Jenifer Lewis turns up everywhere. After launching her career in the Broadway play Eubie, the Missouri-born dynamo turned her attention to TV, winning roles in A Different World, Murphy Brown, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Strong Medicine, among other top shows. Meanwhile, she added big-screen credits, like Sister Act, What’s Love Got to Do With It? and recently Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, not to mention lending her considerable vocal talents to the animated features The Princess and the Frog and Cars 2.
She is also the mother to Charmaine, whom she adopted through the Los Angeles chapter of the Big Brother/Big Sister Program, and an active supporter of finding a cure for breast cancer and HIV/AIDS.
This fall she plays the role of Pearl in NBC’s new series The Playboy Club, which premieres Sept. 19 at 10 p.m. It’s set in the early 1960s, when the legendary Playboy Club in Chicago became one of the most sought-after status symbols of the time and was frequented by some of the decade’s biggest mobsters, politicians and entertainers, like Tina Turner and Sammy Davis Jr.
The Root caught up with Lewis on the phone in Chicago, where The Playboy Club is being shot.
The Root: Tell us something about Pearl. What kind of woman is she?
Jenifer Lewis: She’s a warm and savvy African-American woman with a lot of sass. We African-American women are colorful people, and that’s how I play her. She works as the seamstress for the Playboy bunnies. It’s a pivotal role in the series — they all come to her with their secrets.
TR: What prepared you for playing Pearl?
JL: My life. My mother was a domestic, who got off welfare to hold a job. She wanted to improve herself. That’s exactly what Pearl has done.
TR: Did you do any research on the period of the Playboy Club?
JL: I read a lot about African-American women in the ’60s, like Rosa Parks, who was also a seamstress. I read a lot about the civil rights movement, the people on the front lines.