Ava DuVernay, Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey and Mindy Kaling on rewriting the story books and the power of the written word.
“I recently got hate-tweeted by the President,” begins Oprah Winfrey, looking like the most relaxed woman in the USA. “Since then, I’ve been asked, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Well, did you see that meme a couple of years ago: ‘Ain’t nobody got time for that’? I don’t have time for that. I’m not going to focus one minute of my energy on that. I’m going to stay in the light.”
“Things I don’t have time for: that,” laughs Reese Witherspoon, sitting opposite her. Mindy Kaling interjects: “If you’ve been to the Promised Land, which is where Oprah lives, and you think about whether she is going to spend time thinking about a tweet or if she’s going to live her life, you would understand why she doesn’t have time for that.”
As storytellers go, Oprah Winfrey is one of the greats (and yes, her home in Montecito, California, is called The Promised Land). But she’s also a long-time supporter of other storytellers, having launched the influential Oprah’s Book Club back in 1996 via her incredibly successful TV show.
In fact, in this room there’s a power quadrant of women who are determined advocates of books – Reese Witherspoon via her monthly Instagram book club and adapting numerous titles for the big and small screen (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber) through her production company Hello Sunshine; Mindy Kaling, author of New York Times bestsellers Why Not Me? and Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?; and Ava DuVernay, the director of A Wrinkle In Time, in which all three star.
The trio play Mrs Which (Winfrey), Mrs Whatsit (Witherspoon) and Mrs Who (Kaling), three celestial beings and superheroes who guide a young woman of dual heritage across space to search for her father. It’s based on the book of the same name, which was finished in early 1960 but initially rejected by many publishers for being, as hypothesized by the author Madeleine L’Engle, a sci-fi novel with a female protagonist and blurring the lines between a children’s and adult’s book. Finally published in 1962, it went on to become a classic. As I write, the film is second in the US box-office charts to Black Panther – proof, should Hollywood need it, that films telling diverse and fantastical stories, that are told by all voices, are both necessary and profitable.
Getting to spend two afternoons – one in LA when we gather for our chat, the second in London for our photoshoot – in the company of these prolific, entrepreneurial, diverse and agenda-setting women is, to put it inelegantly, pretty thrilling, slightly terrifying and bloody inspiring.
Away from their respective entourages, Winfrey, 64, takes her shoes off and puts her feet on the table to chat (and ask questions, she can’t help herself) and talk about her love of The Handmaid’s Tale. Kaling, 38, joins us after expressing: she gave birth to her daughter in December. Witherspoon, 41, eats frozen green tea with coconut flakes, laughingly explaining, “I can’t eat dairy y’all. It makes my stomach hurt. Do I need to go any further?” DuVernay, 45, calls Winfrey ‘OW’ and takes pictures of her shoes. It’s almost easy to forget I’m in the combined presence of some of the most powerful women in Hollywood. And also the world.
DuVernay – who, with this film, has made history as the first black woman to direct with a $100 million budget and is the first female African-American director to be nominated for a Golden Globe (but notably not an Oscar) for Selma – sums up their collective power: “These aren’t just actresses, these are multi-hyphenate, empire-builders,” she explains. “They are producers and creators of powerful entertainment that shifts culture. Big Little Lies, my God. I was like, ‘If Reese doesn’t invite us to her house in advance to watch all the second season in one go…’.
Mindy is one of the few women of colour who has a show with her name on it, on two networks. And Oprah, to call it an empire sounds cold but what she’s really created is a community of content that has been nourishing: from the show to the magazine to the network. And then these women also act. That’s why it vibrates more than your average cast. One of them in a cast would be pretty big but all three of them together… everyone else in the cast was like, ‘Whoa’. And the thing that’s really incredible about this group of women is we’re all storytellers.”
World-class storytellers at that…
You’re all avid readers: what’s the book that’s made you think differently about what it is to be a woman?
Reese Witherspoon: A really important book I read on the way to college was Marian Wright Edelman’s The Measure Of Our Success. It was required reading, and I found out later I was the only one who read it, does that surprise y’all? It’s a letter to her sons on their 18th birthday and it so profoundly affected me I still cry about it. It’s the rules of being a good person and they’re so easy but we forget them a lot. I give it to everybody who graduates from high school.
Oprah Winfrey: What particularly struck you?
RW: She speaks about lifting other people up. Do the right thing, even when no one’s looking. Return your grocery cart, pick your popcorn off the movie [theatre] floor. Don’t expect people to do the small human behaviour stuff for you. Little kindnesses. If you can care for and support another person’s education, you must. There’s so much.
OW: It’s like a manual for living. Mine is I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. I was captivated from the very first page.
Ava DuVernay: Behold The Dreamers, a novel by Imbolo Mbue, is incredible.
Mindy Kaling: Mine is The House Of Mirth by Edith Wharton about a woman who was born at the wrong time and doesn’t have a lot of agency but who is smart. It makes me feel so grateful to be born at a time where people like me are actually seen and I don’t have to try and marry a man, otherwise I will be considered completely inconsequential. It puts things into perspective. And it makes me feel gratitude, which is something I forget about all the time.
One of the film’s central themes is about being part of a bigger picture. What’s the bigger story each of you wants to tell?
ADV: I don’t have children by choice and I won’t have children unless, gosh, something goes horribly wrong [everyone erupts with laughter] but my films are my children. My blood is in them. So many women filmmakers don’t get the opportunity to create a canon of work, they may make one film if they’re lucky and in seven years may get the chance to make a second film. This film is just a part of that [canon] and hopefully I’ll get to the end of it.
MK: I’ve always been so interested in immigrants who come to the United States – their pasts and the way that relates to their children’s futures and the clash between the love you feel for your ancestors. They don’t make a lot of movies like that. This film has made me more ambitious about the stories I tell.
OW: The bigger story for me, and the theme that runs through the current of my life and careers, is the message of Glinda the Good Witch, one of my greatest spiritual teachers. When she speaks to Dorothy and says, “You’ve always had the power.” Every show and magazine and speech and opportunity I have to connect to people in any form is saying, “You have it, I have it, and that light that is within you is the thing that is designed to carry us all forward.”
The times we’re moving in now, people are so focused on the darkness. Every time I find myself being pulled into these conversations about how negative things are – “Did you see what else he [Trump] did?’ – if you just shifted all that energy to focus on the light, amazing things would start to show up for us. These so-called dark times that we’re living in are an opportunity for it.
What do you hope this film will inspire in a new generation?
RW: For too long the idea of what a hero looks like has been one thing and that’s over. I was so touched when Ava reached out and asked me to be a superhero. No one’s ever asked me to be a superhero. The women who get hired in superhero movies are very young and if you’re over 40 then you’re the villain – and other than a few exceptions they’re all white, too.
MK: The lead in this movie doesn’t have superpowers, she doesn’t believe in herself, she doesn’t even love herself much. And that’s the hero in a science fiction fantasy movie?
OW: I think the legacy is going to be that you are enough. Young girls will see someone who’s flawed, wearing glasses and that one plaid shirt, and they’ll end up having a more defined sense of what it means to be ‘me’. The most powerful thing is when our protagonist says at the end, “I deserve to be loved.”
RW: I burst into tears at that. Everybody feels that: I deserve to be loved.
OW: Everybody longs for that.
If ever there was a year that female stories needed to be told, this is it. But whose stories are still missing?
RW: So many! The need for female storytellers is imperative. We’re 50% of the population, but we’re less than 10% of the people you see on screen and that’s unconscionable to me. We learn so much from movies and storytelling. I have girls come up to me all the time and say, “I went to law school because of Legally Blonde” – and they only went to law school in 2017 [the film came out in 2001]! Last year I was at a conference with Sandra Day O’Connor who was [the US’s first female] Supreme Court Justice. At the end lots of the audience members came up to me. Not Sandra Day O’Connor. It’s the power of movies. They think of me as this person who told them to do this thing in their life.
I think the one thing that aligns all of us is we were all just little girls living our lives and nobody helped us but we created a path that we did not see before. It’s interesting how many people want women to stay in a lane. “Why do you want to be more? You want to be on 60 Minutes? Didn’t you do enough?” And something incredible comes when you say, “I’m going to do that, because there’s something else inside me.”
ADV: I’ve been saying that about you Reese: you won the Oscar, you’re beautiful, an actress that people will always call. You could have relaxed. But this lady is a freaking powerhouse. She pushes for so many people. I’m so proud. Reese has a got a book club, Reese has got a fashion line, Reese is the best Snapchatter I’ve ever seen, teaching me about connecting with audiences, and she’s got a family.
RW: Oh, you’re so good.
OW: Do you always only wear Draper [James, her fashion line]?
RW: No, no! I mix it up.
OW: Is that Draper? [Winfrey points at Witherspoon’s dress]
RW: No, it’s a different thing.
At Stylist this year, we’re running a campaign called Visible Women to shine a light on women in history and the present. Who would you like to hear more from?
RW: The women in science, the inventors – we don’t hear their stories. The women who are domestic workers and farm workers and nurses and mothers who hold up this world, they don’t see their stories.
ADV: I love the work of science fiction author Octavia Butler, I would love to see her stories brought to the screen.
OW: When I think about who are the people I most admire, it’s the voiceless women like my mother and grandmother who every day just endured. They did the best they could at menial jobs and being forced to literally be subservient. The idea of speaking up for yourself was not a part of their countenance or imagination. And yet they did what they needed to do to take care of their children, to build homes, and still found a way to love. Those are the people who are every day doing the best they can. And you know how tiring that is? To have to keep going when you don’t even know what the outcome will be. I’m inspired by that. I think if they did so much with so little, then oof…
We’re now seeing the likes of student Emma Gonzalez, who was caught up in the Parkland school shooting in Florida, talking about the need for gun control. What does it mean to you to see young women like that telling their own stories?
RW: Oh my God, she’s amazing. It’s so powerful seeing these young people stand up and say, “The grown-ups have disappointed us, we’re going to do it for ourselves.” They’re putting themselves out there and forward and speaking up. But I want to say they’re standing in a path cut by people who put everything on the line. Harriet Tubman [an American abolitionist who led many enslaved people to freedom in the 19th century] risked everything to save people she didn’t know, to know there was a better life. The Freedom Riders [civil rights activists who rode buses to protest racial segregation] in the Sixties, who didn’t know if they were going to die….
OW: But they knew they’d had enough. And some of them did die.
RW: It’s incredible they have such rich history to know that their voices matter and people care.
MK: I was in college when [the mass shooting at] Columbine happened and you get so exhausted by Columbine and Sandy Hook. The Parkland students haven’t even lived through some of that yet; they’re saying they’re fed up and sick of partisan fighting. They have to speak their truth and it’s very freeing, they don’t have anything to lose here. They’re braver than adults.
As women who do have voices, what is our duty to ensure everyone’s stories are told?
RW: I know my responsibility. I’ve done a lot for myself and I’m here now to do more for raising women’s voices, telling their stories, hiring more women, helping them build businesses through the things I’ve learned. Make it, give it all away! And encourage women to take that next step, invest or grow.
OW: You start where you are, use what you have to, do what you can. Years ago on The Oprah Winfrey Show, I was inspired by a young girl who had collected thousands of pennies at her school and raised all this money. I thought, ‘I wonder what I could do?’ I started collecting small change and literally went around the country and asked everyone to save their small change for six months and we raised millions of dollars from people. Everybody thinks, ‘I’ve got to do this big grand thing’ but that’s really not true. Everyone has the opportunity from where you are today to live your purpose. You just start where you are, do what you can, use what you have.
A Wrinkle In Time is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 23 March.