Who cares if they killed her on Grey’s Anatomy! H-Town’s Loretta Devine—Emmy winner, movie star and Broadway vet—comes home a hero.
It’s a rare gray and rainy afternoon in L.A. No matter. With her buoyant spirit and high-pitched girlish voice tinged with a Southern drawl, Loretta Devine, 63, brings the sunshine. Speaking by phone from her office, the Houston-born-and-raised actress is all happiness and light—and primed to talk about her exciting and busy life.
Devine has just wrapped filming the Lou Gehrig’s Disease drama You’re Not You starring Hilary Swank, for starters. The second season of her Sugar Land-set TV show The Client List will debut on Lifetime March 10, with a cast that includes Jennifer Love Hewitt, Cybill Shepherd and Devine playing the owner of a racy massage parlor. On the other end of the entertainment spectrum, she voices a lovable toy hippo on Disney Junior’s animated Doc McStuffins.
The actress is almost as busy earning accolades for her projects as she is making them. Last month she picked up a Best Supporting Actress trophy at the NAACP Image Awards for her former role on Grey’s Anatomy, and another nod for Doc. And on April 27 Devine will receive the Distinguished Alumni Award from her alma mater, the University of Houston.
She grew up in the Acres Homes district of northwest Houston, which at that time was a predominantly black neighborhood populated by hard-working people barely scraping by. “We were poor, but I didn’t know we were poor,” recalls Devine. “My mom was a single mother and there were six of us. At one point she was a maid and then became a beautician. She nearly worked herself to death pressing and curling hair.”
And it was Devine’s mother who set the wheels in motion for her daughter’s future by naming her after the glamorous movie star Loretta Young. The effervescent Devine attended George Washington Carver High School where she shined in talent shows and went on to UH on scholarship, graduating with a degree in speech and drama. Then she launched her career, in H-Town, as a director for theatrical productions at the now defunct Black Arts Center.
From there, it was on to master’s work at Brandeis, also on scholarship. Securing the scholarship required an audition, and there’s a story there! The professor for whom Devine had to perform was in a hurry with a plane to catch. “I auditioned for him right there in the airport,” she laughs. “Part of my scene meant getting down on my knees, and I kept thinking that all of the people in the airport must be wondering why this black girl is kneeling before a white man!”
After graduation Devine headed to New York where she worked steadily in the theater. She hit it big in 1981 as one of the original cast members of Broadway’s Dreamgirls, giving a standout performance as both actor and singer in the role of Lorrell Robinson, a fictional character based on Mary Wilson of The Supremes. It proved to be her big break, as she’s been a sought-after actress for stage, television and film ever since.
Mass audiences fell in love with the dainty, full-figured and tenacious Devine in the early 2000s when she took on the role of an impassioned and emotionally fragile teacher at a tough inner-city high school in David E. Kelley’s critically acclaimed TV drama Boston Public. “I drew inspiration for my character from women in the South,” she recalls.
Fans were thrilled when Devine went on to join the cast of Grey’s Anatomy where she played Adele, the chief of surgery’s wife who eventually faced a tragic downward spiral into dementia. For her heartbreaking and nuanced performances, Devine won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. Then ironically, just months ago, her character was dropped from the show. “When I found out that the writers were killing off Adele, I thought, ‘Why are they killing me?’”
Unexpected as it was, Adele’s passing seems to have had little impact on Devine’s fascinating and prolific career. Her list of film credits is extensive and includes appearing in I Am Sam opposite Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Penn, For Colored Girls directed by Tyler Perry, 2005’s Oscar-winning Best Picture Crash, and one of Devine’s favorites, the romantic drama Waiting to Exhale in which she co-starred with Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston.
“I was overwhelmed and so excited to be part of it,” she says enthusiastically of 1995’s Waiting, which followed four African-American women navigating love and life—and which proved that a film with a black cast could have a wide appeal and hit first place at the box office.
Like most successful film and television actors, Devine lives in Los Angeles and, while she makes the expected red-carpet events, she doesn’t have much interest in living a glitzy Hollywood lifestyle. She enjoys spending time at home with her husband, Glenn Marshall, and savoring simple pleasures. “I like to knit, crochet and design my own dresses,” Devine says. “You know there aren’t a lot of stylish dresses out there for big girls like me, so I create my own!”
She’s actually quite the do-it-yourselfer and once retiled her own bathroom. Besides that, Devine also seems unique among the Tinseltown set for her gracious, low-maintenance and self-sufficient style. She’s the proud stepmother of Marshall’s three daughters and an enthusiastic step-grandmother to their children. “I love going to the kids’ soccer games and I just yell and clap and cheer,” she says. “It’s so much fun!”
Devine says she’s looking forward to her trip to H-Town to receive her award. “I visit Houston about once a year,” she says. “I never really go out that much when I’m there because what I want to do is spend time with my family. It’s about being home.” The high honor, by the way, is the second one that UH has bestowed upon Devine. The school previously gave her an honorary doctorate of human letters. And so the little girl from Acres Homes grew up to become not only one of Houston’s most accomplished stars, but also to be, truly, Dr. Devine.