Exclusive: Lynn Whitfield on playing Oprah's sister 'It's interesting to have two grown women feuding'

Emmy Award winner Lynn Whitfield talks to MEAWW about the new season of 'Greenleaf' and her upcoming Netflix romantic flick 'Nappily Ever After'


                            Exclusive: Lynn Whitfield on playing Oprah's sister 'It's interesting to have two grown women feuding'

You know an anti-hero is great when you find yourself seeing beyond the bad things they do. The character's layers fall before your eyes and you think to yourself - maybe their reason to do whatever they do is worthwhile. Lady Mae in 'Greenleaf' is one of those lead protagonists that enamor you with mystery. Emmy Award winner Lynn Whitfield is nothing short of breathtaking as Daisy Mae as she navigates the murky waters that separate morality, religion, and spirituality.

Actor Lynn Whitfield attends the 42nd Annual Gracie Awards Gala, hosted by The Alliance for Women in Media at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on June 6, 2017, in Beverly Hills, California (Getty Images)
Actor Lynn Whitfield attends the 42nd Annual Gracie Awards Gala, hosted by The Alliance for Women in Media at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on June 6, 2017, in Beverly Hills, California (Getty Images)

She dons the roles of Bishop Greenleaf's wife, the First Lady of Calvary Fellowship World Ministries and the family matriarch. The Greenleaf family, which runs the sprawling Memphis megachurch Calvary Fellowship World Ministries, appears to be a loving and caring clan. Beneath the surface, though, exist scandalous secrets and lies. Greed, adultery and sibling rivalry are among the issues that threaten to test the family's faith and tear the group apart.

The scandalous happenings are uncovered by Grace, the estranged daughter of church leader Bishop James Greenleaf when she returns home after a 20-year absence. Oprah Winfrey stars as Mavis, Grace's aunt, and Mae's sister. The show recently returned for a third season on OWN.

Whitfield is also starring in the upcoming Netflix film 'Nappily Ever After' alongside Sanaa Lathan. Whitfield talks to MEAWW about finding the real face of religion and the human condition on 'Greenleaf', working with Oprah and Haifaa al-Mansour and how we are more than our weaves and wigs.

Season 3 of Greenleaf is just here, what can we expect from the third season as it progresses?  

You can see each of the characters falling apart. Everything is deconstructed. You see how the characters work through this to become whole and comfortable in some way.  They are trying to figure out a way to survive and pull themselves together.

Lady Mae and Bishop Greenleaf’s marriage is on the rocks and the church is in trouble too - will they make it? What is the nature of betrayals that we will see going forward?  



 

That all remains to be seen but we certainly know that the Bishop has allowed himself to be in compromising positions and Lady Mae isn’t going to tolerate it. Their marriage is in jeopardy. I don’t know if they make it in the end….  We know they are both being deeply compromised and at odds, but at the same time they know that they are stronger and better together. We see how this mature couple negotiates the crisis and this helps to make the show an enduring drama.

'Greenleaf' tackles hypocrisy, both spiritual and secular. Its characters, even the holiest among them, sin spectacularly - was this something that got you interested in playing the character?

Absolutely! I found that being a Christian I have had spiritual leaders that have been very supportive and lived up to leadership standards. Along the way, I have also seen leaders that fell away. One of the reasons that I wanted to do this show is because I knew that we would really delve into these characters. As an actor, I love to put up a mirror to human behavior and humanity. We need to remind ourselves that church leaders are also human beings. We look at the human condition of people. The underlying theme of Greenleaf is a study of what this family is going through. 

How did you prepare for the role of Lady Mae?  

As I campaigned for President Obama, my beat was beauty shops, first lady teas, churches, etc. I was welcomed in so many different styles of graciousness at different churches by first ladies so this is where I saw how they create the tone of the church and make it a welcoming home. I saw the important role that they play in the church.

How is it working with Oprah Winfrey on the show - especially since she’s exec producing, acting as well?  

It was great. This is the third project that I’ve done with Oprah. I find it very fulfilling. When she acts all of those other hats are dropped. We created some really exciting moments thus far. It’s interesting to have two grown women who are feuding. Lots of meat and potatoes in this – a real look at human frailty!

Tell us about your character Paulette in 'Nappily Ever After'? How does her character arc sync with Violet’s (Sanaa Lathan) inspiring story?

Paulette is someone who looks at Hello! Magazine and romanticizes the idea of her daughter meeting her husband. She is a total romantic. She managed a good marriage and a decent life but she always wanted more. She is one of those mothers who can put her own stuff aside and really take joy in living vicariously through her daughter. For her daughter to go through this questioning period just throws her for a loop. But unlike Lady Mae, she is a real support system for her daughter. She also has the challenge of her husband going through a mid-life crisis.

The story of living under pressure of being perfect is all too relatable. But for someone in the spotlight constantly, it is far worse. Did you ever have your own 'hair' transformation? 

Well, I have done the same thing for so long.  I'm at that point myself!  Stay tuned….

Haifaa al-Mansour is one of the most controversial directors of Saudi Arabia. She’s also the best known and the first female director from the country. Tell us about working with her.

Well, it was interesting that Haifaa is the director because she has a worldview of women’s self-images. I think that it made the movie even more interesting and more relatable. What we see through her is that this theme is universal.



 

This is a tweet on the trailer, “The amount of strength, pride, and identity that black women hold in their hair is both mentally/physically exhausting and completely liberating." And this is just one of the comments - how do you feel being associated with such a project? Do you think the film will wow the audience even more?

I am excited to be involved in a project that takes a look at a story that can have women view themselves in a different way and hopefully, free them more. Women don’t know what to do. We are more than our hair! Remember what your real hair is like. Who are you without these status symbols of weaves and wigs? We have not answered that question yet.

What are the other projects you have been working on?

Is there something upcoming that we should keep an eye out for? I did an independent film called 'Solace' about a woman with an eating disorder. It will premiere on September 23 at the Los Angeles Film Festival.