Ask virtually anyone to name the best black gospel singers out there, and the Winans family would be at the top of their list. The talent for singing seems to have touched virtually every member of the sprawling family. Deborah Joy Winans, daughter of Carvin Winans and Deborah Kerr Winans, is also musically gifted. However, when she was growing up, she was more artistically inspired by movies like The Godfather than the many exploits of her family. “My favorite movie till this day,” she says, “is The Godfather. I come from a family of men, you know; I’ve got so many uncles. I’ve got three brothers. When I saw that movie, everything about it was incredible to me.” You see, although she could sing like the rest of her family, Deborah always wanted to act. “I just never had a passion for singing, but I’ve always loved acting. My parents would take us to double feature movies on the weekends, and I was mesmerized every single time. I just thought, man, I want to do that!”

Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Deborah Joy grew up at the feet of legends with multiple Grammy Awards. She graduated with a bachelor’s of fine arts from Wayne State University and the Moscow Art Theatre School and later earned a master’s of fine arts from the California Institute of the Arts. She recalls her time in Russia learning acting fondly, “Just the methods that you learned, the way they approached the theater, the way they approach a theme, even the movement and what that means. It was just incredible. It was the experience of a lifetime.”

Winans is about to enter her third season of the sizzling, megachurch-set, family drama Greenleaf on OWN, where she plays youngest daughter Charity. Having emerged from a tumultuous divorce and falling into a shaky new relationship last season, Charity is knee-deep in problems. In fact, Winans hints that, unfortunately, Charity hasn’t left all the drama and heartache behind. “In season three, you will see her really feel the pain of everything that she’s gone through. She can’t take it anymore, and she is at a place where she just doesn’t know what to do, and so you will see her really feel everything that has happened and just be at a loss as to where she fits in.”

Over the past two seasons, Charity was involved in a storyline that drew deeply on an important topic: she was a woman whose husband struggled with questions about his sexual preferences. It all came to a head last season when Charity’s husband finally had to face himself and tell Charity about his situation. For that portrayal, Winans had to do a great deal of preparation. “We did a lot of just background work so that he could have a moment that wasn’t brushed over—that wasn’t super dramatized but was real. And people that may have been in those situations could feel a release and could be understanding and could see the love in the midst of all of the hurt and the pain. When you do an episode like that, you do a lot of research so that you can make it the most honest and sincere that it can be.”

Source: Oprah Winfrey Network

Actress and director Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk, Seven Seconds) directed the episode, which is perhaps the most pivotal of the heartbreaking story between Charity and Kevin (Tye White). Winans explains that to do it justice, the two actors spent time working closely with King in rehearsals. “She had watched everything previous and what she wants to see from us was how we truly felt as the characters at that moment. So the two of us did an improv. Then, with Regina, we just let loose, and she wrote everything down. Finally, she said, ‘This is the moment, this is what we need. This is what I feel like I’ve been waiting for. And so we were able to do that when it was time to shoot. She gave us that freedom to just be in the room and to let it happen.”

Winans first met Oprah as a little girl when the Winans family made an appearance on Oprah’s talk show, and her parents brought Deborah and her brothers. Shortly before starting production on Greenleaf, Winfrey attended a workshop for a musical Deborah and her brother, Juan, were working on, to see Deborah perform. A few suspenseful months went by before they heard anything from Winfrey, but her reps finally reached out, saying Oprah Winfrey had requested to see her headshot and resume. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. “I thank Oprah every chance I get,” she emphasizes, “because it was because she believed in me that they even considered me. She took a risk on me even when it wasn’t comfortable or the popular thing to do.”

This break came along at a critical moment for Winans, who had been going through a moment of doubt about her career. “I was in that moment, just questioning if I was really on the right track because I couldn’t get an agent, and it was hard to get people to see me. I thought, ‘all these agents say they want new talent, but then when you ask to meet with them, they want to know what you’ve already done.’ It’s a Catch-22. I just felt like I was going back and forth, and I was just like, ‘God, if this is what you’ll have me do, I need you to open the door.’ All I was getting was no’s. If you’re not around the right support system, it will start to make you think ‘I’m not good enough.’”

Coming from a famous and influential religious family herself, the commonalities between Charity and Deborah are apparent. However, Winans says it’s all how she differs from Charity that drew her to the character. “For me, it was finding the nuances of her being the youngest child; having a sister that had passed away; having a husband that she truly loves and believes that he loves her; but feeling like she’s been lied to and betrayed; having an older sister that she feels like left them and forgot about them. And now, all of a sudden, it’s coming back, and it’s taking away from her position, and she feels invisible when her older sister is around.”

In addition to incredible writing, Greenleaf has from the beginning been unafraid of skillfully tackling important issues without losing creative momentum. One of the major story arcs of seasons one and two revolved around issues related to #MeToo before it exploded into the public consciousness. Winans is proud of the work the cast did around the problem of sexual abuse of women and girls. “I think that we did a great job of opening that conversation and allowing those that have been victimized to feel safe and have the courage to speak up. Even the guy who played Mac, Greg Allen Williams, who’s such a phenomenal actor, you could see the weight and the toll that it was taking on him to play such a character. But he said it was necessary so that people could have this conversation and people could be real about what was going on. That’s what I love about Greenleaf. They’ve started a lot of conversations.”

Catch the Greenleaf season 3 two-night premiere on August 28 and 29 on OWN.