Jenifer Lewis Talks Divas, Directors And Drag Queens!
Her distinctive voice has also been featured in a number of animated films like Disney’s The Princess and the Frog and Cars. Although I could have spent hours reviewing her incredible career – from her beginnings as one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes to her work with such esteemed directors as Spike Lee and Tyler Perry, we hit on the highlights and answered the burning question – how did this movie star manage to hook up with a fierce drag queen? Learn more about the new series and its star in our exclusive interview!
Socialite Life: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us.
Jenifer Lewis: It’s my pleasure. I’m very excited about the web series, so I’m happy to talk to you.
Tons more from Jenifer!
SL: So, how did you get hooked up with Shangela?
Jenifer Lewis: Well, I was doing a play with Meryl Streep at the New York Shakespeare Festival – it was Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children – and, DJ (Shangela) who, of course was my biggest fan, clawed his way backstage to get to me and came in in the dressing room and he was just so excited. I said, “Sit down, tell me about yourself and tell me what you want to do with your life.” And he started talking. He had met all of his college friends in New York and they were celebrating, believe it or not, Jackie Washington Day. Jackie’s Back is a movie I made years ago – well, it has become an underground cult classic. (Ed. note: If you haven’t seen it, you should! Check out the trailer.) So he knew all of the lines of the movie Jackie’s Back and I was like “Aw, this is a sweet kid.” He was moving to Los Angeles and I said “Come on, I need an assistant.” And he moved into the lower level of my home – because I usually have a college kid there, a young kid, trying to help them out. The last girl who lived here was summa cum laude, double masters, double major, and she was just so smart. I’m always happy to give back, that’s basically the story.
So DJ became my assistant and, lo and behold, he goes on RuPaul’s Drag Race and gets famous! (Laughs) So he comes upstairs all of the time and we just have fun around the house and people would come over and say “You need to capture this chemistry on film”, so we did! It’s just our sort of little gift to our fans, you know, just to have some fun with. It’s an exaggerated version of real life. But it is scripted and that’s what makes it special. The writers have been writing for me since I was in college at Webster University. Mark Alton Brown and Dee LaDuke, they wrote Jackie’s Back and they wrote for me when I was doing the series Girlfriends. They know my voice and they captured it all of these many years – even for my one woman shows all over the world.
SL: It’s easy to see why DJ would idolize you. You have had quite an impressive career, haven’t you?
Jenifer Lewis: What can I tell you kid? I’ve had quite a career, yes I have! The hard work has paid off. And, for you kids coming up in show business, you need to know that the elevator to success is broken, you should take the stairs. I took the stairs and I really celebrate quite a diverse, multi-level, multi-cultural, multi-everything career. I get to work with so many different people in so many different genres. I sing, I act and I have a lot of versatility. I’ve always seen my talent as a gift and I’ve always tried to honor it the best I can. Of course the road was rough, I came up on many challenges. But because I love what I do – it’s what I’ve been doing since I was five years old. I sang my first solo in church when I was five and I haven’t looked back since. From the reaction of the congregation, I knew what I wanted to be and and that’s why I pursued this life of entertainment.
SL: You act, you sing, you are a viral video sensation. Out of all of your talents, is there something you’re most passionate about?
Jenifer Lewis: Oh, I definitely enjoy performing in front of a live audience more than anything. I just finished doing a one woman show in New York. It was called Black Don’t Crack and the New York Times gave me a stellar review. I mean, it was such a love letter and I have to admit to you, it was the first time I picked up a newspaper and cried over something that was written about me. I was very humbled by it. It really was an unbelievable review.
SL: Do you have any plans to take this show on the road or maybe record a DVD of it?
Jenifer Lewis: I think we are going to record, sooner or later. We’ll be recording all of those songs because they’re mostly original tunes written by Marc Shaiman, who I’m sure you know. He is the executive producer of Smash, five-time Oscar nominee…well, he just happens to be my best friend. He was my musical director in New York, so I had that safety net. I knew if I were to fall, he would catch me. The chemistry and the entire show were magic. The entire time in New York was…there are no other words for it than it was triumphant and it was magical. That’s why I say to kids that you really need to work hard and focus on what your passion is in life and go after that. Because the rewards are…all I can tell you right now is that I’m just a happy person. Very, very happy.
SL: What is the most rewarding experience you’ve had?
Jenifer Lewis: Wow, that’s many, many things! I don’t even know how to answer that! I think starting off with Bette Midler, that was my first really big gig – being a Harlette with Bette Midler in the 80s. As a matter of fact, she just posted on Facebook a photograph of Bette, me and Charlotte Crossley. We were her backup singers on the very last Johhny Carson show. Can you imagine? Can you imagine being a little girl who’s an entertainer and wanting to go on not The Tonight Show but The Johnny Carson Show? Oh my God! Well, to sing and perform on the second to last show, talk about a dream come true. All that time wanting to go on there and then to finally get on right before he stopped hosting the show. Wow. I mean, now you talk about a dream come true.
SL: Bette Midler seemed to have launched the careers of quite a few stars (Katey Sagal was also a Harlette). Did you think at the time, when you joined the Harlettes that you were going to be a star?
Jenifer Lewis: Well, basically, (Bette) put me in my first movie, Beaches. I had a little part in that. I wouldn’t say that any one thing spun me off into a successful career. It’s a lot of things combined. You know, a lot of people think it’s just talent – it’s not. You have to know who you are inside of yourself. When I was diagnosed bipolar, I really went and did the work. I went to therapy for 17 years – that’s what the whole show in New York was about. Having dealt with that and having come through and living a very happy and successful life now, that was hard work. You have to know who you are in order to enjoy your success. So often, especially these days, you don’t have to have talent to be famous. I mean really, you have to be young and skinny with a pretty face. But those pretty faces don’t last. That’s the thing, that’s the problem. And most of those kids don’t know who they are so they get all of that success and then they hurt themselves one way or another and that’s really what’s sad that’s happening.
Back to what I have experienced with doing hard work and just learning to enjoy the gift. I had no idea I would never be this happy in life – with bipolar disorder you’re depressed most of the time or you’re completely over the top. And then to do the work and know that there’s a middle – that life can just be somewhere in the middle. Not perfect, not horrible, but somewhere in the middle where the depression and the pain dissipates. We’re never perfect and it never goes away completely, but you have a balance in life. You have a middle. And I’m very humbled and grateful that I made that choice to be better. You have to want to be better. That’s the first step to anything is to recognize that you have it and then make a good choice…to have patience – that’s very important. Have the patience to get better. Most people just go to therapy and say “Oh, that’s not helping!” Well, of course it’s not gonna help if you don’t sit your ass there, you know. You have to have the discipline. I mean, what could be more important than taking care of yourself? If you don’t do that, you can’t enjoy it anyway! Better do the work!
SL: I loved you in Girl 6. What was it like working with Spike Lee?
Jenifer Lewis: You know, Spike is more of a technical director. He was very generous. I was like the Mother Hen. I was the oldest person on the set. And I really worked with the girls because a lot of them were first timers. I think it was Naomi Campbell’s first movie and Theresa Randle was very young at the time. He really did allow me to work with the girls when we had our scenes – especially the table scene. It was so silly! (Laughs) Spike was great and he really knew what he wanted and it was a very professional set. You know, there was drama – there’s drama everywhere – but we had a good time. And it was also really nice to be working with so many females. There are not a lot of roles for female actresses together. There are not a lot of movies that are just us, you know? What I remember of filming that movie was having a really good time in New York and on set, it was very professional. (Spike) knew exactly what he wanted, I remember that. And we had fun! Remember the scene where we played George Jefferson and Weezy? Oh my God! That day we clowned, we had so much fun. It was nice to see Spike really let go and have fun there. We had a blast.
SL: You’ve also worked a lot with Tyler Perry. What has that experience been like for you?
Jenifer Lewis: Well, that’s my baby, what can I tell you? He was a big fan of mine and then, of course, I became a big fan of his. I remember when they sent me one of the scripts early in his career. I read the script and asked “Who’s playing Madea? That’s who I should be playing.” And they said, “Well, the author is playing Madea” I asked, “Who’s the author?” and they said “Tyler Perry” and I said “Isn’t that a guy?” That was how I found out about it. When I met him and saw Madea of course there was no question as to who would play Madea! To talk about Tyler Perry, I think once again his professionalism is very admirable. I really admire him. When we go to Atlanta to film, Tyler treats us all like queens – and when someone’s very generous like that, you give them your all. We have such great chemistry together. I mean, the day I fell into the grave, (in Meet the Browns) I went over to him and said “Tyler, just let me fall into the grave.” And he said “Just dig a hole and let Jenifer fall. I’m not going to argue with her!” When you walk on to the set, you want to give. When a director is prepared and has treated you well with respect, you give them everything you have. He’s a great guy. Very generous. Tyler’s one of those guys who gives so much back. He’s such a charitable person. Every time I see him, I make sure he looks right in my eyes so I can tell him how proud I am of him.
SL: When you’re working on a project, do you prefer having the ability to ad lib, or do you prefer to follow the script to the letter?
Jenifer Lewis: I don’t think there’s a director I have worked with that has not given me to freedom to be spontaneous and ad lib. They welcome it from me – because they never know what’s going to come out of my mouth! I have to brag here a little bit and say that Jenifer Lewis is given freedom on the set with the writing. Most people in this business know that when I walk onto the set it’s not going to be 100%. I’m there to give 2,000%. And why is that? It’s because I love what I do and I really want to do my best. I really do. When people see Jenifer Lewis, they stop the remote because they know if nothing else, they’re going to get a good laugh. I’m going to do something “out of the ordinary” – and usually that “out of the ordinary” was not in the script. So I have fun with that.
SL: Out of everything you’ve done, do you have a favorite role?
Jenifer Lewis: Well, I have to admit that would be Zelma Bullock in What’s Love Got to Do with It. I had actually just fallen in love when I was filming that movie and there was no fear in me. You know that when you’re in love, you’re just floating around and just carrying on. And I did extra research on that character because Velma Bullock was from St. Louis and my mother has eight sisters and that character was pretty much created from three of my aunts who live in St. Louis – and a little dash of my own mother (laughs). And being a St. Louis woman myself, I really, really understood the character very much – you know, the whole dysfunctional thing that was going on in Tina’s family. I was very comfortable developing that role.
SL: What is next for you? Any future collaborations with Shangela?
Jenifer Lewis: Well, you know, we filmed four episodes…webisodes…episodes for the web series! (Laughs) I think they are negotiating a new movie as we speak – but, of course, I can’t talk about it because I haven’t signed the dotted line yet. But things are going on. I may go back to New York in the spring with Black Don’t Crack…maybe. That’s not definite yet. I think I’m going to be filming a movie next month. Things are good! I want people to see this web series and enjoy it because it’s my baby. I produced it and it’s just a fun thing and I want people to have it so they can laugh and enjoy it. They’re pretty much getting Jenifer Lewis doing some foolishness and just relaxing and having fun.
SL: The second episode of “Jenifer Lewis and Shangela” deals with recognition. I’m sure you get recognized all of the time.
Jenifer Lewis: Girl, I can’t walk out of my house. I can’t even drive to the corner without someone blowing their horn and yelling “Hey!” You find out very early in life that (the recognition) goes with it. That’s part of it and anybody who doesn’t want to be recognized should not go into show business…hello! I enjoy when people come up and say hello because I appreciate them as much as they appreciate me. I mean, you have to love people to do what I do and like I said, performing in front of a live audience I love more than anything.
SL: Do you have a special message for your fans?
Jenifer Lewis: No matter what your passion is in life, know this. It’s when you’re hardest hit that you mustn’t quit!
Thanks so much to Jenifer Lewis for taking the time to chat with us! The third episode of Jenifer Lewis and Shangela debuts today on the shows channel on YouTube. You can check out behind the scenes clips and more at the show’s Facebook page. Keep up with all things Jenifer Lewis on her Facebook page and Twitter!