Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker
08/07/2013 AT 06:00 PM EDT
Marriage is a beautiful thing, especially when you're married to Oprah Winfrey
"It was an amazing experience for me," says Forest Whitaker, who plays Winfrey's onscreen husband in Lee Daniels' The Butler
, opening Aug. 16.
The movie, based on the real-life story of a man who worked at the White House for 34 years under eight consecutive presidents, juxtaposes the couple's home life against the turbulent times of the 1950s and '60s.
"[Oprah] was so committed to our relationship," said Whitaker as he was promoting the film in New York City on Monday.
"In between the scenes, when we're trying to develop our rapport and continue to build our connection, she would be so generous, she would rub my back, or, you know, we'd walk hand in hand to the set and talk, and I think it led to the magic of us being able to really be connected in the film.
This being Winfrey's first role in 15 years, she said she was drawn to the character of Gloria
because she "had a little fire inside of herself." But that passion led to some heavy scenes for Whitaker, 52, who wasn't sure how to react to the 59-year-old's emoting.
He admits there were a couple of scenes "where I didn't know what to do by the way she was behaving."
For instance, "One time she was [acting] really drunk
in the scene," he said, "and I just didn't know what to do."
Explaining further, he said, "You know that awkward moment when you don't know how to take away someone's pain, you don't know if you should touch them, you don't know if you should help them, you don't know if you should be in the room? Those are the kind of moments that she did" – which he credits for elevating their work together.
"Because," said Whitaker, "I was just reacting off of some of the powerful moments [Oprah] was giving."