It was a shared ritual with her grandmother that gave rise to a desire within Lynn Whitfield to pursue acting.
“My grandmother loved old movies and they were so glamorous” she recounted. “I just saw all of these women making you laugh and cry; Marilyn Monroe in ‘The Seven Year Itch,’ Audrey Hepburn in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ and every now and then they would do a rerun of ‘Porgy and Bess’ and I’d see Dorothy Dandridge.”
There was never any one specific moment when Whitfield decided to become an actress. It was an unspoken, deeply felt inevitability stoked by those moments with her grandmother in front of the television. “I loved Ruby Dee in the ‘Joe Louis Story,’ and I could really relate to her because she really looked like we could be in the same tribe or whatever,” she said. “And so it didn’t really occur to me I wasn’t seeing a whole bunch of Black people. I would see Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier win the Oscar and it was like, ‘I have to do this. I have to make people laugh and cry.’ It never entered my mind I would be doing anything else. I wasn’t one of those who when you got to college wondered what am I gonna do? It was always ‘OK I’ve gotta get my education because I know what I’m gonna be doing.’”
Whitfield also always had a strong sense for the exact type of art she wanted to make. “I would sit and watch those classics and I wanted to make classics,” she said. “I did not want to be disposable. I wanted to make a space that would stay. And so far, so good. I’ve been very blessed in my career that I’ve been able to build characters that are very lasting. Josephine Baker, Brandi from ‘A Thin Line (Between Love and Hate),’ the young woman that I played in ‘The Women of Brewster Place.’ Each thing is a building block, and Lady Mae is a part of that.”
Lady Mae is the matriarch of the Greenleaf family. It is a family that presides over their Memphis megachurch like royalty. Greenleaf is also the name of the massive estate where, in grand nighttime family drama tradition, multiple generations of the family reside. Not only do Lady Mae and the Bishop live there, but also their son Jacob and his wife and teen daughter, Kerissa and Zora, and daughter Charity with her husband Kevin. Their prodigal daughter, Grace aka Gigi, has recently moved back home with her own teen daughter, Sophia. All the better for tense family dinners around the football field-length table.
The impressive family home is almost a character unto itself. In an interview during the most recent Tribeca Film Festival, we learned from Oprah Winfrey, one of the show’s producers, that much thought went into the house in which Lady Mae and her three grown children would live. Winfrey recalls asking the director of the pilot and executive producer Clement Virgo what he thought of the house they were initially using as the family home. He replied that it was “adequate.” This response did not sit right with Winfrey who stated, “I hate the word adequate,” she said. They embarked on a quest to find something more suitable, ending up with the mansion we now see on the show.
Although she seems to have a soft spot for her son Jacob and daughter Charity, to viewers of the show, Lady Mae has little patience or sympathy for prodigal daughter Grace. To Whitfield though, Lady Mae loves all of her children equally but sees Grace as a rebel. “Grace is like the activist of the family,” Whitfield explained. “You give her an inch; she’ll take a mile. From the minute Gigi walks up to the house she says, ‘Promise me you’re not here to sow discord.’ First of all, it is not a command, it’s a desperate plea. She’s expecting a promise from her that she’s not going to make a mess of everything. But it’s like the authority with which Lady Mae does those things, people think it’s mean but you have to look at the whole cycle of things.”
Although she seems tailor-made for the part, Whitfield reveals that Craig Wright originally wrote the role of Lady Mae for Winfrey. However, Whitfield revealed, “Oprah could only envision me in the role. She said, ‘I only saw Lynn Whitfield in this part.’ That was such a compliment.” Winfrey plays the role of Lady Mae’s estranged sister and restaurant owner, Mavis.
Intrigued though she was when Wright first approached her with the part, Whitfield was a bit confused about exactly who the character of Lady Mae was. “The role of Lady Mae early was very thin,” she said. “I had questions for the producer Craig Wright. ‘Why do you want me?’ Originally the only description for Lady Mae was she was like just cold and severe and arch and I’m from the South so I know that it’s not like she’s an English schoolmistress. She’s a Southern woman, who has pulled herself up and rules a household in a way for her family.”
After some explaining and being shown the scripts for a few episodes further into the series, Whitfield agreed to do the role, which she increasingly enjoys. “She’s a queen who serves her subjects,” she said. “I just love the unfolding. She doesn’t say much but what she says is quotable. All over the internet are these one-liners, these zingers she’s said thus far. It’s not one scene so much as it’s seeing the armor slowly peel away to a point to get to know who she really is.”
“Greenleaf” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m., ET, on OWN and on-demand at Amazon.com and iTunes.