Friends in High Places

When OPRAH WINFREY sought out director AVA DUVERNAY it was merely to be pals. But with an Oscar-nominated film (Selma) and an upcoming TV series (Queen Sugar) under their belts, the duo have become a Hollywood dream team.

By Nicole Sperling, @nicsperling

OPRAH WINFREY HAS BEEN THE OBJECT OF OUR ADMIRATION AND adoration for decades now, but imagine if you became the object of hers. That's what happened to filmmaker Ava DuVernay when the two first met in 2013. Since then, the pair have become something of a dynamic duo. Winfrey, 62, came aboard Selma as a producer-actress and helped secure the drama's green light. DuVernay, 44, is following up the favor by turning to television and giving Winfrey the bona fides she needs to transform her OWN network from a Lindsay Lohan reality TV haven into a prestige destination with the Southern-set drama Queen Sugar, which debuts Sept. 6 at 10 p.m.

We caught up with the two powerhouses in New Orleans, where Winfrey graced the main stage of the massive Essence Festival for the first time in the African-American music-and-culture confab's 22-year history. After her hour-long, mostly impromptu speech that read as part comedy routine, part church revival, Winfrey and DuVernay sat down to talk about their new show—and their powerhouse friendship.

EW It feels to me that ever since you two came together on Selma, you have become co-conspirators in the best way possible.

OPRAH WINFREY Well, we are conspiring, right?

AVA DuVERNAY I don't know. [Laughs] That feels a little sinister.

But you're not just putting things out there—you have an agenda with what you are creating.

WINFREY My agenda was that I was going to be her friend. I don't have a lot of friends. I have Gayle [King], who's been my friend since forever. And there have been a couple of other times when I've tried to make friends, but normally it doesn't go well.

Why is that?

WINFREY People have their agendas and they want to start their business and they need me to start their business. They want a house. They need me to buy their house.

DuVERNAY [Laughs] That's a reason why a friendship may go off the rails.

WINFREY I normally end up paying a let-me-exit friend fee. I will loan you the money for whatever you want, but please never call me or speak to me again.

When did you two first meet?

WINFREY David Oyelowo gave me a CD—


WINFREY DVD, thank you. It was Middle of Nowhere [DuVernay's second feature, which landed her a Best Director award at Sundance]. So I watched this and I immediately wanted to know, who did this? I Googled her. And I saw her cute little face, and the glasses, and the dreads. It was such a warm and engaging face. I studied it. I tried to make the picture bigger. And I said to David, "Oh, I'm going to be her friend. This is going to be a friend of mine." Then she asked me to play that role in Selma. I don't know if I want to play that role, but you're my friend so I'll do it. [Ava laughs.] I also believed so much in what she and David were trying to do for Selma. I just wanted to hang with them. And I became a producer.

And then you invited Ava to your house in Maui to take a break before she began editing Selma. It was there that you gave her the novel Queen Sugar, by Natalie Baszile, to read. Why?

WINFREY I felt that it was a good story representing values that meant a lot to me. There is this thing that I've always felt was missing about stories told about black people. There is a value system, an earthiness, and a calm assuredness about just being in the ordinariness of life that turns out to be rather extraordinary. I've always had this yearning to tell those stories of real people, but I didn't know how to do it myself.

So was that your pitch to Ava?

DuVERNAY It was a softball. I read it there before I left. I had been talking about doing a series. Television was getting really interesting. [Steve] McQueen was doing his thing at HBO. [David] Fincher was just coming off House of Cards. [Cary] Fukunaga had done True Detective. I wanted it. And I said something about that. And she said, "I have a network, you know..."

WINFREY Which is a very hard thing for me to do because I don't ask anybody for anything, ever. Not for a piece of toast.

Why not?

WINFREY Because of the price you have to pay. If somebody gave me a piece of toast, "I gave you that piece of toast, I need a car.""I gave you that piece of toast, I need my loans paid off." Over the years it's been really, really challenging. Every time, I get suckered in—every time. This is the greatest gift Ava could have ever given me. I'm so glad she said yes. Never, ever do I want a birthday present; I don't want a Christmas card. I don't want an acknowledgment of any holiday ever. This is it. Anytime anything comes up, just say, "Look at Sugar." [Ava laughs.]

Listening to you talk about the kind of stories you are missing, all of those stories are in the first episode of Queen Sugar.

WINFREY Everything. She did it. She got it. It's why I cried and cried and cried when I first watched it. First of all, when have you seen [in the first scene of the pilot] a black woman getting dressed and it be that beautiful, that sensual, that intimate, that tender, that real? It's everything. And her sex scenes look damn sexy. You want to be that person. It hits a sensual nerve. He is unhooking her bra, and you're like, woah! I'm like, "I'm going to get Stedman to unhook my bra and see what happens. Put your hand in my panty hose and let's see what happens." [Laughs]

Oprah greenlit your idea for a series off of a three-page outline, but it sounds like writing the script wasn't nearly as easy.

DuVERNAY I rewrote the first script three times. The first time I pounded it out—adapted the book and gave it to her very proudly. And she said, "Oh, I thought it was going to be more than this." That's what she said. I thought, "Yeah, okay, I'm going back and adding something." Second one, I added people doing voodoo, murders, stabbing, a frickin' hurricane. I added a lot. What does she want?

WINFREY I'm not down with the voodoo.

DuVERNAY She was like, "Whaaat?" In true Oprah fashion, she said, "What do you want to say? This is a show that will be on every week in people's homes." I drilled into that. And I told her, "This is the last one I will do. And I'm going to put in what I want to say, and if it's not it, then I don't know." And that was the pilot.

WINFREY That was the one. I remembered Toni Morrison said to me that she wrote her first novel because that book wasn't available to read. She wrote a book that she would want to read. With that in mind, I said to Ava, "What is the story you would most want to see that came from you that you would most want to tell?" I can be down with that.

That's also got to be hard between friends. Were there any hurt feelings when she kept sending you back to try again?

DuVERNAY There are so few people you can get a real answer from. I don't show my cuts, my drafts to a lot of people because they will tell me it's good. When someone says, "It's all right, I think you can do better"—first you're like, "Ugh," but then you're like, "Okay."

WINFREY My friendship with Ava meant more to me then her writing a script, although, with me trying to build a network, Ava DuVernay coming to lend her name and talent to the network would be a huge asset. But I wouldn't let myself go there because if it didn't work out, I still wanted to maintain my friendship with her. I was willing for it to be whatever it needed to be, including for it to not be.

What's been the hardest thing about building this network?

WINFREY Getting the right people in place. I think the reason why this is working now with both Greenleaf and Sugar is because they are the right stories to tell at this time. I was thinking, "Why didn't I do this from the beginning when I ended the Oprah show?" I wouldn't have even known how to do it. I wasn't there. I didn't believe I could do it at the time.

Did Ava ever write a role for you on Queen Sugar?

WINFREY I was originally going to be Aunt Vi [the matriarch, played by Tina Lifford]. And the first time Gayle saw it, she said, "How come you're not Aunt Vi? She's sexy and she has a boyfriend." But Vi didn't start out that way.

DuVERNAY But it was when we started talking about the 13 episodes that she started becoming a bigger character. You can't run a multibillion-dollar empire and be on the set every week.

Ava, when you were making the decision about what feature film to pursue after Selma, did you two discuss your options?

DuVERNAY I did have a recent thing between Intelligent Life with Lupita Nyong'o at Amblin and A Wrinkle in Time for Disney. They both wanted to go at the same time. What do you do? Both were projects with folks I admired. How do you say no to one? It's never lost on me that when I sit down and talk with her about business, I'm speaking with one of the most successful businesswomen of our time, who manages a billion-dollar empire. So it's good advice. But it's not just business advice. It always comes down to what is your intention and what story do you want to tell.

WINFREY When I finished The Color Purple, I remember leaving set and I was so sad, because it was the happiest I've ever been in my entire life. I learned so much. I came to set even when I didn't have to shoot. When I left, I said to Quincy Jones, "Gee, I hope I see you again sometime. If you see me, would you remember my name?" And he said, "Oh, baby, you don't have to worry. Your future is so bright, it burns my eyes." I feel exactly the same way about Ava. There is a quickening happening in her life and in her career that is just going to blossom into something—not even she can imagine what it is. It's big. It's big for the industry. It's big for women. It's big for herself. It's big for the planet. It's big.