Lynn Whitfield On 'Greenleaf,' Fame and Fighting With Oprah Onscreen

Photo by Courtesy of OWN
The legendary actress reveals some juicy behind-the-scenes tea on the hit OWN drama.

Lynn Whitfield is trending on Twitter. 

Thanks to her role as Lady May on the hit OWN drama Greenleaf—whose first season comes to an end on August 31—Whitfield is enjoying a surge of popularity as the series has been renewed for season two.

“The reaction has been amazing,” Whitfield told ESSENCE. “Lady May was trending during the show and the comments are so funny. One person tweeted ‘I love it when she raises her right eyebrow.’”

The Emmy-winning actress says she is honored to play Lady May, the first lady of a Memphis megachurch riddled in scandal. It’s a meaty and layered role on a well-received TV drama that dares to tackle problems afflicting black families and churches. 

Craig Wright (Six Feet Under) is a writer and executive producer on the show while OWN Network head Oprah Winfrey also executive produces and stars.

“Oprah thought I was the best person for the part, which is such a compliment,” said Whitfield who also worked with Winfrey nearly three decades ago on the TV miniseries The Women of Brewster Place. “I told Craig [Wright] before we started, I just want to have fun – something fun like Tennessee Williams and August Wilson. If I’m having fun, the audience will have fun with me.”  

It’s the type of fun that includes a highly anticipated showdown between Lady May and her wise but meddlesome sister Mavis (played by Winfrey) in the finale. Winfrey has said the on-screen exchange grew so heated that Whitfield accidentally bruised her with a combative poke to the chest. But the scene didn’t start off that way, Whitfield says. 

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“I was being a little bit timid about it and then our director Clement Virgo said, ‘No, you’ve got to let her have it.’ And I really had to work it out in my mind,” Whitfield says. “This is not Oprah. This is my sister who’s all up in my business and messing up my life and threatening my livelihood. I had to talk myself into the story and lose sight of the fact that I was letting Oprah have it. Oh goodness. Before I knew it, that little finger was right out there. It’s funny but it wasn’t funny in the moment.”

Rest assured, Whitfield says, Mavis defends herself in kind. 

“It’s toe to toe,” Whitfield said. “It’s really great to be a part of something that is breaking new ground. We’re dealing with the subtleties of family dynamics and how people navigate through their dysfunction.”

The season finale of Greenleaf airs Wednesday August 31 at 10 p.m. ET on OWN.

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