Lee Daniels: When Oprah "Became Magic" for Me (Guest Column)

Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Oprah Winfrey (center) was flanked by Lee Daniels (right) and Forest Whitaker on the set of 'The Butler.'

The filmmaker once wanted Winfrey, the Golden Globes' Cecil B. DeMille honoree, to play a serial killer ("No one will see it coming!"), then while directing her in 'The Butler,' he discovered "a humble actor who truly loves her craft."

It was January 2009. I was in a packed room at the Sundance Film Festival about to receive the best director award for Precious. My phone rang with a call from a blocked number. At that time, any call from a blocked number was either a famous actor or a financier — so my instinct was to pick up the phone.

I quickly whispered "hello" as I headed to the podium. The voice on the other end matter-of-factly said: "It's Oprah. I loved your movie, Precious. … What are you doing?" I told her I was about to receive an award onstage in front of a bunch of people. She responded, "Well, why did you pick up the phone?" I was too embarrassed to explain. She told me to call her back. Mentally, I jotted her number down as I walked to the podium.

Believe me, it wasn't easy, but I remembered that damn number.

And so began my journey with Ms. Winfrey.

Later we spoke, and she reiterated how much she was moved by the film and how she wanted everyone to see it. To this day, I truly believe Precious wouldn't have gotten the audience it did had it not been for her love and support of our film. In that same conversation, I raved about The Color Purple and how her performance in particular — which earned her a Golden Globe nomination — changed my perspective on acting.

I told her I needed us to work together.

Originally, I wanted to have her play a serial killer. I told her: "This is the role I want for you. No one will see it coming. You, a serial killer!"

Gayle King told me, "She'll never do it," and Gayle was right. I waited for the perfect fit. Then along came The Butler. I've never had more fun on a set. We laughed, every day, and a lot! That's when I fell in love with her. I fell in love with a humble actor who truly loves her craft. A woman, clearly one of the biggest titans of our generation, working grueling hours to execute my vision … and sometimes without even understanding it.

Her willingness to jump off the cliff with me into the abyss was real. It was trust. And for me, it became magic.

I remember when she, as her character, Gloria, was sitting there drunk at her vanity — pained because Cecil (played by Forest Whitaker) wasn't paying attention to her. He was paying more attention to his work at the White House. As she put on lipstick, looking into the vanity mirror, she asked him, "Do you wish I spoke French like Jackie, Jackie Kennedy?" At that moment, she disappeared. The Oprah I knew had disappeared. Effortlessly, she gave a nod to the women of that generation. These women were not cookie-cutter, they didn't take a back seat to the men in their household or to any dreams that weren't truly theirs. I tried to give that woman a voice, but Oprah made it her own. She did it in one take … and I cried.

As anyone who has been blessed enough to work with her knows, Oprah is keenly aware and incredibly humble. No one in the entertainment business has been kinder to me on my journey. As an artist and as a producer, it seems it's her mission to give and give and give.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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