Jenifer Lewis

Jenifer Lewis as mama Catherine Moore in Baggage Claim

Jenifer Lewis knows a thing or two about seduction. Her voice, with its lush lull, just pulls you in, enticing you to listen to whatever she’s about to say. And then, just when she has you in chill mode, she ups it a couple of decibels, often to comical proportions.

So naturally, when Baggage Claim director David E. Talbert wanted to cast Jenifer in his latest film, he knew exactly how to deal with this particular Hollywood seductress. “David is quite the seducer,” Jenifer drawls, Catwoman-like. “He’s a class act. He didn’t call and ask me to play the part. He called and said, ‘May I take you to lunch, Ms. Lewis?’

“When he told me about the part—of course it’s another mother—I was intrigued. I said, ‘give this character an arc. I don’t want to play just another angry mother.’ So he gave me that great arc.”

Here’s what else Jenifer had to say.

EBONY: This role is another mother character. You are like the grand mother of Black Hollywood. Does that bother you, or do you embrace it?

Jenifer Lewis: They call me the Black mother of Hollywood. People ask me, ‘Why do you play the mother?’ I say, ‘For that kind of money I’ll play the daddy!’ I’m kidding. Here’s the thing. It started back with What’s Love Got to Do with It. And [late choreographer] Michael Peters, may he rest in peace—I did three Broadway shows with him—he saw me as this alpha female.

When Angela [Bassett] got the part of Tina [Turner], of course I wanted to play Tina! There’s a rumor that I auditioned. I did not audition. Michael called and said, “Look, you’ve got this great personality. You can’t tell me that you can’t play the young mother.” And I was like, what the hell? OK. Let me try this out. And of course that became one of my greatest roles to date, and it just kind of went on from there.

I never really mind playing mothers. I’ve tried to honor African-American middle-age women with the way I portray them. We are smart. We are warmhearted, and we have an insane sense of humor. That’s how we have survived all these years. We have tough love. That’s who we are. I am just so grateful for it all, I really am. I’ve tried to really portray these women with character and some dignity.

I went on ‘Oprah,’ told 60 million people I was bipolar. Truth is, I lied. I’m tripolar. It is so important for our community to address this issue with urgency, because it starts inside you.

EBONY: Think Like a Man surprised a whole lot of folks with how well it did at the box office. And now here comes Baggage Claim, another conventional romantic comedy starring Black faces. Are you encouraged?

JL: Absolutely. The crossover was huge in this case, and the reason was because it was universal subject matter: love. It’s like these young African-American kids were saying, “Enough. We want our stories told.” And they’re starting to do all these independent films. And yes, I am encouraged to see that. Very much so.

EBONY: Is there a role you’d love to take on?

JL: I’ve been thinking about playing a social worker where I have these families come in for something traumatic, and where we always have to find humor in the contrast of what’s going on in the community. That’s what I’m working on right now, a great character who is multilayered, and there’s some real substance in it. Something where we as African-Americans can see that it’s OK to say, “I need help.” We’re not in the world alone, and dealing with mental illness in a way where you’re not preaching. It’s something that really has to be addressed.

EBONY: That’s something you’ve been very vocal about over the years.

JL: Absolutely, girl. I went on Oprah, told 60 million people I was bipolar. Truth is, between me and you, I lied. I’m tripolar. Girl, that’s because I am beyond bipolar. No, I’m kidding around. Really, it is so important for our community to address this issue with urgency, because it starts inside you. Four out of five—or it could be six—of African-American women are either obese or overweight, and a lot of it comes from depression.

Now I am not [depressed], but I would tell you that I know what depression is. I know what addiction is. I know all of those things, and I know it when I see it coming. We’re in trouble with that. What needs to happen is, we need to get to the source of the abuses and the horror that’s going on in our community. It’s not just one thing, it’s several things.

EBONY: Are you working on any campaigns with regards to bipolarism or mental health?

JL: I’m writing my memoir right now, and I think I’m going to speak to a lot of that in my book. I’m 56 years old. I’ve done everything I wanted to do under the sun and have had a great