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April 20, 2014

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20 Questions: 'Black Mother of Hollywood' Jenifer Lewis

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Backing Bette Midler as a vocalist gave Jenifer Lewis the training for her thirty year-plus long entertainment career. The 53 year-old Missouri native has over sixty films on her resume and -- though her part is small -- will make what she considers a "career transformation" in the new Clint Eastwood movie 'Hereafter.'

BlackVoices.com sat down with this legendary actress, singer and thespian for her thoughts on where she's been and where she's going.

BlackVoices: You've been a background vocalist for Bette Midler and Whoopi Goldberg in 'Sister Act.' Who's the biggest diva you've worked with and what did they teach you?
Jenifer Lewis: Well, I guess it was Bette Midler. And, one of the things I learned from Bette is how to sing a ballad. She had great focus and great humor and chutzpa (and you'll have to look that up how to spell that). She was very charismatic on stage and I would always stand in the wings and watch her.

BV: With a television career that spans 'A Different World' and 'Strong Medicine' to 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,' and 'Friends' what do you think was your most enjoyable television role?
JL: I think they all are. When I show up, I show up to have a good time. I am a professional and I really enjoy working with other artists and having done a variety of other roles really fed my artistic creativity.

BV: There have been several notable roles you almost got but didn't including Effie White in the original cast of 'Dreamgirls' and Tina Turner in the critically acclaimed film 'What's Love Got to Do With It,' which one of these roles were you most upset you didn't get and did you watch either film and say hell I could've don't that better.
JL: Here's the time for me to set the record straight. I never audtioned for Tina and did not get the role. I was offered the mother role and was happy to do it. Could I have played Tina? Yes, but I think Angela Bassett did a great job and Effie it was the workshop production of 'Dreamgirls' that I did and when they brought Jennifer Holliday back I was fine because who knew that it was going to be the hit that it became. So there was never any disappointment in those two.

BV: But, was there any role that you were upset that you did not get?
JL
: I am a firm believer in 'what's mine is mine.' I work so much, hell I can't get every part. Of course, I'm human and have had great disappointments in my career, but you keep stepping and keep it moving.

BV: You've also played the role of the mother in several films and for big names like Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, and Taraji P Henson, to name a few.
JL
: That's right, I'm the black mother of Hollywood and good black don't crack. I have tried to honor the middle-aged African-American woman by playing her honest, and the earth mother which is what they are...sassy, honest, they get to the point, very direct, and very charismatic. So I've tried to honor that.

BV: Is there one mother role that you get recognized for the most?
JL: I think Velma Bullock from 'What's Love Got To Do With It?' People just walk down the street quoting me constantly. "Anna Mae, I'm the only sinner in this house" [and] "What you gonna do with that money, Anna Mae?" And, I think it's just too cute. When people imitate me, I just laugh and laugh. I'm very flattered by it.

BV: Do you ever feel like you're being typecast?
JL: Yeah, but I didn't mind it. I tell people 'Yeah, I play everybody's mother, but for that kind of money, I'll play the daddy." Ok, let's get real.

BV: Who's your favorite person to work with?
JL: I had a great time with Tom Hanks, we laughed the entire time we did 'Castaway,' that was a lot of fun. I loved working with Taraji P. Henson, she's a hoot...fiery girl. I love her. I get along with everybody and if I'm not getting along with you I'm going to say, 'Baby, can we work this out?' and a lot of times we do because life is short. People don't mess with me. They really don't they're like, 'That's Jenifer Lewis, keep it stepping.'

BV: You're certainly one of the funniest actresses of our time, would you ever do another sketch comedy show, having appeared on several episodes of 'In Living Color.'
JL: If that comes along before something else and it's written well I will do that show. I know people are waiting for me to have my own show and my answer to that is 'Everything in Time.'

BV: Was there ever one person you wanted to model your career after when you decided to become an actress?
JL: No, I'm an original. Always have been.

BV. (Laughs)
JL: Now, I've looked up to many people who are not all entertainers that have helped me mold the person I have become. Mahalia Jackson, Aretha [Franklin]'s voice was the score to my childhood. I grew to love and admire Dr. [Martin Luther] King and I stand on the shoulders on Nelson Mandela and I know that they are fragile, so I watch my step. I am a reader of the great Toni Morrison. There are so many that I cannot name, but I honor them all. Lena Horne, Nina Simone, Barbara Streisand...I met [Barack] Obama and Michelle [Obama] at Oprah [Winfrey]'s house and I want you to print all of that because I pay tribute to these people.

BV: If you weren't an actress, what do you think you would be doing?
JL: I would be a gymnast. I'm very limber. I do yoga.

BV: Many people love your cult classic mockumentary 'Jackie's Back.' What's the status on the sequel? We're getting anxious waiting on it.
JL: I'm going to try real hard to do that. I think the next 'Jackie's Back,' she's going to be Mayor of Washington, D.C., terrorizing the entire town.

BV: Two years ago, you appeared in 'Hairspray' on Broadway. Do you think you'd go back to Broadway anytime in the near future?
JL: I am sure I will one day because I have got to snatch up that Tony Award.

BV: Will you be doing your one-woman show in the near future?
JL: I will be doing a concert on Nov.22 at the Nate Holden Theatre called 'Tis the Season with Jenifer Lewis' so I want everybody to be there. It is a fundraiser.

BV: Many people don't know you voiced the character of Mama Odie in the Disney animated film 'The Princess and the Frog,' was that easy work?
JL: Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. I took on Moms Mabley, the African-American comedienne and just ran with it. I had a ball doing that character.

BV: Tell us a little about your role in 'Hereafter.' How was having this bit role in this big budget film?
JL: I'll put it like this...everybody should see the movie because Clint Eastwood has the ability to poetically put stories onto the screen. The movie leaves you with your own imagination and he captures the current of human emotion and I have two words for Clint Eastwood: intellect and humanity. Very classy guy he trusts his actors. And, Matt Damon was also a professional so there I sat in front of my own reflection because I am a staunch professional.

Blackvoices: Did you learn anything from Matt Damon or Clint Eastwood? Or better yet, did you teach him anything?
JL: Just stay focused and do the work and do it well, but between me and you, I think they learned more from me. Hatch da da dum.

Blackvoices: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
JL: Happy. Very, very, happy. I have a wonderful daughter. I'm in love. I will probably be married. I have never been married and I have a little puppy and I'm sure that he will be right in my little arms.

Blackvoices: Do you still have a dream role that you haven't played yet or a passion project of sorts?
JL: I'm loving it all. Whatever comes and it's good. I will take it.

'Hereafter' hit theaters nationwide Oct. 22.





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