Few movie and television actresses are more recognizable than Jenifer Lewis, who has appeared in more than 100 theatrical movies and television series during her more than 40-year entertainment career.
Known by industry observers as “The Mother of Black Hollywood," Lewis, 65, has appeared in such theatrical films as What’s Love Got To Do with It, The Preacher’s Wife, Castaway, The Princess and The Frog and Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion.
On the small screen, Lewis has starred in such shows as A Different World and Strong Medicine, but is most famous for her roles as Aunt Helen in NBC’s 1990s comedy series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and as Ruby Johnson in ABC’s Black-ish, which recently ended its eight-season run.
Multichannel News senior content producer R. Thomas Umstead chats with Lewis on the eve of the debut of her latest starring role as home shopping channel CEO Patricia Cochran in Showtime’s comedy series I Love That For You. Lewis, who in July will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, discusses her new series, looks back at her successful career and talks about Black-ish’s legacy during the interview, an edited version of which appears below.
MCN: You’ve played so many memorable roles in movies and on television. What is it about the character of Patricia Cochran in I Love That For You that appealed to you?
Jenifer Lewis: Patricia is the founder and CEO of this SVN [home shopping] channel – she built it from the ground up. She’s an ice queen and cares about the money, but she also cares about these employees that she moves around to keep them thinking and to do their job. The show has these comedic giants in [series stars] Molly Shannon and Vanessa Bayer with their experience in Saturday Night Live, and you have me with all of my experience. Together you have the perfect storm for a successful show.
MCN: You’ve had a long career in the industry yet you remain one of the hardest working actresses in entertainment. What is the secret to your success?
JL: I sustained because it was my passion, and I love what I do. I was one of the lucky ones to know immediately what I wanted to be. To this day, I enjoy what I do. They say I’m an actress, activist, author, singer/dancer … but what I truly am is an entertainer who cares. For the people who work 9 to 5 and then come to see you perform, you better give them 2,000 percent. When people come to see me, I bring it, baby.
MCN: Over the years, have you seen a major change in the number of positive images of people of color onscreen?
JL: What I’m most proud of is that the next generation has the technology now to tell their own stories. [Black-ish creator] Kenya Barris changed the landscape of television … he was unafraid to tackle these modern day issues, from the N-word to police brutality, Juneteenth and depression. I think these kids saw that you can tell your stories and no longer have to go to these big studios to get a movie made. This is a bold generation that came to slay.
MCN: Is there anything in this business that you haven’t accomplished that you still want to do?
JL: Somebody asked me to play the life of [Congresswoman] Maxine Waters and also the life of Alberta Hunter, who was a singer and a nurse back in the 1930s, and I just loved her. We’ll see.
MCN: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask whether you will miss playing Ruby Johnson on Black-ish?
JL: No. Let me tell you what I’m going to miss: I’m going to miss my grandbabies [series stars Marsai Martin, Yara Shahidi, Marcus Scribner and Miles Brown] – we were all so weepy [at the end of the series]. A couple of weeks ago Black-ish was inducted into the [National Museum of African American History and Culture] in Washington D.C., and that I have to say was the greatest honor of my life. To be in that museum permanently with the likes of Frederick [Douglass], [Nelson] Mandela, Harriet [Tubman] and Sojourner [Truth] … what an honor and a privilege. ■
R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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