*Season two of Bounce’s breakout hit original drama series, “Saints & Sinners,” kicks off tonight, Sunday, March 5 at 9pm ET, as death’s shadow continues to loom over the town’s epicenter, Greater Hope Baptist Church, and Cypress police on the hunt for their newest murderer.
Starring eight-time NAACP Image Award nominee Vanessa Bell Calloway as the newly elected Mayor Ella Johnson, this season finds Ella and the remaining power players in Cypress tackling greed, corruption, deceit and scandal among their friends and family.
Featuring a stellar cast that includes Clifton Powell, Christian Keyes, J.D. Williams, Jasmine Burke and Keith Robinson, “Saints and Sinners” premiered last year and was the most watched drama series on the Bounce network.
The season two premiere guest stars singer-songwriter and TV personality Kandi Burruss (Glee, Dancing with the Stars). Also joining the core cast this season are reality TV personalities Demetria McKinney (Real Housewives of Atlanta) and Karlie Redd (Love & Hip Hop Atlanta) along with Tray Chaney (The Wire).
Bell Calloway is perhaps best known for her role as Princess Imani Izzi (Eddie Murphy’s arranged wife) in the 1988 comedy “Coming to America.” In addition to appearing in a string of hit dramas, including “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” she’s also had several starring TV roles and recurring roles on series such as “Hawthorne” and “Shameless.” Last year she appeared in the comedy-drama film “Southside with You,” and every Sunday night you can catch her playing the ruthless Mayor Ella on “Saints and Sinners.”
EUR/Electronic Urban Report chatted with Bell Calloway ahead of the season premiere about the massive success of the show, why she enjoys exploring Lady Ella’s world and how she’s celebrating her super-sexy 60th birthday this month by helping to empower women.
Check out our Q&A with the actress below.
What was it about Lady Ella that really intrigued you to want to be a part of this show?
Vanessa: Her power and the fact that I’m the female lead of the show. I gotta chance to be strong and powerful. So often women are portrayed to be like, a man’s sidekick. We always gotta be the support and loving mother, which is fine, I like those roles too. But it’s nice to be ruthless and in today’s time where they’re finally giving women leads of the show, it’s nice to join the ranks with some of the people that I have great admiration and respect for like Viola Davis and Kerry Washington and Gabrielle Union. It’s like, I’m another black woman who’s lead on (a) show. Just having that opportunity is very intriguing and something that I was really very appreciative that was brought my way. And the fact that she’s so strong and very confident, she knows who she is. She’s not afraid. She’s powerful. She’s daring. She’s manipulative. She’s nasty. She’s cutthroat but she’s still mother. She has very many layers to her. It’s very much a character that has flaws, layers and you get a chance to really explore a lot of human behavior.
Did the massive success of season one surpass your expectations?
Vanessa: No, not really. I think it would be even more of a success if Bounce was more available to more people. I think that’s what’s great about it is there’s so many networks and so many new shows, people that found us…we still did over a 1.5 viewers and growing. So it didn’t surprise me at all, and I think this season is going to be an even bigger following. I think it’s going to be even more of a success. When I read the scripts, as we got scripts, I knew it was a good show but it’s just a matter of how it’s all delivered and put together and we were able to put it together well and deliver it well to the audience.
Do you think that because the series has this religious template but it’s laced with mayhem, murder, sex and intrigue is why it resonates so deeply with viewers?
Vanessa: It’s entertainment.. nobody wants to watch a boring show. Everybody can’t be good, everybody can’t be holy— that’s boring. It’s like, most of the people in the church are sinners, that’s why they’re there, trying to be redeemed. They’re looking for redemption. Well, these people are doing the same thing. I think all the elements that you named, the murder, the intrigue, people being gangsters… the lies, the deceit, the sex — all of that makes for good viewing. It makes for good stories. And let’s remember, we are in the business of telling stories.
Do you think that there’s a social message woven into the fabric of Lady Ella, and if so, what’s the message?
Vanessa: I don’t know if her flaws and devious parts are a social message but I think the social message we could take from that is that women are strong and it’s okay to be strong. It’s okay to be powerful. You don’t have to be subservient to men. You can stand your ground and you can be your own person and I think that young women, and even older women who’ve never asserted themselves and had power, hopefully this gives them that opportunity to see themselves in a more powerful light, like… “You know what? I’m going to be like Lady Ella and take what I want and be more vocal and more aggressive and get what I need in my life done.” So I think that if there’s any message it’s just about power and strength and not being afraid to own who you are in the space that you are and that it’s okay to know that you have power and to use it and exert it.
You’ve been rocking in this industry for over two decades, giving audiences some memorable performances in titles that have become classics, such as “Coming To America.” What are some of your projects that you’re proud to have been a part of?
Vanessa: Everything I’ve done I’ve liked. I’ve lucked up like that. If I told you that I only pick projects because I love them, I’d be lying. Sometimes the projects picked me. Sometimes you did a project cause you’re just happy to get a job, sometimes you needed a check. But I was lucky that things like ‘Coming To America,’ which I’m very proud to be a part of. It’s proven to be kinda like an icon over the test of time. Of course, ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ very proud to be a part of that one. ‘Inkwell,’ that was so much fun. I’m proud to be a part of that one. ‘Bebe’s Kids,’ that was fun to do the voiceover part for that. The movie I just recently did, ‘Southside with You,’… that was wonderful playing Michelle Obama’s mother. Everything I’ve done, in television as well — I’ve had some shows that have come and gone on the air, even when I did ‘All My Children,’ that was a good one. But I just think that I’ve been very blessed.
How do you balance it all— career, motherhood, empowering women and maintaining your sanity in this crazy business?
Vanessa: Well, because if I don’t move then I’m going to be insane. Nobody wants to be stagnate. I’ve got to move, and I being a Pisces/Aries, a lot of creativity flows through my body and I have to listen to that and I have to take action when it comes. I’m very passionate and I can be passionate about a couple things at once. My mother was one of the best multi-taskers and I learned how to multi-task by watching her growing up, and that’s what we do. That’s what I’ve taught my daughters to do. That’s what we have to do as women and especially as black women. It gives you more of a purposeful life.
I feel better about the things that I do because I wake up with a purpose everyday. I have things to look forward to. I’m excited about life. I’m excited about the things coming up. So when my kids were little I raised them and I worked. I’m still a mother and wife but the kids are older and I still balance all of that. But you give yourself permission to be the best you can be. It’s okay to pat yourself on the back and say, “You know what, you’re doing a good job. You’re pulling all this off.” Because there’s days that you don’t pull it off and you have to forgive yourself and say “I’m not going to hold that against me. It didn’t work out today but tomorrow I’mma make it all work better.” So, it’s okay.
Considering the way technology is shaping and shifting how viewers receive content, and the way fans can connect and interact with their favorite performers directly online, what role does social media play in your career?
Vanessa: Social media is very important in everybody’s career. I have a lot of friends who don’t want to be bothered with it but I remind them that it’s called “show business,” and social media is the business part of the show, but there’s also a business component to why you’re showing your life, so it’s very important to me. I do participate. I tweet. I Instagram. I keep my Facebook current and I found that I’ve met a lot of great people through social media. I’ve met new people. I’ve gathered a whole group of new fans, and sometimes just knowing that your fans like you but they just want to reach out touch you in another way, that’s nice. You keep your fanbase happy — you keep connected to them. So it’s very important… sharing pictures and stuff. You can’t get around it and it’s not going anywhere.
Matter fact, I’m sure something new is being created as we speak that we’re all going have to learn how to do. You gotta stay current. It’s very important to stay current, especially the older you get in this business because of the youth. Young people are coming in, they’ve got the ideas, they’re doing so much and in order for me to stay current and valid and to continuously work, because a lot of times the networks and studios and directors and producers, they look at your social media status. They look and see what you do, and it’s not that all your millions of followers are going to see you in a movie or TV show, but it’s just they know that they’ve got a million + people that they can advertise to directly. So it’s important as a business aspect to the entity that hire you.
You’re celebrating your 60th birthday this month with a ‘THIS IS MY SIXTY’ campaign that’s all about empowering women.
Vanessa: It’s called ‘This Is My Sixty,’ my birthday is ‘Sexy Sixty’ but the campaign is called ‘This Is My Sixty, How Do You Rock Yours?’ What I’m trying to do is empower who we are. I’ve always felt that we’ve been penalized so much for aging, especially in our business. It’s like, men get to grow old and it’s fabulous and it’s great — it’s distinguished. When women grow old, they sweep us away like what am I suppose to do, go out into the pastures and die just cause I’m turning 60? One day I’ll be 70 and hopefully 80, and so on. And it’s like, nobody stays the same. We have to learn to accept the change that comes with aging, embrace it and stand powerful in that space that God has created for us and understand that it is privilege, it is a gift, it is an honor — it’s not a given.
I’m just trying to help women to assert themselves in whatever decade they’re in. It’s not about being thin and pretty. It’s about looking your best, feeling your best but most of all, being your best. Where are you at this point in your journey? Who are you at this point in your journey? How do you feel at this point in your journey? What are you doing to maintain those things? How do you rock your age, whatever age that is? How do you do it? What do people see when they see you coming through door? Own it. Whatever that means to you.
Lastly, what can you tease fans with about what they expect from Lady Ella this season?
Vanessa: Lady Ella is very opportunist and last season we saw her climb the political ladder. Although she lost her husband, she still has aspirations and desires and even his death has given her more power, in her community, in her church. We saw her win her bid to be mayor so now she’s the mayor of Cypress this season and needless to say, it’s either Lady Ella’s way or no way at all. She’s finding ways to get her allies together and she’s finding ways to squash anybody who stands in her way. So you’re pretty much going to see the same Lady Ella you saw last season but now you’re going to see her a little bit stronger and a little more involved and she gets a little more devious.
Tune in to new episodes of “Saints & Sinners” Sunday nights at 9 ET/PT on Bounce (check local listings).