From The Broadway Stage to the Spotlight of Tyler Perry’s ‘The Haves and the Have Nots’: Renee Lawless Discusses a New Season of Lessons
Editorial Note: This interview was conducted prior to the season premiere on January 6th.
Renee Lawless has fallen into a life of riches these days. But the up-and-coming actress with hair as fiery as the color of a setting sun hasn’t always been accustomed to an obscenely wealthy lifestyle. Off-screen, a pleasantly down-to-earth and humorous Lawless doesn’t have much in common with her bitter Hollywood character on Tyler Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots (apart from her glamorous looks). Yet that differentiation didn’t stop the charismatic “Angeleno” from taking on a role as a high-society savvy socialite. Her stellar performance on set entrances the audience each Tuesday night, leaving one not only coming back for more but wondering who she truly is when the lights and cameras go out.
Lawless’ beginning didn’t always involve her straddling two opposite worlds, though it was nothing short of fabulous. After a remarkable five-year tour on Broadway’s Wicked as Madame Morrible, the cohort of the Wizard, the seasoned theater actress traded in her costume for a privileged façade in a new kind of spotlight. Today, she plays the stoically frank matriarch Katheryn Cryer on the highest-rated series on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN); a compelling drama that follows the often complicated and tangled lives of the Cryer family and their hired help in their mansion in Savannah, Georgia. Destruction and dysfunction is the name of the game in this highly-privileged world as the Cryer’s are forced to deal with all sorts of mischief and misfortune brought upon by their inner demons and flaws. With twists and turns at every corner, it should come as no surprise then that Lawless’ groundbreaking performance left hearts beating quickly at the end of season two, as viewers were forced to wonder if she (or someone else) had died. After grappling with her son’s deadly hit-and-run accident earlier in the series, it is clear that a vengeful Katheryn isn’t intimidated when her dignity is threatened. Now with season three having premiered on January 6th, you can be sure more thrills and suspense await this imperfect yet capable family as well as those in their dominion.
Despite her obviously busy life on set, this vivacious Tennessee native manages to find time to kick back and relax. In fact, Lawless, a loyal sports fan, is intent on never missing a football or basketball game played by her favorite teams. While it leaves one to wonder how she makes the time, after years in the industry of taking on multiple projects and having to consistently juggle her social life and blossoming acting career, Lawless proves she’s up for the challenge, and in her own words is ready to throw herself into a new season of “lessons.”
While most recognized for her work on The Haves and the Have Nots, the Stetson University alumna has also been featured in Ghost Story and Heavens to Betsy alongside Dolly Parton, which helped in her earning a SAG card prior to her move to New York City. Additionally, she’s working on a video blog of her own called Renee’s Way or the Highway. While the unique project has been put on hold for now, she is hoping to revive it again sometime this year, so fans are urged to keep a lookout.
Lawless recently spoke to GALO about her role on The Haves and the Have Nots, and gave us a glimpse as to what viewers can expect to unravel during this third season.
GALO: I heard that before your acting career shifted from the spotlight on stage to behind a camera, you starred in Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast and Wicked. What was the transition to network television like for you? And how does preparing for your role now differ from your early years in acting?
Renee Lawless: Acting is acting — whether on stage or in film. The size of my “stage” has changed and the number of my audience has grown, [but] when an excellent cast as well as an incredible writer/director like Tyler Perry surrounds me, it makes my job so much easier.
The pace was the biggest adjustment, though. I had to memorize sometimes 20 or more pages a night. We shoot very quickly and cover a lot in a short time. That is the biggest difference. Often, [there’s] no rehearsal before a scene…we just shoot. Trust is key. Trust your director, yes; but trusting yourself is paramount.
GALO: You’re the family matriarch Katheryn Cryer on The Haves and the Have Nots. Her cold yet powerful persona is immediately transparent from the first episode. It is clear she hides her vulnerabilities well. Does the audience see a new side to Katheryn in the upcoming season?
RL: [Laughs] l cannot fully comment on that at this time. We don’t know if Katheryn has been shot or if she is still alive. We will have to wait and see on this one.
GALO: What attracted you most to your character on HAHN?
RL: Her strength combined with the southern “bless her heart” charm, all the while hiding her inner turmoil. She is so multilayered — an actor’s dream!
GALO: I read that the season two finale of HAHN was the most watched season finale in OWN’s history. Did you feel more pressure going into season three?
RL: I don’t know if I would call it pressure. I think the entire cast is always striving to better themselves and the characters they portray. We know that the fans are excited, and we not only want to bring our “A-game” for them, Mr. Perry and OWN, but also for ourselves. We love our job. We love this show. The cast cannot wait to hear the fan reactions to this season.
GALO: Would you say there are similarities between you and Katheryn that make playing the role easier? Your character depicts the dream life of wealth and fortune having come from old money. How does Katheryn stay poised and refined amongst the lies, betrayal, deceit, and adultery entwined in her family?
RL: Ha! Well, I don’t have her $50 million — yet! Funny enough, I “knew” this woman from the moment I read the character breakdown. I had to play this part. I drew from different aspects of my life and different people I have seen or met. Although, I don’t have the money, command or power that Katheryn does, she and I both have the same hang-ups as many women do of a certain age. We both dislike growing older, gaining weight, feeling lonely, and dealing with idiots!
Katheryn stays poised through all of the chaos because she was raised to do so. She learned from her mother and her father how to stand tall in the midst of a storm, not show her cards too soon and never let them see her sweat.
GALO: Katheryn confides in her maid, Hanna Young (Crystal Fox), quite often. Between personal tragedies and complicated vengeance, Katheryn and Hanna stay close despite the tumultuous relationship between husband Jim Cryer and daughter Candace Young. The chemistry appears very real. Are you two close friends off the set as well?
RL: Oh my goodness, I love Crystal Fox! We hit it off the moment we met. We then auditioned together and the chemistry was instant. She is an incredible actress and makes it so easy for me to just “be” as Katheryn. We are great friends off the set, which I believe is the reason our relationship is so solid on screen. Last season, there were a few scenes that I really didn’t look forward to. After we shot the scenes, we would sometimes just hold each other and cry, just to come out of it. That is a good friend.
GALO: Do you think Katheryn vowing to protect her son, Wyatt (Aaron O’Connell), even after his hit and run accident, further aligns her with Hanna or creates a barrier in their friendship? When Wyatt stumbles into the kitchen after the crash, Hanna watches on as he confesses the tragedy to his parents. Do you think this will affect the relationship between Katheryn and Hanna moving forward?
RL: I believe last season was about what it means to be a parent. We never know how we are going to handle any situation until it happens. The fans gave me a hard time last year regarding Wyatt. I believe because I (Renee) am a Christian with a strong moral compass that I would have turned my son in. However, Katheryn is not a Christian. She has a loose moral compass. On top of that, she has millions of dollars and an immense amount of power.
What would you do given those circumstances? We don’t know. Katheryn deferred to Jim. Katheryn sees the need for Wyatt to pay for his crimes, but she blames herself for his childhood rape and feels it’s her fault he is the way he is. As far as to her relationship with Hanna, we shall see…
GALO: Why does Katheryn stay loyal and married to Jim despite his nine affairs? What do you think this says about her character?
RL: I am sure Katheryn’s father had affairs as well. To her, this is just part of her life — as long as he still comes home to her. Katheryn really loved Jim when they married and was willing to forgive because deep down she knew he married her for her money. Pride is a big thing with Katheryn. It has been ingrained in her for decades. She will not be the victim of embarrassment, or be the first to divorce. And like she said in season one, “she will not allow another woman to wear the crown she put the jewels in.” She made Jim Cryer who he is today with money and power. Their relationship is a mixture of loathing and love.
GALO: Obviously, we are aware that you can’t say who got shot in the series finale, but what can viewers expect from this new season? Can you hint at any new twists and turns?
RL: I think this season is about “lessons”; lessons that have been learned and lessons to be taught. There is so much happening this season that you need to stay glued to keep up. Just when you think the story is going one way, Mr. Perry throws you a curve ball…so watch out!
GALO: What is it like working with Tyler Perry? HAHN represents his creative strengths as a writer, director and producer. He seems to work simultaneously on new movies and shows (including the recent OWN series If Loving You Is Wrong). It makes one wonder, where does he find the time? Apart from HAHN, do you admire any of his other works?
RL: Nothing short of incredible; he is an awesome human being. I have learned so much. Because he is an actor, too, he knows how to bring out the best in his cast. He is the hardest working man I have ever met. I really don’t know when he sleeps. He does it all: produces, writes, and directs. I laugh sometimes because people think I go to work every day with Madea [a fictional character portrayed by Tyler Perry]. But actually, I go to work with Alex Cross [a fictional character created by author James Patterson]. I’m not saying we don’t have a good time, but we are a drama series…its business.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman is one of my favorite movies ever, primarily because it helped me get over a similar and horrible breakup. I used to watch it over and over again. It truly helped me heal. That movie combined with The Family That Preys (which HAHN is loosely based on) has really spoken to me. That’s one of the main reasons I love Tyler Perry’s movies, they speak to me.
GALO: I read that you were born in Knoxville, Tennessee but soon moved to Jacksonville, Florida. You also seem to enjoy sports. Is it safe to assume that you like the Denver Broncos football team then? How else do you spend your free time?
RL: First, I moved to Los Angeles last summer, so I am still getting settled and putting the finishing touches on my new place. I have lived out of a suitcase for eight years. I haven’t seen Jacksonville much as I was based out of New York City [for quite a while], so to finally have my stuff around me is glorious!
I spend my free time shopping, catching up on TV shows and movies, crafting, and yes — sporting events. I was born at the University of Tennessee hospital in Knoxville. I was born a “volunteer.” My parents also both graduated from UTK. I have followed their athletics my whole life.
Peyton Manning went to UTK. I followed him to the Indianapolis Colts and now the Denver Broncos. I always liked the Broncos and I still like the Colts. But I am a huge Peyton fan, so that makes me a huge Bronco fan!
GALO: Can you tell our readers a little about your video blog series Renee’s Way or the Highway? What types of topics will you discuss and why?
RL: That poor series has been put on hold so much. The idea began long before HAHN. Once I got the series, it was put on the back-burner. This year, it will happen. Originally, it was a vlog on crafts, cooking, home décor and travel ideas, with a “just ask me” take. It now has blossomed into a commentary as well, addressing issues that are important to me and my fans.
Catch Renee Lawless on OWN’s HAHN at 9/8c every Tuesday.