The last thing Oprah Winfrey needed to do in the midst of a crisis was start smoking. It was the middle of 2012 and her fledgling channel, OWN, which has just begun showing programming on DStv, was struggling to get off the ground. There had been a series of public failings, the departure of high-profile personalities, low ratings and high overheads. Now, a year later, Winfrey admits she was suffering symptoms of a nervous breakdown. So she began smoking, drinking and sleeping with the neighbour next door – but only because director Lee Daniels asked her to. It was for her role in his latest movie, The Butler, which opened in South Africa this weekend. The Oscar-nominated film maker wanted Oprah back on the big screen after a 15-year break. He pursued Winfrey, who had been content to limit her film interests to producing them and financing Daniels’ Oscar-winning debut, Precious, and The Great Debaters with Forest Whitaker and Denzel Washington. Daniels was relentless. “I told him, ‘Lee, I got this network’,” she says during an interview ahead of the film’s US release. “I kept telling him I don’t have time to act.” Daniels knew he had the perfect story to make Winfrey return to acting: a butler who served eight presidents at the White House against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Oprah (59) plays Gloria Gaines, the wife of the lead character, played by Whitaker. “I thought it was an important story to tell, even though I was in the midst of cra-a-a-zy business with my network,” says Winfrey. “I wanted to get involved in telling this story because it was an important story – just like the freedom fighters in SA, the Freedom Riders in the United States – and important for my own personal development. Nothing that has happened in my life would have happened had these people not had the courage to stand up.” She plays her part so well that critics have said she makes you forget you’re watching Oprah. “I’m a product of the women’s movement and civil rights movement, and as an independent woman I was interested in playing a woman who was repressed and lonely, and seeing what happens when you’re not allowed to have that fire inside you expressed. You drown it out with alcohol, you mess around with men, to try to find meaning beyond keeping your house clean and taking care of your children.” The response to Winfrey’s acting has been so positive, pundits are predicting she’ll earn herself a Best Supporting Actress nomination come Oscar time. Many are going so far as to say she may even take home the statue following her first nomination for 1985’s The Color Purple. Winfrey says, contrary to popular belief, she’s not a control freak and was happy to take Daniels’ direction. “He is a truth seeker. He won’t let anyone get away with a breath that is false. In every moment, he doesn’t allow you as an actor to get away with anything that remotely appears fake and if he does, he’ll shout faaaake!” Even Winfrey, deemed the Most Powerful Celebrity by Forbes Magazine, needs a little guidance sometimes.