Oprah Winfrey Q&A: embracing 'Greenleaf' on OWN June 21

Oprah Winfrey as Mavis McCready and Lynn Whitfield as Lady Mae in OWN's "Greenleaf"
Oprah Winfrey as Mavis McCready and Lynn Whitfield as Lady Mae in OWN's "Greenleaf"

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Friday, June 17, 2016

When Oprah Winfrey began the OWN Network in 2011, it came slow out of the gate. At the time, she talked to me that expectations at the time weren't realistic, that it takes years for a network to mature. She had a long view vision to inspire and entertain people in a way that captures her spirit.

With a heavy assist from Atlanta's Tyler Perry, OWN now generates enough revenue that she was able to launch her first non-Perry scripted drama "Greenleaf." Set in Memphis, this megachurch family drama is shot in different places in metro Atlanta, from its home base at Eagle Rock Studios in Norcross to stops in Douglasville, Lithonia and the city of Atlanta itself.

Winfrey, who plays a wise yet weary blues bar owner Mavis McCready in six of the first season's 13 episodes, is so confident the show is a winner, her network renewed it for a second season before the first episode even airs on Tuesday, June 21 at 10 p.m. (Regular time slot will be Wednesdays at 10.)

UPDATE 6/22: The show opened with 3 million overnight viewers, the second strongest scripted new show of the year behind only "People vs. OJ" on FX, which Oprah references below. 

The show itself is more deliberative, more contemplative and less soapy than dramas of similar ilk. Characters don't provide extensive back story exposition. Silence and furtive glances prevail. Hidden agendas abound.

Theater actress Merle Dandridge plays Grace "Gigi" Greenleaf, who returns to Memphis as the "prodigal daughter" following a family tragedy. Her doting father, megachurch preacher James Greenleaf (Keith David) welcomes her back with open arms. Tightly wound mom Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield) believes Gigi will sow trouble.

And so she does, buddying up to her Auntie Mavis and unearthing dark secrets in her wake.

Winfrey, on the set outside the Douglasville courthouse in March, gave me some time to discuss why the project means so much to her and why she cares about realistic portrayals of characters:

Q: How did “Greenleaf” happen here in Atlanta?

Oprah: Atlanta is the shooting capital of the world now. We love those tax breaks hey hey! And we love the South! I just love Southern people! I just do.

Q: You just did 'Selma' here a couple of years ago.

Oprah: We just did 'Selma' a couple years ago, yes. I think I’ll be back down here again shortly. How did it come about? Greenleaf. Conversation with the writer and creator Craig Wright who is not African African but came to a screening of mine and we talked about growing up in the church. This led to, 'What about a series about the black church?' I love the idea because the African-American church has been a foundation rock for me and a source of stability and comfort., nurturing and support my whole life. I know it has also been that way for multitudes of other black people. I felt like it was a perfect foundation from which to build stories about sinning and the multiple ways we can sin with each other: Adultery. Divorce. Betrayal. Disrespect. Stealing. All those things.

Q: Why did you decide to base the show in Memphis?

Oprah: We wanted the South because of certain values and moral code that happens there. And we wanted Memphis because of the blues and Mavis owns a blues bar. And so many shows are now based in Atlanta. There was a series that was going to be there called 'Bucktown' [she meant 'Buckhead,' which NBC didn't ultimately clear] that someone started. Another series that Lee [Daniels] is doing with girls [called 'Star' on Fox this fall.]

Q: FX has a series called “Atlanta” with Donald Glover.

Oprah: Atlanta has become what Los Angeles used to be or New York. We thought it gave it a little bit more interest because it's not like everybody else. It would have been easy to have a megachurch in Atlanta but everything is in Atlanta.

Q: You’re an executive producer. What made you decide to act in this particular series?

Oprah: I thought it would be fun. Actually, it’s more fun choosing other actors.

Q: You like casting?

Oprah: I love it. This was a big deal. You’ve got some big characters. You need big actors to fill those roles. The whole casting process I have great empathy for. People put themselves literally in front of a blue screen and turn around and people say, "How tall are you? And state your height and name." That's tough. And this is a family so they have to look like a family.

Q: You see families in shows that don't look like each other at all. 

Oprah: It makes me crazy!" These people are not from the same family!"  I'm yelling at the screen, "He's adopted and you don't know it!" Yah. That's an important nuance. We don't all look alike.

Keith David stars as James Greenleaf, the patriarch of the new OWN series "Greenleaf." CREDIT: OWN
Keith David stars as James Greenleaf, the patriarch of the new OWN series "Greenleaf." CREDIT: OWN

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Q: You had to start with the mother and father, Lynn and Keith, right?

Oprah: It started with Lynn and Keith. The combination of those two colors, you can get a lot of colors in between.

Q: You then cast the kids next.

Oprah. Right. We cast Lynn, then Merle. It's hard to cast two dark people with Merle unless she came from someone else.

Q: Merle plays the protagonist. She gets the ball rolling on all the story lines.

Oprah: All of that's important. Nuance is important. You know what? I am a person who believes, Rodney, that no matter what your situation is, whether you are having a birthday party or celebrating your girlfriend or wife or whatever, love is in the details. So the details tell you everything. It tells you how much you really care about the thing.

Even if it's the set designer. One day, I was walking along. 'These chairs don't work for me. These chairs would work if you won the lottery!'

Q: Not the right look?

Oprah: You'd never put a brown outdoor chair on a white porch. No way would you do that if you knew anything about this family. Same with that rug. Too ornate. I love all of that. I love the attention to detail. Real people live here in this space and occupy this. That's to me how you elevate the artistry so that it actually represents life.

Q: Your character is not in every episode.

Oprah: I'm in six out of the 13.

Q: Tell me about Mavis.

Oprah: Mavis is not like anybody else in the family. I’m personally a big believer in the church, very spiritual. Mavis has her own way of doing that. For her it’s her nightclub. She left them years ago.

Q: She's spiritual in a different way.

Oprah. She’s spiritual. She thinks that her blues bar is her sanctuary. People come there and are able to relieve some of their anguish, their tension, their stress, their sorrow. Her way of ministering is there. It's good enough for her.

Q; Why is she so estranged from the rest of the family?

Oprah: There is great tension with them for a number of reasons. But the main thing is she thinks they are holier than thou. And they are using the church not for their belief in the ministry but to make money. She doesn’t value that. She thinks they’re big hypocrites.

Q: I talked to you back in 2011 when you were just starting the network. You’ve come a long way.

Oprah: Can you believe we're doing scripted?

Q: I know. How has it progressed?

Oprah: This was the dream that I held when I first started it. I just didn't know how hard and how long and how much money you have to make before you can actually do it.

HOLLYWOOD - MARCH 07: TV personality Oprah Winfrey and executive producer Tyler Perry attends the 82nd Annual Academy Awards Governor's Ball held at Kodak Theatre on March 7, 2010 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD - MARCH 07: TV personality Oprah Winfrey and executive producer Tyler Perry attends the 82nd Annual Academy Awards Governor's Ball held at Kodak Theatre on March 7, 2010 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Q: The network had its best year ever. That helps right? 

Oprah. That helps. Tyler Perry helped get us there. So when Tyler first came to me with the idea of doing scripted and said, 'Look, I can write something for you and I can do it cheaper than anybody else.' I said,  'Okay! I can take that!'

Q: "The Have and Have Nots" has huge numbers.

Oprah. Huge. That laid the foundation for us to able to do other things. I want to do some things, story ideas that sprang from and resonate with what I know is a different kind of audience.

Q: You've got another one coming up with Ava DuVernay, your muse from "Selma." Tell me about that.

Oprah: That's based on a novel by Natalie Braszile called 'Queen Sugar." Ava and I were reading it on my porch. Just girls. That's what I do on vacation.

Q: Sounds very relaxing.

Oprah: I love to read. I'm saying, "You should read this." She said, "I don't want to read anything called 'Queen Sugar.' " I said, "It's really good!" And I convinced her to. And now we're shooting in Louisiana. That was about a year and a half ago. That's the cool thing. That's true freedom. Being able to decide for yourself what you want to do and have the wherewithal to get it done.

Q: Stylistically, what type of show is that one vs. this one?

Oprah: It's also high drama. I'd say it's high sophisticated drama. I tell you, it's hot! It's hot and sexy.

Me with Oprah after I interviewed her.
Me with Oprah after I interviewed her.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Q: With "Greenleaf,' in terms of the pacing, do you feel it's like 'Scandal' or 'Empire'? It seems a bit slower.

Oprah: It's not 'Scandal' or 'Empire' pacing. It's pacing that allows you to have the time to take in the characters and peel the story and get to know the people.

Q: It's less soapy.

Oprah: It's less soapy. It's more reflective of real people's lives than 'Scandal.' I love all those shows but it is definitely different pacing.

Q: Bounce TV just debuted a show called 'Saints and Sinners' last night with a similar theme. [The interview was on March 7, 2016.] Were you aware of that?

Oprah: No! Everybody is doing megachurches. It's okay. There are a lots of stories to tell and a lot of megachurches out there. How many hospital shows and lawyer shows are out there?

Q: The way people are watching TV is shifting. How does that impact you running a cable network when more people are watching Netflix and Hulu.

Oprah: You have to have more and more characters that really resonate with your viewing audience. You have to have the opportunity to have TV everywhere. I now have on my phone which anybody else can get too, I have OWN Now so you can watch whatever is on your cable TV like it's Netflix.

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Sterling K Brown with me at Morehouse College Tuesday March 1, 2016. CREDIT: Helen K Ho
Cuba Gooding Jr. and Sterling K Brown with me at Morehouse College Tuesday March 1, 2016. CREDIT: Helen K Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Q: What are you watching now? 

Oprah: I binge-watched all last week the 'O.J.' series [on FX.] I said I wasn't going to do it but friends said it's so good, it's so good, it's so good. I watched five at one time. I gotta say, it's really really really well done. It really surprised me because I was holding on the phone with Gayle [King]  and said, 'Turn on the TV. OJ is in a white Bronco!' I was one of those people who was reluctant to watch it as a TV series because I thought I knew everything. But it was really nuanced, letting us see parts of the story we would not have been exposed to.

Q: Chris Darden, for instance, was in a tough situation.

Oprah: Yah! Isn't that guy great? Who is that guy?

Q: Sterling K. Brown. 

Oprah: Sterling K. Brown. Really?

Q: I just talked to him at Morehouse College with Cuba Gooding Jr. 

Oprah: Where did he come from? Is this his first big thing?

Q: I think so. I don't think he's done anything grandiose before this.

Oprah: He is a dead ringer for Chris Darden.

Q: Up against Courtney Vance. It's tough. Johnny Cochran is a much more flamboyant role to play. 

Oprah: He's doing it. That's been the most exciting thing I watched.

Q: What do you like to do in Atlanta when you're not working? 

Oprah: I usually like to hang out with Tyler. Tyler is building that new studio [at Fort McPherson]. Have you seen it?

Q: I have not seen it. Have you?

Oprah: Honey child, it's crazy. Honey child, let me tell ya. I've seen nothing like that!

Q: He just built his other one eight years ago!

Oprah: This thing is 300-plus acres. It's a city. It's a town. You should do a story on it. He's got homes. He's got a 200,000-square-foot office building. He's got homes that are already built. You just create neighborhoods. It's pretty astounding.

About the Author