Award-winning actress Loretta Devine, one of the original “Dreamgirls,” talks about her newest feature release, Jumping the Broom.
Actress Loretta Devine
Tavis: Pleased to welcome my friend Loretta Devine to this program. The talented actress has enjoyed success on Broadway, in film and television, including, of course, a role on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Starting this Friday you can catch her in the ensemble cast for the new film “Jumping the Broom.” Here now, a preview of “Jumping the Broom.”
Tavis: (Laughter) Ouch. I guess that gives us some insight into who your character is.
Loretta Devine: Yes.
Tavis: Tell me more.
Devine: Oh, well, I’m the mother of the groom, and I’m not pleased with the bride to be. She has not come across the bridge to meet me, and I’m very anxious because they’re talking about going to China, and I may have to break this wedding up for real.
Tavis: I see what’s at play here is there’s a class issue at play here.
Tavis: Tell me more about the two different families.
Devine: Well, it turns out that the bride’s family is a very wealthy family with a French background, and I think they feel that they’re better than I am, and my friends. So when I take my family – and there’s just a great conflict between the two families.
It’s comedy, it’s funny because, of course, Mike Epps is there, and DeRay and Tasha Smith. They take it to a whole ‘nother level, and then the conflict comes in, of will this thing really work?
Tavis: The other thing that jumps out at you when you see a clip like that is the reuniting of you and Angela on screen together.
Devine: Yes, yes.
Tavis: I thought about it yesterday, that whole “Waiting to Exhale” movie that is on some TV channel every night, it seems, somewhere. So what’s it like being reunited with Angela again?
Devine: Oh, it was wonderful being with Angela again. I think we both worked very hard, and I was excited that we would be matching each other in scenes, and these fight scenes are really incredible. (Laughter) Elizabeth Hunter, she’s written some incredible scenes together, so it was exciting to be back with Angela and we’re hoping to also do a “Waiting to Exhale 2” that may happen this summer, so we have that to look forward to as well.
Tavis: Oh, that’d be cool. That’d be cool. How much – I want to ask this the right way – how much of your delivery, the success of your delivery, vocally, has to do with the timbre of your voice? The way you say things in that little “Hi.” You know what I’m talking about. (Laughter) It works with your character.
Do you ever think about how – I’m not sure that we would appreciate Loretta Devine in the way that we do if the voice weren’t the way it is.
Devine: Well, God, it’s really my mother’s voice. I sound just like my mom, to me. It’s like “Loretta, are you behaving?” (Laughter) “I hope you’re behaving,” and those kind of things. But I know a lot of people, when they meet me for the first time, they go, “Oh, that’s really your voice.”
Tavis: That’s really how she talks, yeah.
Devine: That’s really how you talk, and to me, that’s – I go, “Yeah, this is it.”
Tavis: Sounds silly to you, huh?
Devine: Yeah, it sounds silly to me.
Tavis: Yeah, but I’m saying it’s so inextricable to who you are as a person. I love it, but I just know that it’s so important for you to deliver stuff the way you do. I was in New York last week; we did this show from New York, I guess a week ago. We spent some time on Broadway and I knew you were coming on the show.
Take me back to the “Dreamgirls” days. I raise that because you were not the most celebrated person at the time in the “Dreamgirls” cast, and yet you’ve turned out to be a long-distance runner, doing all this stuff, having all this success. But at that particular moment you weren’t the most celebrated.
Devine: Oh, God, but the history of “Dreamgirls” is so incredible; I think people don’t realize that. It was the beginning of my career in many ways. I’d done other Broadway shows. My first Broadway show was with Gregory Hines in a show called “Coming Uptown,” but –
Tavis: “Waiting to Exhale.”
Devine: Yeah, and then on film, that was a huge thing. But “Dreamgirls” came out of four six-week workshops that lasted for over three years. There were eight different Effies that a lot of the women that have gone – Alaina Reed (sp) was one of the Effies, Jennifer Lewis (sp), Sarah Dash (sp), all these women went through, and then, of course, Jennifer Holiday, who came in through Geffen.
The mounting, or the creating of the show came out of improvs that Sheryl Lee Ralph, myself and Jennifer Holiday and all these other women, we worked all together on improvs to create the show.
So I was the third girl. I was also like the Mary Wilson character, and the real fight in the show was always between Deena and the Effie character, and it was sort of loosely based on The Supremes, so it was that real relationship that was supposed to – sort of like what was supposed to have happened in real life between those real characters.
So I was the third girl out, but I had a master’s in fine arts when I went to New York and started, so.
Tavis: So between the two of us – just the two of us – (laughter) were you a little depressed about that, a little despondent, a little – how did you navigate your way through that?
Devine: Well, I think Michael Bennett was more upset about it than I was. He got me a press agent. There were things that he tried to do to make a difference. I was the only one that wasn’t nominated for a Tony, so that was a devastating time for me. I can remember freezing on stage and crying, and not being able to deal with it very well.
It was a hard thing, but I was still working and I had worked for years before, so I come from a family with a very strong work ethic, so if I’m working, after a while you let go of that and you just keep going. I got a show at Radio City Music Hall where I got to be the star of the thing for the whole summer, and I realized how hard that was.
I went, “Whew.” I was glad to come back home. (Laughter) I was glad to come back and just chill out and do my part. So sometimes, when you want to be the top dog it’s hard to be what they say, to be Jesus.
Tavis: I’m a witness. Really hard, for some of us. I haven’t seen you – well, I saw you at Alvin Ailey the other night. You were sitting – it was here, you were sitting over there and I was trying to get your attention to wave at you, but I couldn’t get to you to speak to you. But I haven’t seen you in person, to talk, at least, for a little bit, and it’s been a while since it came out, of course, but what did you make of the movie, “Dreamgirls?”
Tavis: I’m just curious, since it’s on cable all the time.
Devine: There were things about it that I had despair about. There were things that they added in that were not in the original piece that I thought were not necessary, like in the original, the Jim Early character didn’t have a drug problem. There were things that they – and the racial tensions were not a part of that show. It was totally a show about three girls trying to make it on their own.
But of course, for a movie they had to draw it out and extend it, and those were the things that they added in – the tension and the anxiety of racism were the things that they added in. I was so sad that Anika Noni Rose didn’t get a chance to sing, “This Ain’t No Party,” because that was, like, the theme song that I had in the show.
But those kind of things – but I felt so blessed and so lucky to be in it, because I just thought the three women would be the three mothers of the three girls, and it didn’t turn out that way. So I got a chance to do a little of the song because of Henry Krieger. He called me and said, “I want you to do this song that I did a rewrite for,” and I felt so blessed, so that was great.
Tavis: You enjoying the “Grey’s Anatomy” run?
Devine: (Laughs) I love it, because it’s so different from what I’m usually called to do. I’m usually called to do, like, a little light comedy thing, where there’s a twist of humor in it, but on “Grey’s Anatomy,” it’s straight drama and I get a chance to play an incredible character as the chief’s wife.
Tavis: How does that – just trying to find the right word here – you’re an actress, so obviously you’re good at this, but how does that stretch you, to your earlier point, when you’re so used to doing the other?
Devine: Oh, comedy is a little harder sometimes than playing a straight, serious role because with serious stuff you just have to bring it, but with comedy, you have to have timing and you have to wait for the laugh, and then ba-dum-bump, hit the beat.
My career, I’ve been challenged by all kinds of things. I have a recurring on “Grey’s Anatomy,” so you go in and out, in and out, in and out. This time I’m dealing with Alzheimer’s, which is a really important topic for a lot of people, for elderly people and also for people that are raising mothers and fathers that are dealing with it.
So I was like, “God, I’m too young for them to be casting me with that,” but. (Laughter)
Tavis: I see you ain’t turned down the work, though. (Laughter) I see you got the work.
Devine: Oh, I rarely turn down work, and I think it’s because I think of it as work, more so than just show business. I learned early on that when you’re working and you’re able to make a living and pay your bills doing what you love, it always beats a 9:00 to 5:00. I don’t care what nobody says.
Tavis: That’s begging a follow-up, so I’m going to follow up. When you say you rarely turn down work because you see it just as that, as work, I get that, philosophically. But when you decide, then, to turn something down, since you rarely turn it down, there must really be something about it that you say “I can’t do this.” So give me – you ain’t got to call out the name of something, but when you turn stuff down, it’s based generally on what? Usually on what?
Devine: If there’s no challenge at all. If it’s something I’ve done that’s so similar to something I’ve already done, I don’t need to do it again to know that I can do it. I do lots of stuff sometimes for friends that are trying to get their dreams completed. I did “Dirty Laundry,” and that was for friends, and a lot of independent stuff.
You never know what’s going to make a difference, and a lot of times when you can’t get to your dream at a specific time, if you’re in on somebody else’s it’ll take you to where you got to go, you know?
Tavis: That’s beautiful.
Devine: It’s all good. Everybody’s trying to get it done.
Tavis: Is this about how you thought your career would go at this point in your life, or not?
Devine: Oh, God, at this point in my life I’m in awe of my own career. I know that sounds strange, but I had no idea I’d be able – you never know from one show to the other that you’ll be able to work. I always, as soon as one job is over I’m always going, (gasps) “Oh, my God, what am I going to do now?” I always get that feeling.
At the beginning of last year I had a pilot with David E. Kelly and it was a shoe-in, they had told us, and they didn’t pick it up and I had no idea what was coming next. So I mounted my own one-woman show and as soon as I did that I got three movies. So I was like, “Oh, my God, oh, my God.” So everything is coming out now at the same time, so it seems like I’m doing all this work, but a lot of that was done last year.
But I still, I’m terrified that I’ll never work again every time something’s over. (Laughter) I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.
Tavis: No, I understand.
Devine: These people think I work all the time, and it’s not true.
Tavis: Well, I’m glad that you are working as often as you are –
Devine: I am, too.
Tavis: – which is pretty close to all the time. And the new one starring Loretta Devine is called “Jumping the Broom.” Loretta, always good to have you on this program.
Devine: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Tavis: And you’re working that red, too.
Devine: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: You working that thing, girl. (Laughter)
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