In these unsettling times, Oprah Winfrey’s inspiring take on our sense of self and higher purpose has a new urgency and brings us a powerful clarity. Serendipitously, her new film, A Wrinkle in Time, is on
As you can imagine, it’s easy to remember the day when you meet Oprah Winfrey. I first met her in 2008, at her house in Montecito, Calif. Her property, called The Promised Land, expresses as much warmth and grace as Oprah herself does, with towering oak trees and lush gardens lending themselves to an enveloping peacefulness. On one side, her views look out on the Santa Ynez Mountains. On the other side lies the Pacific Ocean.
I had come to have lunch with Oprah, to talk about taking on the editor-in-chief role at her magazine, O. This was during the height of her blockbuster daily TV show, The Oprah Winfrey Show and, when she answered the door (yes, she answered the door herself), I felt as though I already knew her. It’s a feeling I’m sure that millions of her viewers understand. We talked for hours that day, about everything from spirituality to politics and, as I was leaving, she offered me the job. I worked with her until 2013, when I left the magazine to move to Maui and focus on writing books full time. Oprah is also a part-time Maui resident, so she understood the calling. Over the years, we’ve stayed in touch, and when Zoomer emailed to see if I’d like to talk to Oprah about her new movie, A Wrinkle in Time, I was more than delighted.
I remember reading Madeleine L’Engle’s classic book as a kid and loving it for its riveting story, magical characters and sense of wonder – not to mention that its heroine is a gawky young girl. Her name is Meg Murry, and she has the daunting task of rescuing her physicist father from the clutches of a dark force called “It.” Oh, and to get to him, she also has to travel through time and space. Her guides on this harrowing, planet-hopping, time-twisting journey are three wise guardian angels: Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which. When I heard that Ava DuVernay was directing a film adaptation of the book, I was sold, even before I learned that – along with Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who, Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit and Storm Reid as Meg Murry – Oprah had been cast as Mrs. Which. It’s such a perfect role for her. Mrs. Which is the most oracular of the wise women, a shimmering presence whose every word contains an essential truth.
In the aftermath of Oprah’s spellbinding speech at the Golden Globe Awards, a groundswell campaign emerged to draft her as a presidential candidate. As we discuss in our interview, it speaks to America’s collective yearning for a compassionate, eloquent – and, yes, wise – leader, more than it speaks to her own desire to take up residence in the White House.
We spoke at an interesting moment in both of our lives. When I called, Oprah was at home in Montecito, virtually alone in her neighbourhood. The area had first been devastated by fires, then riven by huge mudslides that caused epic destruction and at least 20 fatalities. The Promised Land had escaped major damage, but tons of mud had run through the property, tearing down fences and trees. Hwy 101 was closed, with Montecito and Santa Barbara cut off from Los Angeles, where the offices of her cable network OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, are located.
Meanwhile, in Hawaii, the residents had also gone through an intense event that deeply rattled our sense of safety. On Jan. 13, we received an emergency alert that a ballistic missile was headed toward us. “Take immediate shelter,” the alert read. “This is not a drill.” After a year of nuclear taunts and threats between the U.S. and North Korea, it felt all too true. A heart-stopping 38 minutes later, as people prepared for the worst, the alert was revealed to be a false alarm. I was still shaken from that, and Oprah was likewise still processing her own brush with the natural disasters striking her community.
Susan I guess this is a moment when we get to see what really matters.
Oprah Yes, isn’t it? I’ve seen people step up in so many ways. Several days after the mudslide, I was just walking through the neighbourhood in my boots – this is when we were allowed to move around – and people were so generous and so open. People had been cracked open. There was an openness there and a vulnerability that I had not experienced before, you know? This has awakened people in ways that I know they never imagined. And it’s caused a kind of unsettling that, for me, has brought about a quickening of the present moment. Even with the tiniest of things … walking down the stairs this morning, my hand on the rail, I’m just conscious of, ‘Oh gee, I can put one foot in front of the other, I can walk down the stairs.’ Just little things – I can walk outside. I can see the different colours of the grass. I can notice the trees that have just been a part of the background for a while because usually it’s like ‘Oh, another beautiful day in California.’ Now – wow.
Susan It’s so true. I got up the morning after the missile alert and went swimming in the ocean. We saw manta rays, and I just felt such deep gratitude. It just makes you realize how much gratitude we should have, always.
Oprah Yeah! You’re absolutely right. So I’m walking around now in the backyard – nobody’s been able to go in or come out, so things are as messy as they were the first day, except the mud has now hardened. What I was sloshing around in is now like concrete. But I noticed a little bird trying to pick through it – a sparrow – and I wouldn’t have noticed that sparrow before. I just wouldn’t have noticed that sparrow. So it has put me on full present alert. I already was a person who tried to live in the moment. But it woke me up. [laughs] I am so woke.
Susan I’m pretty damn awake right now.
Oprah Yeah, and I’ve been without gas and electricity, but last night the guys came back in and turned on the gas. I have such appreciation now! I’ve always loved bathing, but this morning I was like running the tap with my hand under it like, ‘Warm water! Warm water! Warm water!’ We’ve been bringing the water up from the pond. So that’s where I am. It’s a little unsettling but it’s also a reckoning with self. Like, okay! There’s an energetic shift I feel that has occurred as a result of coming so close to disaster myself and being in the midst of it, witnessing it, for other people.
Susan I feel the same way.
Oprah It’s good, right? As you know, I don’t believe that anything happens by accident or coincidence. Everything’s happening to help you, to prepare you, to strengthen you, to open you. It’s to do exactly what it has done for each person who has consciously paid attention to it.
Susan It’s an interesting time, that’s for sure!
Oprah You know it’s like this, Susan, I think I’ve probably shared this story with you before: I remember I used to do New Year’s resolutions. And then around the turn of the century, literally, I stopped. Because I was asking for big things like courage and love to be more loving, I would like strength, that sort of thing, and what I learned is: you don’t get courage unless you also have fear. You’ll be confronted with a lot of things that make you afraid. You don’t get strength unless you get things that are going to challenge your weaknesses.
Susan Yes. It’s the hero’s journey.
Oprah And those are some tough lessons. And just like the times we’re living in, you don’t get challenged to step up to the best of yourself, to your greater good, to your willingness to fight injustice, your willingness to bring value and honour to people who don’t have the voice to do it themselves – you don’t get that except through challenge.
Susan Building on that, it’s such an intriguing time for this movie to come out. I reread the book, and it’s so timeless, yet so current. Its message is spot on for this moment.
Oprah Well, the entire time I was doing it, I could feel that the making of the movie, this past winter, was bigger than me. However serendipitously it occurred that I was now in this film – being in this film is a part of the larger calling of my life. And I certainly don’t feel that way about every film I’ve done. I felt that way about The Color Purple, that I was on the precipice of something. What I felt when I was doing A Wrinkle in Time is that, first of all, there will be generations of children and people who will know me as Mrs. Which – the words of Mrs. Which – and somebody will say, ‘Well you know, she used to have a talk show,’ and they’ll be like ‘What? What’s that?’ As we were filming, I could feel that that was happening. And I could feel that it’s as relevant right now as it was years ago when Madeleine L’Engle first wrote it.
Susan She really was a mystic.
Oprah And she was a mystic before her time. In such a time as this, with all that’s happening politically, with all that’s happening with the Time’s Up movement, the #MeToo movement – with all that’s happening with Ava DuVernay being born to take over this story – for such a time the story was designed. So I believe that it’s divine timing. I could feel that the words I was saying to Storm Reid were going to be lasting forever. Those words are lasting forever.
Susan I wanted to ask you about Ava DuVernay. I have such a girl crush on her. She’s so fierce and such a talented director. I really respect the strength of her vision.
Oprah Yep. She’s all that. And then some. She just is. She had a vision for this film that went beyond what the book offered, and I think that is a vision designed for this time. It’s multi-racial, it’s diverse, it’s inclusive. It’s an Indian woman and an African-American woman and a Caucasian woman as the Misses. We don’t look anything like the characters in the book. But you know, for me personally I have long heard the call, and one of my biggest goals is that I want everyone to feel that they belong and are worth standing up for. That is one of the reasons why I am here, to carry forth that mission. That’s what this movie is about, that’s what my work has been about.
Susan When I was rereading the book, I was looking at Mrs. Which’s dialogue and thinking, ‘This really does sound like something Oprah would say!’
Oprah Exactly! There were times I would be saying a line and I would think, ‘I just said that last week!’ It’s kind of incredible that way. But you know, just like Meg’s search for her father leads to her discovering all these wonderful, worthy things about herself, I believe that’s also part of what my mission has been. To let people know that whether they’re watching from their living rooms, all those rooms, whether they’re reading the magazine – that though you may be lost in the dark, someone’s coming for you.
Susan I saw during the filming of the movie that you wrote about how much you loved New Zealand.
Oprah That was completely magical! I’m going back for my 65th birthday next year. I’m going to do a big hike. I loved it so much.
Susan Did you ever think you were going to be doing big budget sci-fi in your 60s?
Oprah Noooooo! This is what’s so wonderful about life. It will surprise you if you let it. You’ll get no surprises if you’ve already decided what it’s supposed to be and what’s it’s supposed to look like and how it’s supposed to show up for you. But it will surprise you if you let it. If you just lean in and let it surprise you. Because I wasn’t even trying to be in a movie, Susan! I’m not trying to get in nobody’s movies. I was just going to go on vacation with Ava. I consider her a friend now. I have, really, from the first time I met her. I thought: ‘Oh, gonna be friends with her!’ And, of course, it has happened. And I said to her, ‘When you’re in New Zealand, I’m going to come over and watch you film.’ That’s how this happened. And she said, ‘What do you mean you’re going to come over and watch me?’ I told her, ‘Well, because I love New Zealand.’ I was speaking there in 2015 and I didn’t get a chance to spend any time there. I just went from city to city in Australia, and I hit Auckland, and then I had to come home. It’s one of those things where you’re working, and you never get to experience anything. I said, ‘I’m going to come over and watch you shoot, and then I’ll get to experience New Zealand.’ So she said, ‘Are you serious?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. I’m going to take two weeks, and I’m going to come.’ And she said, ‘Well, then, would you consider reading the script and possibly doing a role?’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do that, too!’
Susan Were you familiar with the book?
Oprah I had never read the book. Nobody ever recommended it in all of my years of going to the library as a girl. And Ava adapted the book, so everybody needs to know that. The Misses don’t look like what they look like in the book, nor does Meg. I think it’s a beautiful adaptation. It’s really a movie for this moment because it’s about people who are willing to be carriers of the light. What are you willing to stand up for? What really matters to you? What is worth risking yourself for? What is worth putting yourself on the line for? And how do you fight the darkness – or the It. It’s called the darkness, it’s also called the It and it’s also called Camazotz. Because darkness takes on many forms in our lives. And what are you willing to do to fight it?
Susan And let’s not kid ourselves – it is a fight. It’s a constant fight. It’s not a metaphor.
Oprah Yeah. So I’m excited that people get this message. As I have learned over the years, you try to offer the message in as many forms as people can receive it. Because we’re all trying to say the same thing: that you have a short period of time here on Earth to use your light. That’s why you came: to use your light. Some people can hear it in a movie called A Wrinkle in Time, and some people can hear it on Super Soul Sunday [on OWN] and some people heard it for years on the show – but I’m saying the same thing: you have a limited amount of time to use your light. How will yours be used? To impact not just your own life but the lives of other people on the planet.
Susan Can you share a memorable moment you had while you were filming?
Oprah One of the most memorable moments was standing out with the Maori tribe, blessing the land. Before you do anything in New Zealand or Australia – this is what I love about those countries – you have to have a blessing for the land. So we were standing out in this beautiful turquoise lake [Lake Hawea, in Central Otago on the South Island], where we were filming, and there they were, the Maori people, blessing the land for us. As we’re all standing there with our eyes closed and they’re doing this prayer about the ancestors being on this land and treating the land with the sacredness it deserves and blessing our crew, I thought, ‘It’s impossible to be in this space with such remarkable and incredible beauty – I mean it just takes your breath away. Every corner you turn you’re just gasping … It’s impossible to be in the flow of that energy with all of our hearts on fire to do well – to have the fullest expression of bringing the light to the world through this film – and not have that happen.’ Even thinking about it now, it felt holy to me. It felt bigger than making a movie. It felt like something important and magical, for lack of a better word, was happening in that space. There was an energetic force field of happiness. So that’s how we started.
Susan It’s like what we were saying at the beginning of this conversation: when you look around and you see the absolute exquisite beauty of this world – we are just marinating in wonder. We shortchange ourselves so much when we don’t fully revel in that.
Oprah Yeah. I love the word marinate. And I think we were marinating in joyful expression creating this film. That’s what you’ll see on the screen. My thing is: I know everybody gets worried about box office and what it must do the first weekend and all that, but I feel like the experience of being there and the experience of creating it and joining forces with Ava and the team – well, I feel like we’ve already won.
Susan I wanted to ask you about #MeToo and Time’s Up. It feels as though so many things are converging in these movements.
Oprah Well, first of all, it wouldn’t have happened had there not been Harvey Weinstein, so out of every devastation or dismal occurrence … As Maya [Angelou] said, there’s a rainbow in every cloud. And you can find that because people said ‘Enough!’ You only say enough when you’ve had enough.
Susan You’ve got to look up at the light, rather than swirling around getting angrier and angrier about it, and use that energy to build something positive.
Oprah Well, the most important question in my 64 years that I’ve ever asked myself or asked anyone else is: ‘What do you really want?’ Everything shows up in your life to influence and encourage you to answer that question for yourself. So if you’re in a bad relationship with someone who’s treating you horribly, whether that’s a friend or a boss or a partner, your husband, your wife – it’s there to say: ‘What do you really want?’ Because that Invictus poem is as real today as it was when William Ernest Henley wrote it: You are the master of your fate, you are the captain of your soul. Everything is showing up to ask that question: what do you really want? Okay, if you don’t want that, what do you really want? And then what are the steps you need to take? How do you need to awaken your own consciousness and move in the direction of that light in order to accomplish what you say you want? And so the thing that makes me nutty is everybody getting hung up on what the President is doing or saying every day. And becoming more and more and more hysterical about it.
Susan Swirling around the drain.
Oprah Swirling around! And they feed on it, feed in it, watch it all day long. And it’s really what YOU want. I just don’t give my energy to the hysteria. I refuse to do it.
Susan That’s inspiring to me because I get caught up in it all the time. Now, I know you well enough to know that you’re probably not going to run for president. But let me just say that if you do, I think I would be really good in the Department of the Interior. I would protect those National Parks!
Oprah [laughs] You would be very good, Ms. Casey.
Susan Selfishly, it would be great. I would love for you to be president. For your sake, of course, I hope you don’t do it. I can’t imagine a tougher job in the world.
Oprah I, who hate meetings. I don’t even want to leave home. I will have to find other ways to serve. I’m looking for other ways to serve.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2018 issue with the headline, “The Light Fantastic,” p. 37-45.