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article imageA conversation with 'The Haves and Have Nots' Renee Lawless Special

By Mindy Peterman     Jun 3, 2014 in Entertainment
Renee Lawless spent years traveling across country performing in national musical theater productions before landing a starring role in OWN TV’s "The Have and Have Nots."
The Have and Have Nots is a Tyler Perry soap opera which airs on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN channel on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. It is now going into its second season. Judging by the ratings, it looks like viewers have embraced this show about the rich and powerful Cryer family and the hired help who work in the Cryer’s Savannah, Georgia mansion. Dysfunction and drama abound. Renee Lawless plays the role of the matriarch, Kathryn Cryer, a role she says she had an immediate affinity for when she read the character description.
I spoke recently with Lawless about her career on stage and the small screen. She was driving during our phone conversation and apologized for it. “I’m good at this,” she assured me. And indeed she was. She was chatty and lively, a charming woman who makes it clear she feels blessed to be working in a field she loves.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, although at the time my family was living in Oak Ridge, which is where the atomic bomb was made. My mother actually worked at the Y-12 plant in the medical division as a nurse. I moved to Jacksonville, Florida when I was 9 years old. My family’s still there and I have a home down there. That was home for most of my life.
How did you get your start in the performing arts?
I always tell people I worked from the church pew to the choir. I was always singing. I was always in choirs in church. Any productions in school, school plays, I was always active in them. And I performed in community theater when I got a little older.
When I was growing up we only had ABC, NBC, and CBS. We only had three TV stations. We didn’t have cable. We didn’t have internet. We didn’t have any of that. If I wasn’t out playing, if it was a rainy day, I’d be constantly watching old movies and old musicals with my father. In my mind, watching television and movie stars was almost make-believe. I never thought these people actually came from a place, decided to become actors, and became actors. I just thought one day they woke up in Hollywood and became actors. I never thought people actually got paid to do this. I never really thought of it as a career because I didn’t think it was a possibility. Then as I got older I thought I’d be Miss America. That’s one thing I thought could happen. That was a little more realistic to me. I wanted to win Miss America but it never happened. I came close.
It wasn’t until I got to college I [realized] that musical theater was at least going to be the catalyst for everything else I wanted in my performing life. Broadway was a goal, not my ultimate goal. But it was just one rung on a ladder I wanted to get to eventually.
You’ve done a great deal of regional theater, the first national tour of Wicked as well as Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast. What are some of your most memorable experiences from those years on the stage?
We were in Houston and met one of the NASA crews and got NASA patches. They came backstage and I always wanted to ask how they go to the bathroom in space. So I finally got to ask it. Everyone was laughing at me but I always wanted to know! That got answered and I was very thrilled. That was just one. I’ve met governors, I’ve met senators. You get to meet a lot of people but the highlight [for me] was when we were doing Wicked and I met Carol Burnett. She’s a living legend and you don’t get to meet a living legend every day. Then there’s that person [who's] disabled in some way that we’ve been able to change their lives. They’d send us a letter telling us how [our work] has affected them. Those are memories you can’t really put into words.
How did you go from theater to a lead role on The Haves and Have Nots?
It’s always been a goal to be on television and it’s a very difficult nut to crack. Because in New York, once you’re in a Broadway show they only think you can do theater. They don’t think you can do anything else. Don’t ask me why. It’s just the way a lot of things are viewed. It makes it a little more difficult to go from theater to [TV] in the city.
I was on the road with Wicked and it was going on five years. I was ready to leave. I felt it was time to move on to the next chapter of my life. So I needed to see what was going on in the world, to see what I could audition for. There are various websites out there for actors to see what’s coming up. They match your profiles with different roles. I got their emails often but I didn’t pay attention to them because I was traveling the country. So one night in October I clicked on it and all it was was a description of Kathryn Cryer. It was one o’clock in the morning and I was sitting up in bed saying, “That’s me. I can do this. I know that woman. I gotta have that part.” I didn’t know what it was for. All I knew was that I had to play that part. Then I opened the whole email and saw it was for Tyler Perry. I thought, “That’s never going to happen They’re never going to call me.” I always liked Tyler Perry. I always wanted to work for him. But I didn’t know at the time he was such a big theater buff.
I didn’t tell my manager. I just sent in my resume. Three weeks later I get a call for an audition. Three months later I gave my notice to Wicked. It was time to leave. And I got a call that [Tyler Perry] wanted to fly me to Los Angeles for a callback. I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” If I ever saw the Lord Jesus Christ in action, that was it. I didn’t have anything to do with it. By the end of that day I pretty much knew I had it and two weeks later they offered me the part.
How is it working with Tyler Perry?
The hardest working man I have ever met. I’m not saying that because he’s my boss. I’m not saying that to get Brownie points. I really don’t know when the man sleeps. I don’t think people grasp the fact that he writes every single episode. There’s no team of writers. He directs every single episode. There is no associate director who comes in to help direct. He has co-producers. But he still has the final say. He has surrounded himself with an incredible production team in a fabulously run studio. It’s the most amazing place to be and I love everyone in that studio, and I’m genuinely saying that from the bottom of my heart.
Please talk a bit about your role as Kathryn Cryer.
She’s a matriarch, deeply rooted. I think of her as a big oak tree that’s hollow inside. She’s a powerful presence. She’s old money. She’s always had it and doesn’t know any other way. She appreciates people who don’t have it but she doesn’t know what it’s like not having millions of dollars around. She’s deeply rooted in a hundred years of family tradition. Her husband is a lowdown dirty dog. He sleeps with everybody. She tolerates it because she’s not about to let somebody else enjoy the life she’s created for him. She’s a breast cancer survivor. She’s had a double mastectomy and replacement surgery. She doesn’t have a lot of friends except for her maid. Her maid is her friend, basically. [Cryer] is a very powerful woman. She puts on a very tough exterior but has a lot more heart than people give her credit for.
What can fans of the show expect from Season 2?
You think you’ve seen them on a rocky road? (laughs) You haven’t seen nothing yet!
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