Lynn Whitfield Talks Greenleaf + Over Thirty Years In The Industry
She’s a woman who many have admired for decades. A woman who embodies such grace, elegance, and strength in everything she does. Lynn Whitfield is truly considered an esteemed icon in film and television, breaking barriers for women of color in Hollywood for over thirty years now. Trailblazing her way to the crest of the entertainment industry, Whitfield’s work speaks for itself. With acclaimed films like The Josephine Baker Story, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, and Eve’s Bayou, Whitfield has a way of turning simple characters into memorable classics. Classics that some, if not all, of us grew up on or either grew to love. An acting maven, a storytelling monarch, this woman’s talent has been remarkably depicted, time and time again, within each storyline.
From off-broadway to the big screen, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-bred actress has been raising the bar, putting on an impeccable performance with each and every role that she plays. In a field that is constantly evolving and constantly becoming more and more competitive, Whitfield continues to sustain longevity as a multifaceted actress, producer, and creator. It is almost impossible to place the southern belle’s distinctive techniques into one box. Honestly, you won’t find another like Ms. Lynn Whitfield.
Even in 2017, she still persists to deliver quality work, bringing stories to life that will forever be long-lived. Her latest happens to be her powerhouse role in OWN’s drama TV series, Greenleaf. Whitfield stars as Lady Mae Greenleaf, the family’s matriarch and the first lady of their Memphis megachurch. While dealing with her own demons, Lady Mae tries to hold the family together, striving to keep the family’s foundation solid, in the midst of the scandalous secrets lying behind the church podium. The highly talked about series recently returned for a groundbreaking season two and is already one of the most talked about shows in primetime, yet again.
Check out our exclusive interview with the honorable Lynn Whitfield….
Parlé Mag: Greenleaf returned for season two and things are pretty explosive. Let’s talk about your character, Lady Mae Greenleaf. This woman’s whole persona speaks power, strength, just everything it is to being a matriarch. Do you think any of her characteristics chronicle your own personality a little bit?
Lynn Whitfield: Not really. I’m not as controlling of a person as she is. I have a great relationship with my own daughter. I believe communication is everything. It’s much different. I would be really sad if I had a family with all of that going on. You know? But, I think, in terms of some of her values—which I think are important values, we do have similar values. Family is important; legacy is important. Of course, we both have a liking for a little bit of glamour.
Parlé Mag: I can definitely see that. [laughs]
Lynn Whitfield: [laughs] More so to the point, for me, she is representative of so many strong black women who we’ve never seen on television. I mean, who doesn’t make mistakes? So, she’s made mistakes, but I think that she represents that wife of a powerful man. Maybe the AKAs, the Deltas, you know? Women who really deserve a place in America’s society and have worked really hard to make America a cooler place. I was raised by many of those women who had their thoughts of how the world is supposed to look and how things are supposed to be done. I learned a lot; I think being raised by them made me better, in some areas, maybe. In others, not so much. [laughs] But, yeah, I like her [Lady Mae]; As a person, I like her. I could see her human flaws, but I also see a lot of the good stuff about her, and I think she’s an okay lady.
Parlé Mag: On the show, as we can see, Lady Mae and Grace are still not on the best terms. Will the two ever find that medium and be able to grow their mother-daughter relationship throughout the season?
Lynn Whitfield: Well, I think we’re already seeing the beginning of that. I think they’ll continue to work through some things and get better and stronger. Sometimes, it takes a while for people to understand why you are the way you are. As you’ve seen, we now know that Lady Mae suffered some of her own issues, in terms of what she encountered with her dad. Some form of sexual dysfunction. So, that’s clear. At this point, Grace doesn’t know about that yet, but I think that, if she did, it would change a lot of how she feels about who Lady Mae is. So, we’ll see if that comes about and where that goes.
Parlé Mag: I think that one of the most interesting things about this show is that, even through the turmoil and deceit, we are seeing a family who still manages to keep their game face on and try to keep it together. How do you think Greenleaf showcases the importance of family dynamics?
Lynn Whitfield: The relationship between Jacob and Bishop, the relationship between Grace and Lady, Grace and Charity, Charity and her husband. I mean, each one of those relationships has its own dynamics, has its own complexity. Sometimes dysfunction, and oftentimes there are very good values connected with many of those relationships. The relationship of a strong woman and her husband trying to find its place, between Kerissa and Jacob. They’re all in there and they’re pretty clear. Every episode it all gets clearer and clearer.
Parlé Mag: Just like in real life, Lady Mae’s fashion is always on point. Do you have a hand in picking what she will wear for each scene? Or you just let the stylists do their job?
Lynn Whitfield: I have such a good relationship with Johnetta Boone! She’s an extremely talented lady; she’s also a painter. I think that she has an amazing grasp on each of these characters, how she designs them. It’s fantastic collaborating with her. She’s always open to collaborating and discovering new things about the character, evolving new looks. She’s actually done such a good job for each character.
Parlé Mag: She really has!
Lynn Whitfield: The look of each of us, how it evolved from season one to season two.
Parlé Mag: As an actress, with a long track record of films and things you’ve done in television, how does it feel to still be considered one of the most well-respected actresses in Hollywood?
Lynn Whitfield: Well, I feel grateful. I feel that, if I’m respected, I have to continue to provide a reason why I’m respected. It makes me feel like I have to continue to earn the respect. I want to continue to expand my reach to do more, to be better. So, it encourages me and inspires me to do more. I’m not really one of those people who believes the hype; I just feel like if people think I’m cool, then it means that I must be doing something right, and, whatever I’m doing, I need to be doing more of it. If people appreciate you and they’re loyal to you, you want to continue to give them work that inspires them. It makes me want to work harder. It doesn’t inspire me to get comfortable.
Parlé Mag: Let’s take it all the way back to the beginning of your career. What are some things that you’ve learned along the way that you wish you knew when you first started out?
Lynn Whitfield: That it’s a very tough business. It’s not always a meritocracy; it’s not always the one who does the best, gets the most. The show part of show business is really very, very important, which means the press, the social media, all of that. I spend a whole lot of time wanting to do good, but I don’t think I spend as much time on the press part of it all. The glossy part. I think it’s very important. It doesn’t replace craft, but it certainly can help promote your craft.
Parlé Mag: Well, I think you’ve done a great job as an actress to maintain such longevity in the business. It’s amazing to see that.
Lynn Whitfield: Aw, well, thank you so much!
Parlé Mag: No problem! So, throughout your time as an actress, was there ever a role that you were apprehensive about taking?
Lynn Whitfield: Yes! It was in Sophie & the Moonhanger; it was my first maid [role]. It’s so funny because, all of the things I’ve done, that’s not one that people know about the most. I was very apprehensive about it, like how it would go. I’m really glad I did it. It stretched me. It was just a great experience doing it. I think it’s a classic! It’s a classic that a lot of people don’t know about, but the people who know about it absolutely love it.
Parlé Mag: What would you say was the hardest role you’ve taken on thus far?
Lynn Whitfield: The hardest? Well, I think the most demanding, of course, was Josephine Baker. That one was the most demanding of all and the most rewarding. The most highly visible. It was really, really, really good.
Parlé Mag: I know it must feel good to see that, after all of these years, it’s still a classic!
Lynn Whitfield: Yes! I feel very fortunate that so much of the work that I’ve done still maintains its value. Not a lot of it is disposable. Eve’s Bayou is still a classic and still praised. Thin Line Between Love and Hate is still quality. The Women of Brewster Place still has value. So, I’m very proud that a lot of the work I’ve done still maintains its value, in terms of audience appreciation, kind of being timeless. Like, you don’t look at it and you feel like, “Ugh! I could tell that was done in the eighties.” It’s kind of timeless, and I just pray that I can continue to do that. I think that Lady Mae is another classic that will stand the test of time. She’s already quotable; I could already do a little pamphlet of her one liners that people have continued to quote. So, it’s going well.
Parlé Mag: What are your thoughts on the rising influence of black women in Hollywood?
Lynn Whitfield: Oh my gosh! I’m so excited to be alive at such a time as this. It’s very, very wonderful. Viola and Kerry and Halle, and, now, the young women in Black-ish—it’s so many women doing fantastic work right now. It’s very exciting to be here and to be a small part of it. I just want to keep it going. It’s very inspiring to see, to be a part of. I have to tell you, even though I’ve been here and doing this, I feel like a little kid about the fact that I feel like there’s so much more to do. So much more I could do, so many more things that I could score in, that I could really turn in some good performances, and roles that, perhaps, you’ve never thought of me in. It’s always about challenging yourself more. I look forward to challenging myself more, getting out of my comfort zone, doing some other things. We shall see! We shall see how everything goes.
Parlé Mag: We also see that you are a producer. Are you currently working on producing any projects at the moment?
Lynn Whitfield: Yes, I am! I have two projects that I really am working to do, but, the thing about it is, people have to say ‘yes’. A network has to say ‘yes’. You have to have more money to develop it; you have to have people to write it. There are options that I’ve held onto for many, many years that I haven’t given up on yet.
Parlé Mag: Hopefully, we’ll see those projects in motion soon!
Lynn Whitfield: Yes! Positively yes.
Parlé Mag: Aside from being an actress and a producer, when it’s all said and done, you are a mother as well. It seems that you and your daughter are very close. What part has she played in being that sense of motivation and keeping you solid in the midst of all the craziness that comes with your fast-paced career?
Lynn Whitfield: Well, she’s contributed greatly. Also, she’s a really wonderful artist in her own right, and we’re each other’s muse. We share ideas. I, about her music; she, about what she feels my next move should be. She was so encouraging, like, “Mom, you just really have to do this social media thing, honestly. How much do I have to tell you?” She’s really been adamant; you would’ve thought she was the mom.
Parlé Mag: So, are you finally getting the hang of social media? Do you like it so far?
Lynn Whitfield: Yes, I do, but it just requires more, and more, and more participation. It’s very difficult; I can’t imagine anybody really speaking for me. I’ve always been the person who, when I’m living, I’m in the moment and not thinking about recording the moment or commenting on it. Social media requires you to do both at the same time. So, I’m trying to get the hang of that.
Parlé Mag: What advice do you have for women struggling with the “superwoman/supermom” complex?
Lynn Whitfield: The whole thing of even thinking that you could be a ‘supermom’, a ‘superwoman’, it’s all about the truth in the moment, dealing with everything as it comes and realizing, not so much that you’re the ’super’ part of it, but the human part of it. Being embracing of just who we are, realizing the shortcomings and trying to figure out our way around them, how to fix things, realizing the triggers that make you feel less than—like you’re not doing a good job, and changing it. When that trigger starts to take us in a spiral of like, ”Ugh, it’s too much; I can’t do it. It’s too many things.” or “I’m better than this”—whatever it is, it is when we need to reinforce the positives, the truths that we really do know.
Parlé Mag: In everything that you do, what’s a personal affirmation that you always like to live by?
Lynn Whitfield: I don’t know if there’s a personal affirmation or a personal relationship that helps me live my best life. That personal relationship is with God. Whenever it feels like it’s too big for me, I know it’s not too big for God.
Parlé Mag: Amen to that!
Lynn Whitfield: The exercise of kind of turning it over and removing a sense of fear, I always do that. I have to carry that with me every day. I have to carry it with me when I go on set; I have to carry it with me when I’m driving a car. I have to carry it with me when I’m needing the right thing to say to my child. It’s ongoing. It’s not a once a week thing; it’s something that you have to keep working towards every day. It seems to be serving me well and keeping me focused, keeping things moving well.
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