‘Greenleaf’ star Lynn Whitfield on her career, self-love and her love for Mzansi

Veteran actress Lynn Whitfield. Picture: Supplied

When IOL Entertainment was invited to sit down with “Greenleaf” star and “Nappily Ever After” actress, Lynn Whitfield, the first question I asked was whether Whitfield was coming to South Africa for work or R&R? The answer was both.

Whitfield’s December visit marks her third trip to Mzansi, and she seems to have fallen in love with the land, and its people.

Upon arriving at the Hout Bay venue, Whitfield was still in makeup, which I didn’t find unusual as she is a veteran and Emmy Award-winning actress after all.

However, despite her 30-odd years in the industry, Whitfield is undoubtedly one of most down to earth people you could talk to.

Welcome to Cape Town. It’s not your first rodeo in South Africa, what keeps you coming back?

The first time I came to SA, I went Johannesburg where I spent a few days before visiting the Cape of Good Hope [Cape Town], and I was humbled by the power, the majesty, the beauty and the joy … and I understood why this became a jewel of Africa … and I understood why people wanted it. I just fell in love with the energy, and just explored more and more.

Favourite parts of SA?

The people and their gentle spirit. I mean things get harsh [in South Africa] … people are abused or not given everything they deserve, and so there’s anger but at the very core of the people in this country [there] is a gentleness that I just love. There’s magic in the land. I think the reason why people have worked for this land, taken this land, is because there’s power in it, and I respond to energy, and the energy that I feel here makes me want to come back.

What made you want to get into acting?

I don’t know, it chose me. I never wanted to do anything else. I was ballerina earlier, but there was the physical pain [that came with it].

Whitfield recalls watching classical movies with her grandmother. Specifically watching Cicely Tyson run down the hill in a film called “Sounder”. 

There was just this vibrancy, every cell in her body was just alive. Her husband [played by Paul Winfield] was coming home after being held captive, and that was amazing because she was brown and looked like me.

Whitfield added that a lot of her inspiration came from strong female actors at the time, like Dorothy Dandridge, Audrey Hepburn and Bette Davis.

When I got to play Josephine Baker [in the 1991 film, “The Josephine Baker Story”], I was like ‘of course, of course, I get to do this’. I’ve always envisioned it in my spirit.

Josephine Baker put me in the category of ‘this is an actress we can depend on’.

Whitfield’s portrayal of Baker won her an Emmy and a Golden Globe nomination.

Hollywood was recently rocked by the hashtag Me Too movement and Times Up campaign, what are your thoughts on this?

I think that it’s very important for people to be heard, whether it’s your child or a woman in the industry. It’s important for people not to walk around in shame feeling that they have to keep a secret or being blackmailed or swayed by peer pressure to do things that you don’t want to do … It’s a very interesting, precarious place because I feel that there may be women – in corporate life as well, not just Hollywood – attractive women who may not be hired into positions because people are afraid, or look at them as jailbait… it’s a human dilemma that will have to be navigated over and over again, but it had to happen. You cannot have an abscess like that festering.

Congratulations, “Greenleaf” was recently renewed for season 4, why do you think the show resonates so well with people?

I think we’re humanising religious leadership, I think we’re taking away the mask of it. There’s a big difference between being religious and having a personal relationship with God or using a go-between. And I think it resonates because people can see themselves in these characters … They may not be wealthy like that [the Greenleaf family] but they realise that regardless of social standing, people have problems. The characters are also very believable. The young actresses are going through such relatable problems: being mistreated by young men, dealing with health and peer pressure issues. Everyone in the cast is also willing to share the humanity of the characters.

Your character, Lady Mae, has been praised and criticised by fans, what’s your personal opinion of her?

I liken Lady Mae to royalty. You know, these First Ladies of churches, they think they’re royalty, and she has a kingdom and she wants to protect that kingdom, and she wants to protect her legacy.

For myself, I have a daughter, her name is [also] Grace, and we have an amazing relationship, and yes [I do] feel like I have the answers for what she should be doing, but we have a relationship of trust. I listen to her, whereas Lady Mae and her onscreen daughter, Grace, don’t. So I think that Lady Mae presents some qualities that people may want to emulate and character foibles that many might see in themselves.

And if you look at any culture, you will see those powerful women who want to hold on to what they’ve created, what they’ve built. So Lady Mae might be a lot of what you don’t want to be and [also] some of what you do.

Netflix’s “Nappily Ever After” has been praised for its message “natural is beautiful” and shines a spotlight on the importance of self-love and acceptance. How important do you think that message is for women today? 

It is deeply important. Self-love, really loving yourself [means] you take care of yourself… it would be very difficult to talk you into something if you have an appreciation of who you are and what you deserve. That message is so important because I myself, my daughter, the women that I know, we all have these levels of some kind of self-doubt or ‘Am I really OK?’ because we’re completely inundated with everyone’s idea of what we should be.

Our parents, our men, the magazines, the commercials – everyone’s telling you what their idea of beauty is and how you should derive your personality and from what … at the end of the day, you have to love you … and be authentic. It’s hard you know, even now I’ll pat myself on the back and say ‘OK, I’m OK! I did that really well, this is how I want to do it’.

Advice for women looking to get into the industry?

First of all, know what you’re doing because whether you want to be an actress or director, the craft of it all is really important, and it allows for you not to be victimised by people as much. And the other part is to learn as much about the business that you can, because the business part of the industry is extremely male and if you know what you’re talking about you’re not so easily undermined, people won’t undermine your confidence.

Whitfield also revealed that she’s working on a book, and while she wouldn’t spill all the tea, she did share that its non-fiction and tells her life story through experiences – how human, wacky and how uncomfortable it sometimes is – using fashion as a metaphor.

* Both “Greenleaf and “Nappily Ever After” are currently streaming on Netflix.

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