Former Gossip Girl regular Tika Sumpter remembers well a chat she had with both director Tyler Perry and iconic talk show host Oprah Winfrey in which each insisted that people needed to see more young women with her look on television. Sumpter’s sky-high cheekbones, penetrating smile, and deep ebony skin tone make hers a unique face among the regulars who routinely capture leading roles in both television and film.
That’s all set to change this Tuesday night as Sumpter steps into the center of Perry’s new drama, The Have and the Have Nots, on Winfrey’s OWN network. The new series marks Winfrey’s first foray into scripted television, and tapping her BBF Perry for ideas seemed the obvious move for the talk show host turned network owner/executive.
Perry has described his new projects as throwbacks to 1980s soap-opera-style shows like Dynasty and Knots Landing. His second OWN show is Love Thy Neighbor. The Have and Have Nots follows the lives of the very rich and powerful Cryer family and the hired help who work in their opulent Savannah, Georgia, mansion. Sumpter plays Candace, the estranged daughter of the family’s maid. John Schneider of The Dukes of Hazzard fame also stars as the Cryer family patriarch and a judge who leads a double life full of juicy extramarital affairs. One of those affairs is with Candace.
“I was so beyond excited when they contacted me about reading for the role,’’ said Sumpter. “It’s so against the grain of what I normally play in terms of having so much chaos and turmoil around me. And it’s the lead which is amazing and wonderful all on its own, of course!’’
Sumpter first turned heads with her reoccurring role as Raina Thorpe on Gossip Girl and says she was surprised by the countless letters she’d received from women saying they were inspired by the way she carried herself on the small screen.
“So many young girls would write me every week saying how they were happy to see someone like themselves on television, working professionally and how they were to see themselves getting dates and being desirable,’’ said Sumpter, who also starred beside Whitney Houston in last year’s Sparkle. “They loved the idea that I was making my own money and that I was smart too.’’
Sumpter is also smart in her role as Candace in The Have and the Have Nots, but she doesn’t exactly take the moral high road in her quest for money and power.
“It’s all about choices and my character doesn’t always make good ones,’’ says Sumpter. “I like that it gives women a chance to see how choices really shape the outcome of our lives. My character isn’t a bad person but she does make bad choices, which creates the constant chaos and drama she lives in.’’
Scenes of The Have and the Have Nots highlight Perry’s obvious affinity for the drama that nighttime soaps delivered weekly during the 1980s, a time when shoulder pads, hairspray, and over-the-top storylines wooed audiences into watching week after week.
Schneider knows a thing or two about the 1980s, as he played Bo Duke on the hit television series The Dukes of Hazzard. The now 50-plus-year-old actor says working on a project with as diverse a cast as the one on The Have and the Have Nots opened his eyes to the limitations Hollywood puts on multiracial casting.
“I’d never worked with a cast as mixed and it was an amazing experience. It caused me to recast parts in a few of the projects I’m working on for my own production and film company,’’ said Schneider. “I think that’s the beauty of the show and the beauty of Tyler’s writing is that it includes all races. I was inspired on many levels by Tyler in terms of what can be done realistically in the business with the right the work ethic and with the right budget. He puts the work first and it gets done with no-nonsense planning.’’
Perry is well known for producing television shows and films below budget while usually receiving large returns in box-office receipts and ratings. The Have and the Have Nots was filmed in less than a month’s time.
But while Schneider gives nothing but high marks to Perry and his work, others have criticized the director for what they say is his stereotypical portrayal of black life. Critics also deem Perry’s comedy as low-brow and question how he’ll mesh with Winfrey’s more cultured taste in arts.
“People will always have something negative to say,’’ says Sumpter. “Tyler is telling stories from his own perspective and he does it well. There are all kinds of stories to tell and Tyler tells his.’’
The opinion of critics don’t seem to have much impact on the director, writer, and producer who has another film, A Madea Christmas, based on his popular character, which is slated for released during the holidays.
Sumpter also appears in the holiday film and says it was while filming that Perry suggested she’d be perfect for the role of Candace.