For Janora McDuffie, starring in a movie about gospel music seems like a natural fit.
McDuffie stars alongside Chloe Bailey in the upcoming Peacock original movie “Praise This,” a musical comedy about a gospel choir competition that releases on April 7. The film comes from director Tina Gordon and Will Packer Productions. Packer has produced notable films like “Stomp the Yard,” “Think Like a Man,” and “Girls Trip.” He also produced the 94th Annual Academy Awards, for which McDuffie served as the announcer. This time, however, she’s working in front of the camera.
The actress – who’s had a long career appearing in shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Criminal Minds” among others – plays Aunt Liz to Bailey’s Sam. After the death of Sam’s mother, her father moves her from L.A. to Atlanta to live with her Aunt Liz, Uncle Larry (Kendrick Cross), and her cousin Jess (Anjelika Washington). After Sam breaks the rules, Aunt Liz and Uncle Larry come up with a lucrative punishment – joining their church’s struggling competition gospel choir.
Rough Draft Atlanta spoke with McDuffie just after the film’s Atlanta premiere and ahead of its launch on Peacock. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You went to the premiere for this movie on April 3. How was that?
Janora McDuffie: The premiere was amazing! There was so much love in that space for this new movie coming out this weekend, that I can’t even put into words. And not only were the cast there, and the people behind the scenes that brought this to life – whether it was the DP or the writers … Everybody was in the house! Will Packer always does an amazing job of warming up the crowd. So everyone was just truly excited to be there and for a common purpose, which is always nice too.
You know how some screenings are to be seen, and to be on the carpet, and to fan you, if you’re on the other side of things? This one was really just in support of an amazing project. I mean, it truly is a celebration of gospel music. It truly is a movie that is joyful all around, even if you don’t listen to gospel music. There’s something in there for everyone to take away from the film.
It was great. It was really a fantastic night.
It’s great to hear you say that. As you were talking, I was thinking – I feel like there can be a sort of prejudice against faith-based movies sometimes. And I’m guilty of it too – you see a trailer in the theater, and you kind of roll your eyes and think you know what that’s about. But watching this yesterday, I didn’t find that to be the case at all and had such a wonderful time with the story. How would you talk this up to someone who might have some of those hang-ups?
McDuffie: I feel like a good story transcends everything, right? It’s a primarily all-Black cast, but you don’t have to be Black to enjoy it. So similarly, you don’t necessarily have to have grown up in the church listening to gospel music to enjoy it or to take something away from it. I think the story has themes that are really about finding yourself, that are really about finding your calling. And that doesn’t have to be a Christian thing, or Buddhist thing – it’s a human thing. So I think if you come with an open mind and you are human on this journey called life, there is something that you will pick up from the movie and take away from it. And who doesn’t like music? Everybody likes music.
And the music is really good in this.
McDuffie: Yes! And it’s got such a fresh take to music that has stood the test of time. I love it, and it’s for all generations as well.
What was your relationship to praise music and gospel music before coming to this project?
McDuffie: I grew up in the church. I’m originally from Durham, North Carolina, and Shirley Caesar and John P. Kee are two gospel greats that are from my area.
The high school I went to actually had a competing gospel choir, and we competed in a Quaker Oats gospel competition, so I’ve even been on the competition side. Now granted, what we see in “Praise This” is far above and beyond what I was doing in high school, but it’s definitely a foundation from which I come from. So it really meant even more to be part of this film.
You mentioned you’re from Durham. You moved to Atlanta, not to pursue acting but to work for Ernst & Young, is that correct?
McDuffie: That is right. I got a corporate job, following what you think you should do after college, right? You get a good job and follow this more traditional, safer path. I moved to Atlanta pre any film industry in Atlanta. It was just a big music industry when I was here. So when my cubicle got too small, I said I’m too young to not be happy in life. Let me jump and live some dreams. I kind of understood Sam’s [Chloe Bailey’s character in “Praise This”] passion for a dream. You just want to do anything for it. So I could relate to the movie on that level as well.
You sort of did it backwards. You moved to Atlanta, and then moved to L.A., and now there’s this huge industry here.
McDuffie: And now there’s this huge industry! I feel like I’ve worked more recently in Atlanta than I have on the West Coast. But that’s a blessing too. It’s closer to North Carolina, at least in the same time zone, and I do love me some south [laughs].
Most of your scenes in the movie are with Kendrick Cross, who plays your husband Uncle Larry, and then Chloe Bailey and Anjelika Washington, who plays your daughter Jess. How was it doing those scenes together sort of outside of the praise choir action?
McDuffie: It was amazing. It’s so interesting you ask that, because a lot of people just want to get straight to the gospel music and how fantastic that was. But my world was our home. It was me and Uncle Larry, and our very interesting and lovable daughter, Jess and then welcoming in Sam.
It was really great to have this world, but truly based in love, truly based in fun, positive parenting. Like for [Sam’s] punishment to be singing for the gospel choir. In fact, Aunt Liz had a line – that’s some creative parenting right there! I do think it’s always so powerful to have these positive images of the Black family, of Black love – clearly Aunt Liz and Uncle Larry still got something for each other [laughs]. So to represent that in the film was a powerful image that’s needed.
I feel like what was written on the page was really what transcended on set. It was so powerful and positive. Usually, when it comes to actors on set, as soon as the director yells, cut, everybody just goes straight to their devices and their phones. But Chloe Bailey was a blessing to work with and so was Anjelika. They were both so open. There were conversations and interactions that were had on a very genuine level. I very specifically remember one time during a break, Anjelika and Chloe Bailey sat there and meditated to bring positive peace and love in the space. Or even more peace and love in space – they weren’t meditating because anything was wrong. It was just a way to ground the whole project in something positive and something greater. And again, I think that’s what the film is about. I feel like if you have that kind of positivity from the lead and that kind of positivity from the director [Tina Gordon], and that kind of positivity just from the whole production company itself – I feel like the things that transpired behind the scenes are some things you’re going to feel and see when you watch the film.
It did seem like everyone got along. It’s nice when you can sort of feel that emanating from the screen.
McDuffie: And for a star like Chloe Bailey – she’s on fire, right now! You might not guess that she’s just as down to earth and kind and respectful as she is. It was so pleasant and such a blessing to work with her. It was great to know that she’s just as human and awesome as you would hope one would be.
You mentioned that most of your scenes are in the home, of course until that final big praise competition at the end. How was it when that all came together and what was being on that set like?
McDuffie: From the nice home in the suburbs of Atlanta to the mega church! With movie magic, you shoot one angle and then it’s turned around, and then you shoot the audience. So, Aunt Liz and Uncle Larry never saw the full live production. We heard the audio and we could only imagine how amazing the true performance was.
So for me, not fully seeing and fully knowing all the magic that was in store, I was so excited to watch it [at the premiere] – for the first time seeing all the music that the foundation of the story is built on. That excitement that I had [at the premiere] is the same excitement I hope the viewers have when it drops on the seventh.
This is my last question, and you’ve touched on this a bit throughout. But what specifically drew you to this project in particular?
McDuffie: First and foremost, going back to my foundation and love for gospel music. I feel like the character of Aunt Liz is not a far departure from Janora. I feel like I am a loving, kind, welcoming soul to all, so that was definitely a natural connection and excitement to bring that to life in a genuine way.
I’m a fan of all things Will Packer, and it’s so great to be able to work for Will Packer productions. Will Packer produced the  Oscars, and gave me the opportunity to audition to be the announcer, and I got the part! So to reunite with his team in front of a camera – man what a blessing!