Greenleaf has topped records for OWN and quickly became the summer television series that filled a void for anyone missing Scandal or How to Get Away With Murder. The show focuses on the Greenleafs, whose family business is a megachurch based in Memphis. Secrets like molestation, infidelity, fiscal mismanagement, and closeted sexuality threaten to tear the family apart. Oldest daughter Grace (Merle Dandridge) hopes to expose the Greenleafs’ hypocrisy, but the matriarch, Lady Mae Greenleaf, works to keep everything together. The legendary Lynn Whitfield plays Lady Mae, delivering speeches that rival any of Papa Pope’s orations. Whitfield spoke to Vulture by phone about her inspiration for Lady Mae, working with Oprah Winfrey, and playing hardass women.
How did you find out about the role of Lady Mae Greenleaf?
I got a call saying that they were very interested in me [playing] this character and sent me the script. I understood why they wanted me, but the pilot script was very light for Lady Mae, and it didn't explain much of anything about who she was. It said the "stern, steely first lady and matriarch of the family," and it sounded like "Well, what else?" What else about her? It sounded one-dimensional so I didn't really know. I said I need to speak to the producer so I spoke to Craig Wright. We talked it through a little bit more. He read me another scene from later in the episodes, and I said, "Oh, okay. I see what you think I could bring to the table for the character." I thought it would be, "Well, I'll call your agent and we'll set a meeting." And at the end of the conversation, he said, "So can I call Oprah and tell her that you're going to do this part?" I thought that was an exciting prospect, but I just wanted to know that I'm going to have fun with this character, that there will be room for me to make her something. He promised me that. He actually wrote it with Oprah in mind, and Oprah told him, "I hear one voice and I see one person in this role, and it's the voice and face of Lynn Whitfield." Which is such a compliment.
How does this character differ from the others you’ve been attracted to in the past?
Apparently, I hear from people I always play strong women. I don't see them that way. I actually don't see Lady Mae to be that strong. I see her to be very controlling. It's the world in which she lives. The first lady of a church like that can be, if you make the most of the opportunity, extremely specific. This first lady is very different from the woman I played in Eve's Bayou, extremely different from Thin Line Between Love and Hate or any role I've ever played because she's a nurturer, a queen woman. Those nondenominational churches where they make themselves bishops and they don't have anyone else to answer to, it's like your own kingdom. You're very autonomous. You don't really answer to anyone. You answer to your board, but in many cases, the board is there to do what you want them to do. I never played this kind of queen woman, with her own kingdom, ever. It was very interesting because of the character, and because I feel it's very important that we shine a light on the human frailties of leadership and spiritual leadership.
A spiritual relationship to me is much more about making your own connection to the divinity that you believe in and much less about the person, the shepherd, who's overseeing it all. That's how it should be, but so often, in spiritual commitment and life, people begin to transpose what should be on the actual belief system onto the person delivering the message. I loved this [show] because it begs the question, "Who and what are you following?" Are you questing after the message and a personal relationship, or are you worshipping the messenger who can only be human and have families and problems and obstacles and secrets and frailties?
How does Lady Mae fit in the current television landscape of complex and flawed black leading female characters such as those portrayed by Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, and Gabrielle Union on Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and Being Mary Jane, respectively?
Lady Mae is not as contemporary as these women. All three of those other characters have their own careers, while Lady Mae's career centers around her husband's career and around what they built together. None of those other characters have children. Lady Mae is a matriarch. She's still fly. She is not a real careerist on her own, but she runs everything. She has to serve her subjects but she also needs to make sure that she is being served properly. Lady Mae is funny. She's not an urban woman. She's a Southern woman, and Southern people speak in metaphor a lot. They speak in a more poetic and colorful, flourishing way, not the quick clips. Those other characters are really about showing you how smart they are. Lady Mae disguises how smart she is. It's all cloaked in charm, a nurturing spirit. "I will get you to do what I want you to do without telling you."
This is at least your third role playing the mother of a daughter who’s been sexually assaulted by a family member — Eve’s Bayou, Madea’s Family Reunion, and now Greenleaf. Is this just a coincidence?
I am attracted to complex stories and characters. I'm also committed as a mother and as a human, for my own emotional health, to looking at things and trying to be healed of them. In churches, we talk about generational curses. Being a Southern person, I understand. I was always attracted to Tennessee Williams and his subject matter because I think it's more challenging and interesting to play multidimensional characters, and I feel that art can help bring healing. When you look in the mirror of something that may be a part of your own life, you can see this is something that you wouldn't want to do. I wouldn't want to be a mother that put blinders on and didn't see what was going on with my child. There can be huge consequences to such a thing.
Lady Mae reminds me so much of Dominique Deveraux from Dynasty. Who inspires your portrayal of her?
I'm inspired by the great Southern women who raised me, by the idea of #blackgirlmagic, and the unapologetic feeling that you have earned and deserved the right and are entitled to walk the earth as a grand, great woman who serves. I am not apologetic about that, and as an actress, I don't need to comment on it. I need to be it.
You and Oprah Winfrey played characters who were friends who become adopted family in the miniseries Women of Brewster Place. Now on Greenleaf, there is extreme tension between your characters. How has it been playing family with such emotional distance between each other?
Women of Brewster Place was early in my career, but that work was very intimate and emotional. The story line was so touching. In that as actors, we trusted each other. The scene where she's bathing me and trying to resuscitate my broken heart was very intimate work. What that did was brought more trust so now we already feel safe. You've already created magic. There's no nervousness about, if I go deep, will she go with me? Will I go with her? We just stood flat-footed and did the work. It's explosive. The work we do together is in the last episode, and I think Twitter will be just all a-tweeting.
Greenleaf has a story line focused on police brutality, gun violence, and the Black Lives Matter movement, issues that have brought your hometown of Baton Rouge to national attention recently. How has seeing fiction and real life blur affected you?
I wish that it was fiction. For this to happen in the little sleepy capital of Louisiana is tragic and troubling, frightening. As a Baton Rouge woman, my heart for Alton Sterling and his family, my heart for those policemen and their families — I have compassion and empathy and such frustration for all of it happening. I also just want everyone to realize two wrongs don't make a right. None of it needs to be romanticized. We, as citizens, need to be extremely pragmatic and very clear.
Can you shed any light on why Lady Mae and Grace seem to bump heads so often?
I think it's much simpler than what people would think, with all these underlying secrets that the family has. Lady Mae is a Southern woman who started this church from the ground up, from a little storefront church to what you see today. Lady Mae is a woman who wanted her family to have the absolute best. She bought all the etiquette books. She learned how you deal with a grand estate, servants. Even though it's a big grand house, it still feels like a home. She created a home. She helped to build a church. She is a woman who does not want anything to interfere with the status quo. She doesn't want to lose what they've worked so hard for. She wants to protect the idea that she's been a good mother, a good administrator, a good overseer, a good steward, over everything. And anything that comes to defy her reality is threatening. Gigi wants to shake everything up. You know when your child is about to start some trouble. [The Greenleafs'] problems are very threatening to their existence and to Lady Mae's truth that she set up in her mind. When a child commits suicide, you have all of these questions, these regrets: What could I have done? Could I have done better? Could I have saved her? So for Gigi to come and chip away at any sense of familial uprightness — she is attempting to shake all the rotten apples off the tree. It's very frightening for Lady Mae that she might actually accomplish that.
Did you or any of the show’s creators and executives have any concerns about offending black megachurches through the show’s portrayal?
No, none of us did. We didn't because we don't approach it in a way that is accusatory of any church. We approach it as character studies of these people whose family business happens to be a megachurch. That business could be any number of businesses, but it happens to be a megachurch. We're not pointing a finger. We're not hating on anybody. You feel like, "Oh, my God, what is going to happen next week to these people with these human dilemmas that so many families go through.” Sexual impropriety, infidelity, betrayal, ambition, and forgiveness. Many families go through a lot of what these people are going through. We didn't have a fear about it because we made it more personal than that. It's not a general statement about megachurches and their leaders.
What’s next for you? Any future projects?
I just completed four really fun episodes of Mistresses, as a woman battling with alcoholism and all the ways that can manifest. I really liked that. I'd like to sell a few of my own projects so I have to get them in shape and into the marketplace as a producer. I'm so excited. I feel like it's the beginning of my career all over again.
The last few years have shown an increase in older actors getting starring vehicles like the Netflix show Grace & Frankie or films like Last Vegas, Dirty Grandpa, RED, The Expendables. Yet older black women don’t seem to be considered for the same type of work. What kind of stories that star older black women would you like to see onscreen, big or small?
I'd like to see more science fiction, thrillers, autumn love stories, romantic comedies. More mature people come to relationships having resolved themselves of baggage or with trunks of stuff that can be interesting to see people work through. I know younger people really feel like they've cornered the market on [sensuality], but maybe not.
What type of role do you long to play that you haven’t yet?
I would love to do espionage like The Thomas Crown Affair, that kind of thing. And I've always had a fascination with madams. It's interesting to me what that institution is like, how those women are. They have to be so hardass on one hand, and I think I would have fun with that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.