Aunt Helen. Dean Davenport. Zelma Bullock. Veretta Childs. Mama Odie. Jenifer Lewis has played some of our favorite characters in film, television and stage over her lengthy career. The veteran actress made time to talk with Shadow & Act about her latest project, Ventura Boulevard, and also gave perspective on her career as a whole, even touching on the epic advice she gave aspiring artists at Urbanworld Film Festival this fall.
Ventura Boulevard is described as a darkly comedic homage to the 1950 Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard, starring Lewis as a self-deluded queen of 1970's blaxpoitation movies who uses her guile, money and sex to manipulate a young white scriptwriter into creating her comeback part. Written by Mark Alton Brown and Dee LaDuke, the project reunites Lewis with director Debbie Allen and lauded composer Marc Shaiman. On how the film came together:
It just popped into my mind. I'm driving down Ventura Boulevard one day and Sunset Boulevard comes into my mind. And I think, why don't you do an homage to it? So I called my good friend Mark Alton Brown who with his writing partner Dee LaDuke executive produced Girlfriends and wrote Jackie's Back!. They've known my voice since college and Mark has written all my one-woman shows. So I said come on, let's do this. They wrote the script and here we are.
I actually have an original photograph that was given to me on my 30th birthday of [Sunset Boulevard's] Gloria Swanson coming down the steps saying, "Alright Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." So it was bound to come around. Life imitates art, art imitates life.
The film will be the first time that Lewis and Debbie Allen have worked together since A Different World 20 years ago. On reuniting:
We had our first meeting with Debbie Allen the other day, and it was like magic was happening in the room. So all I can say to people is honey, fasten your seat belts. It's going to be an incredible film. We're all very excited and we are going to attack these topics and bring this film into a new world. And yes, it's going to be a lot of fun, but you're going to leave the theater with more. You'll leave having had a full experience.
Lewis has spoken at length about the need for versatility in roles for mature black actresses, and her character in Ventura is a shift from the parts we've seen her play in the past. More on the role:
In this script, I'm not a mama. I love doing the mother roles, but it's time for something new and exciting. We are going to address the issues of sex, age, race, deception, manipulation. It was time for me to show this other aspect of my artistry in a dramatic role. I'm a classically trained actress and I have many levels and colors, and Ventura Boulevard is where I am planning to stretch and grow.
And y'all know I'm going to show out. I'm going to give you my best performance because I always try to.
Lewis executive produces the project along with Nathan Hale Williams and Carol Ann Shine. On being an EP and taking charge of her own work:
Executive producing is being in charge, but I have a great team, Nathan Hale Williams and Carol Ann Shine. I've been in charge all my damn life, but executive producing is teamwork. You're involved with every aspect of the production, from casting to locations, everything.
I was just at an event where people were saying, "They won't let us have the roles," and "They, they, they." And I stood up and said, "Well what if there were no 'they'? Would you stop creating?" Not me. I am an alpha female. I always have been.
On what we should expect from Ventura Boulevard:
I want people to laugh, yes, but you're going to go deeper with Jenifer Lewis this time. With this role, there's going to be a dark undercurrent, a raw classic feel to this film dealing with age, race, hot sex. We're still tinkering with the script so I can't give all the specifics, but it's going to be very exciting. This is going to be so good.
On getting better with time:
Creativity does not stop just because you're over 50. Hollywood spits female actresses out after age 29, but you don't stop creating. If anything, you become wiser and even better. I went to Egypt many years ago and one of the slogans on the wall of one of the tombs was "Old is better." Now you can take that many different ways. You could go cosmic with that. I literally had just come from the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx and I tell you, in that face, old is better.
As you grow, you stretch. You become more and you have more to give if you've lived and learned and experienced. And I try to stay healthy. I eat as healthy as I can, I drink lots of water, and I work out just about every day of my life. I do something, I keep moving. And black don't crack. I have not had plastic surgery. There is no Botox in my face. It's about being healthy, because why be successful if you're not healthy to enjoy it?
These kids that have seen me go from Aunt Helen [of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air] to executive producing my own motion pictures, this is the growth I want them to see. I am inspired by them taking everything into their own hands. They inspire me, and I hope to inspire them by continuing, by sustaining and growing.
You don't stop growing just because you're over 50 and the "theys" in Hollywood won't produce you because you're middle-aged. Who do you know who's going to star a middle-aged black woman in a motion picture? What studio do you know that's going to produce that? So, I'm doing it my way. I want the kids to see this and I want them to know that I'm admiring them for doing it also. It's a two-way street.
People say, how do you sustain in this business? You sustain by continuing. You sustain by, as I've quoted 10 million times, "taking the stairs and not the elevator." You sustain by deliberately focusing on your passion. And everybody in the world knows my passion is entertaining. So yes, I've come to a new phase where I'm taking things into my own hands and creating what makes me feel good.
It's a new day in Hollywood and the sisters are holding their own and taking back what's rightfully theirs, which is to mold and create their own passion.
Filming of Ventura Boulevard is planned for summer 2014, with a 2015 intended release.