From meddling mom to matriarch – Lynn Whitfield tells us why she loves those fiery roles

Channel24’s Leandra Engelbrecht sat down with actress Lynn Whitfield during her press tour in Cape Town to talk about playing strong women and what’s next.

Cape Town – The immensely talented American actress and producer, Lynn Whitfield has undoubtedly made a career out of playing the strong, powerful anti-heroine.

From her Emmy award-winning role in the biographical drama The Josephine Baker Story to A Thin Line Between Love and Hate to her current role as Lady Mae in the television drama Greenleaf - there isn’t a version of a strong powerful women Lynn hasn’t explored.

She agrees, adding: "I don’t know if there is another way for me to do a powerful woman just flat footed walking the earth. Perhaps I could play a powerful intergalactic woman from Mars. With supernatural powers. In a science fiction fantasy. I would love to get stuck into something like that."

The 65-year-old star recently visited South Africa for a third time on a press tour for Greenleaf as well as for the film Nappily Ever After - both of which are currently streaming on Netflix. 

Actress Lynn Whitfield.

In both the TV show and film, Lynn takes on the role of a "pushy mom". In Greenleaf she’s the no-nonsense matriarch fighting to maintain her legacy and in Nappily she’s a meddling mother who wants to see her daughter marry well.

For Lynn, who was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to parents with deep roots in Southern aristocracy, the attraction in these roles lie in the fact that they so truthfully reflect the way in which powerful women are often misunderstood by society. 

"I come from a family of very flawed and very strong women. Look at any leadership anywhere – it’s hard to understand strong women. I mean here we are in South Africa where Winnie Mandela was misunderstood."

She adds: "You fight for what you believe in. You fight to maintain. Lady Mae is just like a queen who is fighting to maintain her kingdom and fighting for her legacy. If a man does that he is kingly. He is taking care of things. He is a warrior. If a woman does that she is the b-word. I resist that and I don’t know a human-being who isn’t flawed. So I just try to present the truth."


A series about a megachurch is something completely new that has never been done before. The show centres on the Greenleaf family who run Calvary Fellowship World Ministries. From a glance their lives seem perfect, but behind the facade lies a bevy of scandalous secrets and lies that threaten to bring their empire tumbling down. 

"I think right now in America, and the world, it is really important to question leadership," Lynn says.

She adds: "We have to speak up about what is going on because at the end of the day people who lead, who are the shepherds for so many...they have problems too. So I'm very interested in 'normalising' Christian leadership and saying...'look these people are human too'.”

The gripping OWN drama has just been renewed for a fourth season and has received rave reviews from both viewers and critics. The first season alone has an impressive 81% score on review-aggregation website, Rotten Tomatoes.

Lynn Whitfield in a scene from Greenleaf.

For Lynn the success of the show lies in the fact that the characters, and their dilemmas, resonate with viewers. These characters have a lot of problems that people can relate to and that's why viewers love them and cheer them on.

"In interviews and making appearances I have had women cry in my arms and say: 'I was molested by a pastor' or 'I had this secret and I held it for so long'. People see themselves in the Greenleaf family. It’s not just a drama. It’s not 'TV land', these things are really happening and it resonates with people."

For Lynn the most challenging part in playing Lady Mae has been "creating the space for the truth of a person".

"I feel like what I do is serving...serving an audience. Acting is a service in that you put a mirror up to humanity and you say: 'Look we all have falls and there can be healing in it'. Television is so fast so the challenge is in finding those opportunities for truth that can help people."


From the fierce Lady Mae to Paulette Jones, a mother who lives vicariously through her daughter in Nappily Ever After, Lynn moves with ease from TV to film.

The Netflix original, based on the novel by Trisha R. Thomas, explores women’s relationship with their hair and self-love and has hit a note with women around the world.

What Lynn enjoyed most about playing the role of Paulette was that it was more comedic approach to the type of role she usually takes on. 

"What I loved about doing this is that it was still a controlling mother but from a comedic approach – a softer approach. This is a woman who had no other ambition but to see her daughter marry well cause she married 'okay'. It was a lot of fun.”

Her highlight was working with co-star Sanaa Lathan who she has never worked with before: "There was such respect and regard and a sense of humour between us just as women outside of the characters. We had tons of fun. We actually went on a retreat – a detox thing together with some of the crew – it was a wonderful experience."

Speaking about all the positive feedback that the film has received Lynn says it is an honour to be part of the project and so happy it is resonating internationally: "Women are forever looking for their identity in beauty and they are always being confronted with what the world’s idea of beauty is.

"This idea of beauty and what makes us presentable is so complex. Nappily takes a hard cold look at these ideas of standards of beauty with humour and charm."


Apart from working on the new season of Greenleaf she is also working on developing a series that takes place in the 1800s in Louisiana: "It is about Storyville, the first legalised red-light district in the US. There are some very interesting women and their stories need to be told. I am also working on a book not a biography but I think it could be entertaining."

(Photos supplied: Netflix)

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