Lynn Whitfield in GREENLEAF | ©2020 OWN

Lynn Whitfield in GREENLEAF | ©2020 OWN

GREENLEAF is now in its fifth and final season Tuesday nights on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network. Created by Craig Wright, the series examines the inner workings of a family-run black Southern megachurch in Memphis, Tennessee.

Lynn Whitfield has won Gracie and two consecutive NAACP Awards for her performance as the church’s First Lady Mae Greenleaf, wife of Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David). Together, they run the Calvary Fellowship Worldwide Ministries, as well as their conflicted family.

Whitfield won an Emmy for her starring performance in the 1991 telefilm THE JOSEPHINE BAKER STORY, where she played the title character from age eighteen through sixty-eight. Originally from Louisiana, Whitfield moved to New York, where she did several Off-Broadway plays. When Whitfield came to Los Angeles, she starred with Alfre Woodard in the 1977 stage production of Ntozake Shange’s FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE/WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF; Whitfield also appeared in the 1982 telefilm adaptation of the play.


In an exclusive telephone interview, Whitfield talks about GREENLEAF and more.

ASSIGNMENT X: When GREENLEAF came up for you, what was the most important aspect of it for you?

LYNN WHITFIELD: It was the subject matter. I’ve long felt that the idea of the actual existence of megachurches is great – the more Praise the Lord, the better – but that sometimes, in terms of priorities, I’ve felt like they get off the beaten path of saving souls, and more into things that are more material in nature. So I was very interested to take a look at the fact that the separation of not church and state [laughs], but God and man, that church leadership isn’t God, and that’s where our personal relationship goes, because man is only human, right? So I was very much looking forward to putting flesh and bone on this family that happens to have a megachurch as their family business, and to remind people that people always have things going on. And so I was very excited to give voice to a Southern woman, which I am, and so are all the women in my family. I was excited about this whole idea that I thought that we could do something really good, and I’m so happy that I agreed to it, because it’s been a real joy to bring to the screen.

Lynn Whitfield in GREENLEAF | ©2020 OWN

Lynn Whitfield in GREENLEAF | ©2020 OWN

AX: GREENLEAF is somewhat unusual is that we don’t often in popular culture see depictions of seriously religious people who can actually cite Scripture for what they’re doing and what they feel other people should be doing. Lady Mae does that forcefully, and without cynicism …

WHITFIELD: Yes. Well, the Bible has a lot of really insightful, very human, and very contemporary directives. When I read “Song of Solomon,” I said, “Well, that’s really sexy. That’s really in love.” Psalms gives direction. It’s written for human beings as a guidepost, messaged by human beings, and channeled by human beings, and has a lot of good life lessons in it.

AX: While the Greenleaf family can be materialistic, they are also sincere in their beliefs; they’re not just putting on a show of faith to make money. Do you feel that GREENLEAF the series is a more realistic or a more aspirational depiction of a megachurch?

WHITFIELD: Well, I think it’s a pretty realistic depiction of a megachurch. At least, that’s what lots of megachurch pastors and first ladies and PK kids – preachers’ kids – have told me. Of course, it’s one take on it. Every church doesn’t have thousands of members, and every pastor doesn’t have a mansion, but there are many who have planes and Rolls-Royces. We have but to look at the Catholic Church, really, to see how wealth is so infused with purpose and message. There’s a lot of money, a lot of personalities in huge churches. I guess it takes strong personalities to attract millions of people to them. But yeah, I think it’s pretty realistic. Sometimes, it is aspirational, and sometimes, what we’re doing, it’s a morality play. There’s a message to it, to not aspire to this. And sometimes it’s extremely aspirational, because I think the Greenleaf family is full of problems, and full of love for each other. I think that anybody in any church structure has something to do. And leaders of churches do their jobs to lead souls to pray. If it’s another religion or another belief system, it’s always to help people with their personal relationship. That’s what it should be, at best.

AX: When you say “personal relationship,” you mean their personal relationship with God?

WHITFIELD: Yes. Oftentimes, lots of things get in the way, and we end up idolizing, or placing on a pedestal, the [church] leadership, as opposed to furthering the personal, quiet relationship that really serves us in the most important times. It’s not a criticism of all churches and all church leaders, but I think, if anything, GREENLEAF demystifies, humanizes leaders of anything. When people close their doors, you can believe there are always inner workings of family, of marriages. Because the leaders are human. And I think that that is part of what our show achieves. I hope.

AX: Do you have input into your character? Do you sit down with Craig Wright, and talk about where Lady Mae is going?

WHITFIELD: It’s been extremely collaborative. One of the joys of being a part of the GREENLEAF company, of this ensemble, is that Craig Wright, our creator, is very collaborative. We collaborate on the substance of sermons, the arc of the woman herself, trying to keep it honest, authentic. Craig has been great about that. Clement Virgo, who is our boots on the ground executive producer/director, who directed almost half of the episodes, is also very collaborative. Hopefully, I will have another experience that is so grounded in really the well-being of the project and the characters.

AX: How is working with Keith David, who plays Lady Mae’s husband?

WHITFIELD: Oh, the best TV husband ever. We had such a great experience creating this couple together, each of our characters, and how they worked together, and it was such an easy creative space for us to be in. And I say, it’s been more successful than any marriage I could dream of [laughs]. We never had an argument, we never really had any serious disagreements, and so much of what we did with those characters wasn’t spoken, but you could see, you believe it’s a couple who’ve known each other for forty years. Their silent communications and all that are just a joy. I can’t wait to do something else with Keith.

AX: Have you done a lot of Shakespeare?

WHITFIELD: No. Keith has done a lot of the classics. But what we speak and do [in GREENLEAF] is like some kind of Southern Shakespeare. Where were you going [with the question]?

AX: Lady Mae is very regal and very queenly. She is like a monarch, even when she’s dealing with her children – maybe especially when she’s dealing with her kids [laughs]. So I was wondering if you were drawing from other work you had done playing royalty …

WHITFIELD: Well, you know what I drew from for that? Because I saw so many similarities in the story, in the universal nature of the story, and that is THE LION IN WINTER. That was one of my references that I would talk to Craig and Clement about, in terms of tone of her. I said, “Katharine Hepburn [playing the twelfth-century Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine] in THE LION IN WINTER.”

I did one of those [pieces where] you choose ten movies that you like, and you view them all again, and are then interviewed about them. I found the relationship [between Hepburn’s Eleanor and her husband, English King Henry II, played by Peter O’Toole] in LION IN WINTER to be very similar to the Greenleafs, and what the goals were, and what the obstructions were, trying to decide which child would rule, and all of the pushing and tugging of the favorite. Of course, the character in THE LION IN WINTER, Katharine Hepburn, she was sent off to [be incarcerated in a tower], something I cannot imagine happening to Lady Mae. I found it to be a very good inspiration for me – her performance and everything about it inspired me, and I used that to then interpret it in some black Southern Shakespearean way.

AX: Is there any difference in working with a black-run network like OWN than non-black-run networks, which are most of the others?

WHITFIELD: Interesting question. I think that in this particular instance, first of all, you don’t start off trying to explain who black people are. Now, our creator, Craig Wright, is actually a white man, but very open. He started off by saying, “I understand church, but I don’t understand black church. And I am going to rely on each of you to keep me honest, and keep me on the straight and narrow. So teach me.” And that’s how we started. So that was incredible. Of course, with Oprah being at the helm, Oprah understands black church, so you started out, I would say, a little bit farther ahead of the game, because everybody’s already on the same page about that. And it was a real feeling of family on our show. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of joy, a lot of hard work, a lot of sixteen-hour days. But you felt that everybody was in it together, and committed to it.

I got one of the best boys [lighting technicians] to come over to help me set up lights at home for all this Zooming, and Face-Timing, and Skype-ing we’re doing for publicity, and he was a white young man, but our crew was a mixed crew, with so many black people hired. Oprah is incredible. I never had an experience like that, where I actually felt like such a family feeling. That’s so rare. I can’t speak to all the time, or make generalizations about it, but it definitely was such a feeling of family, all working towards the same goal, and a lack of having to explain who we were, if that makes sense. Right now, today, there’s a lot going on, with explaining who black people are, why we’re weary, why there’s been enough of injustice, or lack of justice. When you don’t have to explain yourself, you just sit down to a family dinner, it’s a really cool thing.

After four hundred years, after earning my keep in terms of being a responsible citizen, it gets exhausting, to keep explaining who you are. We’ve been here as long as anybody else, we’ve built so much of [the U.S.], and contributed culturally. I’m from Louisiana, and New Orleans is one of the cultural meccas of the world. And still kind of having to explain why we have a right to equality and justice, it does get to be exhausting. So it’s nice when you don’t have to give reason of your worth for being here. You can just start off with family stuff. Here is stuff that is going on within the family that we need to look at that maybe we can fix. But it’s not because I’m black, because you’re white. We don’t have the race card in the situation at all, and that is a breath of fresh air.

AX: Where do you shoot GREENLEAF?

WHITFIELD: We shoot GREENLEAF in Norcross, in Atlanta.

AX: And GREENLEAF is set in Memphis, so it’s shot in the general region of the United States where it’s set, even though it’s a different state …

WHITFIELD: Absolutely. I’m sure Tennesseeans and Georgians and Louisianans – I’m from Louisiana. We take pride in our own selves [laughs]. It’s those distinctions that particularly Southerners take such pride in.

AX: But you’re closer than if you were shooting in, say, Wilmington, North Carolina, or Austin, Texas …

WHITFIELD: Absolutely. We are in a southern place. And a lot of the topography and everything looks similar. They were looking for a place that would look like Memphis. And they found it.

AX: Do you have any other projects that we should know about?

WHITFIELD: I was about to do a play. They’re making a move to certify the Apollo [Theater] as a Broadway house – there are only forty-two or forty-three Broadway theaters in New York – and we were all set, and a week out of starting rehearsals [when the lockdown happened], to do a play called BLUE, which we be directed by Phylicia Rashad, and it was written by Charles Randolph Wright. He conceived of, wrote and directed MOTOWN. And so when this is all over, we’ve actually done Zoom rehearsals and Zoom readings. The costumes are still in the shop, the set is in the shop [laughs]. They’re still ready to go and just waiting for there to be a vaccine.

And I did the next installment of TALES FROM THE HOOD [TALES FROM THE HOOD 3], which is produced by Spike [Lee]. They do it in vignettes, and I have this really interesting one. And it was fun. I’d never even been in the genre of horror before. So that’s exciting. And we shall see what we shall see as we go.

Now we just have to wait. I’m at home, seeing how do I translate my creativity in an art form that needs fifty to a hundred people at best, or if you’re doing guerilla, it still takes twenty people to make an indie film. So how do I now filter all that into things that I can do at home? So far, it’s been interiors and this and that, but I’ve got to find a way, because to sit at home – maybe I’ll teach myself to paint. I still feel creative, and I’m learning what ways are easy for me to express myself, and the authority to sit and really learn something new and take another approach. I’m finding I’m a little bit stubborn, more than I thought I would be. But fate and God has given me this time, so that’s what I’m looking for, how am I going to express myself.

AX: And what would you most like people to know about this last season of GREENLEAF?

WHITFIELD: I’d like them to know that we knew going into fifth season that it was our last season. So often in television, you’re out there in Hollywood, you finish a season and you don’t know ‘til the upfronts that you’ve been picked up, or that the show’s canceled. But we had the great fortune to be able to land this with knowing and round out the characters and finish it up well. And I was able to finesse Lady Mae all the way to the last frame, knowing that it was the last frame. So it was all carefully ended, with great love and respect for the characters and the story, and for our fans who’ve supported us all these years.

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Article: Exclusive interview with GREENLEAF actress Lynn Whitfield


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