Once Oprah Winfrey decided to act in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, playing the wife of Forest Whitaker’s White House servant, she had one primary concern: she didn’t want to embarrass herself. Though she’d been nominated for an Oscar for her role in 1985’s The Color Purple and voiced characters in animated films, Winfrey hadn’t starred in a movie since Beloved in 1998.
But the story of Cecil Gaines, a man who was born the son of a poor sharecropper but grew up to work in the White House during a time of great social change in this country, was an opportunity that Winfrey couldn’t pass up, even as she was juggling the massive responsibilities of her media empire. Not only is Gaines — who’s based on the real-life White House butler Eugene Allen — an eyewitness to history, but he represents multiple generations of African-Americans who were maids and butlers and ultimately allowed their children to thrive in other professions — children like Winfrey, who comes from a long line of domestics.
In this exclusive video, Winfrey explains her initial reluctance in playing Gloria Gaines and how Lee Daniels ultimately got her to say yes. Whatever Winfrey’s initial reservations were, Whitaker was won over, saying, “People are going to be blown away by her performance.”
Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which also stars Jane Fonda, John Cusack, Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alan Rickman, and Terrence Howard, opens in theaters on Aug. 16.