oprah as gloria gaines

Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

*There’s the man who witnessed American history from the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave…and then there was the woman by his side.

Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey play Cecil and Gloria Gaines in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a husband and wife based on real life White House butler Eugene Allen and his wife Helene. The film explores their evolving relationship through major racial events of the 20th century, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine, the March on Washington, the burning of urban cities, the civil rights bills and the assassinations.

oprah forrest the butler

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in a scene from “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

In “The Butler: A Witness to History,” a book written by journalist Wil Haygood, (whose Washington Post profile of  Allen inspired the film), and published to accompany the picture, director Lee Daniels writes in the forward that his film “is set against historical events,” but “the title character and his family are fictionalized.”

While Cecil’s character remains faithful to the key events in Allen’s life, Cecil’s son Louis (David Oyelowo), is entirely made up. Allen did have one son, Charles, who served in Vietnam, just as Cecil’s younger son (also named Charles) does. But the two Charleses have starkly different paths.

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Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey in a scene from “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

As for Gloria Gaines – which marks Winfrey’s first big screen character since 1998’s “Beloved,” – her struggle with alcoholism and affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) is also fiction, according to Slate.com. The vices provided unique canvases for writer Danny Strong to paint a multi-dimensional picture of Gloria’s character.

“She represents that era of hopefulness when there still wasn’t civil rights and still wasn’t a firm belief that we could be all that we have now become, but just that there could be a better day,” Winfrey told us. “And so for me to play her means I get to bring to life not just her story but the stories of all of those women who dared believe that life could be better for themselves than life was for their mothers in spite of no civil rights.”

Below, Whitaker talks about the experience of acting opposite Winfrey, and recalls one scene in particular where her approach to the script informed his own.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opens Friday, Aug. 16. Watch the trailer below.