Oprah Winfrey wanted to deliver a story revolving around one of the biggest institutions in the African-American community: The Black Church.

In her new dramatic series "Greenleaf ," Winfrey believes she's accomplished that goal. The show, which premieres June 21 at 10 p.m. EDT on Winfrey's OWN network, explores the flawed nature of the first family of a sprawling Memphis, Tennessee, megachurch where lies, adultery and scandal consume a house of worship.

"These are stories that are reflective on our life," said Winfrey, who is the executive producer and plays the role of Mavis McCready, an outspoken bar owner she calls the "high priestess" of the neighborhood. The character, she says, is based on her late friend and mentor Maya Angelou. This is Winfrey's first recurring role on a scripted TV show since the 1989 ABC miniseries "Women of Brewster Place."

"I lived in the church," Winfrey said. "Preachers were heroes for me. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized preachers are real people. That some preachers are ordained by God. While others are kind of, maybe not."

Winfrey said she wanted to create black characters who weren't "fantastical or over dramatic."

"They're not shooting each other," she said. "They're not necessarily out to hurt people. They are flawed people, and you get to see imagery and the artistry of them."

The lead character in the show, a villainous patriarch who presides over servant-hosted dinner parties like “Downton Abbey’s” Lord Grantham, is named Bishop James Greenleaf. Meanwhile, the real-life media-savvy Jakes runs a 30,000-member megachurch in Dallas.

“The only resemblance is that our main character is named ‘Bishop’ and your name is ‘Bishop,'” Winfrey recalled assuring Jakes on a preemptive phone call.

“From my lips to your ears, ‘I, Oprah Winfrey, am not going to do anything that disrespects the church,” Winfrey says she told the pastor. “I am sitting where I am today because of the black church.”

Jakes, who has a syndicated talk show arriving this fall, had a clean secular response: “Send me a tape.”


Oprah also sat down with Rodney Ho of AJC.com, here's what she has to say:

Q: How did “Greenleaf” happen here in Atlanta?

Oprah: Atlanta is the shooting capital of the world now. We love those tax breaks hey hey! And we love the South! I just love Southern people! I just do.

Q: You just did ‘Selma’ here a couple of years ago.

Oprah: We just did ‘Selma’ a couple years ago, yes. I think I’ll be back down here again shortly. How did it come about? Greenleaf. Conversation with the writer and creator Craig Wright who is not African African but came to a screening of mine and we talked about growing up in the church. This led to, ‘What about a series about the black church?’ I love the idea because the African-American church has been a foundation rock for me and a source of stability and comfort., nurturing and support my whole life. I know it has also been that way for multitudes of other black people. I felt like it was a perfect foundation from which to build stories about sinning and the multiple ways we can sin with each other: Adultery. Divorce. Betrayal. Disrespect. Stealing. All those things.

Q: Why did you decide to base the show in Memphis?

Oprah: We wanted the South because of certain values and moral code that happens there. And we wanted Memphis because of the blues and Mavis owns a blues bar. And so many shows are now based in Atlanta. There was a series that was going to be there called ‘Bucktown’ [she meant ‘Buckhead,’ which NBC didn’t ultimately clear] that someone started. Another series that Lee [Daniels] is doing with girls [called ‘Star’ on Fox this fall.]

Q: FX has a series called “Atlanta” with Donald Glover.

Oprah: Atlanta has become what Los Angeles used to be or New York. We thought it gave it a little bit more interest because it’s not like everybody else. It would have been easy to have a megachurch in Atlanta but everything is in Atlanta.

Q: You’re an executive producer. What made you decide to act in this particular series?

Oprah: I thought it would be fun. Actually, it’s more fun choosing other actors.

Q: You like casting?

Oprah: I love it. This was a big deal. You’ve got some big characters. You need big actors to fill those roles. The whole casting process I have great empathy for. People put themselves literally in front of a blue screen and turn around and people say, “How tall are you? And state your height and name.” That’s tough. And this is a family so they have to look like a family.

Q: You see families in shows that don’t look like each other at all.

Oprah: It makes me crazy!” These people are not from the same family!” I’m yelling at the screen, “He’s adopted and you don’t know it!” Yah. That’s an important nuance. We don’t all look alike.

Q: You had to start with the mother and father, Lynn and Keith, right?

Oprah: It started with Lynn and Keith. The combination of those two colors, you can get a lot of colors in between.

Q: You then cast the kids next.

Oprah. Right. We cast Lynn, then Merle. It’s hard to cast two dark people with Merle unless she came from someone else.

Q: Merle plays the protagonist. She gets the ball rolling on all the story lines.

Oprah: All of that’s important. Nuance is important. You know what? I am a person who believes, Rodney, that no matter what your situation is, whether you are having a birthday party or celebrating your girlfriend or wife or whatever, love is in the details. So the details tell you everything. It tells you how much you really care about the thing. Even if it’s the set designer. One day, I was walking along. ‘These chairs don’t work for me. These chairs would work if you won the lottery!’

Q: Not the right look?

Oprah: You’d never put a brown outdoor chair on a white porch. No way would you do that if you knew anything about this family. Same with that rug. Too ornate. I love all of that. I love the attention to detail. Real people live here in this space and occupy this. That’s to me how you elevate the artistry so that it actually represents life.

Q: Your character is not in every episode.

Oprah: I’m in six out of the 13.

Q: Tell me about Mavis.

Oprah: Mavis is not like anybody else in the family. I’m personally a big believer in the church, very spiritual. Mavis has her own way of doing that. For her it’s her nightclub. She left them years ago.

Q: She’s spiritual in a different way.

Oprah. She’s spiritual. She thinks that her blues bar is her sanctuary. People come there and are able to relieve some of their anguish, their tension, their stress, their sorrow. Her way of ministering is there. It’s good enough for her.

Q; Why is she so estranged from the rest of the family?

Oprah: There is great tension with them for a number of reasons. But the main thing is she thinks they are holier than thou. And they are using the church not for their belief in the ministry but to make money. She doesn’t value that. She thinks they’re big hypocrites.


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