Anatomy of an Emmy-Worthy Scene: Greenleaf’s Lynn Whitfield and Director Clement Virgo Revisit Lady Mae’s Stirring, Make-or-Break Sermon

In the series finale of OWN’s Greenleaf, Lynn Whitfield‘s newly widowed Lady Mae gives a sermon to late husband Bishop’s congregation that also serves as her audition for his job as pastor. Below, TVLine Dream Emmy nominee Whitfield and director Clement Virgo revisit the inspiring scene, sharing not only the reverence with which they approached it but the revelations that it held in store.

CLEMENT VIRGO | That scene is really the climax of five seasons. But I knew Lynn was ready for it. I told her, “OK, I’ve set up these cameras for you,” we hugged, and I said, “Let’s bring the universe into this moment and see what happens.”

LYNN WHITFIELD | Clement knows my instrument inside and out, so he could sense that something was coming, and he just let the camera roll.

VIRGO | Sometimes on set, these things happen. The Steadicam operator was feeling what Lynn was feeling, and the whole dance [between them] happened so beautifully that it was almost like magic. Even the background performers… Lynn pulled them into that space where it transcended acting and became this collective ritual that we all felt. And I just never really called “Cut.” I was just capturing the moment.

WHITFIELD | I knew that this was the time for me to trust and let everything that I had worked on [in developing Lady Mae] move through me as opposed to me trying to control it. So I did not know that I was going to get on my knees. I did not know that I would go down and start blessing the congregation. I did not know any of that. All of that came through riding out the truth of the moment.

VIRGO | As a director, you get to know when to hold a performer’s hand and when to push them. With Lynn that day, I could see it when she came in: She was ready to go. It was almost like an athlete about to start a race, waiting for that gun to go off. So you just sort of recognize that. You don’t really talk about it, you just let her do her thing.

WHITFIELD | I knew that my job was to get Lynn Whitfield out of the way and let this woman have her say. It could not be acting. And that’s scary, because you don’t know if you’re going to look cute. You don’t know what it’s going to come off like. You can’t think about “Am I crying too hard?” or even “Where’s the camera right now?” I had to let this woman seek God’s grace, period. No fooling around.

VIRGO | We didn’t even rehearse that day. When Lynn is ready, she’s like a thoroughbred, you know? I didn’t want to waste her energy, because she was at the ready to get out of those gates.

WHITFIELD | I was very nervous, because the stakes were so high — for our fans, who had been so loyal, for the character, who I protected like a gladiator for the entire show… But it turned out to be one of those moments when the cross-section of the spirit of the thing and the vessel and [series creator Craig Wright’s] words… it all came together. It’s one of those moments that you wish for as an artist — and it happened.

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