Oprah Winfrey wasn't looking to be in the upcoming drama Selma when she first became involved with the movie.
In fact, she didn't even want to produce the Ava DuVernay-directed film about Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches.
Winfrey began as an unofficial advisor after David Oyelowo, who plays MLK in the film, told her about the project when they became friends while making Lee Daniels' The Butler.
"He told me about this idea he had," Winfrey told me exclusively last night during a dinner at Sunset Tower for Selma's premiere at the AFI Film Festival Presented by Audi. "I was mildly interested, but then I came to know him as a person, a person of character and a father and a person of such grace. And I thought, ‘This is a person I can be friends with.' And you know, at this stage in my life, I'm not making a lot of friends."
As the film came together, Oyelowo urged Winfrey to come on as a producer. "I was like, ‘Producer? I don't want to do that. That means I have to actually work,'" she cracked. "I said, I'll just tell you from behind the scenes what to do."
And then DuVernay suggested Winfrey play Annie Lee Cooper, the real life civil rights activist who became best known for punching Selma Sheriff Jim Clark.
"I was like, ‘I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to play another person who punches somebody out,'" Winfrey recalled. "In every movie, do I have to punch somebody out? And then Ava sent me [a story] from Google about the real Annie Lee Cooper that said she watched the Oprah show every day. Not only watched, but watched it with a tuna fish sandwich—which is exactly how I would want to watch it. Ava said, ‘What do you think it would mean to this woman who watched you every day?' She got me! She got me. So it was like, ‘Yeah, maybe I'll do that.'"
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for AF
Winfrey also threw her name behind Selma because she wants to honor the civil rights movement. "Mrs. King was a very dear friend of mine whom I had ultimate respect for and tried to make her last years on the planet really comfortable and make her happy," she said. "So I had a real connection to that and I feel if you don't know your history then you don't know yourself. So that's why I'm here and also to be able to tell history in a way that uplifts and entertains people so that they can not just see it and acknowledge it but also feel it."
Selma received a standing ovation after the credits rolled at the Egyptian Theater. A post-screening Q&A was lead by Alfre Woodard and included DuVernay, Winfrey, Oyelowo, Common (he appears in the movie and also wrote and recorded a song for the film) and producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner of Brad Pitt's Plan B production company.
See you at the Oscars, Selma!