Oprah Winfrey on Wanting to Work With Mara Brock Akil on 'Love Is'
The new OWN series is based on the 'Being Mary Jane' creator’s real-life romance with husband Salim Akil.
Oprah Winfrey always wanted to work with Mara Brock Akil, but even the queen of all media didn’t know if she had a shot.
She remembers seeing Brock Akil at Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon about five years ago. "She was talking with someone and I was just sitting there thinking, ‘Never going to happen because she’s at the other channel [BET],'" Winfrey told The Hollywood Reporter last night at the Los Angeles premiere of OWN’s Love Is. "I was even afraid to go up to her because I thought someone is going to think I’m trying to talk to her, I’m trying to steal her. I was like, I want no issues from nobody. So I’m just waving across the room, 'Hi.'"
But then Brock Akil and her husband Salim Akil, the pair behind Being Mary Jane and The Game, left BET for a deal with Warner Bros. Television in 2016.
Brock Akil was soon meeting with Winfrey to pitch Love Is, a drama based on the Akils’ real-life romance. "She came in with the presentation and before she could finish it, I said, 'I’m in. I’m in. I’m in,'" Winfrey said.
Love, of course, was the big topic of discussion on last night’s pink-carpet screening at NeueHouse Hollywood.
Winfrey reminisced about her first love when she was about 16 years old. "Anthony Odie!" she said. "It’s actually in my journal, which is now at the Smithsonian, so you can prove it. [It says], 'My dad doesn’t want me to see, date Anthony Odie. He doesn’t understand what true love is.'"
Winfrey recalled, "He was this clean-cut guy and he was an artist. He used to write me poetry and make me cards and leave them on my locker. That’s love!"
But that was then. And now is Winfrey’s long-term relationship with Stedman Graham. "I knew I was in love with Stedman when I went through a really terrible time," Winfrey said. "The tabloids had done something really horrible and awful and he came in and handed me the tabloid and said, 'Look, you don’t deserve this. But I’m here for whatever you need.' I think it’s the difficult times. It’s the crisis, the challenging times that make you see a person differently."
Brock Akil told THR about Stan Bradley, a boy she first met when she was just eight years old in Kansas City because her mom went to the beauty salon owned by his mother. "We didn’t fall in love until I was 14 — at the skating rink!" she said, laughing. "My skate boots were red patent leather. Nobody had those jams! We stayed together until I was about 16. And during that time, it was really only on the phone or when I went to get my hair done or at the skating rink."
While a Stan storyline most likely won't pop up on Love Is, Brock Akil said the show stays true to her own life with her husband, whom she met while both were working on Moesha. The two married in 1999.
"It’s surreal when I’m deciding what to put in the script, but then the producer mode takes over and you just have to get it done," said Akil, who serves as the series’ showrunner while co-executive producing with Salim. "And then I’m sitting in editing and I’m like, 'Oh, shit — what have I done?' There are some vulnerable moments and they’re brave. But I think it’s time to be brave. There have been a lot of brave moments for me as an artist trying to get closer and closer to the truth and not hide. I also think it’s been a breakthrough for me as a writer as well because sometimes you’re taking your life experience and try to give it to other characters and other projects, but here it’s just, 'Let’s just go for it.'"
The cast met Winfrey for the first time just hours before the premiere. "This woman is a true gift to the world," said Will Catlett, who plays Yasir, the character based on Salim Akil.
"The name Oprah is still too small for Oprah. That’s how much is in this woman," he continued. "I had the chance to have a conversation with her today and it truly changed my life. People say meeting Oprah is surreal because she’s so grounded in who she is. She’s normal. She’s super normal. That’s her superpower as my man Kanye West would say."
Michele Weaver stars as Nuri, based on Brock Akil. "I get to work under Mara and Oprah," Weaver said. "I’m like, 'Teach me everything you know. I am an open sponge.'"
Also at the premiere were co-stars Wendy Davis, Tyrone Marshall Brown, Yootha Wong Loi Sing, Tammy Townsend, Stephen Ruffin, OWN president Erik Logan and will.i.am, who recently appeared on Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations.