On December 16, 1985, The Color Purple premiered in New York City. The Steven Spielberg-directed film was adapted from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-wining novel and would go on to gross a reported $142 million, from a $15 million budget. It was Spielberg’s first drama, and many called it his first Oscar hopeful. That wouldn’t be the case. Instead, three little-known stars of the film would earn Oscar nods: comedienne Whoopi Goldberg (nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role), talk show host Oprah Winfrey (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), and actress Margaret Avery (also nominated for Best Supporting Actress), who nailed her role as the carefree, sexy, empowered singer, Shug Avery.
Though the film wouldn’t win in any of the 11 categories it was nominated for, it left an indelible mark on pop culture. Thirty years after its unforgettable debut, actress Margaret “Shug” Avery looks back on the legacy of The Color Purple.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since The Color Purple opened in theaters. What are some memories you have of making the film?
Well, I was the last character to be cast. I had to fight to be seen. I had been singing in Indonesia and came back to find all these messages on my answering service from other actors saying, ‘Hey Margaret, you’ve got to get your agent on The Color Purple.’ My agent at the time had tried to get me an audition but was told that I wasn’t right for the role— they wanted a singer, not an actor. I knew Ruben Cannon, who was casting at that time, because he’d cast me in so many television things before, so I wrote him a note. I had read the book and was drawn to Shug Avery. Ruben allowed me to put my reading for the role on tape. Because of him I was able to get my work seen by Steven Spielberg. Alice Walker said that she had seen a lot of tapes of other actors but when my audition came up she just kind of woke up. She couldn’t take her eyes off me. That was like a beautiful introduction to getting the role.
So you got the role, and then what?
The most beautiful and spiritual thing that happened for me was that after I was cast—and I share this with anyone who starts to not believe in themselves—after I was cast I heard about all these wonderful artists who had auditioned and I started feeling so insecure. I started thinking, ‘Oh my God, if this person wasn’t cast, and if this person wasn’t cast, I don’t think I can do this.’ I just had to get on my knees and pray to God for the courage to believe in myself.
How did you prepare to play Shug Avery?
I had to gain 30 pounds in 30 days. I had get the little pooch in the stomach like singers of that era had. You know, they weren’t into flat stomachs like we are now. Spielberg had said, ‘I want you between the look, physically, of Oprah and Whoopi.’ At the time, Whoopi was like a little bird. I was even smaller than her. He set me up with a trainer and they really pushed me. They gave me weight-gaining food. It was good stuff, but stuff that makes you gain weight, like avocado, whole-wheat bread and creamy salad dressings. Every morning at about 3 o’clock, I’d eat a pint of Haagen Dazs because I knew I would never get to do that again in life.
Working on this film, did you have any idea that it would become iconic?
We knew it would be special because we’d all read the book. Remember, Alice had won a Pulitzer Prize for the book. The fact that Spielberg took it on, we knew it would be good. We had everything going for us.
At the time some criticized Spielberg for being a White director taking on this Black story. What was the feeling among the cast?
We were happy the film was being made. What people don’t understand is that Quincy Jones was the one who was shopping the film around. Back then we didn’t really have the Spike Lee’s, and all that. Spielberg was the only one who had the power to give it a green light. If it wasn’t for him, it would newer have gotten done. Not at that time, anyway.
You were nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Did the phone start ringing for other roles?
That’s so funny. The fact that I didn’t work for a couple years after The Color Purple is not unique. It not only happens to White actors sometimes, but with Black actors, too; but more so for women of color. At the time, most women of color who were in the business were limited to Black film; whereas my counterpart like Danny Glover, went on to Lethal Weapon One, Two, and Three. He didn’t have to be limited to a Black film; he didn’t have to be married to a family, or related to somebody, like we women have to. I didn’t work for a couple years after The Color Purple. What saved me was the college lecture circuit. I kind of got a backlash for two reasons: one, no one would even think of me for a television role because they figured she’s too big to do TV now. That was the pattern. The other reason, I believe, was that at the time the industry didn’t embrace Spielberg.
Because he was a White director that made a Black film?
No, because they felt that he wasn’t worthy of all the notoriety that he was getting because he was so new in the business. Remember, Spielberg was given a studio, practically, on Universal’s lot, called Amblin Productions. Directors who had been out there for years, who had made the studios a lot of money, were very resentful. Once he did Schindler’s List is when he became the apple of everybody’s eye. I remember going to a dinner during all the hula of the Academy Awards and I sat next to one of the older directors, who was brilliant. I won’t say his name. So I’m sitting next to him, and eventually you have to speak to the person sitting next to you, and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Margaret Avery, from The Color Purple; and he just kept looking straight ahead. He said, ‘Oh, yes, I’ve seen the clips, but I’ll never see that film.’
Do you keep in touch with anyone in the cast?
Yes, Willard Pugh (Harpo), who lives in LA; and from time to time Akosua Busia (Nettie), but she lives in Ghana. Rae Dawn Chong (Squeak) recently moved back to Los Angeles. I keep in touch with Ben Guillory, who played my husband. Whoopi, Oprah, and Danny Glover never really resided in California for very long. It’s hard to keep in touch with them.
Did you have any idea that Oprah would be the person that we know now?
I didn’t when I met her. She was doing her talk show in Chicago while filming The Color Purple. Once, Quincy and I were talking and he was saying Oprah just got her talk show syndicated. ‘She’s going to be big, Margaret,’ he said. I was like, ‘Really big?’ And he said, ‘Bigger than you can imagine!’
Shug Avery’s dresses were fabulous. Do you know what happened to those costumes?
I tried to buy that red beaded dress and the headgear that I had on but they wouldn’t allow it. Then I heard that they had an auction. I never knew anything about it, doggone it, or I would have tried to been there to purchase some of that. Some of those clothes were so old that if you moved the wrong way they would rip, which they did. Remember the scene in the field with the flowers? I raised my hand a certain way and the dress ripped in the arm. I told Whoopi, ‘Ooh, [Aggie Rodgers-the costume designer] is going to kill me for this.’
What lessons did you get from this film?
There were so many. I’m probably still processing what was learned or not realizing what all was learned but I think as an actor it tells me—and I would share this with anyone going into the business—that you have to really believe in who you are and have faith and try not to be wavered by what other people say. It’s a tough business and I think you really have to have some kind of spiritual faith, some kind of a God that you believe in.
And now, The Color Purple musical is back on Broadway.
I saw it and it was fabulous. The cast is fabulous, and Jennifer Hudson plays Shug Avery to the hills. She’s such a beautiful woman, and so statuesque. I took a picture with her and she makes me look like a midget.
Do people still call you Shug Avery?
Well, yes. They recognize my voice if I ask for directions or something. They say, ‘Don’t I know you?’ or ‘Who are you?’ Then I say, ‘Can you follow me on Instagram?’ Ha!
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