Oprah Winfrey on Her Greenleaf Role: 'It Was Never The Plan'

Michael Logan
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Smallz and Raskind/Contour by Getty Images

This we know for sure: Oprah Winfrey is giving one hell of a performance on Greenleaf.

The new megachurch melodrama—the highest-rated series launch in the five-year history of Winfrey’s cable channel OWN—finds the former chat-show maven playing Mavis McCready, a recovering alcoholic and owner of a Memphis blues bar who is at war with her own family. Mavis wants to take down her brother Mac (GregAlan Williams), a serial sex abuser using his prominent position at Cavalry Fellowship World Ministries to molest underage girls. But she’s up against two towering opponents: her socially prominent sister, Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield), and Mae’s husband, the beloved Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David), both of whom turn a blind eye to Mac’s sick proclivities. Expect fire and brimstone before the season ends.

What drew Winfrey to her first series role in over 25 years? We had a candid chat with the übermogul about ambition, greed, Jesus and the part on Greenleaf she turned down.

Your last series was Brewster Place in 1990. You’ve never appeared on any other OWN dramas. What made you want to act on Greenleaf?
It was never the plan. Craig Wright was writing the first draft of the Greenleaf pilot and said he had me in mind for Lady Mae. I read two scenes and knew it wasn’t for me. But I kept energetically feeling Lynn Whitfield. I said right then, “Lynn is gonna nail this!” The same thing happened with Bishop Greenleaf. I immediately knew Keith David was the man for the job, and he and Lynn were the first two I approached.

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So how did you end up playing Mavis?
At that point I was hooked on the family. I asked Craig, “Does Lady Mae maybe have a cousin or a sister?”

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OWN

Oprah Winfrey as Mavis McCready

You’ve said Mavis is inspired by your late, great mentor Maya Angelou. How so?
Mavis is Maya if Maya had owned a bar. There’s a scene where Mac tells Mavis that she “walks down the street like she’s some cheap Jesus.” And she kind of does see herself that way—as a mentor, counselor and openhearted giver to the neighborhood. That was Maya. So many times I sat on the floor at her feet, at the side of her bed or at her kitchen table, just taking it all in, and I felt so special in her presence. At Maya’s funeral, literally everybody got up and was talking about how special she had made them feel, and I’m like, “Wait. What? So you thought you were the daughter? But I thought I was the daughter!” [Laughs] That was Maya’s gift.

Compared to your other gigs—producer, publisher, spiritual guru—how important is acting?
Is it important like life or death? No. But it’s very interesting to me. I don’t even want to think of what it would be like if I had to depend on acting to put food on the table! I come into Greenleaf giving the best I have to give to the role, but it’s not like I must do it or else. Nothing in my career has ever felt that way, except for The Color Purple. I never wanted anything more than to be Sofia in that movie.

More than getting your own talk show or owning your own channel?
Nothing! I prayed up The Color Purple. Back then I didn’t know anyone in Hollywood—not a single soul—but I called that thing into my life, to the point where [the film’s producer] Quincy Jones happened to be going through Chicago on a whim and discovered me on the A.M. Chicago show. How does that happen?

Well, how does that happen?
By setting intention. That’s something I did every single day at The Oprah Winfrey Show. Before each taping, I’d meet with the producers and say, “What is our intention today?” Then, post-show, we’d meet again and ask, “Did we meet that intention? Did we serve our audience?” We do that same thing with each Greenleaf script. Our goal is not to preach or teach or feed you a bowl of spinach. The intention is to bring you fun, exciting, dramatic television. I’m not trying to have Oprah’s Life Class.

Greenleaf

Courtesy of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network

Oprah Winfrey and Lynn Whitfield

Yet Greenleaf draws upon many issues you dealt with on your talk show—abuse, infidelity, homosexuality, police violence.
That’s what’s most appealing to me. I have six of my 20 college girls from South Africa living at my house right now as they transition to grad school, jobs or whatever, and the other night we were talking at the dinner table and they were like, “How do you know so much?” I said, “Because I have talked to more people than almost anybody else on the planet!” I have heard every possible human story, and now I want to tell those stories in a different way.

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Greed and religious hypocrisy are big themes in the series. For example, the Greenleafs, who refuse to fly commercial, are trying to buy a new private jet with parishioner donations. Can you be in the light and still live high off the hog?
I’ve been careful not to let that aspect of the show go too far. We had an episode where a couple donated $50,000 from their Powerball winnings. The original script had a scene where the bishop was convincing them to hand over all their winnings to the church. I said, “Naw, we don’t want to see the bishop doing that. Besides, you would never give over the whole Powerball, no matter how much you love Jesus!” [Laughs] But, yes, you can be in the light and also want to go first class.

You placed a call to megachurch bishop T.D. Jakes before Greenleaf hit the air to make sure he was OK with the show. Why did you feel that was necessary?
Because I consider him a personal friend. I livestream him on Sundays and always think, “How does he know exactly what’s happening in my life? Did somebody tell him what I was going through this week?” He is absolutely masterful at taking the Word and making it so relatable you think he’s speaking directly to you. I have deep respect for him, so I made the call to tell him Greenleaf was fictional entertainment. [Laughs] I didn’t want him going, “Whoa! Does this show have anything to do with me?”

Greenleaf, Wednesdays, 10/9c, OWN.