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NOV
8
3 YEARS

Oprah Winfrey, James Earl Jones and Dick Smith on Governors Awards (Exclusive Audio)

The trio, who will receive special Oscars at the 3rd Academy Governors Awards on Nov. 12, spoke with THR about the kudos and their careers thus far.

James Earl Jones Oprah Dick Smith - H 2011
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On Saturday night, many of the film industry's biggest names will gather at the Hollywood & Highland Center for the third annual Academy Governors Awards ceremony, during which actor James Earl Jones and makeup artist Dick Smith will be presented with honorary Oscars for lifetime achievement and actress/producer Oprah Winfrey will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for extraordinary philanthropic work (which has only been awarded to 33 others, three posthumously). The three were selected for these honors by the Academy's Board of Governors in August, and in the time since have each granted an interview to THR's awards blogger Scott Feinberg.

Following are audio recordings of/text excerpts from those conversations.

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Winfrey, 57, is best known for hosting The Oprah Winfrey Show, which reached millions of viewers in 150 countries each weekday from 1986 through 2011, and launching the cable channel OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, earlier this year. She has also achieved great success as an actress, scoring an Oscar nod for her film debut in The Color Purple (1985) and starring in Beloved (1998), and as a producer, markedly raising the profiles of dozens of many films including The Great Debaters (2007) and Precious (2009). Her greatest legacy, though, may be her generosity, which has improved the lives of countless others all over the world: she has rallied the public to donate tens of millions of dollars to worthy causes through her Angel Network; personally donated $350 million of her own money to various charities; and established the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in a South African township.

On how she learned that she had been chosen to receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award...

"I was hiking in Maui, and the security guy runs up the hill, and he says, 'Urgent! You must call the Academy now!' I go, 'What?!' 'You must call the Academy!' Honest to goodness, I run a girl’s academy in South Africa, so I thought something had happened there, and then I get there and it’s the Board of Governors... I had heard there was some rumor that I was asked to host the Oscars, so I thought, 'Are they calling me to ask me to host the Oscars?' Or, 'Are they mad at me because the rumor’s out?' ’Cause I didn’t start the rumor -- I don’t know where it came from! So why would I have the Board of Governors on the phone to talk to me? I couldn’t even imagine... when Tom started speaking and telling me all the people in the room, I’m, like, holding my breath. 'Wh- Wh- What?!' So that was my reaction. My reaction was, 'What?!' [laughs]

On what motivated her to dream big dreams despite the bleak circumstances in which she was raised...

"I grew up thinking I was fatherless, except for my quote 'Heavenly Father.' So I’d go to church -- you know, my grandmother was very religious -- and I’d sit there, and they’d talk about, you know, God being your Father... So that’s what I grew up with as my creed, really—believing that, “Oh, I come from God; God’s my father; so therefore I come from greatness and I can do anything.' So I would have to say that that belief in a power greater than myself, and believing that I always had that to rely on, is what has helped me in everything in my life. That belief system has helped me to believe that there was no glass ceiling. That belief system has helped me to believe, 'So what, there’s racism? So what, there’s sexism?' You know? 'I come from something that’s greater and bigger than all of that.'"

On acting...

"For a long time, I wanted to be an actress, and, you know, my father was very much against me acting -- he’d say, 'No daughter of mine is gonna be layin’ on some castin’ couch!' [laughs] That’s the southern perception of what it means. So, in school, I had to defy my father; I was like, 'Well, I’m going to be an actress! I’m going to be an actress!' I ended up majoring in speech and drama, and getting called to TV early in my career, so the acting got set aside."

On The Color Purple...

"Being in The Color Purple profoundly renewed my faith in a power greater than myself because, literally, to make a long story short, I had gotten the book; I had read the book; then I went back to the bookstore; I bought every single other book -- at the time there were only eight other copies at the bookstore; I packed that book out to all my friends -- this was before I had a 'Book Club' -- cause I wanted everybody I knew to read the book. I used to stop people on the street and say, “Have you read The Color Purple?” I just became really obsessed with it. Literally obsessed with it... I heard -- you know how you hear -- 'Oh, they’re gonna do a movie about that!'; and I started saying to people in the beauty shop on the south side of Chicago, 'I’m gonna figure out a way to get in that movie! I’m gonna figure out a way to get in that movie!' They said, 'Well, what are you gonna do in the movie?' I said, 'I don’t know. I can help the script girl, I can carry water, I can do whatever.' I looked at the credits of a movie, and at the end of it they had, 'Best boy,' and I thought, 'I am gonna prove that I can be a best girl!' ... I started, like, writing about it in my journal, praying about it, thinking about it -- the whole thing. I was obsessed with it... I got a call at the end of 1984, in my office in Chicago, saying, 'Would you be interested in coming to audition for a film? It’s called Moon Song.' And I said, 'It can’t be called Moon Song, ’cause I’ve been praying for The Color Purple!' I said that right there on the phone! And he said, 'Well, this movie is Moon Song. Do you want to come audition...?' And I go, 'Well, I’ll come and audition, but I’ve really been praying for The Color Purple.' So I walk into that audition, Scott, and damn if it isn’t The Color Purple, even though they had Moon Song on the script... the moment I open up the script, I know it’s The Color Purple, and I am auditioning for The Color Purple! I could weep right now, Scott, I could weep right now. And not only am I auditioning -- I’m auditioning in a scene with Harpo, which is my name spelled backwards!"

On how much The Color Purple meant to her -- and how it led to what she calls "the best decision I ever made"...

"I would not be where I am in my career today with the best decision that I ever made in my life or my career -- and that was to own my own show -- if it were not for The Color Purple... When I shot The Color Purple it was so hard because I was, you know, just starting A.M. Chicago [her first talk show]... At the time I only had two weeks vacation; I think it took me six weeks to film The Color Purple, so [her employers] kept telling me, 'You better get your ass back here because you don’t have any more vacation time!' Literally, those were the words: 'Get your ass back here! You have run out of vacation time!' [laughs] And I kept bargaining... I said, 'I’ll give up the next year’s vacation and the next year’s vacation if you’ll let me finish this film! I’ll give up all of my vacation forever more if you’ll let me finish this film!' So, when it came time to renegotiate the contract for WLS and A.M. Chicago, my lawyer at the time, Jeff Jacobs, said, 'You never want to be in the position ever again where you can’t do what you really want to do, you can’t fulfill your heart’s desire, so you should own your show so you’re never in that position again!' And that’s why that came about."

On whether she will ever act again...

"When I was first called to do The Color Purple, I thought, 'Hm. I finally get to fulfill that opportunity, that seed of a dream that I’d held for myself for so long.' Now I don’t have it as much -- I don’t have the deep, burning, if-I-don’t-do-it-I-will-die kind of yearning; what I have is: if I’m offered something that I see as compelling, and worth my time and the energy and effort it takes to rearrange my whole life to go shoot something, then I would do it."

On the meaning of "the Oprah brand"...

"A force for good -- a force for hopefulness and the possibility of the human spirit, really... what my goal on Earth is is to maximize my own human potential; my goal is to have the fullest expression of myself as a human being, and to carry along with me as many people as I can... I think that’s why we’re all here, is to experience the maximum expression of yourself, all that it means it to be human. And so I’m still in the climb, in the search for that... and every day offers a new opportunity for me, and it’s so exciting that I don’t want to do that alone; I want everybody else to know that you can, too; and that my path isn’t yours, and mine isn’t, you know, Denzel [Washington]’s or anyone else’s. But what I have to offer, the world needs; otherwise I wouldn’t be here. And so my goal is to let the rest of the world know that for themselves."

On her girls academy in South Africa, the cause about which she is most passionate...
"We were doing 'ChristmasKindness' over there, where I decided I was gonna go from village to village and bring some joy to kids because some nuns had done that for me when I was a little girl... and I stayed at Nelson Mandela’s house -- his home was my base -- so I got to know him very well, and literally was sitting in the living room at his feet one night, and we were talking about what to do about poverty. You know, we’d have these big, thoughtful conversations -- exactly what you would imagine you would be doing if you were with Nelson Mandela... And we were talking, and I was saying that I think the way to change poverty is through education, and then he agreed, and then we got into this big conversation, and I said, 'One day I want to do a school,' and he said, 'Okay' and got up and called the Minister of Education. And that’s how it started!... [Now, four years later] Everybody’s going to college! These girls were carrying buckets of water on their heads five years ago and now they’re talking about going to Wellesley... It's amazing! It’s am-aaaaa-zing!"

(Click below for the interviews with James Earl Jones and Dick Smith.)