Loretta Devine, who rose to stardom in the 1981 smash Broadway musical Dreamgirls and has been working steadily in films and television ever since, seemed destined to become an actress.
“I think my mom had aspirations for me — Loretta Young was my namesake,” the Houston native tells Closer. “I used to read a lot, and my mom would bring home books of poetry and Shakespeare. I think a lot of that had to do with me wanting to do this.”
Loretta, 71, currently stars in Queen Bees, a romantic comedy with Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret and Jane Curtin. In the film, Loretta plays one of a trio of women who are the social center of a retirement community that Ellen’s character moves to temporarily.
“It was so much fun to work with these famous people. It was a great challenge,” says Loretta. “I loved it because my character, Sally, was so well-rounded. She had a lot of things going on in her life that made her really interesting. I was very excited about it.”
Queen Bees is a film about senior citizens. Do you think Hollywood is finally catching on that there is a market for movies about older adults?
Oh, I don’t know what Hollywood is doing! I think Hollywood is still very much youth-oriented, but I have been in several movies lately with an older group of people, so it’s possible.
What do you consider your big break?
My role in Waiting to Exhale is what really got me started. My very first film was Little Nikita with Sidney Poitier — and I don’t know what I thought would happen after that, but it didn’t! [Laughs] You can never tell what’s going to be a life changer or make a difference. So I’ve just been working as much as I can. Sometimes I’m trying to make other people’s dreams come true; other times they are dream roles for me. That’s just the way it’s been.
What was working with Sidney like?
I played his love interest in Little Nikita. It was my first big movie, and I had a bedroom scene with him. They wanted me to take my clothes off — and I didn’t want to! But it was amazing to work with somebody that you idolize. [Sidney] was very kind to me.
Who have been some of your other favorite costars?
I feel like I have worked with everybody in the business. The women who were in Waiting to Exhale — I am still close with all those ladies. Tasha Smith from Jumping the Broom, she’s the one who helped me become a part of [the Starz drama] P-Valley. It’s interesting how different people I have worked with have been influential to my career in different ways.
Looking back, is there anything you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
I’ve learned that work gets work and that you can speak up. A lot of times I wanted to speak up, but I was a little afraid to back when I was just starting out. When you get older, you just say whatever [you want to]. They can fire me if they want to fire me. I don’t care.
Do you ever consider retirement?
No, I haven’t thought of it. People like Betty White and [the late] Cicely Tyson have shown that you don’t have to retire.
What do you look for in a role?
There is a lot of sameness. I am interested in doing things and characters I haven’t done before. I just did P-Valley, where I play a blind stripper in her 80s. Now that was exceptionally different! I also loved the role I played on Being Mary Jane because it was so different than anything I had ever done before because I played a man on that!
Wow! That must have been a challenge.
Yes, you just never know what is going to happen on any show. Right now, I am having fun doing Family Reunion, even though it’s a kids’ comedy on Netflix. I’ve had such a wonderful experience working with the kids on that. A lot of different things bring me joy.
What do you do for fun?
I have so many craft hobbies: I knit, I crochet, I sew. I create gowns, I make jewelry, I write songs and I like to paint. Really any crafty thing.
You have a creative spirit!
Yes, you have so much downtime when you’re doing films, so I’ve got all these things I can work on while I’m still working on my lines. These are the things that bring me joy. I don’t sell them. I don’t even give them away. I just make them.
How do you stay healthy?
I’m not as health conscious as I should be. Right now, it is all about having fun and enjoying my life. We ran into a friend the other day. He and his wife were watching the Lakers game, he went to bed, and she was gone. I said, ‘Gone where?’ He said she just passed! It was mind-blowing. I have lost so many people, and there is no way to know [when something might happen].
The past year has been like that for a lot of people.
Before the pandemic, I never even thought about that kind of thing. But you have to open up your eyes to those things and make preparations, just in case.
What role does spirituality play in your life?
I used to tell everybody that God is my manager, and I still think that is true. The things that have attracted me most in my career have been [the roles] that represent what a good woman is or what a truthful woman is. God has been in my life since I was born. I have strong faith that God loves me and will give me anything I ask for if I ask hard enough.
What else would you like to accomplish?
A million things! I just want to keep being a part of it. [In Hollywood,] I believe that the older person’s career sort of depends on the younger’s, because they are the ones writing and creating.
Are there any truths you live by?
I believe that people are born with gifts, and the only thing they must do in life is to figure out what gift they want to use, and use it as well as they can for the good of others.