SALON TALKS

From Ruby on "Black-ish" to CEO on "I Love That for You," Jenifer Lewis is not just everybody's mama

On "Salon Talks," the author & activist discusses playing a "hot mess" on Showtime comedy "I Love That for You"

By Melanie McFarland

Published April 29, 2022 6:00PM (EDT)

Jenifer Lewis (Photo by Salon)
Jenifer Lewis (Photo by Salon)

"What are you selling me?" This one of the first questions Jenifer Lewis' home shopping channel boss Patricia asks Vanessa Bayer's Joanna Gold in their new Showtime comedy "I Love That For You." Patricia is all polish and no nonsense. Joanna, an awkward woman whose lifelong dream is to be a host but whose previous sales experience involved handing out samples at Costco, thinks her new boss is talking about place mats.

What Patricia is asking of Joanna is for her to embody an aspiration, a personality viewers can buy along with their housewares. "Honey, you're going to be selling to millions of people," Patricia tells Joanna in a tone dripping with syrupy condescension. "And if they're going to buy from you, they're gonna need to know who you are!" 

Then Patricia's tone changes, and out comes the person who clawed her way into the Fortune 500. "This isn't a f**king Sunglass Hut!"

Ask the same question of Lewis, and she'll answer like she's running a marathon — in heels. An entertainment industry veteran with more than four decades of roles on Broadway, movies and television, Miss Jenifer is always selling fabulousness. She's proud to call herself an actor, activist and author of the 2017 memoir,  "The Mother of Black Hollywood."

RELATED: You should be watching "Black-ish" with your kids

But she's done playing a mother figure for the time being, having recently said goodbye to ABC's "Black-ish" and her scene-stealing grandmother Ruby Johnson. On "I Love That For You," she is the boss. Lewis co-stars alongside star Bayer and Molly Shannon, who plays home shopping channel SVN's star host Jackie, who became Joanna's role model when she was a child battling cancer. Lewis describes Patricia as "light years" from Ruby, a change that she relishes and does not take for granted.

"I had a fight with my friend once and I was like, 'I've worked my ass off.' And he said, 'You have never worked a day in your life.' He was right. I'm one of the lucky ones," she observes in her recent conversation on "Salon Talks." "I got to do what I love to do."

In Lewis' return visit to Salon, she discusses her transition from a history-making network sitcom to a premium cable comedy, what it's like working with a pair of "Saturday Night Live" alumni and how her activism connects with her acting career. Watch our "Salon Talks" episode here or read it below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The last time that Salon talked to you was for your memoir in 2017.

Oh, wow. Here it is, I might as well show it, "The Mother of Black Hollywood." It was a very successful book.  It was very difficult to write, to have to go back to all of the childhood trauma. But that's what people are interested in: that American Dream, coming from using an outhouse with my little booty on a frozen hole. And now of course I got five bathrooms. Hey, watch out now! Five, y'all. Yeah, I use them all.

That is incredible. But you sound a lot like – and of course everyone's going to ask you about this of I'm sure – your character, Patricia,  is the CEO --

And founder [of home shopping network SVN].

And founder, and that is important to note. Now in all of your roles, one of the things you say, partly joking but there's a lot of truth to it, was like, "I'm always playing somebody's mama."

But people ask and they say, "Jenifer, why you play everybody's mama?" I tell them, "Honey, for that kind of money, I'll play the daddy." OK, I mean, let's get real. It's showbiz. Yeah, I started my mother career in "What's Love Got To Do With It," and it took off from there. And I didn't mind it because I was representing middle-aged Black women who, yes, bring that sass and brings that straight shooter, honest. But I always made sure to give them heart because the struggle from my generation was certainly more difficult than it is today. They deserve good representation.

Even if I wasn't a Black woman, I would say that Black women are the Earth mothers of Earth. Girl, I don't need to go through the history. "Black-ish" was just inducted into the African American Museum of History and Culture. I was privileged to be on "Black-ish." I loved playing Ruby.

But coming over to "I Love That for You," it's so cool. I mean, look at the happiness in just the advertising. And when I arrived on this set, my chest was lighter. The character was challenging. And yet I tell people the only difference between Patricia and Jenifer Lewis is Patricia has billions, I've got about $500 left.

I mean, she is the CEO of this major network and she's a tarantula, but . . . as the series unfolds you will see that she has a big heart. Most people who have all that bravado and walls up, eventually we break as humans and we are brought to our knees and we have to be humble.

And working with Molly and Vanessa, these two women are comedic giants coming right out of "Saturday Night Live." Honey, I had to step up to the plate. But you know, I can do that.

. . . And I am the only one, I've been in a lot of interviews with Molly and Vanessa, they're more humble than I am. I'm 65 so I can say it out loud: the show is a hit.

Well, you've also earned that ability to say, "Yes, I'm going to brag about this."

I mean, I know what's good. Come on, I've been in the business, what, 10,000 years now?

Not only that, this is a role, and you've said this a couple of times, it's light years from Ruby.  One thing that I love particularly about this role is that it does show you, you said, as the founder. This is someone who is, as you say, a billionaire, a Black woman who's a billionaire and has very visible role, seen shaping her company from the ground up, from everything that goes on the air.

Absolutely.

When you were building this character, did you base it on anybody or was it one of those things where . . . I mean, obviously talking to you, you know what it is to be a boss.

Yeah. My mother was . . . Wow. I mean, you can imagine the woman that raised me. I always bring a piece of her to all of my characters, because she was such an honest, direct, bigger-than-life woman. I've stolen from her eight sisters that I watched as a child. I went out and looked at Black billionaires. What are they like? What are they doing? Are they charitable? How are they giving back?

"Even if I wasn't a Black woman, I would say that Black women are the Earth mothers of Earth. "

I've become an activist now, I am in the game. Now my platform is informing, educating and entertaining. Stacey Abrams returned my call the other day. Yes! Maxine Waters returned my call. Yes! I was in DC when Ketanji [Brown Jackson] became a Supreme Court Justice. Yeah! And I'm so excited. It's the time of the woman. . . . We're coming up and we came to slay like Beyonce said. We got hot sauce in our bags, swag, the women are coming up.


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And in this show, " I Love That for You," the dynamic between these three women is so magical. Molly having come from her tragedy and bringing herself up in the world. Vanessa, the same, and me. So when we meet it's magic because there's no fear and everybody's loving.

. . . And I did, I had to step up to the plate. I mean, we all know I'm good, but still, this was a new environment. And, girl, when I got there, I was so nervous.

Why?

Because I'd just come out of Ruby. And even one time on set, a little Ruby came out. I said, "Cut. Wait a minute, let me get back into Patricia." Because very few people will go from one series, especially eight years, right into another. Let's face it, it is exhausting work.

My second book is called "Walking in My Joy," and that is what I'm doing now. I mean, I've had all these great successes, knock on wood, and now I'm enjoying it.

My activism, the next generation, and I'm going to cry, the next generation has to be privy to the American Dream like I was. I'm not going to let these administrations take from this next generation. And I will bring them together, darling, I have a platform. They will unite. They did when they laid down in the streets and blocked traffic and said, "No, we want justice." And I just admire it. And I'm excited about using my leadership abilities and my abilities to speak well. And let me tell you what else has changed. Now that I know who I am, still in progress but pretty solid on my feet, I just want to give back.

"That's what I tell the kids: You've got to find your passion, pumpkin, so it'll get you up out of bed. "

Let me ask you about that connection between the work that you do as an actor and, as you say, through "Walking in Your Joy," activating your activism. How do the roles that you take feed into bolstering your activism and bolstering your platform?

You can only bring you to the set. That's why, if you show up and you're not feeling bad, use it. If you are walking in your joy, use it. That's what acting is all about. We study people, we study ourselves, and you can only bring those experiences to the character. And that's what I tell the kids: You've got to find your passion, pumpkin, so it'll get you up out of bed. Something has to make you move. . . . They ask me, "Ms. Lewis, how do you do that?" Well, I had a passion, pumpkin, and that is what got me out of bed. Even with the depression, you see? So find your passion.

And I never thought I'd run around quoting the Constitution, but we have a right to pursue happiness. You must. Life is hard. Nobody promised you a rose garden. There are thorns, darling. So go on through it, go on through it and get there. And I will champion them on. I say at the end of "Walking in My Joy," "Come here. You're not alone. I'm right here. Come on."

Do we see that in Patricia as "I Love That for You" goes on?

Girl, Patricia's a hot mess. Patricia's controlling.

 You did describe her as a tarantula. I can't let you go without explaining that.

Yeah, she wears a brooch that's like a scorpion. Patricia puts on that mask and she walks in it. She moves her employees around like a chess game. Sometimes she'll purposefully hurt their feelings so they can get up and keep their job, make that money. Patricia's all about money, but as the season goes on you'll see all of the levels of Patricia. She's a very interesting woman and I am so enjoying playing her.

Once again: light years from Ruby.

I want to ask you one more question before I let you go. And that is, how do you feel that roles have changed for you, but also in Hollywood, since "Black-ish" came on the air? There have been a number of shows that have come on that are written and created by Black women, by Black creators, since "Black-ish" became a success. How do you think things have changed?

Oh sweetie, it's changed so much. Wow. These kids have the technology now where they don't have to go to a studio to get their stories out there. I am extremely proud of what African Americans are doing right now in show business. They are telling their stories authentically. They are bold in their writing. They're unafraid, and I love that.

And if Kenya Barris didn't teach them anything, the creator of "Black-ish," he taught them that. Be unafraid, speak to the N-word, speak to police brutality, speak to justice, speak to depression. Don't hold back, live and tell the truth and then you can't lose. And they are building it and the people are coming. I'm very proud of all of them – all of them, I'm so proud.

"I Love That For You" premieres Friday, April 29 on streaming and on Showtime on demand, and on Sunday, May 1 at 8:30 p.m. on Showtime. New episodes stream Fridays before premiering Sundays on Showtime. 

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Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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