule of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' [was impossible]. 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' consumed my life, so there was no room in that space for acting."
For Winfrey, her talk show was more than just a full-time job. She lived and breathed it. With the exception of the last two episodes, there wasn't a show she didn't spend hours planning or critiquing, making sure everything fit to her exact specifications. If she was going to consider a return to the big screen -- no matter the size of the role -- she not only had to make time for the work, but she was going to need a tremendous amount of convincing to do it.
Luckily, director Lee Daniels, whom Winfrey had worked with on the 2009 film, "Precious," as a producer, was willing to try.
"Lee had sent me several things in the past, and for some of them, I said to him, 'Not only am I not going to do it, I am never going to speak to you again if you do it.'" Winfrey said. "He sent me a script. I would not touch it. [I told Lee] 'I am going to burn it up, because I don't want the energy of it in my house! And I am telling you, your karma is going to change, brother, if you do that film.'"
Despite the strong negative feelings she had for that unnamed project, it was "The Butler" that finally won her over. The movie, about Cecil Gaines, a White House butler who served for eight presidential terms, was exactly what she was looking for. Not only did it capture the entire Civil Rights movement -- or, as she puts it, the movie "begins with a lynching and ends with Obama" -- it was told through a man who had one of the most unique perspectives in U.S. History.
Of course, agreeing to sign up to play Gloria Gaines, Cecil's wife, may have been the easy part for Winfrey. Not only had she not acted in a film in more than a decade, she was in the middle of "all the michegas" of launching a television network. In the end, she set aside time for the movie -- but it wasn't easy on her already crazy schedule.
"I knew that was going to be difficult for me to do. I will never do that again," said Winfrey, about acting while launching OWN. "Because it's double duty on your psyche to do that. You need time to unpack all of those emotions before you run off to do an interview with Rihanna. You do not need to do a funeral scene one day and Rihanna the next."
Winfrey also confessed that, because she hadn't been on screen since the late '90s, her number one fear of doing this film "was being embarrassed"; she needed help unpacking all of those emotions. That's why she turned to acting coach Susan Batson for help.
"Duhn duhn duhhnn duhnnn, Susan Batson!" said Winfrey, in exactly the way you'd imagine she would when discussing a person she's fond of. "She took my call," Oprah added, rather incredulously. (Of course Batson took her call. No one wants to be known as the person who turned down Oprah.) "...And I said, 'I really have trouble crying on cue. I really can't. People think I can cry because they've seen me cry on TV all these years. But, I clutch up in a scene if I have to cry."
Within 20 minutes of training with Batson, Winfrey was "bawling on the sofa." But that wasn't a surprise for the veteran acting coach. "Susan said, 'You can do this, and the reason you can do it is because you still have the vulnerability to do it," Winfrey revealed. "If you shut yourself down -- if you become what most people in the world think you are -- you wouldn't be able to do it.'"
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" may be the perfect project to tap into Winfrey's vulnerability, one that will let her disguise the sprightly, philanthropic mogul Oprah as the conflicted, no-nonsense Gloria Gaines.
Of course, the challenge of playing Gloria and the film's depiction of the Civil Rights Movement were two of the driving factors behind Winfrey's decision to take the role in the first place. However, it's hard to think of Oprah choosing to star in a new movie -- or, for that matter, selecting any new project -- without her taking into account her legion of fans, the millions of people whose collective purchasing power can make or break a business, or turn a little-known book into a bestseller.
Considering the tremendous amount of influence the Oprah name wields, it may surprise you to learn that she doesn't rely on a team of career or business advisors when picking a project. She simply chooses to do something out of love, not what's good for business.
"It's just like buying paintings... I only buy what I love. I only buy what moves me. I only buy what I want to look at every day that's going to bring some sense of inspiration," Winfrey said. "And if it's also going to be an investment, that's good. But if it isn't, that's also OK. Because I am only doing it for myself. I am not buying it so you can come to my house and I can say, [in a snobby rich person voice] 'Oh, look at my Degas.' I am not. If I don't like the Degas, then I don't like it, then I am not going to get it. I don't care how big of an investment it is. I don't want it."
Winfrey then brought it full circle, explaining how this thought process comes into play when choosing a movie role.
"I did 'The Color Purple'... I had to give up every week of my vacation in order to be allowed to do it. My bosses at the time, at ABC in Chicago, said you only have two weeks. It was going to take me two months to do that film. So I said, 'This means more to me than anything I've ever done in my life pleeeeease,'" she recalled. "I was willing to risk everything to be in that movie... There was no decision for 'The Color Purple.' The only decision for me for ['The Butler'] -- because it was a role that I felt that I could understand and embody -- was the timing of it. But I wasn't thinking about who was watching and who would not."
Winfrey didn't exactly have as carefree an attitude about "who was watching" her last film, "Beloved," a movie that became one of the rare commercial misses in her career. The film was based on the book by Toni Morrison, which Winfrey purchased the rights to back in the late '80s. She was intimately involved with the project from the very beginning.
Yet, despite critical praise and Oprah's star power, "Beloved" only made $23 million at the box office, well short of its $80 million production budget. It was a valuable lesson for her, one that eventually left her numb to audience reaction.
"To this day I ask myself, was it a mistake?," said Winfrey, on adapting "Beloved." "Was it a mistake to not try and make that a more commercial film? To take some things out and tell the story differently so that it would be more palatable to an audience? Well, if you wanted to make a film that everybody would see, then that would be a mistake. But at the time, I was pleased with the film that we did because it represented to me the essence of the 'Beloved' book.
"What 'Beloved' did for me is it freed me, so I can sit in this space now, 15 years later, and have absolutely no attachment to how people receive ['The Butler']."
Though the film doesn't open until August 16, "The Butler" is already being considered an Oscar contender, thanks in no small part to the work of Winfrey and her co-star, Forest Whitaker.
In fact, some of the movie's most memorable scenes belong to Winfrey -- one in which she struts to disco music, another in which she's forced to deal with the loss of a family member, and, perhaps most memorably, a sequence in which she curses out her son's girlfriend at the dinner table. In fact, after watching her in "The Butler," it's hard to believe that there's a 15-year gap in her filmography.
So, can we look forward to more Oprah on the big screen, or is this an acting swan song for the iconic talk-show host?
"No, I don't think it will be the last thing," Winfrey said. "I am very clear about what my role is... The reason I said yes to a network is because I am here on the planet to try to open people's hearts. I am here to try to let people see through stories, to let people see the connection we have as human beings and how you can reach for the greatest for yourself. I mean, my life is an example of that. So if I find a film -- a piece of work, a documentary, a story -- that allows me to illuminate that in such a way that people can see themselves and people can be elevated by the experience, I say yes to that."
Alex Suskind is Moviefone's Features Editor. You can reach him on Twitter.