Sweet Charity: A Conversation With Greenleaf’s Deborah Joy Winans

Published On September 3, 2017 | By Monté Alexander | Entertainment

PHOTOGRAPHY: DEREK BLANKS

Scandalous secrets and lies are not words one usually associates with church; however, OWN’s hit series Greenleaf pulls back the veil on the Greenleaf family and their Memphis megachurch, Calvary. In a kingdom divided, the youngest Greenleaf sibling Charity Greenleaf-Satterlee, played by actress-singer Deborah Joy Winans, takes the first step in redefining a new normal, following the loss of a child and the end of her marriage.
Ahead of a two-night premiere, beginning August 15th on OWN, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Deborah Joy Winans about the show and its success, her legendary family, working with Oprah, whom she affectionately calls “Ms. Winfrey,” recording music and more.
Monté Alexander: The second half of season two of Greenleaf premieres on August 15th on OWN. Your character, Charity Greenleaf, has been through IT. From losing a child to learning the truth about her husband, Kevin’s sexuality. What can we expect from Charity in the upcoming season?
Deborah Joy Winans: When we come back, you can expect that Charity has to grow up. She has to grow up almost immediately. And I think that you’ll find that the things that sort of bothered her before, and sort of made her tick before, are not the same things when we come back. She finds that at the end of the day, needing that appreciation, needing to feel some sort of way ahead of “GiGi” is no longer important. She has a child, she loses a child, everything becomes more clear in life for her. She recognizes where she needs to grow up and where she needs to grow up fast so that she can be the best mom for Nathan. So she makes some choices when we come back and starts to grow, and you start to see what she’s made of.
MA: Describe Charity in 5 words or less.
DJW: Wow, okay. Loving. Fearful. Fun. Caring. She has a heart for people. She has a heart to do the right thing. And maybe the last one would be family. Because at the end of the day she’s all about her family. She loves them and she’s very family-oriented. I think her name is truly who she is. I don’t think that people recognize all that goes into a name, so her being named Charity is a big, big thing. I think that she is so full of love, and a lot of times that can be a blind spot for her. I think once we really dive in and see the relationship between Kevin and Charity, from the beginning there were probably a lot of red flags that she didn’t see because she was in love with the idea of love. She was in love with the person that Kevin is, because he is a great person, you know? So I think those would be my words for her right now.
MA: So what drew you to Greenleaf?
DJW: Uh, Ms. Winfrey! {laughs]
MA: Absolutely.
DJW: At the end of the day, that’s all it is. Of course, I think any actor wants to be considered for anything great coming down the pipeline. And she remembered me from doing a presentation of a musical in a workshop in New York a couple of months before they were talking about Greenleaf. They began those talks and I guess she was reading through the synopsis, and she thought of me. What an honor that is. I thank God for that. She called and she said everyone else isn’t convinced because I didn’t have a body of work; I didn’t have a real resume. And I was like “This is true.“ [laughs] And she said, “That’s okay. I saw you so I believe that when you audition, they will see what I see.” That alone gave me the confidence to keep going and made me feel like I really am doing what it is that God has called me to do. So that’s what drew me. And then when I did the audition, and just read a little more about who Charity was, I thought she was fabulous. I thought how nice it would be to see someone of my color, someone of my size, because traditionally you don’t see a lot of average sized, full-figured women on TV especially being dark, so I just thought it would be an honor to bring somebody like that to life. She wasn’t described as thin or skinny; she wasn’t described as the most popular; and I thought how fun it would be to take that on and bring that to life.
MA: Well, you certainly do.
DJW: Thank you! [laughs]
MA: There’s no lack of talent on the show, you included. Oprah. This is a series executive produced by Oprah Winfrey. ‘Nuff said, right? But, then you have the legendary Lynn Whitfield and the stellar Keith David.
DJW: Absolutely!
MA: How is working alongside such talented, influential, iconic actors?
DJW: Absolutely incredible. It’s been such an honor and privilege. What I’ve learned when Ms. Winfrey comes and shoots – I’ve just learn a lot from being around her and listening to her. And there’s a reason why people know that whatever she puts her name on that nine-times-out-of-ten it’s good is because she strives for excellence in everything that she does. She does not believe in letting small details go. She says, “Love is in the details.” So she looks at everything and that’s why what she does has so much excellence behind it, because that’s what she believes in.
Keith and Lynn were so welcoming. I think they could all see – not fear, but the nervousness the first day we were shooting season one. The day we shot was the dining room scene, so I’m like, ‘Oh, so we’re shooting with everybody today?’ [laughs] And Ms. Winfrey was in her executive producer chair, and I walked in, and she called me over and she said, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be great. I believe in you.” She told me about the moments in her life that were pivotal, especially shooting The Color Purple, and how she felt that turn and knew that she had really become an actor. And all these things to sort of calm me, I guess, and then I sit down and I’m sitting right next to Keith David and right across from Greg Alan Williams, and I’m like “Oh, Lord! How is this going to go?” [laughs] But they’re just so giving. People like that, the reason they are so excellent is because they come to do the work. So when they come to do the work and you come to do the work, they see that, they respect that, and they give. And they make sure they give you what you need to do what you have to do and vice versa. It’s been so incredible. A lot of times if I’m waiting to shoot because they’re shooting a scene, I’ll go watch them work. I just listen to them. There’s so much to learn from them at any given moment. I love them all, and I respect them all to the highest degree. It’s just been so fun. Once you let the nervousness go, you find fun and you get to play and to create, and you’re like, “Wow, I didn’t know that could come from this scene,” but because you let everything else go, and you really play with them, greatness happens.
MA: Speaking of legends, your family is legendary. When people hear the last name Winans, they know what time it is.
DJW: [laughs] Oh, wow. Thank you.
MA: You co-star alongside your brother, Juan Winans, in a bio-musical about your uncle, BeBe [Winans], that was written by your uncle [BeBe Winans], where you play your aunt [CeCe Winans]. Describe that experience.
DJW: This has been a totally new experience. When I tell you it has been a blast. My brother, Juan, is a Grammy-nominated artist, such an incredible singer. I never wanted to sing in my life. That was never the plan for me. Acting was all I ever wanted to do so I got my BFA, my MFA. This was my trajectory; never did it include singing. My brother, on the other hand, has been a singer since he was 16. Winans Phase 2 had an album released, they were Grammy nominated. He’s incredible to me. He’s a songwriter, so never did I think we would work together like this. The very first workshop we did on this musical, “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story” – I did the very first workshop in 2013 – and I left telling my husband, ‘I’m never doing that again. I don’t sound like CeCe. That’s too much pressure. This don’t make no sense.’ I’m just like I’m never doing this again. I just want to act. [laughs] So the very next year they wanted to do another workshop, and I told my husband that I wasn’t going to do it and he called told them that I was going to do it, so, of course, I’m mad at that. Then two days before I’m supposed to fly out, my uncle calls me and tells me that Juan is coming in to do the role of BeBe, and I’m like, ‘Aw, man. Are you kidding?’ So I’m thinking we’re about to have a week of fun because we were living ‘cross country from each other, so that was already hard. So, I’m thinking at least we’re going to be able to hang out, eat, and have a good time. And when we got there and began to work, it just clicked. He helped me with my singing, I helped him with his acting, and just us together. Of course, it’s already hilarious because we look just like BeBe and CeCe – my grandfather’s genes were very strong. [laughs]
On top of that, it was a chemistry that just made sense, so every workshop after that we did and it’s just been…we’ve grown so much. And it’s just been an honor and privilege to share the stage with him, to learn more about our uncle and our aunt, and about what they went through and how they became who they are. Because they were not BeBe and CeCe when they went to PTL [Praise The Lord], they were just brother and sister. Originally she was the only one accepted to be a PTL singer and it wasn’t until they heard him doing something with her that they — and when I say they, I mean Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker — put them together as a duet to sing “Where We Belong,” and that was the start of their career together. So learning all of this, and being close to our aunt and uncle in real life, all of this has just been such a beautiful experience. We’re continuing it now in Los Angeles, in Santa Monica, at the Rose Stage where we’re doing the show. So it’s just been fun, it’s been such an incredible journey that I never thought I would be on. I never planned on singing. I think God is looking down and laughing because I’m doing the musical and I’m the praise and worship leader in Greenleaf, which means I have to go record songs, so I’m like, ‘Really, God? I’ve never recorded music. How is this happening?!’ [laughs] And that just goes to show you that God gives you dreams and passions, and he’s going to open the door for everything He wants you to do. If there’s a gift there that He wants you to use, He’s going to give you an opportunity to use it whether you want to or not. So, it’s always good to just say yes to Him, so I’ve been recording music — something I thought I’d never do. I’ve been singing so much – something I NEVER thought I would so — but it has changed my life for the better.
MA: That’s amazing. For someone who never wanted to sing, you’ve been doing a lot of it and to great success. The single, “The Master’s Calling,” from the Greenleaf Season One Soundtrack has reached the Top 15 on Billboard’s Gospel charts, and you’ve been nominated for a Stellar Award.
DJW: Right! For someone who never wanted to sing and has a single out. [“The Master’s Calling”] is a song that was just sort of thrown in. There were a couple of songs that we knew we had to get done that were placed for scenes in the show. And when I flew out to record those couple of songs, this was something that he [producer Tim Lauer] threw in. He said, ‘Hey, if we have time I think we should record this. I think it’s a good song.’ And when I listened to it, I said, ’Man, this song is beautiful.’ And he said, ’So listen, I just want to do a small recording and pitch it to them [the studio]. So since you’re here I want to get it and done, if we can.’ And that became the first single of the season one soundtrack.
MA: Will we be getting a season two soundtrack? Is that in the works?
DJW: That is in the works, I do believe so. I don’t know how many songs I will have on it, but I do believe they are doing a season two soundtrack.
MA: And you mentioned earlier that you are recording music so are we going to get an album from you?
DJW: As Deborah Joy? [laughs] You know, I used to say never. I used to say that’s not happening. Even last year I would say, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I’m just doing this for the show,’ but I’m learning that I just can’t say no. I’ve been approached by a few producers, so we’ll see. We’ll see. I think that if I do anything I really want it to speak to me, and I know that if it speaks to me and I feel it then the people who like me will connect to it. So, I’m certainly not shutting it down – I’m just in a place of if it makes sense.
Greenleaf returns for a two-night premiere on August 15th and 16th. You can catch it every following week on Wednesday nights at 10pm on OWN.
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PHOTOGRAPHY: DEREK BLANKS

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