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Loretta Devine Is Still Stretching Her Creative Wings

Photo: Kyle Kaplan/ Starz/Lionsgate

When we meet each other via Zoom, it is immediately apparent that even in the digital realm, the honeyed warmth that has made Loretta Devine a go-to for casting directors looking for someone to play the matriarch in numerous series and films, a trusted health-care confidante in the groundbreaking early-aughts indie film Punks, and a woman you’re rooting for to find everlasting love in a ’90s classic like Waiting to Exhale beams through the computer screen.

Currently, in a role unlike any we’ve seen Devine play during her expansive 50-year career, she portrays the adventurous, blind, shit-talking Ernestine on P-Valley — the former owner of the local strip club the Pynk and grandmother to the vivacious, gender-nonconforming character Uncle Clifford. Zingers flow from Ernestine as audiences are treated to a fresh blend of compelling storytelling and creative play in the fictional Mississippi Delta town crafted by Katori Hall, Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and series creator.

In episode seven of P-Valley’s currently airing second season, Devine’s character navigates the aftermath of contracting COVID-19 and experiences a fever dream that depicts her in full glam, all while showcasing the singing voice that helped establish her career many moons ago. Ahead, the Hollywood legend shares her thoughts on getting dolled up and singing for the show, exploring elements of Black spirituality onscreen, and why storytelling is still so satisfying after decades in the business.

It felt really special to see you in full glam and singing onstage in episode seven of P-Valley, particularly for those of us who weren’t able to see you perform in Dreamgirls 50 years ago. Was the fever-dream sequence a nod to your Broadway roots?

No, I think it was really something that Katori Hall had in mind since Ernestine owned this juke joint, the Pynk. She talked about how she met some incredible people that had been around much earlier than Dreamgirls.

At my age, I’m always excited to do something I’ve never done before. It’s a little more risqué than what people are used to. I’m still doing Doc McStuffins and all of those things for the babies. Family Reunion is for the teenagers, and P-Valley is adult entertainment. I’m always shocked when people come up to me and they whisper, “We saw you in P-Valley!”

People love Grandmuva Ernestine! Chosen family is a common theme in art that centers queer characters because social and familial rejection are still such real issues. There’s an ease between Uncle Clifford and Ernestine that feels rare and refreshing to see onscreen, especially between a Black queer character and an elder family member. What has that been like for you to portray that love and acceptance?

They have all these scenes and communication about Uncle Clifford getting her first purse. I think she was accepted for who she was from the time she was a baby and was allowed to be whatever she wanted to be. I love working with Nicco Annan. He’s a great performer. He has a lot of Uncle Cliff’s personality in that he is caring, he’s protective.

I’ve been in theater forever. There’s no way you can be in the theater and not be aware of all of the different genres and all of the different lifestyles. You just accept people because you love people that you get to know and work with. The hardest part for me right now is learning all the alphabets correctly. That’s just like me trying to figure out everything on the computer. I think people are more accepting of a lot of things now than they’ve ever been because of the way life is going now. I’m hoping it opens more doors and will make some things easier, but everything won’t be easy because everything is changing at one time.

What has been one of your favorite parts of stepping into the world of P-Valley and the imagination of Katori Hall? Is there something you’ve gotten to do in this role that you’ve never done before?

Well, Ernestine is an 80-year-old, blind stripper. So the blind part, I think, has been the hardest part for me, because they have to do stuff to your eyes. It’s a physical change that’s a lot harder than I expected, but the character is very freeing. I mean, you get a chance to say and do things that I never thought I’d get a chance to do in my career.

I told myself, “Oh my God, I’m playing all these grandmothers.” People want to stereotype me in one particular kind of role. But I’ve been a character actress my entire career. This is so exciting because it is different for me. And P-Valley is now taking on this otherworldliness where there are all these ghosts. It’s going into like —

Hoodoo and spirituality …

Yeah, because I was born in the South and there’s all of this stuff that people never talk about that you’ve heard about since you were a child. P-Valley is teaching a little bit. We talked about the fact that Black women died more than any other women during pregnancy when they were dealing with Brandee Evans’s character and her daughter. There’s all this teaching going on as well as just learning about the culture of this particular area.

Photo: Kyle Kaplan/Starz/Lionsgate

In episode seven, when Ernestine is talking to Lil Murda and she says, “I smell death on you,” that absolutely came to mind. What has that been like, getting to explore the culture of Black spirituality in the South? 

I grew up in Houston and that isn’t that far South as Mississippi and some of the other states, but there’s always been stories that you hear from your grandmother or your great-grandmother, things that have gone on. In my family history, there was a story about an Old Man Turner that could get in the house without you even knowing and whenever his spirit would come around, the doors would fly open and stuff like that, but that was when I was very young. You hear stories like that, but you never talk about how these things come about. And some of it, I thought, were fear tactics. Get in the house early, before … when you’re young, you never think the older people know what they’re talking about.

Then you get a little bit older and you’re like, Wait a minute, they might have been onto something. Is there a certain type of character or genre you’d love to play in the future?

I’ve been lucky in my career that I’ve been able to do comedy and drama. I want to do as many different kinds of things as I can. I don’t have one particular thing that I’m trying to do or be. It’s just if I read it, I like it, I think it’s going to be fun to be a part of, then I can say yes to it. And so far it’s been a lot of fun. I don’t know what it’s going to end up looking like. You don’t want to leave the earth doing something silly, but that can happen too.

If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self about being an actor and an artist, what would you say?

People always wonder, “How did you do it so long?” I think I used to tell God I wanted to be a working actress, and I could have asked to be a superstar or whatever, but I like the way my life has played out. I’ve gotten a chance to do a lot of the things I want to do and to still be in it. I would tell my younger self to relax, to enjoy the experience, to find a way to tell others not to be afraid, what is yours is yours. It sounds like saying everything is going to be all right and nobody believes that.

Also, get involved in other people’s journeys. Even when you are not winning and others are winning, you can root for them as positively as you can, which sometimes becomes hard because everything that’s winning in our culture is competitive. And try to help someone. If not everybody, just do something a little bit for somebody every day. That’s about as much as you can do, and enjoy life.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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