OWN boss has a recurring role in her network's upcoming series 'Greenleaf'
Credit: OWN

Five years after the end of her enormously popular and long-running daytime talk show, Oprah Winfrey is turning over a new leaf – a Greenleaf, to be specific.

Premiering in late June on her OWN, the new drama is like Empire, but instead of music, it’s set in the world of the Greenleaf family’s Memphis, Tennessee, megachurch. As their popularity and riches have grown through the years, though, their moral actions have become questionable. Adultery, greed, lies, illegal actions, and sibling rivalry are all prevalent behavior in this family, as the recently released trailer revealed.

Playing Aunt Mavis, sister to Lady Mae, the Greenleaf family matriarch, Oprah is now finding more time (while balancing her duties as OWN CEO) to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an actress. And loving every minute of it.

“Being able to act is a way to lose myself and really be submerged into the ideas and consciousness of someone else,” Winfrey tells EW when asked how acting fulfills her in ways that hosting her show didn’t, at a press preview of Greenleaf Wednesday night in Los Angeles. “Sometimes it’s a relief, and sometimes it’s exhausting.”

Case in point, a contentious scene she shot recently with costar Lynn Whitfield, who plays Mae, who is getting tired of her Beale Street bar-owing sister meddling in her life — even though it needs to be done.

Credit: Guy D'Alema

“This is my rival,” Whitfield explains of the sisters’ relationship, or lack thereof. “She is turning my daughter against me, she’s coming in the middle, she’s revealing things with my husband, she’s revealing things with my brother.” Eventually, it’s all too much, and things get heated.

But first, Oprah had to figure out how to get there. “I have done a lot of work on myself. I have worked to be whole,” she says. “I have never had a day of therapy other than on TV. So all the experts who came on my show who were helping other people, I was taking that in.”

She continues: “I don’t carry a lot of anger; it’s not even an emotion I’m familiar with. So I literally, when this scene was written, I was like, let me find some anger.”

She did find it. “I had a migraine headache for two hours,” she recalls. In describing the action, executive producer Clement Virgo, who is also a director on the series, says he thought the actress even hurt her hand when slamming it down on the counter at the end of the scene. “I did,” she quietly interjected.

But to hear her tell it, the emotionality is a large part of what she enjoys about the differences in her former job and this new chapter of her life, which has also found her in 2013’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler (remember that slap?) and 2014’s Selma, and with a slate of upcoming projects.

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“I learned a lot about myself in the scene that Lynn and I had together. And it’s very different, because it’s the exact opposite of being myself,” Oprah explains. “My whole career has been founded on just being true to myself – I’m one of the most blessed people in the world because I got paid a lot of money just to be myself – and acting is the opposite of that; it’s trying to find a way to use yourself to become someone else, to use your pain, your anger, your emotional countenance and to allow yourself to merge with some other energy.”

It’s an energy she enjoys channeling.

“It’s really very different, and in many ways, for me, like a vacation… like a vacation from myself. So, I like it – I love the experience of it. I find it really stimulating and it opens me up in ways that just being myself does not.”

Greenleaf, which also stars Keith David and Merle Dandridge, will have a two-night season premiere, kicking off Tuesday, June 21 at 10 p.m. ET, followed by back-to-back episodes on the next night, Wednesday, June 22, starting at 9 p.m. ET. Regularly scheduled episodes will air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET.

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