ICYMI Renee Lawless Interview

“You can ask anyone who knows me and they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, she’s a Southern belle,’ ” declares Renee Lawless, who plays mercurial matriarch Katheryn Cryer on Tyler Perry’s super-soapy prime-time series, THE HAVES AND THE HAVE NOTS. “I was born at the Tennessee University Hospital and I went from the birthing table to the church pew. I bleed orange and I think Peyton Manning is the best football player of all time!” Although born in Knoxville, Lawless’s roots took hold in the nearby town of Oak Ridge. “It was where the atomic bomb was made,” she shares. “My mother was a nurse and worked in the Y-12 plant, which was the medical division of this top-secret facility. If you worked there, you couldn’t talk about what you did, even with your fellow employees.”

Still, Lawless enjoyed a tranquil childhood, punctuated by a love for musicals. “My parents raised me with all forms of music and television entertainment,” she shares. “I would watch Saturday afternoon musical theater on TV and my parents would tell me these stories of, ‘Oh, he lived in Wyoming and moved to California to become an actor,’ but in my mind, real people didn’t grow up and become TV and movie stars.”

That perception changed when at the age of 9, the Lawless family moved to Florida. “I realized, ‘Oh, there’s life out there!’ ” she chuckles. “I was singing a lot in church and school, but when I was about 12 or 13, somebody noticed that my voice sounded different from everyone else’s in class. I started taking voice lessons at 15 and began to blossom. I wanted to be an opera singer but I wound up going the musical theater route because I always wanted to act. Because I had this classically trained voice, I still thought opera was what I was ultimately supposed to do.”

After high school, Lawless majored in voice at Florida’s Stetson University. “I got to do 17 productions on stage and backstage, which is unheard of in major universities,” she notes. Opera was still the goal, but Lawless put that dream on temporary hold. “I took three years off and did beauty pageants,” she relays. “I never made it to Atlantic City but I got damn close. Because of the pageants, I met the director of admissions at [University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music] and got a full scholarship, where I got my Masters. I realized after I put in my time that I didn’t want to do opera, and after booking two major gigs in musical theater, I knew where my passion really laid.”

A marriage followed, and by the time there was an amicable divorce a few years later, Lawless was living in Orlando, when she got a life-changing call. “My best friend, who happened to be living in New York, said, ‘You need to get your butt here,’ ” she notes. “So, three months later, I got my butt to New York and two weeks in, I landed my first job. For 10-plus glorious years, I was doing regional theater and then I booked the national tour of Beauty and the Beast and went to Broadway with it. Then 9/11 happened and the bottom fell out. I had some rough years.”

When things went back to normal, Lawless landed on the national tour with Menopause The Musical and then traveled with Wicked for five years. Toward the end of that production, she decided to leave the show but wanted to secure her next project first. “I got an email that was a breakdown for the character of Katheryn Cryer on Tyler Perry’s THE HAVES AND THE HAVE NOTS,” she recalls. “I read the description and said, ‘I gotta play this role.’ I just knew her viscerally. It was funny because when I was touring with Menopause the Musical I had said, ‘I’m going to work for Tyler Perry one day,’ because Diary of a Mad Black Woman was one of my favorite movies. I almost hit delete on that email but decided to submit myself. Two weeks later, my manager called to say they wanted me to audition for the role on tape.”

Given a time crunch, that was easier said than done. “I had a five-show weekend for Wicked, so I only had two hours between the matinee and evening show on Saturday to learn the lines for the audition,” she sighs. “Then I sent in the worst self-tape of all time. Four days later, they called and said, ‘Can you do it again without the Southern accent?’ By this time we had moved to Seattle and on a Tuesday, the night before we opened, I’m in a hotel room running lines with Kim Zimmer [ex-Reva, GUIDING LIGHT], who played Madame Morrible, while [cast member] Clifton Davis from AMEN directed us. So, I sent in the new self-tape and I heard nothing. Weeks went by and we’re now in Hawaii with Wicked for eight weeks and San Francisco would be after that, and then that was when I was leaving the show. I had given my resignation and they already found my replacement.”

Just when Lawless thought nothing would materialize from the Tyler Perry camp, “Two days before Christmas, I get a call for a call-back. After Christmas, they flew me to Los Angeles with five other women and I did one scene and unbeknownst to me, the other women had been released. A week later, they offered me the role, and two and a half weeks after that, I was on set as a lead and a series regular opposite John Schneider as my husband. I was scared half out of my mind, but Tyler was very loving and patient and he was the best director to have at that time of my life. We’ve done eight seasons and in three weeks, we’re filming the finale in Atlanta.”

With a hectic schedule prior to Covid, Lawless, who has always been a stickler for getting an annual mammogram, actually missed two consecutive years of the procedure. “When I returned to Atlanta every year to film a new season, I would do all of my annual doctor appointments, for dental, eye checkup and a mammogram,” she explains. “Because our shooting was so weird in 2019, I never got a mammogram and thought, ‘I’ll get it next year.’ But then Covid hit, and they weren’t doing basic checkups during the pandemic, so even if I wanted to get a mammogram in 2020, I wasn’t able to.”

When 2021 rolled around, Lawless scheduled the overdue screening. “They found something and were like, ‘Let’s get a biopsy,’ but I wasn’t worried,” she remembers. “Even when I was told it was cancer, I didn’t get upset. I had done some research, so I thought they would go in, clip it out and call it a day. But when I made my appointment for the surgery, I was told that the procedure would be invasive.”

Then, the course of treatment changed. “I met with a team of doctors at UCLA [in L.A.], and they originally planned to do a lumpectomy and then undergo 12 weeks of a light chemo followed by four weeks of radiation,” Lawless details. “But I had an MRI and it showed another part of my breast that didn’t show up in the mammogram that was very suspicious. They changed the chemo treatment to something a little more aggressive: Once every three weeks for six rounds which would be over 16 weeks and then four weeks of radiation.”

Lawless ultimately chose to take an aggressive route. “I decided, even though I don’t need it, to get a double mastectomy because I want to have the peace of mind that this cancer isn’t going to return in 10 years,” she reasons. “Plus, I get a brand new set of boobs at age 60 and they take fat from your stomach, so I get a tummy tuck, all paid by my insurance. I’m gonna look like a friggin’ pin-up model come this September. If have to go through all the throwing up and sickness, I wanna at least look fabulous!”

Lawless credits her faith in God for keeping her outlook positive. “I haven’t shed one tear,” she asserts. “I know the Lord has big plans for me. This is not the end of the road, it’s just a speed bump.”

Ice Queen:

From her numerous appearances on the Hallmark Channel’s lifestyle show, HOME & FAMILY, Lawless became pals with beauty expert Kym Douglas, the wife of Y&R alum Jerry Douglas (ex-John). It was their friendship that would help with Lawless’s cancer diagnosis. “Kym had the same breast cancer as me and a double mastectomy,” Lawless explains. “She’s been on the phone with me, encouraging me and she’s been an angel and mentor through this process.”

It was through Douglas that Lawless has been able to retain her hair while undergoing chemotherapy. “My doctor and Kym told me about ice caps, which I wear for eight hours during chemo and they get changed every 25 minutes,” she outlines. “It’s not a cheap process, but it’s a financial investment. I hired a person who did my first time and she trained my best friend on how to change the packs. Because of Covid, I can only have one person with me during chemo and I didn’t want to go through that with a stranger for 18 weeks. She lives in San Diego and drives up every three weeks and changes my ice packs, which are at minus 37 degrees centigrade during those eight hours. My hair is kind of my identity — call it pride or vanity — but it’s really my protection, and I’m so happy that I didn’t lose it.”

Just The Facts:

Birthdate: November 30

Birthplace: Knoxville, TN. “I moved to Jacksonville, Florida when I was 9 years old and that’s still my primary residence to this day. I split my time between both coasts.”

Soap Fare: “I was raised on ANOTHER WORLD, EDGE OF NIGHT and AS THE WORLD TURNS. And I was parked in front of the TV when I was at college watching Luke and Laura get married. I’m a big DAYS OF OUR LIVES fan and I’ve watched YOUNG AND RESTLESS since the first day it came on.”

Maree-Ah! As a long-time DAYS follower, Lawless was thrilled when Maree Cheatham (ex-Marie) joined THE HAVES AND THE HAVE NOTS as Pearl. “The first day, Maree showed up in the makeup room, I shouted, ‘Oh, my God, I love you!’ and we are now dear friends.”

Newmans Own: “I have a running joke with one of the [THE HAVES AND THE HAVE NOTS] castmates. The [story] focus would be on this character and then over on this character and somebody’s character wasn’t that strong, so this other castmate and I will say, ‘Some days it’s all about Nikki, and some days it’s all about Victor.’ ”

Going Viral: Last November, Lawless contracted Covid. “I started not feeling well on my 60th birthday and I had a big dinner party planned in the parking lot of Mastro’s [restaurant] in Beverly Hills. I ended up going home and paying a big fat check for all my friends to eat dinner without me.”

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