Tina Lifford of ‘Queen Sugar’ talks about her groundbreaking role and ‘inner fitness’

EXCLUSIVE: The actress behind Violet Bordelon tells theGrio what she loves most about playing the role and about her wellness initiative.

Actress Tina Lifford plays an auntie on TV. Those vibes are present in real life as well.

On a Zoom call, she asked a frazzled interviewer if she needed more time with the kind of polite firmness that anyone would recognize from their real-life aunt. It’s the tone, the one that conveys love with a mixture of “get it together” that we recognize in Lifford’s TV portrayal of Violet Bordelon on Queen Sugar.

In this sixth season of the vaunted OWN show, Lifford is again the rock of the Bordelon family as they deal with a host of significant changes in the first season since the pandemic altered the last one.

A veteran of TV and film whose credits include South Central (featuring a young Jennifer Lopez), Knots Landing, Lincoln Heights, Parenthood, L.A. Law, CSI and Scandal, and the movies Babe, Grand Canyon and Colors, among others, Lifford has found the role of her career.

She’s provided a fully realized portrait of a Black family matriarch without falling into the usual stereotypes. Not only has Lifford achieved enviable longevity as an actress, but she’s also the published author of “The Little Book of Big Lies” and provides tools for emotional healing and support via her Instagram page.

theGrio talked to Lifford to find out what the show and her role have meant to her life and career.

(Interview edited for length and clarity)

TheGrio: You have obviously have been part of Queen Sugar since the very beginning. What have you learned about yourself throughout the history of the show?

Tina Lifford: What I have learned is that creating a good work environment is important to me and it’s important to the show. I think that we have done a great job. All of us actors, producers, executive producers; certainly we’ve all done a great job of creating an atmosphere where the connection that is the show, you know, the Bordelon connection, that family feeling, can be honestly portrayed for America and the world to have to watch, to see themselves and to aspire to and to enjoy.

TG: There are so many things that you represent through the character of Aunt Vi, going through various challenges and changes. What do you like most about playing her?

Lifford: I like it most in the context that up until Queen Sugar, that’s 2016, we had not seen a woman of color over the age of 60 living such a fully-rendered life. This woman is sexual, she’s ambitious, she loves hard, she’s discovering herself. She is a human being like so many women that I know, and like so many women who haven’t had the opportunity to see themselves on television.

Aunt Vi gives us all the opportunity to recognize how wholly valuable and relevant we are. I also really love the intergenerational contribution that her presence makes in the show, and it does reflect my own life and it reflects the household that I grew up in and the community that I grew up in.

Queen Sugar Tina Lifford thegrio.com
Tina Lifford (Credit: Provided/OWN)

TG: Some of us have been following your career all the way since South Central, so we can safely say that you are an industry veteran. With all of these reckonings, from racial issues to #MeToo, what are the changes that you’ve seen in the business that you feel the most hopeful about?

Lifford: I feel that we are living in a time, right this moment, that goes beyond Renaissance, where literally there is a shifting of consciousness that says inclusion, and that’s inclusion of every, every segment of our society that has ever been uttered. You know that there is a demand for inclusion and that that demand comes at a time when the commercial realities also can embrace this shift.

Netflix brought us the reality that we can choose what we give our viewing time to. And once we started seeing that, we could choose to see ourselves that created all of these extensions to a market. And our extension is powerful. And it is economically powerful and therefore, just in terms of business and in terms of what I hope is an expanding consciousness, now is a time where all people get the opportunity to be more included and represented.

Queen Sugar Tina Lifford thegrio.com
(Credit: Provided /OWN)

TG: I see what you do on Instagram. You’re so encouraging and positive and you have something that you call inner fitness. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Lifford: Inner fitness is the inverse of physical fitness. The Inner Fitness project, which is my well-being initiative, takes the stance that if in fact, your physical fitness is important to your wellness, then it just makes sense that your inner fitness, being able to strengthen and be resilient when it comes to how you think, feel and choose is not just necessary, but it becomes the way in which we get to deliberately and proactively take charge of our well-being and stop leaving ourselves out of our lives and our joy and our sense of what’s possible in other people’s hands.

TG: I can’t imagine there would be a better time for people to learn that lesson. I don’t think it took COVID for some of us to realize that we need to connect with ourselves and each other. But out of that experience, what do you think that people really need at this time to get back on track?

Lifford: The second pandemic has actually been here with us longer than COVID, and that pandemic is our disconnect from ourselves — that we are carrying hurts, dramas, traumas, upsets, disappointments and sadness that has not been properly processed in our ‘never let them see you sweat’ society. You don’t have an opportunity up until now. You haven’t had the opportunity to voice these realities to say, you know, ‘I don’t feel strong’ or ‘I don’t feel OK.’

Queen Sugar thegrio.com
Kofi Siriboe, Rutina Wesley, Nicholas Ashe, Bianca Lawson, director Ava Duvernay, Omar J. Dorsey, Tina Lifford, Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Daynell Waivers on July 6, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Peter Forest/Getty Images for OWN)

And one of the exciting, if I can use that word, if there is a silver lining to everything, one of the silver linings that we have experience with COVID is that people were able to stop. They were caused to stop and say, ‘You know what? I not only am I not feeling OK. I’ve been running on a treadmill for years and I’m tired and I’m exhausted.’

And what I want is more time for myself. I want to revisit who I am. I want to remember, you know, the sense of possibility that I had when I was younger. I want to feel more peace inside of myself. And I know that I have to stop and be with me. And that has been the people that we have had the honor to engage with in our growing community. And it’s exciting.

TG: You are in the midst of season six, amazingly, of Queen Sugar. What can you tell us about the Bordelons and their journey as we get to the end of this season?

You can trust the writers and visionary of Queen Sugar to deliver a strong season. And I’m really proud to be able to say that, because, as you said, six seasons in and we’re still strong. We’re still telling stories that matter. This season is near and dear to my heart, certainly with the work that I do with the Inner Fitness project. But also, in season four, we visited [Violet’s] traumatic past with Jimmy Dale, and in this season, she’s called to revisit that in a different way.

I think that it’s going to be really important in these COVID and post-COVID times for the story of domestic violence to resurface in the brilliant way that I feel that Ava (DuVernay) and the writers have written it.

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