Oprah Winfrey on OWN’s new ‘Greenleaf’ debuting June 21: ‘This is the dream’

Oprah as blues bar owner Mavis and Lynn Whitfield as her sister Lady Mae Greenleaf. CREDIT: OWN

Oprah as blues bar owner Mavis and Lynn Whitfield as her sister Lady Mae Greenleaf. CREDIT: OWN

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

In a dark, quiet Cigar City Club off Roswell Road, Oprah Winfrey was contemplative between takes on her new OWN drama “Greenleaf.” Grim faced, she spoke to no one. Her ebullient public persona was nowhere to be found.

In the scene shot in March, her Beale Street blues bar owner character Mavis McCready was feeling defeated. Winfrey chose not to break character while the director changed camera locations.

“I was poking around in a beehive,” Mavis told her confidante and niece Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf once the cameras were rolling. “I can’t act surprised I got stung.”

Winfrey isn’t afraid to poke beehives in real life, a life that has included her groundbreaking talk show and now her own cable network, which has had its share of successes in a crowded entertainment world.

Her latest project “Greenleaf,” about a Memphis-based megachurch family, is OWN’s first scripted series that is not associated with Atlanta’s Tyler Perry. It certainly feels different from any Perry program, a style more meditative, more subtle, more profound. The show has already been renewed for a second season.

“I love the idea because the African American church has been a foundation rock for me and a source of stability and comfort,” said Winfrey in an earlier interview on set in Douglasville. “It felt like 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.”

The actors are top notch, notably Keith David as the successful, loving preacher hiding some unfortunate financial problems and Lynn Whitfield as the intensely protective and tightly wound wife. Stage actress Merle Dandridge, 41, plays the key role of Gigi, the prodigal daughter who returns to Memphis and discovers nasty secrets and injustices within her family that she feels needs to get resolved.

“I stir the pot, dredge up the past they tried to bury,” Dandridge said.

David, a 60-year-old veteran screen actor, sees his preacher character with empathy:”We’d like to hold him to a higher standard but at the end of the day, he’s a man with all the frailties men are given to… He may have passed on responsibilities that he probably should have taken on himself.”

Whitfield, the 63-year-old Emmy-winning actress, said she appreciated that the producers gave her input into developing her character: “She’s a full-blown human being, not just this steely matriarch.”

Early reviews have been mostly positive. The Boston Globe’s Matthew Gilbert writes, “the tension between true worship and religious lip service gives Greenleaf an extra spark.” TV Guide’s Matt Roush concluded: “A glossy guilty pleasure that aspires to be ‘Empire’ with pews.” Hank Stuever of The Washington Post was especially effusive, calling it an “impeccably written and often beautifully envisioned family drama, reflecting a level of care and authenticity rarely seen in fictional stories about church life.”

Keith David stars as Bishop James Greenleaf in "Greenleaf." CREDIT: OWN

Keith David stars as Bishop James Greenleaf in “Greenleaf.” CREDIT: OWN

Winfrey, who is an executive producer as well as an actor in the series, said she and co-creator Craig Wright (who also created the ABC nighttime soap “Dirty Sexy Money”) chose Memphis instead of Atlanta as a setting for multiple reasons. Winfrey’s character owns a blues bar, which makes more sense in Memphis. And Atlanta itself has become cliche as a location. “Atlanta has become what Los Angeles used to be or New York,” she said.

Not surprisingly, Winfrey is big on minutiae, from casting down to the furniture on the set. “I was walking along and said, ‘These chairs don’t work for me. These are chairs if they had won the lottery… You never put a brown chair on a white porch!’ No way you’d do that if you knew anything about the family.’ “

“I love the attention to detail that says real people live here in this space and occupy this,” Winfrey added. “That’s to me how you elevate the artistry so that it actually represents life.”

Her character Mavis, who will be in six of the 13 episodes, clashes with her sister, Lady Mae Greenleaf (played by Whitfield), bitterly calling her a “preening swan” during the bar scene. Unlike Winfrey herself, Mavis is not a church believer.

Oprah Winfrey and me on set of "Greenleaf."

Oprah Winfrey and me on set of “Greenleaf.”

“She thinks that her blues bar is her sanctuary,” Winfrey said. “People come there and are able to relieve some of their anguish, their tension, their stress, their sorrow. It’s her way of ministering and it’s good enough for her.”

Mavis views her sister and brother in law, Winfrey said, as “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.”

Winfrey gives Perry credit for laying the foundation so she could do a big drama like this. “This was the dream,” she said. “When I first started OWN, I didn’t know how hard and how long and how much money you have to make before you can actually do this.”

TV PREVIEW

“Greenleaf,” debuts 10 p.m. Tuesday, June 21 with two more episodes at 9 and 10 p.m. Wednesday, June 22. Series will air regularly at 10 p.m. Wednesdays starting June 29, OWN

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