Oprah Winfrey on Her Journey From Talk Show Royalty to ‘Real Freedom’

Oprah Winfrey Media Mogul Power of
Pamela Littky for Variety

Oprah Winfrey wants to make one thing clear: She is not retired.

Ever since her eponymous talk show ended in 2011, she’s found what she calls “real freedom.”

“I love the way my life has opened up,” she tells Variety, in her sun-drenched, spacious office at OWN, her self-named cable network, in West Hollywood. “My definition of real freedom comes from the movie ‘Beloved,’ where the character Sethe that I played says, ‘Freedom is waking up in the morning and deciding for yourself what to do with the day.’ Imagine that.”

That’s what the 61-year-old media mogul thrives on now: getting to choose how she wants to spend the hours that lay in front of her.

Pamela Littky for Variety

The same can be said for her approach to the business of entertainment: Deciding what projects she wants to make, in front of or behind the camera, whether for Harpo Films or for OWN.

“I am driven to all things by the one thing that is my brand,” she says. “And my heart is my brand.”

The launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2011 was by all accounts a rocky one. Losses mounted as viewers rejected the relentlessly feel-good programming, amid Winfrey’s noted absence from the airwaves. But the turnaround at the cable channel — which is owned jointly by Harpo Prods. and Discovery — was triggered by a deal struck with Tyler Perry in October 2012. Bringing his scripted series to OWN sparked double-digit ratings growth; the recent finale of “The Have and the Have Nots” led the network to its most-watched night ever (with 3.7 million viewers overall, it was the No. 1 cable show of the night).

Winfrey recounts running into mega-producer Lorne Michaels recently at a party; he’d warned her that launching a programming hub wasn’t going to be easy. She remembers telling him, “I didn’t believe it when you told me it was going to take three to five years to get a network on its legs.” His reply: “I could see you didn’t know what you didn’t know.”

The problem, she admits, was finding the audience, which had always come so naturally to her. “This isn’t the same audience that was the ‘Oprah’ show audience,” she says. “I knew that audience like my own breath. I grew up with that audience.”

Now when it comes to choosing what projects she’ll put on the air, she has a simple rule, which she learned from Gary Zukav’s book “The Seat of the Soul.”

“I had the biggest ‘aha’ moment of my life when I read what he had to say about intention,” she says. “What is the thing that you really intend? Because that is going to determine what actually happens.”

As a talk show host, she says, her job was to connect ideas to people — “so they could see themselves and expand their view of themselves. That was my specific intention.”

Now, as the head of a network — alongside co-presidents Erik Logan and Sheri Salata — she says, “I am intentionally trying to create programming that lets people see the best of themselves. Sometimes you show them the worst of themselves in order to see the best of themselves. It’s not that I won’t do anything that’s negative, but I won’t do anything that’s negative that doesn’t have a deeper meaning.”

She used her own money to fund “Belief,” a seven-part documentary series about faith around the world, which debuts Oct. 18. Producers spent three years criss-crossing the globe in search of affecting spiritual stories — from a 13-year-old preparing for his bar mitzvah in a small town in Hungary, to a woman in Kansas who visits her son’s killer in prison, seeking to find within herself the spirit of forgiveness.

For Winfrey, it’s a true passion project. “You see how we’re connected,” she says. “If you’ve got half a brain and a piece of heart, you can figure it out.”

She’s also now focused on filling the scripted lineup at OWN with more than just Perry’s shows: She’ll exec produce and recur in the drama series “Greenleaf” from writer-producer Craig Wright (“Lost,” “Six Feet Under”) about a family’s sprawling Memphis megachurch; Oscar winner Octavia Spencer headlines the net’s first miniseries, “Tulsa,” about the little-known race riots in Oklahoma in 1921.

“It’s not that I won’t do anything that’s negative, but I won’t do anything that’s negative that doesn’t have a deeper meaning.”
Oprah Winfrey

And then there’s “Queen Sugar,” a series she’s developing with Ava DuVernay, based on the book by Natalie Baszile about a woman and her teenage daughter who leave their upscale Los Angeles life to claim the inheritance of a Louisiana sugar cane farm.

Winfrey’s intention: to create shows “where you see people of color in the ways you see yourself, no matter what color you are.”

Growing up, she loved “The Andy Griffith Show,” she says. “I just couldn’t figure out why there never was a black person in Mayberry. What I really wanted was programming that let me see myself in a way that I felt normal.”

For as much ground as her talk show broke, she explains, “I always understood that you are better off doing a show on parenting with a black father and showing that father putting his two daughters to bed and reading to them, then you are doing a show about black parenting,” she says. “That’s how you break down barriers.”

The day producer Winfrey, director DuVernay and star David Oyelowo wrapped on the Oscar-nominated film “Selma,” about Martin Luther King Jr., was just a beginning. That trinity has become something of a creative cauldron, with a constant exchange of ideas, inspiration and advice (it’s not hard to imagine who’s offering it).

“There’s quite bit of a freedom and nurturing of an artists’ vision,” says DuVernay of working at OWN. “Once more scripted material gets out on air, it will become one of those places like HBO. It comes from the top down, and it’s good to have a good top.”

Winfrey and Oyelowo toyed with the idea of creating a production company — a notion they ultimately dismissed. But the two are collaborating on “The Water Man” for Disney, set to go into production next year. He’s taken to calling her “Mom,” much to her chagrin. (“I’m too young to be his mother,” she says in mock horror.)

Oyelowo sees a shared vision between the two. “We have so much in common in terms of how we see the world and what we want to do in the world,” says Oyelowo. The Disney project, from first-time screenwriter Emily Needell, is a coming-of-age story about a young boy finding himself. Oyelowo calls it “the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore,” in the vein of “Stand by Me” and “E.T.”

“Oprah and I have talked long and hard about how there aren’t four-quadrant movies that aren’t superhero movies,” he says. “We both are passionate about female filmmakers. We both are passionate about films where people of color are not on the periphery but essential to the story. That’s the life we lead, and we don’t see that reflected often enough in film.”

Diversity, agrees Winfrey, is a priority. “But I don’t think about what hasn’t been done, I look at what has, and keep moving in the direction of how do we create more of that.”

That’s why she snapped up the film rights to the memoir “Writing My Wrongs,” by Shaka Senghor, about a convict who turned his life around. “I told Ava I was so moved by this guy,” she says. “We’ve got to find a way to tell those stories so that people see the little boy and not just the criminal.” Winfrey interviewed Senghor for her OWN talk show “Super Soul Sunday” — and calls it one of the best of her career, if not her life.

Pamela Littky for Variety

By the end of the run of the syndicated “Oprah” show, Winfrey says she was no longer in the trenches. Yes, there were the pre- and post-show meetings where she had ultimate veto power. And yes, producers would call her in at the last minute to seal the deal with a reluctant guest.

But her honesty precluded her from being a truly good closer. When Marina Oswald, the wife of accused JFK killer Lee Harvey Oswald, questioned whether her life would change if she agreed to an interview, Winfrey cautioned, “You’re not going to be able to go to the grocery store” — much to the booker’s consternation.

So now she’s “love, love, loving” being involved in every aspect of building a series or a film from the ground up.

She enthuses about a piece of music someone sent her recently, or an actor she wants to cast. “I love giving people opportunities where there might not have been one,” she says. “Because somebody did that for me.”

Perhaps there’s a small part of her that misses those big interviews. She ticks off her wish list: Caitlyn Jenner (though “there’s not one thing” she would have done differently than Diane Sawyer did); the pope; and the mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold, whom Winfrey heard just agreed to talk with the media.
She’s not interested in the current political race. “I have never felt that I have done justice to politicians,” she says. “I’ve never been able to break through the facade. It must be me, because I can’t crack that connection. But wouldn’t Donald Trump be a tantalizing subject? “You’re not going to get to him,” she says.

What she wants, she explains, is to have a conversation “where you can have a real connection with someone.”

Oyelowo says that’s the type of rapport he and Winfrey have.

“She’s ordinary and extraordinary at the same time,” he notes, recounting a day when she was so tired on the set of “The Butler,” she curled up on a bed on the set and took a nap. “I know a lot of extraordinary people, but they’re not ordinary. She miraculously manages to be both.”

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  1. Glynis Downey says:

    What a truly amazing human being, I hope there are many heaven sent equal action and reaction and reaction and reaction to Miss Oprah Winfrey, for my grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren. Every generation needs an Oprah. Oh and Randall Starr shame on you.

  2. Randall Starr says:

    HER HONESTY ???!!!!!!!?????!!!!!

    Oprah’s massive lies were too egregious for her to go on as the queen she was. It’s time to retire and fade away. She lied about such ridiculous things and her family does not appreciate it. Not being able to afford shoes? Roaches as pets? Her family has debunked it all. Her loving legion has aged out – and basically don’t buy anything anymore aside from their medication.

  3. Kim Iverson says:

    I have always admired her. I think Oprah will achieve what she wants, and I may have to check out the network more now. I would love to see more wholesome programming on TV so I hope she does bring back that sort of thing. I miss those shows. I wouldn’t doubt others out there like me do as well.

  4. Dunstan says:

    Oprah Winfrey is to be admired on many levels. But I think her decision to put both Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz on the air, both extremely successful, has become her biggest ethical failing. Dr. Phil is a complete and utter scumbag and I wouldn’t let Oz diagnose a hangnail.

    I know people who’ve worked on his show that it’s a very nasty experience and as the saying goes, the shit runs downhill.

    McGraw’s show is a nightmare to work on.

  5. annielynnlloyd says:

    Incredible work. I’ve worked for quite a few media companies and this is the first time I can say that a network has had a real voice, a real creed, and a formidable targeted audience. Good job Oprah.

  6. Kathleen says:

    Why does Oprah Winfrey remain silent about Bill Cosby’s rape victims? And why does no one have the guts to ask?
    In 2007 she allowed Cosby a platform on her show to launch his blame-the-poor lecture tour, and this was AFTER Cosby’s undisclosed settlement with Constand. So why does no one have the guts to ask her about her callous disregard of those original 13 women who tried to testify on Constand’s behalf in 2005? The continued silence on this frustrating and Oprah fans have alot to answer for, now.

    • Hmm says:

      I don’t understand – why would Oprah’s opinion on the Cosby allegations be more critical than anyone else’s, and why would her fans have to answer for the media not asking her questions about it? I don’t see the connection, but it seems clear to you, so I’m asking. I don’t care what famous people think about the allegations; I just care that the women are being represented and heard. Are you saying you want Oprah to interview him? Why give him that voice? Or should she just comment on something she has no factual basis to comment on? I think that would dilute her very trusted brand, to be wholly uninformed and still enter a discussion that no one but Bill an the accusers (and some judges) know the facts on. What is the win in her opining/speculating about this? I can’t imagine it would make the accusers feel better or take away their pain, and couldn’t it possibly make them feel worse, that once again someone is blabbing about their experience without having any information about it?

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