Lynn Whitfield is unarguably one of the most esteemed Black actresses of our time. Every role she takes on is memorable and sure to stand the test of time, something she takes very seriously. For three decades, she’s been a timeless beauty who captivates us no matter what role she takes. From Brandi Webb of A Thin Line Between Love & Hate to Lady May on Greenleaf, Whitfield hasn’t disappointed us yet and surely never will.
“It’s been a blessing that I’ve been able to choose things that I felt I could help make a classic,” she told MADAMENOIRE over Zoom.
Whitfield is not only an icon but one of the most classy women you’ll cross paths with. I couldn’t help but gush over her and tell her about how much I loved her portrayal of Brandi Webb in A Thin Line Between Love & Hate alongside Martin Lawrence. Being a woman scorned is a reality for so many of us, but Whitfield told me that the movie is more than a story about betrayal.
“I believe I was involved with the writers in framing [my monologue] because and it’s not just women, women do this to men,” she said. “You know, men do this to women. It’s not a gender based story, but typically the story of betrayal. Even though it was a comedy and Bobby Brown was, you know, funny and cute, and there were so many great comedians in the film, it’s really a story on morality play. It’s a play about the preciousness of someone’s heart. It’s a morality play about allowing yourself to live a life even if you have a big house, even if you have glamorous clothes, even if you look like you have it all going on, that you have allowed yourself to become damaged goods and therefore are really vulnerable and susceptible to losing it. Martin’s humor and the truth of the situation is the meat and potatoes of it but at the core of it ‘don’t break my heart.’ I was the vessel but Martin Lawrence wanted that theme to be made clear.”
After playing so many unforgettable roles, Whitfield said she is looking for the next challenge. With her upcoming roles, she not wants to show that you can be sexy at a particular age but also target a group of women that she hasn’t spoken to with previous roles.
“There are women who didn’t have children or who put their career first or put the problems first. I think more and more women are those women. I think I’d like to [play a character] where I can explore a journey of women who don’t have all those appendages and things surrounding them and trappings that are traditional and expected. I want a new challenge.”
She also said she wants her roles to continue to dispel the myths that older women “start to lose that connection to their sensuality as they get older.”
“That is not true,” she said. “And a lot of times, our grandmothers denied themselves, or maybe they just didn’t want us to know [about that pat of their lives]. But it doesn’t have to be [that way]. I try to continue to press that as reality.
Whitfield went on to speak to us about how she knows a role will stand the test of time, how the entertainment industry has changed us, how she dodges burnout and more.
MADAMENOIRE: On your Uncensored, I saw you reminisce about A Thin Line Between Love & Hate. I saw the movie when I was younger but then when I watched it as an adult it hit totally different. Have you had people come up to you and tell you their stories about heartbreak?
Lynn Whitfield: Well, people have shared their experiences. You know, women share their stories of disappointment. Men share their stories of like feeling betrayed. Young men have come up to me and told me “You showed me what being a man is like and how you got to respect women and you just don’t go throwing around the love word.” Still, and then I have all these young young men who get to get a crush on me every year because they’ve played the movie. But it’s not me they’re getting a crush on the lady who played Brandi Webb. But you know, we really made an urban classic.
MN: Yes, the fashion from that film was so dope as well! The 90s were such a great time for fashion and that’s one of those films that really shows it.
LW: Oh, thank you for that, because I had a hand in designing everything I wore. I think that when somebody is expressing a character, the external part of a character, whether they’re glamorous, or whether they’re, you know, kind of like not conscious of clothes, there’s always some kind of clue to who someone is. You can you can gather something of who they are, you can share hints with your audience. So I always contribute because at the end of the day, it’s what’s in the frame acting with me.
MN: And do you do that for every role?
LW: I work with with whatever costume designer is there. I remember when we were starting Lady May [of Greenleaf] and [I first collaborated with] Johnetta Boone who’s a very talented costumer… So yeah, there’s so much that you can tell about any person. You live in New York City, right? Okay, so you can go and sit in a cafe, you can make a whole story about somebody passing down the street, and, and guesses about who that person is, and why you think that and what that, you know, but it starts with what you see.
MN: So it’s like the saying a picture is worth a 1,000 words. When the character first appears, you want viewers to start forming that story about the character. So when you pick your roles, we all know you portray classy roles and it kind of reminds me of how Diahnn Carroll chose her roles.
LW: I think that once you show people who put shows together or who are telling stories that you’ve done something, well, then they have a level of comfort if you are in a role because they know that you do that thing well. So then my challenge is to really bring the specificity to each one of these classy ladies, right? And then funnily enough, many of the roles that I played where it wasn’t that, people don’t know about them, like Sophie and The Moonhanger, where I played a maid in the 50s. Or The Color of Courage. So [there are] things that I’ve done that are different. So my passion is to do different kinds of roles. Lady May (of Greenleaf) was very different from the mother in Madea’s Family Reunion. And Brandi Webb is very different from both of them. But I think from the moment I did Josephine Baker, everybody said she knows how to wear elegance really well and it fits like a glove on her. I came from a tribe of women who were really that so and for a while that was activism. Right? Because when I started in acting, there was Diahnn Carroll but who else? So when I came it was activism to say, “Have you thought of it this way? Do you see who we are?” Black women are not a monolith. So it was activism. So now my activism is, you know, being more mature and not giving in to the stereotypical behavior of what you think a woman should be like when she reaches a certain age. My creative activism is I’m not going to make this easy and predictable.
MN: So when you look at these roles and how do you know that a role will stand the test of time? I’m sure throughout the years I am sure you’ve turned down roles that you didn’t see fit.
LW: I just had to step away from one and I’ve wanted to work with this directive for so long. And I just knew that this that it wasn’t enough for me to get my teeth into. Because I know that Black women are incredible. Because I have known so many interesting, incredible Black women, women in my life, and I try to honor each one no matter where they come from, or what their walk of life is, right? I can see where I can make something memorable. That’s what makes something stand the test of time. I can tell often times what I can do with this role that will touch an audience prayerfully if I do my work well. If I do it in a way that they will not forget it and they will want to return to it and look at it again. But you never know whether or not the whole piece will stay.
But you know, it’s very interesting that I’ve been very lucky. It’s been a blessing that I’ve been able to choose things that I felt I could help make a classic.
MN: Throughout your career, what do you feel you’ve had to sacrifice to be where you are today?
LW: I don’t think I know what it is that I have sacrificed. In other words, I didn’t make a decision. I will give this up to have that I’ve tried to have it all, you know, as I tried to have the fullness of life…. But because I am a person who lives in the present..[that’s] why I am terrible at taking selfies. Right? I’m terrible at stopping a conversation to capture the moment, right? Because I just keep going and I don’t really think of it like, oh, this is a moment in time. So I’m not really thinking of oh, this is what I missed or what I gave up to have this. I think that kind of overview would’ve made me a more successful person but that is not one of my gifts.
If anything, I would say my focusing more on the creative process and less on where I sit as a brand. Because I am a brand. I didn’t believe it. I now know it. But I’m still sitting on it and not I have not really capitalized on it. So I have been like, Okay, I’m just [focusing on being an artist] and I used to think [believing you’re a brand] was like bragging on yourself.
MN: So you you mentioned earlier that there was a role you just passed on. And I think that passing on roles comes with the territory. So what’s a role that you passed on that we all are familiar with?
LW: I would never tell because for the person who actually played the role, that’s not fair to them.
MN: Then we’ll look and be like, “I think Lynn Whitfield would have been better (laughs).” So how has the industry changed you throughout the years? Like, what’s different about you then versus now?
LW: Um, that’s a good question. There are people who know me but and I don’t know them, right? But know, me. So I may encounter someone in an airport, like a young girl, and she’ll turn around and see me and tears will come to her eyes. Or older people will come up to me and say you don’t know how you’ve helped me or you don’t know how, you moved me in my life, or helped me to look at myself. Well, I just love you. So I mean, I’m changed because in that it’s not only family members, my daughter and my closest friends that I have…it’s people in Nigeria, South Africa, Jamaica and the UK… I think of acting as a service job, first of all, because you’re servicing the transportation of humanity. People can look and see what they want to be what they aspire to, what they never want to be. So now I’m like a part of somebody’s family when I don’t even know it. So I think that is much different than when I lived in Baton Rouge before. You know, I started gathering audiences through work that touched them. So it means that I have more family, more people who have been intimate in my life, that I don’t even know.
MN: So what keeps you from getting burnt out from being an actress? I’m sure I have a lot of ups and downs.
LW: I think being involved in telling stories that I care about, you know, and portraying characters that I can have fun with. Characters that I can embellish and make more understood and all that. And so now I think I’m at a phase where I’m not bored. But I really want the next kind of challenge like next exciting thing. I want my my Josephine Baker for now. You know, I want that next really important piece of work and I when I say important, I mean multifaceted and really interesting and, and something that has legs that becomes you know, another pop culture thing. You know? Greenleaf did that it’s always been five years doing that and bring in Lady May to where she ended up which I think was a great arc of a character. And now I want more. So I want more to do. I’ve been exploring a whole bunch the themes of you know, of how families work and the dysfunction of families and I would love to explore women who don’t have any of that… I think that’s how I don’t get bored of burnout I might get bored if I keep doing the same role over and over again but I’m still like a kid in a candy store.