Vanessa Bell Calloway is an unlikely amalgam of God-given gorgeousness, dramatic chops and unbeatable comic timing. In her turns as Lady Ella on Bounce TV’s “Saints and Sinners” and as Carol Fisher on Showtime’s oh-so-aptly named comedy-drama “Shameless,” she displays her copious talent, wasting no opportunity and leaving no stone unturned in her acting arsenal as she takes viewers along for whatever ride her character is currently on. She makes you love, hate, laugh at and laugh with her characters.
There are plenty of actresses who can do either drama or comedy very well. Calloway proves again and again she is master of both in equal measure. In “Saints and Sinners” she plays Lady Ella, who slays sartorially as well as politically. A sort of Lady Macbeth behind the pulpit, she doesn’t merely desire to be the power behind the pulpit, she wants her very own pulpit—or podium, to be more exact. Lady Ella has her expertly made-up eyes on public office and will do whatever it takes to get there.
It is this unquenchable thirst for power that attracted Calloway to the role. Revealing why she was drawn to the challenge of playing such a character, she said, “This wasn’t your typical first lady just sitting in the church in the shadow of her husband. She had her own agenda, her own life. She was a community activist, she was a city councilwoman, she’s a mother, she’s a wife, she’s a businesswoman, so I liked all the aspects that Lady Ella possessed.”
But Lady Ella does fall quite a few virtues short of being the Proverbs 31 woman. To start with, there is her dalliance with Mayor Pamela Claybourne, played by Gloria Reuben. Explaining the dynamics of the relationship, Calloway stated, “Lady Ella is an opportunistic person. I always tell everybody she ain’t a lesbian, she’s opportunistic. She knows what she needs to do to get where she needs to go and the current mayor is going to help her become the [next] mayor. It’s not a love thing for Lady Ella; it’s an opportunity issue for her.”
The church as the setting for a nighttime soap opera, on the face of it, seems an unlikely choice. When looked at in the context of the African-American community, however, the picture comes into better focus. On that subject Calloway offered, “It’s a powerful symbol because, well, that’s where most of us come from. We were raised in the church. That goes back to slavery days, when all we had was God. There are a lot of great stories in the church because people are just people. They aren’t saints, they aren’t bishops and popes. They’re just people who are trying to make their lives work and the church is their refuge, where they go for spirituality and to be cleansed, rebirthed and renewed, and they’re human, so they fall. So the church is always going to play an important part.”
Besides the character itself, the show’s ensemble also attracted her to the role. “The cool thing is when you’ve been in the business as long as I have been, you get to work with a lot of people,” she said. “I knew damn near everybody anyway and if I didn’t know them, I knew of them or kind of knew them. The only person I really didn’t know much was the young lady who plays my daughter, and now we adore each other—Jasmine Burke. It’s fun when you get to a job and you know the other castmates. It makes everything go better. It makes your day go better.”
After “beating out several other people in Hollywood for the role” six years ago, Calloway has also been a longtime recurring cast member on “Shameless.” An edgy program known for pushing the boundaries of television, it incorporates the types of situations that test an actor’s mettle. Calloway though, is up to the challenge. She recalled, “There was one time where I read the script and I screamed and said, ‘Oh my God.’ I said, ‘Honey, look at this!’ And I have this rule, once my husband signs off stuff, I really don’t give a damn what anybody else thinks. Once he says go for it, I really don’t care. Kids, mama, nobody.” Her husband was supportive and she went ahead and did the scene—arguably one of the show’s most memorable. “The fun thing about ‘Shameless’ is that you get to give yourself permission to do things that you would never do … But that’s what makes it so much fun because I get to be somebody I’m not.”
Calloway also appears in “Southside With You,” the critically acclaimed film about the courtship of the Obamas. “Of course it was an honor when I was asked to play the mother,” she said. “I jumped at the opportunity. It is an independent film, and I just love the director. I used my miles and flew myself to Chicago because I wanted to be in that movie, and I wasn’t gonna let anybody else have that part.
“You don’t always do things for money. You do it because you want to be a part of something, and I wanted to be a part of that movie. I thought it was important, especially this being their last term, their last year, and I wanted to be part of that, so I made it happen and I’m so glad I did. We ended up going to Sundance. What an honor that was.”
She has also managed to excel in her personal life. Calloway has been married for 28 years to Dr. Anthony Calloway and has two daughters, Ashley and Alexandra, who work in the entertainment industry. Many of us are familiar with Ashley, who appeared in the reality series “Baldwin Hills.”
Aware of the seductive nature of show business and how tough it can be, Calloway was strategic about raising her daughters in such a manner as to make them more conscious of their options at a younger age. She explained, “I put them in a semi-professional world, so to speak, because by the time they graduated from high school, I wanted them to either love the business or hate it and do something else. I didn’t want them wasting the early parts of their lives, when they could really be focused on becoming some other type of great executive or something that they would love to do, running around auditioning trying to get a job when they could be focused on something else that would bring them more power and money in the latter part of their years.”
She attributes having varied interests and respect as the foundations for her long marriage. “Everybody, when you’re in a marriage, you have to wake up and have something to do,” she said. “If one person doesn’t have anything to do, and they’re waiting on the other person to come home, you’re gonna have a problem. Everybody needs to wake up and have somewhere to go and something to do, and you can’t get on each other’s nerves. And of course, communication and respect. There’s never been a time in my home where my husband has called me out of my name nor have I called him out of his. When the kids were growing up, they never saw us yelling and screaming at each other. We just don’t communicate like that, even if the kids aren’t home. Of course we had arguments and disagreements, but we do it in private and we do it civilly.”
“Saints and Sinners” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Bounce TV. For more information, visit www.bouncetv.com/shows/saints-and-sinners.