From Bombshell to Megachurch Matriarch: Lynn Whitfield Loves Fiery Roles

The veteran actress chats with IndieWire about a career that spans almost 40 years.
Lynn Whitfield arrives at the 51st NAACP Image Awards at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, in Pasadena, Calif51st NAACP Image Awards - Arrivals, Pasadena, USA - 22 Feb 2020
Lynn Whitfield
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Louisiana native Lynn Whitfield has been portraying strong female characters, many of them Southern, throughout much of her career — from HBO’s 1991 biopic “The Josephine Baker Story,” which she won an Emmy for, to “Eve’s Bayou” six years later, as well as numerous memorable TV roles in “Mistresses,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” and “The Women of Brewster Place.”

In her current role, she plays the fierce and fiery Lady Mae Greenleaf (Mae McCready), one of the lead protagonists and anti-heroine of the OWN drama series “Greenleaf.” She plays Bishop James Greenleaf’s ex-wife, family matriarch, and the former First Lady of Calvary Fellowship megachurch.

Viewers were first introduced to Lady Mae in 2016, when the series premiered, as the queen who reigned over her family and business. Since then, fans of the series have been entertained by all kinds of lies, deceit and struggle within the Greenleaf family and their Calvary Fellowship World Ministries.

“She is one of those really tough Southern women who has built a dynasty with her husband Bishop, and wants to keep it all together, including her family,” Whitfield told IndieWire. “She wants to control everything, including her children who live under her roof in their compound. She’s the first lady of the church, and the gatekeeper to all things — at least that’s what she believes.”

Currently in its fifth and final season, “Greenleaf” fans can rest easy knowing that there will be a spinoff of the megachurch drama, according to OWN, although exact details are sparse. As its current incarnation wraps up, IndieWire spoke to Whitfield about the series and her 30+ year career.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:

INDIEWIRE: The Josephine Baker film, which you won an Emmy for, is probably what the average person knows you for, even though it was almost 30 years ago. Was that a game changer for your career? Were studio executives pounding down your door after that?

LYNN WHITFIELD: Well, I think it showed them that I could deliver a performance and carry a film. But I don’t think that the natural progression was as aggressive as it should’ve been. Yes, it was something that at least people understood legitimized me as artist.

So clearly you had some expectations.

I think if you go back and look at the reviews that said “A Star Is Born” and all of that, I think the entire industry just expected that they’d be hearing from me again. But this has been a journey.

Thirty years later, is it any easier, or is it still a hustle? Do you still have to chase after roles or are they coming to you?

Well, Lady Mae was offered to me, which is great, and there are roles that are offered to me. But right now I would love to do something that I’ve never done before. I’d love to do a romantic comedy. I love the film “Something’s Got to Give.” I would love to play some kind of extraterrestrial, intergalactic, hero, sci-fi role. I would love to do that, I think I would have so much fun. When I was a little girl I watched a million movies with my grandmother. I loved Rosalind Cash, a name that you don’t hear as often as you should. I loved what Audrey Hepburn did. I loved what Betty Davis achieved. I loved Marilyn Monroe. I loved Josephine Baker because she was so glamorous and just had me just in awe. I think Susan Sarandon has had a very interesting career and continues to do interesting projects. Helen Mirren is somebody right now that I say, “Wow.” At every turn, she’s still doing interesting stuff. I would love to be doing the same.

Interesting you mention Helen Mirren because I always imagined that both of you are contemporaries and you should be in the same spot that she is, having a similar kind of career.

Come on, I think I’m just going to put you in my hip pocket and carry you around.

Do you like watching yourself on screen? There are some actors that just don’t watch their own the work.

No, I don’t. I’ve had to get used to it because I’m on television every week now. Actually, sometimes I just forget it’s me on the screen, and I’m just looking at the character. That’s the only way I can watch… I’ve got to remember that.

That’s fascinating that you have to essentially disconnect from yourself to watch yourself.

Yeah. That’s when I’m really proud, when I can disconnect myself. When I’m looking at, “Oh my god, that lipstick color is really bad,” or, “I don’t like the way the script is hitting,” or, “That was a false moment and I’m embarrassed.” When I can really get into it and it’s not me, because the way I get into my characters, the way I speak about them, I don’t think about them as: “Yeah, this is what I would do and I am comfortable with this.” I think once I build them out and know how they think and why they are the way they are, then it’s just not about me anymore. It’s much more about what’s true to the character.

How do you feel about being called a legend or an icon?

I don’t quite know what makes people say that, but I feel like it’s something that I have to be sure I deserve in my work. Because work is a continuum. There’s no one thing I could have done that would make me an icon. I think people just don’t know what else to say. I think it’s just another [thing] saying: “Consistently over the years I love her work, she’s done things that I’ll remember, that are memorable, that made an impression on me.” Another thing is the work has been consistent, what I will strive for is not to rest on my laurels, but to continue to bring believable women to the screen; women that excite; women that are entertaining, memorable, and hopefully a variety.

By the way, how are you holding up during these very uncertain times?

Well, when we think about ourselves it’s all contingent upon how everybody else is doing as well. Because with the pandemic it’s all about us thinking about each other, wearing a mask for each other. My health is well but we all have to be thinking about this together. So I am extremely troubled that I don’t think the Senate is going to pass this bill that [House of Representatives] just passed which would eliminate choke holds and no knock warrants and actually having policemen’s records follow them so they just can’t go and get another job. That is very troubling to me — that it seems that a part of our society really cares about this and the other part is making everything a political standoff. And so I’m horrified by seeing the state of our country and how racism is so prevalent, and I’m hopeful in seeing that people of all stripes, all races, all sexual identities are understanding that Black lives matter.

Yeah, that’s actually one of the things that’s encouraging about what’s happening. It’s not just Black people in the streets, it’s every race and ethnicity. Something must have struck a nerve this time. So it’s a bit strange to be talking about “Greenleaf” right now. What do you think that the series might have to say about what’s happening today?

Well, what “Greenleaf” has to say about what’s happening today is that man is only human, full of complexity, and is guaranteed at some point or another to be disappointing. I wouldn’t even want to imagine what’s going on in the White House behind closed doors in the family quarters right now. And so we are not encumbered to follow a man, a personality, it is incumbent upon us for the highest good of our souls, for the highest good of our country, to follow the principles that are fair for everyone. So in “Greenleaf” it’s not the Bishop that you’re following; it’s not the first family of the church that you’re following. Their job is to bring souls to salvation, bring souls to a personal relationship with God. So I think it sort of demystifies this idea of leadership.

This is the final season. Do you think that Lady Mae gets the short shrift in that she’s serious about taking care of the house, the home, and family, and legacy but she’s considered this mean, evil, person? If she was a man she probably wouldn’t be looked at in the same way.

I agree with that, absolutely. Really what she’s doing is admirable and aspirational. What her Achilles Heel is that she thinks that she knows what’s best for everyone. She has dedicated her life to building that church, to supporting and protecting Bishop, to building a beautiful home for the family and not really paying attention to the fact that she was called to preach herself and then ripped away. She was on her way to theological school when she decided to marry Bishop and canceled all that. So I absolutely agree with you, and I can’t tell you but I’m quite impressed at your observation.

What, if any, reactions have you received from real life first ladies of megachurches in response to the character?

Oh, in most megachurches, Lady Mae is very well loved. I didn’t quite know how she would be taken but you can look on Twitter feeds and see things like, “Oh, another Lady Mae one liner,” “Oh, Lady Mae is fierce.” She’s intelligent and funny, and also a very sympathetic character. I mean, she wasn’t written quite that way. But I said, “You all, this woman is the gatekeeper. There’s no way she’s going to leave the elves to play at the church and she’s not there. Absolutely no way.” I think one of the reasons that it resonates so much in different countries in Africa, in the Caribbean, and even in the European countries where it’s caught on, is that we please women. Women of power just kind of get pushed to the side and deal with the comings and goings of what’s going on of the kingdom. But she’s a queen after all, and wouldn’t let that happen to her.

Do you think it’s saying anything about megachurches specifically in terms of money, power, influence? There are so many of them now, led by people like T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen…

Yes, it does, I think without being judgmental. Because you can see how far of course one can go when all of these people who started with a storefront now have this big church, now have this big piece of real estate, now have to be responsible for this big piece of real estate. It’s difficult to continue to think about a congregation when you have all these things to actually protect. Now Bishop and Lady Mae, they’re not like some of these pastors who have private jets, or get driven in Rolls Royces. That’s not who they are.

I have to ask you about “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate” with Martin Lawrence. What drew you to the film? I think you elevated the material in a way, because I think if it was not for you, I don’t know if the film would have been what it is.

Because love hath no fury like a woman scorned. Anybody who has ever had their feelings hurt, who has ever been disappointed, who has ever been deceived. It’s just such interesting subject matter and will forever be. So I once I was cast in the role, we all elevated the material. And Martin encouraged me to put my stamp on it, to put my fingerprint on it. And so when we did the monologue with the barrel of his gun in his mouth — which, he directed me there — I’m not doing this for myself, I’m doing it for all women. I knew that monologue would be some kind of anthem for women who have been hurt. So I had a ball doing that film and it has such resonance and for such a long time. The same thing with “The Josephine Baker Story,” and “Eve’s Bayou.” I’m very blessed to have done material that’s not disposable. The material, the projects continue to entertain people and be provocative enough for people and not feel dated. So that’s a good thing. But that’s always the kind of work that I wanted to do when I was coming up.

I would say after “The Josephine Baker Story,” “Eve’s Bayou” is probably your next most well-known film.

With “Eve’s Bayou” it was really interesting because I am a Southern woman, I come from a family of physicians. Tennessee Williams has nothing on Southern people, I tell you. Because there’s no way we can escape slavery, there’s no way we can escape our history as Black people. It has something to do with everything. But this family in “Eve’s Bayou” was dealing with these internal problems that had nothing to do with race; it had to do with just who they were, and so that was really interesting to me. The other thing that was troubling for me was that my character Roz Batiste, as she was written, was kind of like that ’50s woman, like she didn’t speak about things too much, turning a blind eye and keeping the family going and all of that. And I just said, “Kasi [Lemmons], please can Roz blow a gasket here?” because that’s how I would respond. And she said, “No, no, no. What you do, this is much more powerful.” So I played it that way.

Other than “Greenleaf” what are you watching? What has your attention these days?

I binge watched all of “Twenties,” which is Lena Waithe’s new series on BET and I really enjoyed that. I watch “We’re Here,” which is about this drag show that goes all over the country to very, very conservative communities, small towns, little hobo towns. It’s just so good and so entertaining, it has so much heart. And now I’m watching “I May Destroy You” on HBO, Michaela Coel’s new series. Oh my God, she is so talented. And she survived all of this and then she wrote it, and she just continues to grow. It’s so authentic and obscure in a way with universal themes. I think on the sly I’m just trying to get encouraged to take a pen and paper myself and write some more obscure stories, so I’ve been inspired by all of these younger artists. Because I don’t want to get stale.

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