Before filming "Beloved," Toni Morrison's wrenching saga of murder, love and survival, Oprah Winfrey walked blindfolded down a country road to Woodlawn Manor, a plantation house in Maryland. She put on the plain cloth dress of an 18th-century slave and, as actors cast in the roles of an overbearing head slave and an oppressive overseer shouted at her, worked in the fields of Montgomery County.

At the end of this re-created day, she found her way through a 12-mile stretch of woods that has changed little since runaway slaves traveled through it 150 years ago.

Historian Anthony Cohen, an expert on the Underground Railroad of fugitive slaves, arranged the trip back in time for Winfrey. The television Oprah has always known the value of a visceral experience; as a film actress, she followed her own advice. At the end of the experience on the Maryland plantation, Winfrey collapsed, crying and shaking.

"I became so hysterical that I connected to the raw place. That was the transforming moment. The physicality, the beatings, going to the field, being mistreated every day was nothing compared to the understanding that you didn't own your own life," Winfrey says.

After six hours in the 18th century, she understood the psychological loss of free will. And she understood better the choices of Sethe, the runaway slave she plays in the movie. "The emotional raw experience caught up with {Winfrey}. She broke down and said, This is too real,' " says Cohen, the founder of the Silver Spring-based North Star Foundation.

Perhaps she didn't have to go that far, but Winfrey, the 44-year-old show-business celebrity, knew she couldn't appear in the movie as the Oprah of daytime television fame, the Oprah of make-overs of both body and soul, the Oprah of book clubs that can catapult a book onto the bestseller list, the Oprah of the megabucks contracts.

She needed to be seen as Sethe, who will do anything to keep her family from the slave catchers. She had to be a woman starting over in Cincinnati in the 1870s. She had to be a woman still haunted by the ghost of her daughter, Beloved. Oprah had to strip away her glamour and become a sweaty, sometimes disheveled woman, tormented by her past.

She had to give an unOprah moment.

She still recalls her first meeting with director Jonathan Demme: "He said, How are you going to do it?' I said, Well, I don't think I can act her. I think I can open myself up, I think I can channel her, I can let her in, I can lose myself enough to let her in. So, every day I would light my candles to the ancestors."

In the months when she was preparing for the part, she says she often paused at the plantation records that hang on her library walls, reciting the bare, chilling details: "Ann, Big John $100. Little Ann $150. Sarah $75."

"Pages and pages," Winfrey says.

Perhaps she believed that Morrison's difficult story needed the ancestors' spirits if it was to become a movie, and then an understandable one.

The story of "Beloved" has beckoned to Winfrey for a long time. When the book was published in 1987 -- before it won a Pulitzer Prize, long before Morrison won a Nobel Prize for Literature -- Winfrey bought the rights. She waited until she had the right script. And she waited until she had the right director, Demme, who won an Oscar in 1991 for "The Silence of the Lambs" and who hadn't made a commercial film since "Philadelphia" in 1993. And she wanted Danny Glover, who has built a wide range of credits ranging from the zany "Lethal Weapon" series to the reverential "Mandela," for Paul D., Sethe's longtime friend and eventual lover.

And she decided she would play Sethe herself. Winfrey made an impressive film debut in "The Color Purple," which brought her a 1985 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. But most of her acting has been confined to television films. Propelled by her eye for a good story and helped by her clout in the entertainment business, her company, Harpo Entertainment Group, has done a series of original television movies, starting with "The Women of Brewster Place" in 1989. Winfrey appeared in three of the films.

With a story by a Nobel Prize-winning writer and the box-office clout of Winfrey, Glover and Demme, "Beloved" would seem to be a natural blockbuster. But the movie, which opens tomorrow, is disturbing, unusual and long, nearly three hours. So Winfrey has been doing an Oprah-blitz, taping her own shows early in the week and hitting the road on the weekends, doing 11 cities in seven weeks. She held court at the Four Seasons Hotel here, wearing a tailored plum sweater and pants, and talked from early morning to evening. Okay, the girl can gab.

Yet here Winfrey was not spurred on by a chanting audience. Instead, she is driven by her conviction that a movie about the inner lives of black characters -- how they face a world of possibilities and uncertainties -- can attract big audiences.

"This is about a mother who loves her daughter so much. This is what is always lost with ourselves historically. Whether it is the period of slavery and reconstruction, the Holocaust and wars, we think of them as institutions. We are able to label them as periods in history," Winfrey says. "It allows you to dismiss the individuality and the fact that each part of history, slavery included, was lived one life at a time, one day at a time -- mother, sister, father, brother . . . and that is the beauty of the film."

However, Hollywood history also plays a part here. Feature films with African American characters that draw on complex issues, especially historical ones, especially slavery and racism, have usually not fared well at the box office. Most recently, "Amistad," Steven Spielberg's exploration of the trial following a mutiny aboard a slave ship, was a box-office disappointment; earlier, "Rosewood," the reconstruction by John Singleton of the destruction of a black community in the 1920s, didn't find a broad audience.

All she is asking, she says flatly with little question in her voice, is for people to "open up" to the story.

She understands why people may have trouble understanding Sethe's constricted world. Winfrey herself was born in Kosciusko, Miss., in 1954, the year of the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision.

"Being born in that year meant my life could be different, my life was more hopeful than those of every Negro child born in years past," she says. "That is why when asked the question: Could I have done what Sethe did? I will never know. . . . I was born with hope, and she was not. . . . The difference between is just trying to make it through this day and looking forward to what tomorrow will bring. That is my life: Can't wait until tomorrow!"

To portray Sethe, Winfrey had to have her back transformed into a mass of welts and scars that resemble a chokecherry bush, spreading from the waist up to the shoulders.

Winfrey says taking on this body mask was another wrenching experience that put her in touch with her character.

"Bringing her up was painful. She wasn't a happy girl. I got nauseous every time I put the tree on my back . . . nauseous, sick, diarrhea," she says.

As she says this, she sounds like the thoughtful, perceptive talk show host. But in the movie she has a tentative, forced hesitancy in her speech, the pattern of someone accustomed to scorn. Sethe's walk is a lumbering gait, that of a woman oppressed. "The weight of not belonging to yourself . . . the weight of every day having to beat back the past, burdens you down."

At one point, the character says: "Look like I love my children more after I got here 'cause I knew I could." Winfrey says it took her years to understand what that meant: "All this time I am thinking working hard in the fields all day, isn't that a terrible thing? That is terrible, but what is unimaginable is working with the weight of unknowing . . . that I would get back and my children be sold and not a thing I could do about it."

However unflappable she appears each day, Winfrey's confidence in her acting ability wavered at times. In an early gruesome scene, the young Sethe is played by Lisa Gay Hamilton, an award-winning stage actress currently starring in ABC's hit "The Practice." But Winfrey had to do the flashback in which she tells Paul D. of a brutal assault when plantation owners sucked her breasts of her mother's milk, and the trauma of the escape. For 28 days -- the span the law allowed until the owners could look for their runaways -- she was free, and when the slave catchers arrived she knew she could never let her daughter live in slavery.

There are also steamy love scenes. Like many of Morrison's readers, Winfrey hadn't realized how much passion was in the book. But then she got the script.

She realized she had to go to bed with Glover. Well, had to is a might strong. But it was her first on-screen kiss. "I hadn't kissed anybody but Stedman in 12 years," she says, referring to her longtime fiance, Stedman Graham.

"I said to Jonathan, I don't remember this much going on,' " says Winfrey, her eyebrows raised dramatically. Jonathan said: "Lay back and relax and think about how good kissing Danny Glover could be.' I said, Okay.' "

Yeah, hard work, Oprah.

The movie has given her another way to measure her own personal success. Take her recent magazine covers, she suggests, carefully timed to promote the movie. "It is more than an ego trip, which that it is," Winfrey says. "Just 135 years ago slavery was legal in these United States. So when people say we haven't come very far, huh, I scoff at that because it just isn't true. People say you can't look at your life and think of their life. Well, the whole point of fame, notoriety and celebrity speaks to the possibility of what can be done."

What Winfrey has done is break the records, or establish new plateaus. Since syndication in 1986 her show has won 32 Emmys and now she's committed to do the daily show until 2002; there has been wealth (she pulled down $125 million last year, according to Forbes) and notoriety. Her talk about mad cow disease prompted an unsuccessful lawsuit by Texas cattlemen that became a national story.

Winfrey says thinking about Sethe helped her see clearly what she wanted to do with her day job. She had considered quitting. "I was determined to find a way to use television for a higher purpose, and not just let television use me," she says.

Last month, as she started her 13th season, she recorded the theme song herself and devoted a series of her shows to what she calls "Change Your Life TV." The concept is that viewers need steps to reorder their bankbooks, their families, their clutter. So far the viewers have said she is going too fast, and she agrees. And dealing with these serious topics in the middle of the day has cost her ratings points. "The book club does not rate as high as John Travolta. . . . All the things I try to do to get people to think differently about their lives . . . those are a rating point lower than the other shows. But it is worth losing a rating point to get a million people to read a book."

Her childhood was a troubled landscape, speckled with abuse, tragedy and loneliness, but she found her own determination and optimism through books. "I believe that my exposure to reading and learning and that big old door that books offer to me is the reason that I knew my life would be different," she says.

But who knew whether everyone else was ready to read the haunting stories that Winfrey liked?

Not even Oprah. "I was scared at first," she says.

But something connected, and in two years, 20 of her selections have made the bestseller list.

So Winfrey's present quest comes back to a book. "Beloved" is her all-time favorite. Now a movie, it has morphed into another book, a diary by Winfrey called "Journey to Beloved." It is about the making of the movie. It is dedicated to the ancestors above the candles on the mantelpiece. CAPTION: Winfrey at the "Beloved" premiere, and as the haunted Sethe, above. "The weight of every day having to beat back the past burdens you down," she says of her character. ec CAPTION: Oprah Winfrey, left, with Jonathan Demme and co-star Thandie Newton at the Oct. 12 premiere of "Beloved." ST ec