“What do you believe, Grace?” Lady Mae Greenleaf pointedly asks her daughter.
“Well, Mama, I believe that the Bible is one useful tool to see to the heart of God, in the Christian tradition,” she answers.
“Well what other tradition is there?” Grace’s sister-in-law Kerissa Greenleaf chimes in.
No casual dinner table conversation here; with the Greenleaf family, it’s all about the drama.
In OWN’s new series “Greenleaf,” the story of this complicated clan plays out against the backdrop of Calvary Fellowship World Ministries, a Memphis megachurch run by the powerful Bishop James (Keith David, “Community”) and Lady Mae Greenleaf, portrayed by Baton Rouge native Lynn Whitfield.
The drama reunites Whitfield on screen with Oprah Winfrey, one of “Greenleaf’s” executive producers. The two acted together in the 1989 TV movie, “The Women of Brewster Place.” The new Lionsgate-produced project also marks Winfrey’s first recurring scripted TV role in 20 years.
“Apparently Craig Wright, the writer (“Lost,” “Six Feet Under,” “Brothers and Sisters”), said, ‘You need to be this first lady,’ and she (Winfrey) said, ‘No, there’s one person that I can see in this role and that’s Lynn Whitfield,” said Whitfield, who now lives in New Orleans.
“Working with Oprah was very comfortable, after ‘The Women of Brewster Place’ (in which she portrayed the niece of Oprah’s character), now we play these rival sisters who stay out of each other’s lane for the most part,” Whitfield said. “Actually, in this cycle (a 13-episode first season) we have one scene together, which is explosively amazing, and we were just so excited to have such a juicy scene together.
“So it was good, really good. I marvel at her (Oprah’s) work ethic, and how she can accomplish so many things. I just think she’s an amazing person. But when she’s acting, she’s not the interviewer; she places herself smack dab in the arena with you to really find the truth of the scene.”
Raised in Louisiana, Whitfield, best known for her Emmy-winning, starring role in HBO’s 1991 biopic “The Josephine Baker Story,” said she has a lot to draw on in executing her Lady Mae.
“She is one of those really strong Southern women who has built a dynasty with her husband and wants to keep everything intact, wants to keep her family intact. All of her children live under her roof in their compound, so she’s one of those women who wants to keep control of everything,” Whitfield said. “She’s the first lady of the church, the gatekeeper to all things, she thinks.
“She is a … good woman, but you know, good people get off track, hence the drama.”
Not alone in her transgressions, it seems every member of this family has secrets.
“If there wasn’t any sinnin’, why would we need to go to church?” Winfrey said laughingly on “Live with Kelly” on Tuesday in discussing the show TV Guide Insider described as “Like ‘Empire’ with pews.”
In contrast to a megachurch, Whitfield said as a child she attended the much smaller St. Michael’s Episcopal.
“My grandfather was Baptist, my grandmother Methodist, so I would visit those churches, but I was never a member of a megachurch growing up.”
While playing the Greenleafs, the cast has become a family as well, Whitfield said.
“It’s fantastic. The cast is a lot of very good younger actors — Deborah Joy Winans, Kim Hawthorne, Merle Dandridge. We have a real sense of family,” she said. “Everyone came to the project wanting it to be good, and we just all really work well together, which is great.”
Shot in Atlanta in the first few months of 2016, the series uses a sprawling, multi-story mansion for shooting exterior and downstairs scenes, while those unfolding in private spaces, bedrooms, dressing areas and the like, are filmed on an Atlanta studio set.
And that dining room scene in the season premiere?
“It was 13 pages! I mean they do that on ‘Downton Abbey,’ but very rarely do you see something like that in American television,” Whitfield said of the almost 15-minute sequence.
“That was the first scene we shot. It was great because you could see the entire cast of characters, and that first day, we knew we had something special.”
The network, in fact, is so optimistic about “Greenleaf” it was renewed for a 13-episode second season last month, weeks before Tuesday night’s premiere.
Whitfield said she expects filming to resume in late fall or early winter.
Home in New Orleans, the actress has shared a French Quarter apartment for two years with her daughter, Grace Gibson, 24, who’s pursuing a music career after graduating from Berkeley College of Music.
“She’s a wonderful songwriter, following in her father’s (the late Dr. Valerian Smith’s) footsteps,” her mother said.
Smith, a longtime Baton Rouge dentist, founded the Baton Rouge Community Chorus and Playhouse. His wife, V. Jean Butler Smith, also a community and arts advocate, still lives in the city.
Whitfield’s other recent projects include a three-episode arc on ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” last year, and a few independent films this year, among them “For All Eyes Always,” a dark comedy about the CIA embarking on a reality show.
“I love to do them (indie movies) because you can take chances,” she said. “… It keeps you sharp. I figure I still have a lot of growth that I can accomplish as an artist now. I just have to go with it and stay in that hot Pilates gym.”
Follow Judy Bergeron on Twitter, @judybergeronbr.