The newest drama on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), Greenleaf created by Craig Wright (Lost, Six Feet Under), centers on the Greenleaf family, a powerful and well-respected African American church dynasty in Memphis, Tennessee. The story picks up when Grace ‘Gigi’ Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) returns to Memphis with her daughter Sophia, played by Desiree Ross, to be with her family after the death of her sister, Faith. Gigi’s return home quickly knocks the top off an already boiling pot with the family juggling their own secrets and scandals while the town deals with the death of a black teen by a black cop.
In the midst of all of this drama, Desiree Ross’s character struggles with finding her place in this new setting while getting to know her family. “I think they do have some very similar traits and views,” Desiree responded when I asked her about her thoughts on the parallels I saw between Sophia and Gigi’s deceased sister, Faith within the first four episodes. “Sophia loves looking into what Faith had to say because it helps her to understand the church better and even understand herself better. I think throughout next season, we might see a bit more of the similarity and see how much of Sophia’s life is parallel to Faith’s. Right now it’s hard to tell because we are talking mainly more about what happened to Faith instead of focusing on the person she was.”
Sophia also develops a connection with her cousin Zora played by newcomer Lovie Simone. “We realized we clicked within the first five minutes of talking with each other. We had this cast dinner before we started filming and the creator and producers and executives of our producing companies were there, along with the cast. I knew I was going to meet Lovie there and I was really nervous because I wanted to like her. Even more so, I wanted for her to like me since I knew in the show we would have a tight relationship and because I knew I’d be spending like every day with her for 5 or 6 months.” Similar to Sophia and Zora’s instant connection, Desiree and Lovie hit it off immediately. “Right after we met, though, we could not stop talking. Everyone thought we already knew each other, and we were just like ‘Nah, we literally met like 10 minutes ago.’ We shared a huge bowl of mashed potatoes and I could’ve sworn that I had found myself a soul sister,” she laughed.
“I don’t think that shows as much in this season only because Sophia is still getting into the swing of things and I think Zora downplays a lot of what she does,” Desiree says when asked about if we’ll see how Sophia might influence Zora. “Basically, I don’t think they influence each other to be anything other than themselves just because they are influenced by what they are going through at that very moment. And there is a lot going on in every moment in the Greenleaf family.”
And indeed Desiree is incredibly right about that. The Greenleaf family is portrayed by multiple powerhouses with Keith David and Lynn Whitfield leading the bunch as the family patriarch and monarch, Bishop James Greenleaf and Lady Mae Greenleaf respectively. Along with Lady Mae, Gigi, Sophia, and Zora, the Greenleaf women include the ambitious and stern Kerissa (Kim Hawthorne), the naive, yet growing Charity (Deborah Joy Winans), and the Maya Angelou inspired Mavis McCready played by Oprah. “I really love Grace because she is a mess, but she is trying to make things better even if they just get more and more screwed up. She doesn’t always handle things correctly, and she acknowledges that and accepts it. I like how strong she is throughout everything she does,” She began her answer about if she had a favorite Greenleaf woman and if she took anything from them.
“I honestly like all the ladies on our show, so this is a very had question,” she continued. “They are all so different and I like different things about them. Kerissa knows what she needs and doesn’t take any crap. Charity is a sweetheart living in bliss trying to get her parents approval. Lady Mae is tough and smart and conniving but handles herself with class and grace. So all of them are great, but Grace is my mom on the show so we have a special MaMa Gigi thing going.”
Coming from the perspective of a black church family, Desiree notes that it allows for the stories of the show to give off a different feel. “There aren’t that many dramatic TV shows based around dynastic black families. Black church is on a whole other level with the worship, the preaching, the leading family, the first lady, and the bishop. Churches deal with all kinds of community issues, but focusing the show within a church adds a layer of spirituality on top,” she explains. The show opens that door for different forms of representation while also highlighting and challenging realistic events and circumstances that are evident within our communities. “Since it is a black family in Greenleaf, we can also talk about things from a black families perspective and other issues and stereotypes. It just adds that much more to the show.”
However, Desiree notes that viewers should avoid typecasting the show or boxing it in, “I think if they try to look at the show through a ‘this is a black church show’ lens, then they are missing the point. The point is that this is a show about people living the human experience. It is a show about good people struggling with faith. Each character has so many good qualities, but also some area that they need to work on spiritually that invites trouble into their life.”
“We want people to watch the show and forget about color lines and find similarities to issues going on in their family, in their lives, in our community, etc. People should watch to find common ground and build understanding,” Desiree continues sharing how she hopes the show is capable is starting a discussion. “Oprah is always about opening up dialogue, and that is exactly what this show does. It has hit on Black Lives Matter, police abuse of power, infidelity, homosexuality, issues with greed, materialism, school testing, peer pressure, colorism, and that’s just the first five episodes.”
As Desiree described, the show, the family, and the characters are complex. The show manages to create a balance that displays the good and bad. When asked about how the cast manages to take their characters and uphold that balance, Desiree responded, “Well, the writers are brilliant, but if we read something and it just doesn’t feel in character then we can shoot the writers an email and have discussions with them about why a scene is what it is and what it could be.”
She says that as actors, they’re given the liberty to make their characters their own, “Also, the actors put their own thoughts and feelings behind the words so with the slightest shift of eye movement, you can completely change the feel of a line. I just think it comes down to communication and also really knowing your character in and out. But it is the writers; they do a wonderful job creating each script to have the balance that the show needs.”
So what can we expect as the season goes on? Desiree shares that we can look forward to more about the police brutality storyline. “It gets crazy and Sophia will be affected by it,” she teases. In this storyline, the show manages to portray the Black Lives Matter movement and the role politics, greed, and ulterior motives play into police brutality. “I think the writers decided to make it a black person so it wouldn’t be so much a question about race, but more about gun violence and possible abuse of power,” Desiree shared about why she thought the writers decided to have the guilty cop be black. “It just makes people think a lot more about the whole situation and brings more perspective into the picture.”
Something else viewers can expect coming up this season? Desiree tells me we get to learn more about Sophia’s father, “Yes, eventually in this season he does appear!” And though we know that we’ll get to see Sophia’s father, it’s all she’s allowed to say about him adding that we’d just have to watch to see what happens.
While the show is fairly serious, Desiree shared with me some stories from behind the scenes that helped to keep the set light and allowed the cast to bond. “One day Lovie and I took some wheelchairs from the church and ran around pushing each other when we were supposed to be doing school. There was another day that we had this prop cake that was like amaretto flavored and sooooo good. I took a piece bigger than my head. I couldn’t finish it all, but everyone thought I was crazy for getting that much,” she exclaimed. “The sad thing is, I actually really thought I could eat it all. But it’s the little things that make it fun too. Merle makes funny faces all the time, we have dance off’s in our dressing room, we get together to do community service and sing while we work. Also, we are sharing this exciting journey together and get to go to premieres, dinners, and parties together that are fun. So we do have a lot of fun!”
On April 21st, even before the two-night series premiere on June 21st-22nd, it was announced that Greenleaf would return for a second season. Desiree shared that as of right now they’re scheduled to pick up filming next January most likely in Atlanta, Georgia where they filmed the first season. “I hope to see Sophia come up within the church and see her bonding with her family more, but in the end, Sophia does what the writers write. So I guess we will have to see next season.”
Only seventeen years old, Desiree Ross was born and raised in South Carolina. Beginning in short films, Desiree got her chance to shine on television in the made for television Lifetime movie, A Country Christmas opposite Dolly Parton in 2013. She’s also had a recurring role in the popular TNT post-apocalyptic drama Falling Skies in 2014.
A fellow fan of Upright Citizens Brigade alum Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s Comedy Central sitcom, Broad City, I asked Desiree if she could guest star, what type of character she would want to play on the show, “I think I would want to be a teenager that they meet at a party of something. It would also be fun to play someone famous, but I think they would just get a real famous person if they wanted one.” And while she can list ideas of roles she thinks would be fun to play on the show, she’s up for anything, “I would take any role honestly. It is my favorite show and I just really want to meet Abbi and Ilana.”
“I have a great support system and I have been able to video audition for everything, which is easier because people will only see what you want them to see,” Desiree shared about how coming from South Carolina influenced her as a person and her work ethic. “It’s a lot easier coming from here because I can build my resume up doing high-quality small projects without the competition that comes with a large city.”
Desiree’s dreams extend far beyond acting. Goal-driven, when asked about if there’s anything else she’d love to be able to do professionally, she proudly exclaimed, “Everything!!!!” Before continuing with the answer, “My mom always tells me that I want to do more than I have time to do. I would love to be a professional photographer, though. If I was really dreaming, I would want to also be a model and a pro cook so I could have whatever food I wanted. I would just be able to whip it up without an issue. I really wish they had a job where you could be a traveler, that would be like right there with photography, Maybe I should host a travel show? As you can see, I’m narrowing it down still.”
Closing out the interview, I asked the young star to be what was so far some of the greatest feedback or advice she’d received to which she honestly replied, “I tried for four years and one hundred and fifty-nine auditions before I got my first Hollywood job. So my best advice was to just keep trying and that you can do anything with perseverance and effort. I believe it! If I gave up and didn’t give my all towards my acting dream, I would’ve never been able to do the things I am doing right now.”
New episodes of Greenleaf air Wednesdays 10/9p central time on OWN.
(photo cred: Tina Nieves)