The Hollywood veteran talks about her new role in NBC's The Playboy Club, bipolar disorder and her best moments of 2011.
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.
What a time! Kids today have no idea. I tell my daughter, "Look at a picture of Mandela and see whose shoulders you are standing on. See how fragile they are and honor that."
TR: Do you sing in the series?
JL: Absolutely. In a few episodes.
TR: Most people in show business either act or sing or do comedy. But you do all three. How did that happen?
JL: I was given a gift, and it's a gift that I've honored all my life. I never wanted to become just one thing.
TR: What did it take to succeed?
JL: I never gave up. I never quit. I've been a leader all my life, from elementary school to president of my class to excelling at college. I had a dream, and my dream sustained me. I wasn't going to let anything stand in my way. I was like a meteorite. I wanted to become a star. It's been quite a journey.
TR: When did you know you wanted to perform?
JL: Straight out of my mother. I sang in church at 5. When I saw the reaction, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
TR: What are some highlights of the last few years?
JL: I performed at Carnegie Hall. I sang for 60,000 people in Dodger Stadium -- the applause was like a lion's roar. I met Michelle and President Barack Obama and Oprah all at the same time.
TR: Speaking of Oprah, you opened up to her about five years ago about your being bipolar, and you have since spoken out about the illness and produced the one-woman show Bipolar, Bath and Beyond. When did you first realize you were bipolar?
JL: I have been bipolar all my life; I just didn't know it. From childhood I experienced extreme highs and extreme lows, including anger all the time, irritability and reckless behavior. But it wasn't until two close friends died of AIDS and I went into therapy because of my depression that I began to understand what I had been suffering from for so long.
TR: Why did you go public?
JL: I wanted to help others who might be suffering from the same condition and not know it. There's a terrible taboo about mental illness in the African-American community, and because of it many people never get help. I think that the more people come out and talk about their problems, the easier it is for others. I have been in therapy for 17 years. There's no shame in my game.
TR: Why do you think you got better?
JL: Because I've spent all these years in therapy working through my chaos. I choose to get better. You have to want it to get it.
TR: By the way, how did you get this great role of Pearl?
JL: They just called and asked me to do it. No audition, which is practically unheard of in television. I'm honored.
TR: Love life?
JL: Of course. I'm seeing Arnold Byrd, a retired first sergeant. We've been going together for 2 1/2 years. We're having a great time. I'm happy in my life. I'm at peace.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Lewis appeared on Broadway in Dreamgirls and Ain't Misbehavin'.
Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including the New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.