Actress Loretta Devine gets real about race and sex in the Dirty South, and gives us her take on her ever-evolving career
With her body of work, actress Loretta Devine certainly deserves all the recognition, loyalty and respect she can get after more than 20 years in the game. Let’s check the resume. Lady Devine has immortalized some of our favorite Black female characters on the big and small screen, including a sexually-repressed, voluptuous single mom in Waiting to Exhale, a neglected surgeon’s wife on Grey’s Anatomy, and an overzealous, devout Christian woman in Woman Thou Art Loosed, just to name a few. She co-stars opposite Ice Cube in the upcoming ensemble film, First Sunday, due in theaters January 11. And in her most recent role, she plays a washwoman and mother of three in the indie drama Dirty Laundry, a dramedy about a dysfunctional southern family trying to right past and present wrongs and ultimately get along.
Essence.com spoke to the Hollywood vet about parents accepting their gay children, the grind of indie films and one Dreamgirl deferred.
Essence.com: In the new film, Dirty Laundry, you play a traditional southern mom struggling with her own demons. Many people believe southerners are conservative thinkers, and your character’s reaction to learning that her son is gay fits the bill. Do you think that most parents have difficulty with such issues?
Loretta Devine: To see my character struggle with it is an honest thing. Of course, she struggles with in a serious and comical way, but what’s great is that she comes to terms with it.
Essence.com: So do you believe one is born gay or that a person makes a decision to live an alternative lifestyle?
L.D.: There have been gay people since the beginning of time. There were gay people in the Bible, so who am I to judge? I don’t know what Jesus was doing. I can’t explain it. A lot of people are homophobic, but to me it’s just added color and another way to show how interesting life is. No two things or people are really the same. Some people make decisions about being gay or not, based on their [life experiences]. I think there are some people that might be born into it, there are others who are brought into it, who knows? I don’t know how anyone becomes what they become. I can’t even explain to you why I’m an actress and my sister isn’t. We were both born in my mother’s house and we both got fed the same thing.
Essence.com: In other words, folks obsess too much about who’s doing what with whom?
L.D.: We need to get it together and quit blaming each other for stuff. You can’t control if you are gay or a lesbian. That’s like saying, “Control that you're Black.” You can’t control that because it just is. We need to stop because Black people are very hard on one another. It’s all in the way we came here and the struggles that we’ve had to go through to just be.
Essence.com: Do you think the Black community is more homophobic than others?
L.D.: We have a very serious AIDS problem in our community and a lot of that has to do with the fact that people are hiding who they really are and should come and out and say, “This is who I am!”; and then go on about their business.
Essence.com: Speaking of business, how do you prefer working on indie films versus blockbusters?
L.D.: I was just so happy that I had a block of free time to give to this film. This is an independent film so it wasn’t about making money. And we didn’t even know if it was going to get seen. It was such a challenge to do something this broad in that amount of time and with such a lil’ budget. It was like, Oh God, how we gonna do this? And that sort of excited me about the whole thing. As a black actress you don’t get many opportunities, so I’ve had to do so much independent stuff. To get to do a film like This Christmas was extraordinary because they also didn’t have a big budget, but it was a studio film so you got a chance to work on the lot, a beautiful set and with Dirty Laundry we didn’t have a trailer half the time (laughs). We were staying in the Holiday and Days Inn. I mean we struggled to get this film done, but I really believe it has a message in it for people who should see it.
Essence.com: You’ve enjoyed an illustrious career from Broadway to the silver screen. In retrospect, are there any roles that you regret?
L.D.: (Laughs) I have some things in my bio that make me say, “Oh Lawd Jesus I hope no one ever pulls that up!” The thing that’s so strange about film is that you never know what they are going to do with everybody else’s character. I have this thing I did where they put some hoes or something in it and they were the nastiest hoes I’ve ever seen (laughs) and sometimes people say, “I’m going to do this (film) because you’re doing it Ms. Devine.” And then it (turns out) a mess. I’ve been really blessed in that a lot of the work I’ve done has been really nice, but I have a few of them that I go, Oh Lawd; and it’s usually stuff you’ve done for free. You get one of your friends asking you for a favor like, “C’mon and do this lil’ movie for me.” And you agree and sometimes they turn out to be great and sometimes not so great, you just never know. I’m an actress and all you can do is do your work and hope for the best.
Essence.com: Is there any role you refuse to play?
L.D.: Well, I’ve turned down parts because I thought they were too small or they didn’t have anything to say. I don’t like nudity. I haven’t done any of that. The most nudity I’ve ever done is this film I did called, Little Nikkita. Anything where you have to take your clothes off, I’m just not into all of that. But you never know what’s gonna come up later. I hope I don’t have to get naked no time soon (laughs). It’s a little late for that. Well, you know Kathy Bates got naked in some movie and you know she’s a hefty sister, and she had me like, Dayum, go head girl. I don’t think I’m ready and I don’t think people want to see all that. I must say I do look pretty good naked (laughs). Ask my ol’ man; he’ll vouch for me.
Essence.com: Lady Devine you are a mess! So is your “ol’ man” a fellow actor?
L.D.: No, he’s an accountant. I’ve been living with the same man for six or seven years and we’ve been engaged for like eight years.
Essence.com: And what are you waiting for Lady Devine?
L.D.: I just ain’t had time to plan no wedding. And everything is working out good. Everybody that was dating and got married since we’ve been together done broke up and ain’t speaking (laughs). I’m scared to mess with it because it’s going good.
Essence.com: Well, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Your role in the film Dreamgirls was a respectful nod to the original Broadway trio. Was there any reason why they chose not to reunite you with Sheryl Lee Ralph and Jennifer Holiday?
L.D.: I don’t know about that and I don’t know if they asked all of us. I know when they asked me, I said yes. They couldn’t have put us in our original roles because we old enough to be the new girls’ mamas so get real (laughs).
Essence.com: Did any Sheryl or Jennifer ever express to you their disappointment about their exclusion from the project?
L.D.: Hmmm. We talked about it, but you’ll have to talk to them about what they said. But you know they were tight with the budget, so I thought maybe they didn’t get the money that they wanted or something, but I really don’t know.
Essence.com: Then I heard rumors that Ms. Holiday reached out to you to express herself?
L.D.: No. What happened is that Sheryl Lee and I had talked and we wanted to do a DVD or something to make some money right when the film was coming out and Jennifer kept saying no, so we couldn’t do that. We were kind of upset about that. It’s always been hard to get Jennifer to do anything, but the three of us did reunite after Dreamgirls for Divas Simply Singing (Sheryl’s annual benefit).
Essence.com: Now that’s what you call a reunion. So Lady Devine before you leave how do you want folks to remember your legacy?
L.D.: (Laughs) Chile I don’t care what they say; they can say whatever the hell they want.
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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Code Black Entertainment