Roundtable: Oprah Winfrey and 5 Top Actresses on Crying for Spielberg and 'Muff Shots'

9:00 AM PST 11/25/2013 by Stephen Galloway , Matthew Belloni
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Amy Adams, Emma Thompson, Julia Roberts, Octavia Spencer and "12 Years a Slave's" Lupita Nyong'o on their scariest on-set moments, dumb audition moments and kissing Meryl Streep.

This story first appeared in the Dec 6. issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Putting together THR's roundtables always is a complicated affair, but perhaps none this year was quite as tricky as the Actress Roundtable. First came the matter of coordinating six busy performers' schedules -- a project that began way back in the summer and especially was complex given that 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o, 30, lives in Brooklyn, Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks), 54, in London, and Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her), 39, has been juggling back-to-back movies.

Next came the challenge of getting enough time with the actresses to include an hourlong conversation, the requisite grooming, behind-the-scenes video and an elaborate photo shoot. Finally came the complication of having each participant's lawyer vet television releases so that this roundtable can be broadcast in December on PBS. With all this, it's no surprise that the final t's were crossed mere hours before the roundtable got underway Nov. 9 in Los Angeles, when an amazingly candid conversation took place among Nyong'o, Thompson, Adams, Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels' The Butler), 59, Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), 46, and Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), 43. A few tears were shed.

PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes of THR's Actress Roundtable

What's the best or worst piece of advice you've been given in Hollywood?

JULIA ROBERTS: It's going to be a long hour.

OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well, I'll break that ice. When I first started acting, my acting teacher said, "Imagine if you're doing a scene and someone is out in the hall. If it sounds like you're doing a scene, you're doing a scene. If it sounds like you're actually having a conversation, you're having a conversation."

EMMA THOMPSON: I've got one, I've got one! My godfather was a sort of writer, philosopher, gay man, extraordinary, and he was a director of theater, and he gave my mum a piece of advice. I think it applies to everything. He said, "Onstage, imagine you've got a fire burning in your dressing room." There's something going on elsewhere; it takes your mind off acting.

OPRAH WINFREY: I was in The Color Purple, 1985. I didn't know anything about acting. I'd never even been to Universal Studios. So I walked in -- first scene, first day, Steven Spielberg -- and I looked directly in the camera because that's what you do on television. I walked in and went, "How you doing, Miss Celie?" And he went, "Cut! Cut! Cut! What is wrong with you?" And I'm standing there, trembling. "Where are you looking?" I go, "I'm looking at the camera." He goes, "Miss Celie's over there!" [I was] terrified. And then there was a scene where he asked me to cry. I loved being in that film so much, it just changed everything in my life, and I came to set even when I didn't have to work, and I'd be in the background crying. So Steven goes, "I want you to do that this afternoon." Well, I had no idea how to make that happen again. I had no technical skills, and when the scene was being filmed, I couldn't cry. I could hear the film turning in the camera, and the entire room waiting for me to cry …

ROBERTS: You need to think about the fire.

WINFREY: I should have thought about the fire. I was like, "Oh my God!" So that night, I was in my motel room, crying. [Actor] Adolph Caesar heard me on the other side of the wall. He comes and knocks on the door, and says, "What is all of this goddamn noise?" He gave me the greatest acting lesson. He said: "You need to learn to give yourself over to the character. Let the character take control. And if she wants to cry, she'll cry, and if she doesn't, not even Steven Spielberg can make her."

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ROBERTS: Wow. I'm not hanging around the right people. I'm going to make some calls.

LUPITA NYONG'O: My teacher at Yale, Ron Van Lieu, once said, "It feels like it's all about you, but it's not about you at all. It's about the person you're playing." And that always helps me get out there and do the thing I've been hired to do. I am fighting for what my character wants, and if I'm pursuing that, then I'm good.

WINFREY: Wow, are you good.

AMY ADAMS: You spoke of Steven -- he gave me some amazing advice. I wasn't able to cry for him -- me, too -- in Catch Me If You Can, and through tenderness he came up to me and said: "Can you close your eyes for me? Think about Brenda, think about how much she loves and how much she has to give." I opened my eyes, and he goes, "Let go and lead with this."

WINFREY: Oh, I could just cry right now.

ADAMS: And when Steven Spielberg tells you to do that, you can cry.

What's the scariest moment you've had?

ROBERTS: Is this therapy? Like, are we talking about life? (Laughter.)

ADAMS: I was trapped in the Atlas Mountains on Charlie Wilson's War. That was scary.

ROBERTS: [Amy and I] were filming in Morocco, and they had built this refugee camp at the top of the Atlas Mountains, and this storm came and blew the camp away and destroyed the roads, and I had two very small children to get back to in Marrakech. It was bananas.

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