Lynn Whitfield
Photo: Paras Griffin (Getty Images for 2017 ESSENCE Festival)

There are currently two versions of the same meme floating around Twitter, and they both involve Lynn Whitfield and the way she is always playing those mothers we love to hate in movies and TV shows.

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They are funny because they are close to the truth. Throughout her career, Whitfield has played some of everybody’s mama, and usually, she is a mama that you want to yell and scream at until she gets some act right. She is the mother who frustrates us, the mother who is emotionally abusive and manipulative, the mother who carries around the family secrets, and the mother who remains a prim and proper, always-well-put-together woman despite the fact that her husband is cheating on her and everyone knows it.

This is something Whitfield has perfected, and we love (to hate) her every time she does it.

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As the matriarch on OWN’s Greenleaf, Whitfield’s Lady Mae Greenleaf is the proud first lady of the Calvary Fellowship World Ministries megachurch in Memphis. She is a champion code-switcher who can go from telling someone off one minute to presenting as the cool, calm and collected church first lady she needs to be in the next.

As her family is embroiled in various scandals that include incest, adultery, sexual abuse, playing with the church’s money, wayward grandchildren and a son-in-law who is on the down low, Lady Mae reigns supreme while keeping everyone and their multitude of problems in check and hidden from the public.

Recently, The Root spoke with Whitfield about her role as Lady Mae, the challenges of being a black woman in today’s society, what it takes to be the mother we all want to run away from, and where she drew inspiration from for this role.

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The Root: How is it that you are able to bring us the perfect mean mom every single time?

Lynn Whitfield: Human beings are complicated. You know, we’re not simple, easy people. We’re not who you take at face value. The mom in Madea’s Family Reunion, the mom in Greenleaf—they are complex. They are character-driven women. There is something that they want. I try to find what it is they want and start from that place.

This mom—Lady Mae—was meant to be not as complex as I made her. I am unapologetically who these people are. I don’t try to wrap it up and make it all pretty. I don’t try to apologize for them, and I think that it is not only OK but required that you present to your audience the good, the bad, the ugly, the uncomfortable. I think it’s important to present people as they are. It’s not as entertaining or healing—I don’t think—when you don’t.

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TR: Speaking of healing, it seems that there is not enough of it for the Greenleaf family or that it always comes at a huge cost. How does that play out when both the characters and their stories are layered and complex?

LW: Unfortunately in our culture—black culture—we think there is some kind of shame to having mental scars, emotional scars and seeking help for them. It is completely realistic that in, say, two years of a family’s life, you’re not going to get to the healing part. It takes time. The minute everybody’s healed, the series will be over.

We have 13 weeks each season to take a journey, create the situations and delve into them. Realistically, people do get into their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s and have unfinished business. I think that’s why the show resonates with our audience so much. We have to make our own way and find our way into the light.

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Now that we are in the third season, there are moments when it’s acknowledged that at least three members of the Greenleaf family need to sit down and talk and work things out with an objective third-party.

It’s scintillating for our audience to watch.

TR: Where did you get the inspiration for Lady Mae? Who did you look to when shaping her character?

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LW: I visited many churches and drew something from all the first ladies I met. I learned how the first lady helps create the structure of the church. They are the queens and they take care of us, but it’s really about service—how they welcome us and the tone they set within the church.

TR: Is it true that Lady Mae Blake of West Angeles Church of God In Christ in Los Angeles was part of the inspiration for your character?

LW: Lady Mae Blake—wife of Bishop Charles Blake—was an example to me of what a first lady of a church should be. Without her, I don’t know if I ever would have gotten saved because she created an environment where I could learn the incredible power of a metaphysical god. She’s the higher place of Lady Mae.

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TR: What about Lady Mae Greenleaf as a black woman, wife and mother?

LW: Black women are not pushovers, and we work so hard to have and create whatever it is we need to for our families. We have to work overtime, and once you work like that you make sure the trains are going to run on time. You make sure you make things as they should be. If Lady Mae happened to be a man, people wouldn’t think ‘why is she so mean’ because she runs her situation. If she were a man or a white woman, people wouldn’t have a negative perception of her.

TR: What are your favorite parts about Lady Mae?

LW: Her denial and wanting to control everything. It is in Lady Mae’s seriousness that people want to laugh at her.

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It’s in her one-liners. The Southerness of her is the best to me—the way southern women talk and how they say things. She is a woman of merit and tons of mistakes, but I don’t give up hope on her and neither do the fans. They are pulling for her.

Greenleaf airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on OWN. You can catch up on the first two seasons on Netflix or On Demand.