BY GLENN WHIPP
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS
LOS ANGELES — Oprah Winfrey guides you into her office and, after a welcoming hug (Winfrey’s a hugger, but you probably already knew that), she immediately anticipates where your eye is going to land first.
Over in the corner, overlooking her Oprah Winfrey Network studio lot, there’s artist Whitfield Lovell’s “Having,” a charcoal on wood panel image of two African American women that has three wood boxes of pennies placed in front of it.
“These women were early entrepreneurs,” Winfrey says. “I looked at this every day from my desk in Chicago to remind me and inspire me that, yes, it can be done.”
Plenty of stories
The spacious West Hollywood office contains scores of Emmys (not all of them), shelves and shelves of books, many dotted with framed photos of Winfrey with the likes of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.
Everything here has a story, and Winfrey, a consummate teller of tales, her own and others’, will happily share them with gusto.
“You see that photograph of me and Madiba over there?” Winfrey says, pointing to a picture of her and Mandela, telling of the time she went to South Africa to help AIDS-stricken children for a project called Christmas Kindness.
Once there, Winfrey, her hair braided, waited with a town mayor for Mandela to arrive via helicopter.
“I am so excited,” the mayor told her. “Nelson Mandela is coming and he’s bringing Oprah Winfrey from America.” Winfrey looked at him, confused. “I’m already here,” she told him. “I’m Oprah.”
The mayor looked at her. “You? You look like a girl from the village. Where is the Oprah we know?”
Winfrey laughs, but it’s not enough to stir her beloved cocker spaniel, Sadie, sprawled out on the sofa next to her.
It’s a good story. And, of course, for Winfrey it’s not just a story but a lesson because Winfrey finds lessons everywhere, and she absorbs them and then passes them on because she loves, to use a word she adores, “pontificating.”
The town mayor’s lesson: Rise for the moment. Give people the Oprah they know.
Over a long, discursive conversation, Winfrey, 63, did just that, touching on the movie she just made for HBO, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” in which she plays Deborah, the daughter of the title character, an African American woman whose cancer cells became crucial to medical research.
We also talked about her next movie, “A Wrinkle in Time,” made with her friend, Ava DuVernay, who created the beautiful, character-driven drama “Queen Sugar” for OWN. And other movies too, ones that Winfrey has made, might one day make, as well as films dear to heart.
On film and family
Q: Deborah is searching for her identity through finding out about her mother. Did playing her make you think about your half sister, Patricia, and what it was like for her to find you and your mother after so many years?
A: You’re the only person who’s ever brought that up! But you are right. I thought of her a lot. There’s a line where Deborah says, “The only thing I care about is my mother and my sister.” I know that my sister has said those words.
Q: Her longing for family informed your work?
A: Definitely. That was part of my process. Because I don’t have that longing. I’m the exact opposite. Like, probably when I was 20-something, I was told by a cousin that my father wasn’t my father. And I said, “The only father I have is Vernon Winfrey and he’s in a barbershop in Nashville, Tenn.” And if somebody who said they were my father came to my front door, it would not matter to me.
I don’t have any of that longing to know. Partly because I just do have this deeper sense of belonging to something bigger than my parents. Because my parents were together only one time.
So it wasn’t like, “Oh, gee, we wanted this daughter.” (Laughs)
I’m glad my father did lay claim to me when he didn’t have to. And I’m glad my mother didn’t abort me because it would have been easier to do as a poor colored woman with no education in Mississippi. So I’m grateful for that but I don’t feel this deep sense of belonging to them. I think I belong to something bigger. The coming of me has been in the making for a long time.
Q: You’re talking generations.
A: I never read it thoroughly when it was done, but I just recently looked at Henry Louis Gates’ book, “Finding Oprah’s Roots.” Looking at it, I am a descendant of not just slaves, but slaves who loved land, which I now have a thing about land. I like it better than shoes. I’d rather have a nice piece of land than a great pair of shoes!
The fact that my great-great-grandfather could come out of slavery and end up a land owner, my great-great-grandmother would come out of slavery and end up a teacher and built a little school on a property … and I had this yearning to build a school for girls. That’s what I mean: It all comes from something bigger. Deeper.
Q: Going back to Deborah and the movie … if you made that connection with your half sister, why did you have so many reservations about taking the part?
A: I always have reservations about acting. I don’t want to embarrass myself.
Fear of being fired
Q: But you’ve acted in movies directed by Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme and Ava DuVernay…
A: I started with Spielberg. So I started pretty high in the food chain.
Q: And you’ve said that you were terrified every day he was going to fire you on “The Color Purple.”
A: I was terrified. There was another movie — was it “Mask”? — where somebody had recently been fired, and it had never occurred to me that you could be fired from a movie. But I did know that if there was anybody who could be fired, it would be me, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Period.
My first day on set and I am in the first scene and I walk in and look directly into the camera and say my line. “Cut! Cut!” Steven asked, “Why are looking into the camera?” I had been on TV since I was 19 and that’s what you do. You look at the camera. Anyway, I learned. But I’ve never stopped being intimidated.
Q: What about acting for Ava in “A Wrinkle in Time”?
A: Well, that was different. That was just a fun thing to do. I’m so proud of her. You know why?
Because it mirrors my relationship with Maya Angelou. She used to tell me she was proud of me, but I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t receive it. I didn’t really know what that meant until my friendship with Ava.
Every time she does something, I think, “Oh. This is what Maya felt about me. That’s what it means when you feel enlarged by someone else’s successes.” Her growth makes me feel broader.
Playing Mrs. Witch
Q: Tell me about Mrs. Witch, your character in “A Wrinkle in Time.”
A: She’s a cross between Glinda the Good Witch and Maya Angelou. (Laughs)
You know, it all started because I love New Zealand so much. So when Ava went there to scout and she’s telling me about the ice caves and glaciers and mountains and turquoise lakes, I told her, “I am coming to visit.” And she said, “If you’re going to visit, why don’t you work? Would you mind reading the script?”
So I did. And I believe I am Mrs. Witch! You know, she’s born of the stars and she’s a wise woman coming from another cosmos. So, c’mon! And she loves pontificating.