David Remnick: Wherever she is the actor Jenifer Lewis tends to steal the show.
Jenifer Lewis: Let me look at you all. Vivian, girl, you are glowing.
David Remnick: For the last four decades, she's made a name for herself on stage, in films, and on television, and she's known for playing some very strong women, not unlike herself. Right now, she's playing the CEO of a home shopping network on the new Showtime series I Love That For You.
Jenifer Lewis: Do I have a suggestion box on my forehead? No. Right. Everybody excited? Good, me, too.
David Remnick: Lewis' new memoir is called Walking In My Joy and she recently spoke New Yorker contributor, Michael Schulman.
Michael Schulman: My colleague KalaLea and I jumped on Zoom to talk with Ms. Lewis. I was in my home office. She was in her living room in LA with flowers and she was beautifully made up for a photoshoot.
Jenifer Lewis: Okay, we are recording.
KalaLea: We're recording. Michael, you're recording?
Michael Schulman: And just over her shoulder was this beautiful white grand piano.
KalaLea: All right. Have fun.
Jenifer Lewis: Thank you, baby.
KalaLea: I'm here if you need anything.
Jenifer Lewis: Okay, pumpkin.
Michael Schulman: We had a great conversation. Heads up, as she tends to do, she used a lot of salty language. It's what she does best. It's great to meet you. First of all, you have a beautiful home. Is that what I'm looking at?
Jenifer Lewis: Darling, I have a beautiful home. Yes, you are. You're looking at my home.
Michael Schulman: Oh, KalaLea wants me to remind you to hold the phone.
Jenifer Lewis: Oh, bitch. Ain't nobody going to hold no phone for no whole fucking hour.
Jenifer Lewis: All right. I'm here now. She get on my nerve. I can't stand her. That's why I gave her a lot of compliments. I knew she'd be trouble.
Michael Schulman: [laughs] Jenifer, I read your book, Walking In My Joy. Really enjoyed it and everyone always talks about how you're known as the mother of Black Hollywood because of all these incredible mother roles you've played to people like Tupac Shakur and Whitney Houston and you were Will Smith's aunt on Fresh Prince of BelAir. It made me more curious about your own mother and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what she was like.
Jenifer Lewis: Oh, my God. My mother was one of the most dramatic women that ever lived. Jesus, full of rage, full of madness, but determination. My mother was an Alpha female, darling. That's where I got it from. You can imagine the woman that raised me. My mother damn near cut a man's arm off when I was 10 years old with a Coke bottle. Come on.
Michael Schulman: What happened?
Jenifer Lewis: What happened? [chuckles] His name was Jellybean. Do I have to say anything else?
Michael Schulman: [chuckles] I mean, please do.
Jenifer Lewis: It was a boyfriend.
Michael Schulman: [chuckles]
Jenifer Lewis: She was an Alpha. She was a gangster. She could've been Al Capone's sister. Dorothy Mae Lewis. She took no shit from no one. She had seven babies to raise. I was the baby. By the time I came along, she was exhausted, so I didn't get the kind of attention I thought I should've gotten, so I spent my entire life going, "See me. See me. See me." Well, you see me now, don't you? Gah gone Jenny. Everybody see me now. I got my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You want to hear a song? You want a song in your podcast?
Michael Schulman: Absolutely.
Jenifer Lewis: Hold on. [plays piano] Here's the song about my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Michael.
[sings] I got a claim, a claim, a claim, a claim, a claim, yes.
I got my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Yeah.
I'm so happy. I'm walking in my joy, oh boy, oh boy.
I got a new book called Walking In My Joy, yeah.
That's for you, Michael.
Michael Schulman: [laughs]
Jenifer Lewis: [sings] Yeah and yeah.
There you go.
Michael Schulman: Oh, my gosh.
Jenifer Lewis: [laughs] Thank you.
Michael Schulman: Incredible. This reminds me of all those amazing viral videos you made during the 2016 election season. Those were all songs that you wrote, right?
Jenifer Lewis: [sings] I don't want nobody messing with me in these streets. [plays piano]
I don't want nobody messing with me in these streets.
Michael Schulman: Why did you write that song in 2016?
Jenifer Lewis: I wrote the song In These Streets, it was basically about police brutality. Them just randomly shooting our children riding bicycles, jogging down the street. Come on, come on, you all. I get on this piano and I just start screaming for justice. That's what I find myself doing. I'm screaming for justice. When I write things like this, this was after Parkland.
[sings] Our children shouldn't have to run from bullets.
They should never ever even see a gun.
They should be somewhere having fun.
Our children shouldn't have to run from bullets.
I get on the piano and whatever's going on in the world, I scream. I scream for justice. I can't say it any other way. That first book tour I did, I went into places like Flint. If I was doing a concert in Detroit, I went into the trenches of Flint. If I was doing a book signing in Fort Lauderdale, I went down to Parkland and spoke to the kids. We've got to just take care of what's right in front of you. What's in front of you.
Michael Schulman: These videos you made, the political gospel songs, they're also incredibly funny.
Jenifer Lewis: Yes, yes, yes. Here's the one, this one got everybody.
[sings] I don't care who you are or where you work.
Get your ass out and vote.
This ain't the election to sit home and lurk.
Get your ass out and vote.
Get your ass out and vote. Get your ass out and vote.
Okay, so it's just Get Your Fucking Ass Out and Vote. Just get out and vote, asshole.
Michael Schulman: Jenifer, can I ask? Were you always like this? Did you just come out of the womb just screaming "Get your ass out and vote?" What were you like?
Jenifer Lewis: This is what I came out of the womb singing.
[sings] You'll be swell. You'll be great.
Going to have the whole world on a plate.
Honey, I was Ethel Merman, Jr., Jr., okay? Michael, see, I'm bipolar and I made a decision a long time ago at the height of AIDS. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, I had a nervous breakdown. A dear friend of mine whom I respected said, "Jenifer, you need help." I said, "Are you insane? Girl, I'm Jenifer Lewis. Ain't nothing wrong with me," but of course, there was. There was just too much death surrounding me.
They dropped like flies in the early '90s and late '80s and I just didn't have the strength, Michael. I didn't know who I was. I was just clawing at the void of the unknown. What do I do with this talent? Who am I? Why was I made? All of those questions and I had lost so many friends. I said, "You know, Jenny, maybe you ought to change this up." I went into therapy, Michael. I stayed in for 20 years, but I did the work. I'll tell anybody anywhere, "You got to do the work. You got to do your homework."
Michael Schulman: Did you worry at all that your outrageous, outspoken persona would be compromised once you were treated?
Jenifer Lewis: Oh, absolutely. Oh, dear God. Oh, I fought my therapist for at least, I think it was three or four years. I would not take the medication. I was like, "I'm not getting it. Are you insane? This edge that you call mania is what makes me." She tried to assure me that it would not stifle or mute my edge of my humor and my comedic timing. The force of nature that I became in my youth.
Michael Schulman: Did you find that was true? How did you adjust to this new life of being treated instead of coasting on the highs and then crashing into the lows?
Jenifer Lewis: Well, it's work. It's all about finding the balance. When I first started taking medication, my sexual desire went away. Well, I knew I had to get kept for that shit, and I got dry mouth, and I didn't know what it was. I went to the dentist, and of course, he asked me to just start a new medication. I was like, "Right." He said, "This is dry mouth." I was like, "Well, we're going to have to lower that milligram."
You have to have patience to treat mental disorder. You have to have patience, they know what they're doing now. You have to trust. You have to work with your psychologist or your psychiatrist on what are your levels, you have to be honest, you have to bring everything to the table. Now I am in my skin, far from perfect, but I am aligned in what makes me happy. When you have more years behind you than in front, you don't waste time. I want to leave something here before I go. They only need to say one thing about me when I pass this plane, "Jenifer Lewis had power, and she gave it back."
Michael Schulman: Jenifer, you do have such a powerful presence. It sounds like you always have. What effect has that had on your costars?
Jenifer Lewis: People didn't know what to do with me. They didn't. I know it sounds funny, sounds arrogant, but it's true. I am a force of nature. My first review in New York City in the New York Post was "Hurricane Lewis hits New York." I was 22 years old.
Michael Schulman: What was that for?
Jenifer Lewis: Oh, just one of my club acts. That's where Bette Midler found me.
Michael Schulman: Right. Explain what you did with Bette Midler.
Jenifer Lewis: Well, I was one of her backup singers, and we were called The Harlettes. I did the 1983 tour with Bette Midler called DE TOUR, and learn so much from her. We're still good friends today. She's been a big supporter of mine my entire career and believes in me. We did have a big fight when she cheated in Scrabble. She put down [chuckles]-- Yes, she put down Zion, and put the Z on a triple letter score. I say, "No, Bette, Zion is capitalized." She said, "Jenifer, Jenifer," and so we just fought. She put me in a headlock. Then so I just smashed the Scrabble game.
Michael Schulman: Zion is a proper noun, you can't use that in Scrabble.
Jenifer Lewis: She knew it but it was so good, wouldn't you had put it down too? I love her. I learned a lot from her. I did. I studied her in the wings, honey. I went backstage holding cord. When Bette Midler was on stage, I was in the wings.
Michael Schulman: Jenifer, there's a part in your book that I really loved. I want to ask you about, you write about rage, and of course, a lot of your characters, you're great at playing rage. You're great at dropping F-bombs, first of all, but certainly angry characters is one of your specialties, but you wrote about your own rage. You say, "I built a house made of steel around my body so no one could ever tear me down. I had a deep fear that to lose my anger meant to invite weakness in to replace it. I got into the horrible habit of walking through the world thinking I was protected by armor so thick that nothing could get in, unfortunately, nothing could get out either."
That's so compelling. I'm just curious about how you think about even political rage, performing rage as something that you've experienced, but are tempering it in your own life so that you're not hiding behind it.
Jenifer Lewis: Well, if you walk in your joy on purpose, as best you can. When all that other horror comes, you'll have something to balance it. That's how I get through it. You see in my business, we rehearse, and then we're fabulous. Jenny, how about you practice a new behavior? Do it with all you have, instead of waking up depressed like you did for the first 30 years of your life. How about you learn how to get up another way? How about you not do one leg at a time? How about today you just jump out of there? Go on Jenny, do it. You got to talk to yourself. You got to make sure you're doing something you love to do every second of your life because it could be the last.
Michael Schulman: Well, Jenifer, this has been an absolute delight. I feel like I've just experienced the best of hurricane Jenifer. You've just cracked me up.
Jenifer Lewis: Oh, good. I'm glad. You got me on a really good day too. I got the New York Times coming in here. I got to pull it up.
Michael Schulman: Well, that's why you look so stylish, isn't it? Not for our radio show?
Jenifer Lewis: Yes. [laughs]
David Remnick: That was Jenifer Lewis talking with the New Yorker's Michael Schulman. Her memoir Walking in My Joy is out next week, and you can watch her in the TV series, I Love That For You. It's on Showtime right now.
[00:16:01] [END OF AUDIO]
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