“Hello, this is Lynn Whitfield.”

She introduced herself kindly over the phone with a sparkle of Southern girl charm.

In her hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Whitfield, 64, was being honored with the naming of the “Lynn Whitfield Theater of Performing Arts” at McKinley Middle Academic Magnet School for the Visual and Performing Arts. Humbled, she admittedly had butterflies, “It is so sweet and I’m nervous. What am I going to say?”

The Emmy Award-winning actress with a legendary career spanning more than 30 years has a beautifully commanding presence through her compelling and often controversial roles in television and film. Reflecting on her career —married twice with a beautifully talented daughter— at her core Whitfield is the 5-year-old girl who admired the actresses on her television screen, wanting to be them.

“I knew it when I was watching old movies with my grandmother in the living room and she’d let me sneak up there and stay up late to watch with her,” Whitfield told ESSENCE. “I wanted to do what I was seeing Dorothy Dandridge doing, what I saw Marilyn Monroe do, what I saw Bette Davis do. I wanted to do that: to tell stories. I wanted to make people laugh, make people cry. I wanted to be a storyteller.”

Now with the success of Greenleaf on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), she’s in a drama centered on the family of a mega-church with secrets, legacy, faith and drama. Returning for its mid-season premiere on Aug. 15 and 16, Whitfield’s performance as the matriarch of the Greenleaf family, Lady Mae, has been praised (and often criticized) by fans and critics for the layers she has added to the character.

“What I see in her is a lot of women that I know. Women who have built their lives, educated themselves, have their children, built a legacy. You’re not going to so easily let anything happen to all of that. Lady Mae is like any queen would be. You’ve got to protect your kingdom. You have to protect your legacy because that’s passed on from generation to generation,” Whitfield says.

She adds, “Even with all of the complexities and all of her pain, we now know that she was molested. She’s not perfect but who is? I like it that they’re kind of annoyed by her but I tell you, more often than not, Lady Mae trends right along with Greenleaf.”

One constant conflict throughout the Greenleaf series has been the mother-daughter strain between Lady Mae and Grace played by Merle Dandridge – who has worked to unearth hidden truths. Whitfield, however, is hopeful that the two women will come together.

“Here is the thing with Lady Mae, she loves all of her children. You know your kids and you know which one is going to challenge you. The first line that I have in the series is, ‘Promise me you’re not here to sow discord in the fields of my peace’ because she knows her child,” she says. “She knew that she was going to come and if she came she was going to shake things up. Lady Mae loves her and she doesn’t want this distance. So, there should be this evolution where they find their way back into each other’s hearts. The journey is a long one.”

Like many of her roles, Lady Mae has also fallen into the criticism of being another “mean character” that Whitfield has played —but she rebukes that notion, firmly assuring that “complex women you remember.” Whether it was Luceilia “Ceil” Turner in 1989’s The Women of Brewster Place, Roz Batiste in 1997’s Eve’s Bayou, the legendary Josephine Baker in 1991’s The Story of Josephine Baker or the femme fatale Brandi in 1996‘s A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, she has given these characters a unique pulse that couldn’t be duplicated.

“I am very loyal to the women I am fully licensed to. [But] not loyal in that I’m going to present them as perfect. I’m not going to cover up the truth or make it all pretty or self-righteous. I’m going to put it out there just like what I’ve studied, what I’ve believe the character actually is like. It doesn’t always mean that they’ll always be someone or people who evoke compassion all the time, but I know that many women exist in the world like her.”

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