The truth is, when Lee Daniels asked me to play the part of Gloria in his new movie, I was nervous. Plenty of women would say that starring as Forest Whitaker's wife and Terrence Howard's lover is nice work if you can get it. But trying to pull a fledgling network together is a pretty tall order, so short of having myself cloned, I wasn't sure how I could take on another big project.
Then I read the script.
is the story of a man who becomes head butler in the Eisenhower White House and stays on all the way through the Reagan administration. Based on a true story, it is at once epic and intimate, harrowing and astute. We watch as both a nation and a family come undone and then, little by little, begin to heal—growing stronger in the broken places. Like the butler himself (acted with astonishing grace by Forest Whitaker), we have a front-row seat as history is being made.
I find myself thinking a lot about history these days. I mean, if you don't know where you came from, how do you know where to go? I came from people who were part of the butler's generation, and I am who I am because of those people. My mother was a maid, my grandmother was a maid, her mother was a maid—that's all they could be. Gloria, the butler's wife, represents every woman who deferred her own dreams and paid the price for it. We rarely speak of the women of that era, who stoically, sometimes with great humor, endured their pain, stood by their men, raised their children, all while managing to slip a little extra money into the collection plate to support a crucial cause. They were beautiful and ferocious, and they made the world a better place to be. I celebrate and honor that spirit.
Take Oprah's behind-the-scenes tour of the shoot
Gloria having a drink—I needed one, too!
"Making a movie is a little challenging when you've got another full-time job. It would be like, do a scene, go interview Rihanna, do a scene, now go talk to Usher, do a scene, sit down with a Supreme Court justice. I made myself a little nutty. But when I was there, I was 100 percent there."
Getting Into Character
"Lee Daniels is a truth sayer. He doesn't allow for a single false note. The second he sees an ounce of dramatization he stops you, because in the real world, we're all moving through our lives and moments just come to us and we step into them. We're not creating them. I love that that's how Lee operates as a director. Once, he called me over to the monitor and said, 'You see how when Gloria leans in right here, she takes a breath?' And I said, 'Yes,' and he goes, 'Drop the breath.' He will call you out on it like that. And let me just say, there's nothing worse for your ego as an actor than hearing, 'Cut! Fake! Now do it again!' Oh my god! But his favorite words are 'Let it go.'"
All the Presidents' Men
"I think this movie will allow a whole generation of people who weren't there, and who aren't going to pick up a history book, to understand something about the civil rights movement through the lens of entertainment. I am so proud of Lee Daniels—he's told a great story that really means something."
She Looks Just Like Nancy, Right?
"Jane Fonda sent me a note saying, 'You disappeared and became Gloria and that is a huge feat.' But Gloria is mostly fictional—while Jane, on the other hand, plays a woman everyone knows, so what she does is magic. (Here she is with Alan Rickman as the president.) You look at her in this movie and she is the essence of Nancy Reagan!"
Puffing Like a Pro
"At the first read with Terrence and Forest and all those guys, I'm trying to hold the cigarette and Lee says, 'It's upside down.' So I actually bought those herbal cigarettes and smoked all summer. I had heard that a smoker can always tell if you're faking it, so I taught myself how to really do it. I always had my pack of herbals with me."
About That Love Scene...
"I worked on developing a certain intimacy with Forest. We shared the same makeup trailer and he was always very introspective. I could see him go into character before a scene, and I'd adjust myself accordingly. Sometimes we'd be walking across the lot and I would just sort of take his hand or come up behind him and rub his shoulders. I wanted to build some level of connection before any love scene happened, so I wouldn't just be kissing somebody out of nowhere. I knew that scene was coming and I wanted to establish a deeper kind of rapport with him."
Can You Cry on Cue?
"At Lee's suggestion, I worked with the renowned acting coach Susan Batson. I told her I had trouble crying, so she came to my house and in 20 minutes I was bawling my eyes out. She taught me to dip into those memories of relationships where I've felt unprotected or lost or lonely or abandoned. I went, 'Oh! So that's what it is! Okay.'"
"An onscreen relationship has to come from some thread of truth, so I'd go in every day and actively try to forge a bond with Isaac White, the boy who plays my younger son."
Gloria's First State Dinner
"I don't care who you are, you never forget being a guest at the White House. At the first state dinner I attended, hosted by George H.W. Bush, I was seated at Barbara Bush's table, and it was covered in so much flatware that I can still remember thinking, 'Which fork do I use?' The experience served me well when Gloria gets her invitation."
We Has a (Disco) Ball!
"I have such respect for Forest Whitaker that when he was nominated for the Oscar he eventually won for The Last King of Scotland,
I called him up—even though I didn't know him at the time—and said, 'I want to invite you and your friends and family to my home for dinner to say how much I appreciate your work.' I never imagined that seven years later I'd be acting alongside him in a film!"
Next: Watch Gayle King's exclusive interview with Oprah, Lee Daniels and Forest Whitaker
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