At 63, Whoopi Goldberg has lived through more careers than most of her veteran peers in show business. There were breakout mid-’80s years as a New York theater sensation; her rise to Hollywood stardom, with an Oscar win for her performance in “Ghost” (1990) and the box-office success of “Sister Act” (1992); her tenure, via HBO’s “Comic Relief” specials, as one of America’s comedy queens; and since 2007, her post as a left-leaning and often-irascible voice on the daytime talk show “The View.” (Not to mention her new side ventures in cannabis products and women’s wear).
It’s been a winding path, though Goldberg disputes that she was ever on anything so clear as a path. “You can’t create a career,” she said. “It goes where it goes. In fact, for a long time, people could not figure out how I actually got a career.” She smiled. “Which is a bit of a put-down.”
Before “The View,” your work was so much about storytelling and creating characters. Does the show address those creative impulses?
What creative fulfillment do you get from doing it?
It’s my job.
Do you still think of yourself as an actor? Or is there a way in which what you do on “The View” is a kind of acting?
What you’re asking is “Is ‘The View’ enough?” It’s not. Ten years is a long time, and now I’m starting to do other stuff. I’m doing books. I’m adventuring into THC products. I’m creating the clothes.
You raised your eyebrows when I suggested that maybe you were doing a form of acting on “The View.” Why did you do that?
Because, in a way, I am playing a role. These are not conversations that I’m having with my friends. If they were, we’d be doing it differently. My friends and I can talk about things in depth in a different way than you can on television.
How did “The View” become such a central place for that conversation?
I don’t really watch the show, so I don’t know. And I didn’t watch the show before I was on. I guess there’s nothing else like it. And because it’s live, I’m always surprised when people say the things they say. But you know, it’s five people talking, and then there’s this fascination with women and fighting.
Do you get any fulfillment from doing “The View”?
I get it from the fact that I’m doing anything. I’ve written a book about tablescapes; it’s all about throwing a party. Lots of people feel that they don’t know how to do this, and the book is like: “You do know how. If you can set a table, you can make a dinner party.” It’s also about how important it is, if you have a gathering at your house, to make your bathroom look nice, because everybody’s going to see it. Most people forget about the bathroom. You want to make sure there’s lots of toilet paper in there. You want to make sure that there’s instructions on what they can or can’t flush and stuff for them to read if they find they’re stuck for a little bit.
Since you just mentioned bathrooms — I’ve read three of your books, and flatulence is a real leitmotif running through them.
Because it’s a big deal! It’s a big deal, and people act like it doesn’t happen. I know people who have never farted in front of the person they’re in a relationship with. They would rather be ill than do that. That’s insane. You can’t let a little out? “No, I don’t want her to know that I do it.” She knows you do it! But you can’t say to people, “You must let it go.” So I say: “Listen, if you’re comfortable, let it happen. If you’re not, I get it, but I think it’s not good for your body.”
As far as your own relationships, you’ve said that you weren’t sure you were ever in love with any of your husbands. So what, if any, role did love have in those marriages?
Look, people expect you to have a boyfriend. They expect you to get married. So I kept trying to do that, but I didn’t want to share information with somebody else. I didn’t want anybody asking me why I was doing what I was doing, or to have to make the other person feel better. But if you’re in a relationship, you have to do those things, and it took me a while to figure out that I didn’t want to. I’d be thinking, why don’t I feel the thing that I’m supposed to? Then one day I thought: I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to conform. I tried marriage, and it wasn’t for me. You can’t be in a marriage because everybody’s expecting you to.
Does context account for the controversy over the George W. Bush jokes that you made in 2004 that stalled your career for a while? How would you describe what happened?
So, I had been invited to the Democratic National Convention, and these folks also invited me to a fund-raiser for John Kerry and John Edwards. I came out at the fund-raiser and basically said: “I love Bush, but somebody’s giving Bush a bad name. I want to put Bush back where it belongs, and I don’t mean the White House. So you’ve got to get out there and vote.” That’s everything that was said in the bit. Before I got offstage, it was reported that I’d been vulgar and crude and said horrible stuff. I didn’t. Nobody wrote what I actually said. But because of that, my whole career stopped. I had some diet endorsement I was doing and other stuff, and all that disappeared. The Democratic National Convention disinvited me. For a good three years, I couldn’t even get arrested. Eventually I was lucky enough to get a radio show, and then Barbara Walters asked if I would consider doing “The View.” When everybody says, “Oh, Whoopi is a liberal” – I don’t stand for either party. Because for me, back then, they were both full of (expletive).
Is the way controversies play out in public different these days?
It’s not. I was chastised for something I actually didn’t do. So when people say now, “So-and-so did that,” I always say, “I don’t know if that’s true.” Because I’ve been in the same place. Sometimes people don’t want to hear that. They don’t want you questioning anything. I don’t know when somebody is really awful or whether someone has just put something out there about them. I’m not a conspiracy person, but how can you believe things when you know there are bots? That’s the way of the world now: Did it really happen? So I try to figure things out as I go.
A big part of what I think was exciting about your career in the ’80s and ’90s was how you played characters that went beyond what might have been expected from a black actress at the time. Were you thinking about your work back then in terms of the progress it represented?
No, no, no, no. In the words of Hattie McDaniel, better to play the maid than to be the maid. I was playing parts that were interesting and fun, and people would say, “You shouldn’t be doing that.” I read what people had to say critiquing me. It was like, “She’s not Eddie Murphy.” I wasn’t trying to be! Why are you holding me up against all these people? It took me a long time to recognize that I made people very uncomfortable. I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, the way I was supposed to be doing it.
Is there any reason beyond the obvious – that you were both young black stars – that you got Eddie Murphy comparisons?
I’d have to say that’s why. In our business, the hierarchy is white guys, white girls, black men, then black women. So I had to get compared to a whole bunch of folks before anybody would say, “You’re fine for the part.” But I was never trying to be Eddie. I was just doing me, but people had to have some way of referring to me. And it was like, “I’m never going to make you happy if that’s where you going, because I’m not him.” It took people a very long time to get used to the fact that I was always going to be me.
“The Color Purple” was your first movie, and a big success. So despite what you were saying, was it easy to feel comfortable in Hollywood given that you did so well so quickly?
Here’s how I found things: I would ask, “What should be getting made now that someone is not going to make because they didn’t get the actor they wanted?” So “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was supposed to be Shelley Long. “Burglar” was supposed to be, I think, Bruce Willis. There were things that I got to do that people wouldn’t have initially thought of me for because their idea of what I could do and my idea of what I could do was different.
The characters you played in that HBO special you did back in 1985 were surprising, though, which is what made them fresh. I’m thinking in particular of the young woman with a disability. Where does a character like that come from?
I lived for a long time in Berkeley, Calif., which is where the Center for Independent Living still is, and I had friends who were in wheelchairs. So one day, one of my friends said, “How come you never play one of us?” I was like, “One of who?” “Somebody in a wheelchair.” I said: “Are you trying to get me killed? How would I do that?” My friend said: “You can just make up a story. I’ll tell you if it’s bad.” This is a guy who had been a biker and had a terrible motorcycle accident, which left him paraplegic. So I started cultivating a character based on how I thought about my friend and my own dreams. Because in my dreams, I could do all kinds of stuff, and so I wondered if my friend dreamed about walking and being back on the bike. The character came from there, and the first time I did it, I asked my friend, “Was this O.K.?” He wouldn’t talk to me. I thought I had totally (expletive) this up. A couple days go by, and I said, “Tell me what I did wrong.” “You didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “But I don’t know how you got me without being in my head.” “I don’t understand.” “I do dream that I can walk.” I don’t know how that happened. Osmosis maybe.
Were any other characters from that show based on people you knew?
The little girl with the shirt on her head was my kid. She once put a shirt on her head and said, “This is my long, luxurious blond hair.” I looked at her, and I was like: “I thought we went through this. Your hair is fine.” Then I came to realize that no matter what’s on your head, you think life would be different if you had different hair.
Did anyone in Hollywood ever give you a hard time about your hair?
I’d be having a conversation with an executive, and suddenly they would say, “Well, what are we going to do with this?” It was like, “Are you talking about my hair?” “Oh, I didn’t mean to do that.” “But you did!” At first it really pissed me off, then I got it: It had to do with them not knowing any better. They were executives who didn’t know any people like me, except ones that worked for them.
I don’t know if people remember but there was a fuss about Steven Spielberg directing “The Color Purple,” because some people felt maybe it should’ve been handled by a black director. Did you have any similar reservations about him?
No. Everything I understood about “The Color Purple” was that whoever was out there at the time could have done it, but they didn’t. If all these other people who are bitching about it could have made it, why didn’t they? They could have done it. But it’s not what they wanted to do at the time, and that’s O.K. But you can’t be mad at Spielberg that he did do it. I’m just glad somebody made it.
What, if anything, does it mean to you that it’s far more likely today than it was in 1985 that a studio would feel compelled to have a person of color direct “The Color Purple?”
Let’s be real here. Big studios want a return. If a kangaroo decided it wanted to make the studio money, and the studio knew the kangaroo was going to make them money, the studio would give a job to the kangaroo.
I rewatched your Oscar acceptance speech the other day, and I was charmed by how when the camera cut to the nominees, the other actresses had these practiced, poised smiles, but you looked so nervous. What do you remember about that night?
That I won! I wanted an Oscar. I thought I’d earned it. I thought the other women also earned it. I liked all of them. We made a whole thing about whoever won would spring for lunch, and we had chocolate Oscars made for everybody, because, I mean, the performances that year were stellar. Mary McDonnell, Diane Ladd and Annette Bening and – help me.
Lorraine Bracco for “Goodfellas.”
Yeah, all broads I love. We see each other, and it’s still like, “O.K., bitch, when do we do this again?” So it was heaven.
Hey, is it true you’ve never eaten an egg?
That’s still the truth. I’ll leave it at that.
On the very last page of your memoir, you wrote that you felt like an alien. That was 22 years ago. Do you still feel that way?
Yes. That’s O.K., though. Because to understand the alien, time has to be spent and efforts have to be made, and I’m willing to do both. But yeah, I might be from another planet.
• Courtesy of New York Times