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Jenifer Lewis Takes Us To Ventura Boulevard

Actress Jenifer Lewis On Stage

Consider yourself lucky if you have ever had the pleasure of witnessing Missouri-born actress, Jenifer Lewis grace either the big or small screen.

Her extraordinary ability to capture and exude even the most subtle characteristics of Black womanhood is her thespian distinction. Simply put, her presence is unforgettable. Affectionately known as the “Black Mother of Hollywood” for her string of undeniably true-to-life maternal roles such as Mama Rose Franklin in TV movie classic The Temptations, Marguerite Coleman to the late icon Whitney Houston’s character in The Preacher’s Wife, and the infamous Dean Dorothy Dandridge Davenport to the Hillman’s all-female dorm in the ’90s TV hit, A Different World, Lewis has solidified her presence as one of the foremost actresses of our time — of our culture.

With an acting career that spans 30-plus years, Lewis still declares that there is much more work to be done. She is making her mark on the industry with two new roles, serving as both the executive producer and leading actress in her latest project, Ventura Boulevard.  The project is an ode to Sunset Bloulevard, a classic picture that took the world of cinema by storm in 1950.

JETmag.com had the pleasure of getting exclusive details about the multi-talented Lewis’ latest moves!

JET: What incited you to take on not just the leading role, but also the role of Executive Producer for this project?

Jenifer Lewis: I knew the industry would not produce this film. As executive producer, I am able to pull industry giants together and get the project on the ground and running. I am seeing to it that the production and all its facets, including: location, casting cinematography, and so forth are up to par.  And… besides this, I’m an alpha-female! [chuckles] I have ALWAYS taken control of my career. I have been blessed with so many gifts and I try my best to honor what God has given me.

 JET: The main character that you portray seems to be blessed with the curse of ambition. She’s so complex and vivid.

JL: Oh, yes! Her name is Coco. She was a blaxploitation actress at the height of her career in the 1970s. There is great dysfunction in her life since her career has dwindled. Coco lives in a world with delusions of grandeur. She is a very complicated character. She is all about opulence. And what’s worse is that she is manipulating a young man — a screenwriter to secure this Hollywood dream once more.

JET: There is a great cinematic legacy that you have embarked upon with this project. Can you share why paying homage to Sunset Boulevard was so important to you?

JL: I’ll begin by sharing that in my home, at the top of my staircase is a picture of Gloria Swanson who played the lead in Sunset Boulevard. It was given to me by my best friend on my 30th birthday. Each day before I head down the stairs, I look at that still shot from my favorite scene in the movie when she says, “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!” The idea for the production came to me one day when I was actually on Ventura Boulevard, and I was speaking with a younger person about Sunset Boulevard’s glory days. And, it just dawned on me… “Let’s make a homage showing how Ventura Boulevard is now the Sunset Boulevard of this era.”  From there, I asked two dear friends of mine, Mark Alton Brown and Dee LaDuke to write a script. We all met in college when I was only 17 years old. They both understand my artistic approach and we have a respect for each other. They are incredible!

JET: You and Debbie Allen are heavyweights in the field of acting. What was it like to re-unite with your fellow alum from A Different World? It’s been 20 years!

JL: When we first met [pauses]… let me find the words…[pauses once more] it was a combustion of laughter. When we met we just exploded in laughter because we realized we were kindred spirits!  Debbie Allen gave me my first role in Hollywood. It was Sunday In Paris, a pilot that starred Diahann Carroll, Cab Calloway, myself and Jurnee Smollett — Jurnee, I believe was 5 or 6 years old at the time. Debbie also cast me in A Different World.

JET: Wow! That is amazing! The relationship that you both have is really dynamic on and off camera.

JL: I have always admired her professionalism and ability to take any script and add her creativity with such flare. I am big fan of hers. She is a phenomenon! When I called and asked her to direct the film, there was no pause or hesitation.

 JET: Ultimately, what do you wish for people to take away from the film?

JL: They’re going to laugh a lot, they are going think a lot, they may even cry a lot. But I assure you, they will be fully-entertained. With this film, I plan to give as always not 100 percent, but 200 percent!  In essence, I want them to grasp the fact that you cannot buy love.

JET: Although here you have portrayed a character who is an example of… let’s say “passion gone wrong,” you captured the Internet with your viral video about how to turn your passion into more than promise at a screening for Baggage Claim. How did evoke such a passionate response?

JL: When someone asks you a question the only thing you can truly give them is your story. I took the stairs [to success]. I honored myself by doing the work and the work was to educate myself, by studying my craft and going to college and getting a degree in theater arts, continuing to create by polishing the art of acting singing dancing and my comedic timing.  But the most important of all of these is that I came into my own by admitting to myself that it was impossible to enjoy my life, if I didn’t know who I was. It took a long time to accept the fact that I had bipolar disorder. I went to therapy for 17 years and started taking medication in order to be healthy to enjoy my success. I am grateful to now be in my own skin and enjoy my life. I can now look in the mirror and happily say, “I’m proud of myself… Now, go get ‘em Tiger!”

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Ventura Boulevard is set to shoot in the Summer with a 2015 scheduled release.