"I don't have very many secrets," says Oprah Winfrey as we sit down at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to record an hourlong episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast, the first podcast to which she has ever granted a wide-ranging interview. Possibly the most famous living woman and person of color and certainly the most famous interviewer and life coach of the television age, as well as a network chief, producer, actress and philanthropist, Winfrey, 63, continues, "I learned early on, in the process of interviewing other people, that what really connects you to another human being is your willingness to open up and be vulnerable." She adds, "Before people researched it and studied it, I had come to know that naturally, that vulnerability is your greatest power, and I would say that that's been my greatest gift in connecting to the audience, just being open and willing to continually be myself."
Winfrey was born in rural Mississippi during the Jim Crow era, the product of a single sexual encounter between two young people who barely knew each other before or after it took place. Raised until the age of six by her grandmother in a small house with no running water or electricity, she was a smart child who got off to a promising start before she was sent to Milwaukee to live with her mother, at which point she began to be molested by relatives and acquaintances. "That just started me on a spiral downward," she says, noting that she became pregnant after being raped at 14 by an uncle just before she was sent to live with her father in Nashville. "I hit rock bottom," she says, acknowledging, "I intended to kill myself." She got a "second chance," though, when she miscarried, and emphasizes, "I was, in many ways, saved by that, and I made a decision that I was going to turn it around."
Winfrey became a first-rate student, won oratory contests and beauty pageants and caught a big break when she was just 16 and landed her first job in journalism, reading news for a local radio station. "I just pretended to be Barbara Walters," she says, and soon was off to Tennessee State University, double-majoring in speech and drama and landing, during her sophomore year, her first job on TV, as a reporter at the local CBS affiliate. After graduating, she was recruited to Baltimore's CBS affiliate (it was there that she, Gayle King and Maria Shriver became close friends), arriving after much hype, initially failing to gain traction as a nightly news co-anchor but then finding her strength as a daytime talk show host, where she was not reading off a teleprompter, but interacting with people and speaking from the heart. After eight years, she left to join the ABC affiliate in Chicago, and during her first year there a remarkable series of events made her world famous.
Winfrey, despite never having acted before, was able to realize her dream of starring in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 big screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, garnering a best supporting actress Oscar nomination in early 1986. And just months after that, her daily talk show, which had become so popular that it had displaced Phil Donahue's as Chicago's highest-rated, was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show and began to be nationally syndicated, launching an unparalleled 25-year run at the top. Over the course of more than 37,000 interviews spread across 4,400 episodes, Winfrey strived to help others live their best life, becoming known for her immense empathy and generosity and firmly establishing herself as "the Queen of Daytime Television." "We had a higher vision," she says, citing the show's "intention" ("to serve the viewer") and "mission" ("to uplift, enlighten, encourage and entertain"), and revealing that she spoke to God before every show: "My prayer was, 'God, use me and protect me.'"
Winfrey's "empire" soon expanded to include a number of other major initiatives, both within and beyond the show itself, among them: Oprah’s Book Club (1996), Oprah’s Angel Network (1997), O! magazine (2000), the Oxygen Network (2000), the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls boarding school in South Africa (2007) and, in 2010, the Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN, which Winfrey's longtime partner Stedman Graham first suggested to her 25 years ago, and which became her primary focus after The Oprah Winfrey Show aired its last episode in 2011. The only network owned by a black woman, it is based in Los Angeles, employs hundreds and overcame a slow start to become a major success. "There was a lot of schadenfreude going on in the beginning," she laments, while also assuming primary blame for its early stumbles. "I, in the beginning, made a lot of mistakes. I made the wrong choices. And I have, to this day, gone over and over in mind, 'Should I have waited 'til I completely ended The Oprah Winfrey Show'? Yes. That would be the answer, because I needed to be there." (Among the strongest original content that OWN now produces is the drama series Queen Sugar, a collaboration between Winfrey and protege Ava DuVernay, the first season of which aired last fall and is Emmy-eligible this year, and the second season of which premieres June 20.)
The other major development in Winfrey’s life post-The Oprah Winfrey Show, is her return to acting. She appeared in front of a camera as someone other than herself only once during the show’s run, in the 1998 Jonathan Demme film Beloved, and has done so only reluctantly since, partly out of keen awareness of her own lack of experience ("I love this acting thing, I find that it opens me up and stimulates me in a way that absolutely nothing else does... but I haven't had the training... so every time I do it there is a level of anxiety and fear that I have to wrestle with") and partly out of concern that her fame makes it harder for audiences to accept her as someone else (which she says was the reason she was given by John Patrick Shanley for why he wouldn't even let her read for the part in 2008's Doubt that ultimately brought Viola Davis an Oscar nom). It must be noted, though, that each of her recent performances has actually been received favorably — key supporting parts in Lee Daniels’ 2013 film The Butler and DuVernay’s 2014 film Selma and, on April 22, in George C. Wolfe’s HBO TV movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
In Henrietta Lacks, Winfrey, in her first leading role in 19 years, plays Deborah Lacks, the manic daughter of the title character whose cancer cells were taken and widely used without her or her family’s consent. "I know a lot about African-American history and stories," Winfrey says, "but when I read this I realized not only did I not know the story, but I lived in Baltimore for eight years — I was a student of the culture, I was a reporter, I've been on the streets where she lived, I've been to Hopkins, I've covered all this as a reporter over an eight-year period — and I never once heard her name." The younger Lacks, who died in 2009, certainly knew Winfrey's name, and long before her story was ever a book, let alone a film, she told Rebecca Skloot, who would eventually write the book that inspired the film, that she dreamed of Winfrey playing her in a film version. Reminded of this, Winfrey laughs and says, "I did it as an homage — as a tribute — to her and to her family."
In the film, Winfrey is almost unrecognizable and does some of her finest acting yet. She is famously zen — "I can honestly tell you there have been five times now in my life where I have been angry enough to raise my voice," she says, noting that three of them were at a former employee — so playing a perpetually agitated character was harder than assuming a limp or dropping other forms of vanity for the production. "I am so the opposite that during a couple of scenes I honestly thought, 'I'm gonna have a stroke,'" she recounts. "I'm sure my blood pressure was up the whole time I was doing it." The performance might well bring her an Emmy nom for best actress in a limited series, which would go nicely with her other accolades, including 16 Daytime Emmys, plus the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Lifetime Achievement and Special Recognition Awards; one Primetime Emmy, plus the TV Academy’s Bob Hope Humanitarian Award; the aforementioned Oscar nomination, plus the film Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award; a Tony Award; and, bestowed by President. Barack Obama in 2013, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Over the course of our conversation, she gamely addresses a number of other assorted topics. What was the interview that got away? What TV shows is she watching now? What other person in show business most reminds her of herself? Would she run in 2020 if it looks like she is the only one who can prevent a second Donald Trump term? Could she beat Trump if she did? Should white people like Bill Maher be held to a different standard than black people when it comes to using the n-word? When did she last meet someone who didn't already know who she was? What would she be doing today if she never had become famous? As far as what she hopes her legacy will be, she cites something her late friend Maya Angelou once told her: "You have no idea what your legacy will be because your legacy is every life you touch." Few ever have touched as many as Winfrey.