Monday, March 1, 2021
Vanessa Bell Calloway returns for More Drama as Lady Ella Johnson on Bounce TV’s Saints & Sinners
By Shonassee Shaver
Published March 30, 2017

The veteran actress talks everything from playing a devious and powerful woman, Coming to America to staying power.


Vanessa Bell Calloway

Vanessa Bell Calloway

Vanessa Bell Calloway stars in the breakout hit original drama series, Saints & Sinners on Bounce TV network as Lady Ella Johnson. Calloway returns for Season 2 , playing the secretive beauty queen with a business mind who takes over as Mayor. She takes her sins to a whole new level.

Calloway isn’t new to hit series or films for that matter. The veteran actress is an eight-time NAACP Image Award nominee. Calloway got her big break starring as Imani Izzi in “Coming to America.” She has showed no sign of slowing down as her credits run from What’s Love Got to Do with It, Cheaper by the Dozen, Showtime’s Shameless to Survivor’s Remorse and much more. Calloway proves she has staying power.


Fellow vet actor Clifton Powell, Christian Keyes, J.D. Williams, Jasmine Burke, Keith Robinson and more star in the hot series. The first season left off with many conflicts among the members in small-town Georgia. Premiering Sunday March 5th, the second season is off to dramatic start with the fifth episode “This Union Will be the Death of Me” in tow. This season follows with death’s shadow looming over the town’s epicenter, Greater Hope Baptist Church, as newly elected Mayor Ella Johnson (Vanessa Bell Calloway) and the remaining power players in Cypress tackle lust, greed, corruption, deceit, deeply ingrained secrets and scandal among their friends and family. As Cypress police hunt for their newest murder.

Los Angeles Sentinel: What twists and turns can we expect from Lady Ella Johnson as newly elected Mayor this time around.

Vanessa Bell Calloway: Mayor Ella is still up to her own shenanigans.  You know its Mayor Johnson way or the highway. She is trying to clean up Cypress with the police corruption, but it’s so ironic because she is so highly corrupted in her own way. There is so much that Lady Ella does. She is definitely working it and trying to get the things that she needs to survive with and if you can get a little bit left over then good for you. Calloway loves that her character has so many flaws. “She is great to play because she is so manipulative and conniving. It is not that she is going out of her way to be malicious, it is just her take on things, it just comes out that way.

LAS: Do you feel that this a role is different from others that you have played?

VBC: Yeah, it is. I’ve played women of power before. I have no problem playing a powerful woman.  I think a lot of people do that because they are strong and I am a strong woman in my personality. People see the correlation between the person and the role and its easy for me to cast. The difference here is that I have never been upset with timing, and I do not want to give away a lot of the show. Will I murder twice or three times, I do not know, but we will find out. It is nice to play somebody who is devious and who is strong at the same time, but she is a little different than some of the other the roles that I have played.

LAS: How is it to co-star with Clifton Powell, who is also a veteran actor?


VBC: I always laugh because I tell everybody that I have known Cliff for a thousand years. Clifton and I have been able to maintain a professional friendship and professional working relationship for years and I enjoy working with him.  It is easy and it is nice to cast with people that you know. There isn’t that awkward period of trying to get to know each other. Cliff knows my kids and I know his, it is very comfortable and he is a professional like I am.  We get alone on that.  He is not there trying to mess around.  He is there to do his job.  I can always appreciate that about somebody who is trying to be a professional as well as the rest of the cast. I really enjoy working with Keith Robinson. We hang out and we do yoga. Keith is like my buddy on set. Calloway, Cliff as well as Christian worked on Pan African Film Festival project “Preacher’s Son” that won in the Pan African Film Festival and is now on Netflix. We are all community and when you do it long enough, you will run into the same people.


LAS: The “church narrative” is trending on television. It explores the depths of the church.  How does Saints & Sinners tie into that?

VBC:  We were shooting at the same time that Greenleaf was shooting. We just came out of the box first.  Calloway feels no idea is new and that ideas can be recycled. We really deal with characters outside of the church. I think like anything else, ‘medical shows,’ when they became popular, then everybody got a medical show.  When ‘law shows’ were popular, everybody got a law show. It is more than one way to tell a story. In the end its entertainment, you get a different perspective, because a lot of people watch medical and crimes shows, it’s the same topic and different shows with the same message.

LAS: Do you feel the show itself presents an authenticity of people in powerful positions of the church or in high positions?

VBC: No, I do not really think that there it is very authentic. I remind people that this is drama and sensational.  I think that people take a license to make it entertaining.  But then again, you have some people they are like Grant, she wrote based on growing up in her church. She saw some of these elements in people that she knew, like the element of the first lady murdering someone like that.  I don’t know if that is creative licensing.

Calloway asks the question of people being human, before being Christian. “Are first ladies strong, do they have turmoil, do they have demons, do they have things in their past before becoming first ladies?”  There are plenty of people like that and as I tell people do not get insulted if don’t like the message of the show, you can’t understand and appreciate the entertainment side, don’t get insulted. It is for entertainment value, we take a license to entertain our viewers, so they will come back next week and watch it.

LAS: The show has achieved success thus far.  During its record-breaking first season, Saints & Sinners became Bounce’s most-watched programming in the network’s history. The series was so successful, Bounce renewed the show for year two ahead of the inaugural season’s thrilling finale. The first episode earned 1.3 million viewers, and in second week it drew 1.5 million viewers.  Are you looking to trump that level of success?

VBC: Yes, we will trump that of course, that is the plan! We get over a 1.5 viewers just with a lot of people not knowing how to catch the show, with cable access we are looking at Los Angeles, and word of mouth, we will probably get more.  It is a good show and its entertaining and we will take it up to the next notch.  

LAS: How important is it to create and to support urban content for black viewers?

VBC: It is very important to create and to support urban content. Calloway who is open to diverse material and actors feels good about focusing on urban content. Why not make something just for black people.  Make that them black because that void needs to be filled. We will have to worry, because they will say we created a black show, but no one watched it. Studio and the networks like to cancel it, because no one watched the show. They don’t want to see that, so that gives the network a chance to cancel it.

Calloway likes the FOX’s action-pack show 24: Legacy. I am really happy, the lead guy (Corey Hawkins) is doing an excellent job. That is the kind of show that I would like to see and support. My husband and I watch that show because they have a lot of chocolate black people on that show. There is not just one here and there, it a lot black people working and it is going to be a pivotal for their career. It is very important to support urban content and creativity as well.

LAS: Switching gears, your claim to fame was starring in “Coming to America.” You don’t shy away from preserving that role. Last Halloween you reprised the role appearing in costume on the Steve Harvey show. How does it feel to continue to celebrate that character with past and current generations?

VBC: It’s absolutely amazing.  After 28 years later, several generations later, kids come up to me mimicking that role. I had no idea that it would be as popular. I am proud to be a part of that.  I did not know that the catch phrases that I used would be sound bites. Calloway recalls receiving constant pictures from people from “CTA” themed weddings to Halloween costumes.  The moment that you walk in, you are princess, immediately they know that it is you. I do not shy away from the role. It was one of the wonderful things in my career and I guess that it brought a lot of joy to people.

Vanessa Bell Calloway

Vanessa Bell Calloway

LAS: You are a veteran actress whose has come a long way in Hollywood. How have you jumped from role to role to avoid being typecast?

VBC: I don’t think I avoided being type cast, because I do sometimes get similar roles. It is not a bad thing because we are strong at what we are strong at, not meaning that we cannot do other things, but sometimes somebody else might bring a little more realism than you, because that is more of who they are than who you are. I do get a chance to play other people and other types of roles. You just have to stay in the game, that is the hard part. Doing the job is the easy part, but getting to the next one is even harder. You have to make sure that people know that you are still current.

“I get hired to be a certain character, but I cannot change my look especially since I have been in the business this long. I can’t gain 20 pounds and wonder why I am not working anymore or I’d have to transition into other types of roles. You have to take care of yourself and be vigilant.  They are not going to tell me that it is over, I will tell you when it is over.  I think that always having this attitude is what has helped me to survive. Even when it does not go my way, I get up and fight, that is what keeps me going.

LAS: On giving advice to up-in-coming actors?

VBC: They have to stay ready and be ready. You need to adjust things in your life, whether it be your hair, your teeth, take the time to do that.  Recalling her own experiencing, she continues, times I left an audition and went to a customs fitting on Hawthorne.  I went to meet productions on Friday and on Monday I was working.  I didn’t have time to ‘work on’ or ‘get it together.’  I think that I got the job because I was already complete and was already there. You just have to be ready, so if they door creeps open you can just jump right on in. You have to know what you are doing. There may not be a next time and you do not get another opportunity. Calloway stresses that actors should study and be at their best.  It is more than knowing your lines, its being professional and being on time.  I can’t stand it when I am in makeup and somebody is late and your are being pushed back.

Categories: Entertainment | TV
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