Oprah Winfrey has come a long way since she played Sofia in the 1985 epic The Color Purple. Almost 40 years later, the celebrated TV personality and media mogul is basking in the anticipation of the release of the drama’s musical adaptation, on which she serves as an executive producer.
Speaking with ET’s Kevin Frazier at the star-studded premiere of The Color Purple at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Winfrey, 69, reflected on her journey since her onscreen debut as Sofia.
“David Letterman was escorting me across the street, and I remember that it was a really big night,” Winfrey recalled of the film’s big premiere nearly four decades ago. “Tina Turner was there, and Sidney Poitier was there, and, you know, they’re no longer with us, but it was really, really important, and I’ll never forget it.”
Winfrey starred alongside Whoopi Goldberg in the 1985 drama directed by Steven Spielberg. The story — made iconic in the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker — follows Celie, a young Black woman living in the South from the early to mid-1900s, who finds strength in an extraordinary sisterhood and unbreakable bond.
This year’s Blitz Bazawule-directed reimagining of The Color Purple features a star-studded cast, including Fantasia Barrino as Celie, Danielle Brooks as Sofia, Taraji P. Henson as Shug Avery, Colman Domingo as Mister, Phylicia Mpasi as Young Celie, Corey Hawkins as Harpo, H.E.R. as Squeak, Louis Gossett Jr. as Ol’ Mister, David Alan Grier as Reverend Avery, Tamela J. Mann as First Lady, Halle Bailey as Young Nettie, Ciara as Adult Nettie, Deon Cole as Alfonso and Stephen Hill as Buster.
Spielberg and Quincy Jones served as producers alongside Winfrey, a full-circle moment for the trio since Spielberg directed the film adaptation in which Winfrey made her film debut and Jones produced.
Many of the cast have previously mentioned that Winfrey frequently visited the set during filming, a tidbit that Winfrey herself admits when talking to ET. “I was there all the time, and I was watching the daily, so I actually saw Shug Avery jump up on that table 88 times, okay? So I was so worried about her. I was so worried about, [like], ‘Girl, how are your knees?'” the former daytime talk show host quipped.
Winfrey added, “I believe that there’s something really divine about The Color Purple. I believe that there’s something special that, whenever Alice Walker wrote this in 1982 when it was first released, it put something into the world that was deeply meaningful, powerful, resilient, hopeful, and I think that that message of forgiveness and joy is always needed.”
“[Sofia] had the power back in the 1920s. Not many women had that or had the agency, as we now refer to, to be able to do that for themselves, but I loved playing that character,” Winfrey said, musing on the role that earned her an Academy Award nomination. “Playing that character changed me, and one of the great joys for me was to be on set watching Danielle Brooks take it on and make it her own. So, you know, when you get to be where I am, a woman of a certain age, one of the great, deep joys of your life is the satisfaction of being able to pass it on to someone else.”
Brooks is reprising her portrayal of Sofia, which she originally played on Broadway during the 2015 revival production. Her rendition earned her a Tony Award nomination.
ET spoke with Brooks in December 2015 about making her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, and what it meant to her.
“I really don’t have the words to describe how much I love the theater,” shared Brooks, who appeared in the production while still starring in Orange Is the New Black. “Every night, when I get to say that at the end of the night, when I’m exhausted, when I get to say, and to a crowd full of people who are all on their feet, ‘Look what God has done,’ that is my favorite moment. That’s my favorite moment, because it’s so true to my life.”
While she was passionate about being on stage, she admitted that she wasn’t necessarily done being in front of the camera either.
“It definitely is my passion for sure — this is what I’ve always wanted to do. But I still want to put my foot in some film and see what that world’s like,” she shared. “I do like the fact that you can do TV, memorize your lines, shoot it, and be done. ‘Cause I’m not going to be done with this for a very long time.”
The Color Purple will hit theaters on Christmas Day.