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His eye is on more than the sparrow

Starring Lamman Rucker, Oprah’s soapy new ‘Greenleaf’ goes behind the scenes of a megachurch

Lamman Rucker is no stranger to playing the good guy. Most of his characters are downright angelic. There’s Sheriff Troy, who sweeps Sheila (Jill Scott) off her feet in Tyler Perry’s 2007 Why Did I Get Married? There’s the easygoing nephew of Mr. Brown (David Mann) in Tyler Perry’s TBS Meet the Browns. There is also the honest, hardworking pastor he portrays in Russ Parr’s recent The Undershepherd.

But in the new Greenleaf — a melodrama that dissects the dishonesty, secrets and dysfunction beneath the surface of the powerful Greenleaf family and its Calvary Fellowship — Rucker, 44, has finally gone rogue. He even launched a hashtag, #Pray4Jacob, for the guy he plays in Greenleaf.

“I’m not even gonna lie to you, [playing Jacob] is fun,” Rucker said. “I’m all about … positive energy, and not perpetuating things that are negative and unhealthy. But the fun and also the truth of being in this world, and of being, an actor is that you get to explore all of it.”

“I think also as men in particular, we very rarely are encouraged to show how we really feel.” — Lamman Rucker

It’s the latest original series to premiere on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and the first episode not only earned rave reviews but also dethroned Tyler Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots as the most-watched series in the network’s history, with 3 million viewers. It was also the No. 2 scripted cable debut in 2016 behind FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

It’s a juicy and soapy show. Rucker’s Jacob, the son of the megachurch’s Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David). Jacob is married to Kerissa (Kim Hawthorne), with whom he has two children, but his lifestyle — including a lack of interest and involvement in the church, constant outside distractions during family time, and an extramarital affair — is causing internal conflict and familial dissension. “It was tough. He’s got so much going on that’s not all that admirable or honorable, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an admirable and honorable man,” said Rucker. “I think also as men in particular, we very rarely are encouraged to show how we feel — to really be honest about when we’re scared, when we’re lost, when we’re not in control, when we’re insecure and unsure of ourselves. Jacob is definitely going through a lot right now.”

Rucker loves the entire cast for its power. He’s also pleased with the growing representation of people of color in Hollywood, and hopes this isn’t a temporary trend. “It shouldn’t just be OWN that’s doing this,” he said. “It shouldn’t just be Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry and Shonda Rhimes — to name a few — that are the only people employing black folks and putting them in lead roles and allowing them to shine. Also, they aren’t only hiring us. The thing I love is that they understand that even in our world, in our black world or sense of reality, there are other people who exist. It ain’t just us.”

“One of the biggest assets is how incredibly well the show is cast.” — Lamman Rucker

Questions have been raised about Greenleaf’s focal point and intentions, but the series is far from the first media to explore the black church in what could be perceived as an unfavorable light. Lifetime’s 2015 original movie Megachurch Murder, featuring a predominantly black cast, was about a church family derailed by what looks like a suicide of a popular leader. The documentary Black Church, Inc. probes churches that may be abusing their power for financial gain. And the aforementioned The Undershepherd, in which Rucker plays an honest pastor, focuses on his best friend and fellow pastor, L.C. (Isaiah Washington), who abandons his core principles in search of the fame and riches that heading a megachurch can sometimes bring.

And though the show does feature a predominantly black cast, to Rucker, everyone should be able to relate to the characters — not just black audiences. “We have to remember that regardless of how different we all are, no matter where our ancestors are from on the entire planet, there’s actually more we have in common than what’s different,” Rucker said. “I’m black, but that doesn’t mean my favorite actors are only black actors.”

He believes that it’s the universality of what human beings go through that connects and binds us. “It’s humanity,” he said. “It’s the desire for love, it’s the temptation in life, it’s the ambition we have, it’s pain that we’ve been through.” Rucker sees Greenleaf as a space ripe for sharing. “Sometimes, shows like this are good to inform people — who look like us and who don’t look like us — who we are and what we’re like, how we behave, how we think and how we feel, how we love and how we adapt and thrive. If we want to be connected to each other, we also have to be willing to be more transparent with each other and be truthful with each other. There’s more to us.”

This is also the reason that Rucker values the feedback from viewers. He laughs at the strife his Jacob is causing so early on, but also appreciates and realizes the importance of audience interaction. Last week, the cast’s social media pages were inundated with tweets and posts regarding the show and its characters. Rucker encourages fans to hang on tight — the series is just getting started.

“That’s what the beauty of social media can actually be about,” Rucker said. “Tell us what this show means to you. Share with us how this show is really impacting your life. Feel free to wag your finger at Jacob … and maybe that’s what will help Jacob get his butt back on track. Really understand that we’re just trying to tell the truth and we’re trying to get to the truth. In all our lives, I think that’s what we’re really looking for.”

Greenleaf airs Wednesdays on OWN at 10 p.m. ET, and please, don’t forget to #Pray4Jacob.

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.