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AOL Build Speaker Series - Lynn Whitfield,

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When Oprah decided to bring Greenleaf to the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2016, she and all of the cast and crew for the series knew it could face backlash. The television drama, which is coming to an end after five seasons, not only centered on the Black church but looked at the dealings of its leadership through quite the critical, albeit dramatized, eye. Yet that is exactly what drew Lynn Whitfield, who plays the fiercely revered matriarch Lady Mae, to the show.

“One of the reasons I wanted to do the series was because I thought that people’s perceptions of religion and church leadership — any leadership for that matter — needed to be looked at,” Whitfield said via Zoom. “I thought it would be empowering for us to humanize church leadership and just let people know they’re only people. They have problems. They have character flaws. They make mistakes so they’re nobody that we need to be bowing down to and genuflecting to. A priest, a pastor, a bishop, or a first lady — they’re just humans God’s using to save souls.”

Problems, flaws, and mistakes have come to characterize the Greenleaf family. Over five seasons we’ve seen Bishop, Lady Mae, and their children Grace, Jacob, and Charity, as well as their respective romantic partners and children entangled in extramarital affairs, fraud, lies, murder, and a host of other suspicious dealings not befitting of a first family. Through all of the storylines, many of which haven’t painted the First Lady of the Memphis megachurch in the best light, Whitfield said there was only one scene in four years that gave her pause.

“I was really nervous when Lady Mae and Bishop — he had served her with the divorce papers and that Rochelle Cross was there and they had me storm into the office and dress him up and down and say ‘I’m gonna stay here and do this and we’re gonna take care of that but after we’ve done all that, I’m divorcing your Black ass.’ I was like I don’t think that that’s good for Lady Mae to say that on camera. That’s kind of harsh and they were like, no, say it.”

Whitfield said she first attempted to do the line almost half-whispering, which anyone who watches the show knows doesn’t exactly fall in line with the nature of her character. That’s why she was told she needed to do it again “with all the passion that is Lady Mae.” And she did.

“For the last take, they were right up in my grill and I said, “‘After we do all that I’m divorcing your Black ass,’ and the cast and crew gave me a standing ovation.”

Still, Whitfield’s reservation was front of mind. “I was afraid of the racial nature of that,” she shared. “Even though that was something we would say behind closed doors, that was one of the few moments, of all the things Lady Mae did, that I was afraid it would be too harsh. But Twitter went crazy, went absolutely crazy.”

I informed Whitfield that that wasn’t the only time Twitter went crazy over her. When Emmy nominations were released two weeks ago, more than a few fans of the show felt Whitfield was overlooked for the role of Lady Mae. She doesn’t feel quite as snubbed as audiences said she was.

“I didn’t know anybody said anything,” she told me when I confirmed the Twitter chatter. “Well thank you everybody for thinking my work is of a caliber that it should at least be considered.”

Though Lady Mae is about as complex as they come, with her own devotion to God and “what’s right” sometimes clouding her judgment, I told Whitfield its the way her character dresses people up and down – to use her phrase — that makes viewers go wild. It also makes her quite the intimidating interview subject, though she insists she’s nothing at all like her character. It’s clear from our conversation that’s true.

“The reason why people like all that stuff is because they know people like that. They know that is clearly a Black woman, a southern woman, an earthy woman, a queen woman. They know these women and they know Lady Mae and I think that’s why that resonates with people so much.”


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