'Selma' Director Ava DuVernay on "Awkward and Weird" First Meeting With Oprah Winfrey

THR Mentor Oprah Winfrey Ava DuVernay - P 2015
Eric Ryan Anderson

THR Mentor Oprah Winfrey Ava DuVernay - P 2015

With a nominated best picture, the helmer poses for THR's Oscars Issue with her producer-mentor, who says their relationship recalls her own with the late Maya Angelou: "If only Maya were here to see her."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Oprah Winfrey was filming Lee Daniels' The Butler in 2012, her co-star (and future Selma breakout actor) David Oyelowo handed her a DVD of an indie film he'd acted in called Middle of Nowhere. "He said, 'You have to watch my friend Ava's film,' " recalls Winfrey, 61. "I did and immediately Googled her. I remember I liked her glasses and her countenance. There was an energy about her that came right off the page. I knew immediately we were going to be friends."

Since bonding at Winfrey's Montecito, Calif., home in May 2013 ("I created an entire Mother's Day event at my house just so I could talk to her," laughs Winfrey), Ava DuVernay has seen her relationship with the media mogul morph from awestruck fandom — "I was not myself around her for a year. I was weird and awkward," she says — to trusted partnership, as Winfrey took on the role of producer (and co-star) in their lauded best picture nominee Selma. The two now are embarking on their next shared venture, a dramatic series for OWN, Queen Sugar, in which Winfrey also will star. "The series is about reinvention, self-discovery and calm in times of chaos — themes I was attracted to before Selma," says DuVernay. "Also, all the best people working in film today are now working in TV. [Steve] McQueen, [David] Fincher …" Chimes in Winfrey with a smile, "And DuVernay."

DuVernay says Winfrey's support during Selma helped push her to a new level. "It was the first time I felt very much in command of my craft," she says. "Of course there's still much to learn, but it all coalesced into a new feeling of confidence. That's because so many relationships in my life — including with Oprah — were refined there."

Winfrey observed this transformation on the Selma set: "I saw the way everybody held her in the highest of esteem. There was such a high level of regard for her and what she was doing — to have that kind of … not control but mastery of the situation." Their relationship has recalled for Winfrey the life-changing connection she shared with one of her own mentors, the late Maya Angelou. "Every day I saw Ava working on set," she says through tears, clutching DuVernay's hand. "I felt, if only Maya were here today to see her, too."