Lenny Thomas on Working on Ruthless and The Oval with Tyler Perry in a Pandemic

(Featured image courtesy of Charles Bergmann/BET/Tyler Vision, LLC)

One of the biggest names in the entertainment business is Tyler Perry. Between the Madea films, working with Oprah Winfrey, and acting appearances in films of all genres, Perry has marked himself as one of the most fascinating voices in the industry. Recently, Perry has been developing projects for BET, beginning with The Oval and its spinoff Ruthless. Both are deliciously dark, with twisted characters and shocking surprises every week.

TV Wasteland talked with Ruthless’ Lenny Thomas about working with the iconic creator, the culture of love on set, and the experience of working on a series in the middle of COVID-19.

Growing up, Thomas was no stranger to performing, always reenacting comedy movies he’d seen with his family. “The older I got, the more of an interest I took… because the joy and the laughter that came from reenacting all these things, there was nothing like it, so I wanted my own piece of that.”

Thomas and other actors have had the same issues as the rest of us when it’s come to this pandemic. The film and TV industry has faced unique challenges simply due to the fact that unless you’re making a Zoom movie, the crew can’t all work from home. Productions have slowly begun to return as rapid testing has become available and a greater understanding of the virus has developed, but the road to the last take has undoubtedly become a lot rockier.

In August 2020, Lenny (and the rest of the cast and crew of Ruthless) started on that rocky path at the massive Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. The BET+ original follows Ruth Truesdale (played by Melissa L. Williams) as she finds herself desperate to escape the abusive Rakudushis cult led by a mysterious man known only as The Highest. Thomas plays Dikhan, The Highest’s fanatic right hand man whose relationship with the leader is much more than it seems. The first season was written and directed entirely by Tyler Perry on his three-hundred-acre studio lot.

Still from BET’s “Ruthless” episode 109. (Photo: Charles Bergmann/BET/Tyler Vision, LLC)

Thomas called returning the production “scary” and “exhilarating” but made sure to emphasize that the team “went above and beyond to keep us all as safe as possible… It seemed like more care was being taken this time around than any other shoot I’ve ever been on.” He noted that if this pandemic has given us any small gift, it’s the fact that everyone is more attentive to others’ needs and well-being, especially in the workplace, joking “Can we keep that part of this after all this is over?” He hopes that this standard of being overly caring to each other is kept even once things return to normal. On a show like Ruthless that has very dark subject matter, he thinks that this is even more essential to ensure the mental well-being of the cast and crew. “Before every day that we shot, Tyler would have a crew meeting where everyone would come together, and we’d say a prayer and pretty much bless the day before we got to work.” Thomas found that to be really comforting, and it helped him appreciate the fact that they were all so lucky to be able to work on “this amazing thing” as a community in these troubling times. “We grasp on to our humanity through taking care of each other.”

According to Lenny, “Dikhan is the general that everyone needs in their life. Not quite the ruthless side of him, but the devotional, ‘will do anything for you to make you happy’ side of him.” The character reminds Thomas of someone who didn’t have the love of a parent and has now twisted their entire life around that deep need for their devotion to be reciprocated. He deals with both sides of love, the genuine kind and the kind that can quickly turn violent. “There’s something beautiful in you, but you’ve been tainted by harsh realities of your circumstances… At the end of the day, it’s all about love.”

Thomas is the type of performer who needs to fully inhabit his roles and really experience what the character is going through himself, to bridge the page and the screen in the best way possible. Being someone who is clearly not as twisted as Dikhan, his conscience began to be weighed down by the constant darkness, resulting in nightmares. Near the end of the first season’s shoot, it came time to film a particularly taxing sequence where Dikhan was going to terrorize the rest of the cast, and it became Thomas’ point of exhaustion. He’d “never had such a strong familial unit on a project,” and the demand of being awful to them all the time had taken its toll. He recalls thinking, “I can’t tap into this thing. My emotions are going nuts.” But his cast immediately embraced him, telling him “We know your heart,” and giving him the strength to continue on. In that moment, he remembers feeling like the luckiest person in the world. “What did I do to deserve such love?”

In regards to the huge Tyler Perry Studios, Thomas just said that Perry “has his own Disney World.” The lot holds an assortment of different towns and buildings, all of which Tyler specifically designed himself with various projects in mind. Lenny admits to being intimidated by the writer-director when they first met, but he found a tenderness in the creator that he hadn’t been expecting. “He reminds me of my father actually.” Both Louisiana natives, Thomas recognized a Southern hospitality mindset in Perry as well. Whenever Lenny got too caught up in the work, he would be able to just look at Perry and feel that familiarity to his roots, and that would “calm the storm” and help him to continue. “He knows what he wants, and he’s going to go get it, so you have to keep up with him, and that can be a lot for some people… He’s not coasting, he’s not walking, he’s flying.” Thomas even feels that Perry has “trail blazed” a method of rapid shooting that other productions might be able to adopt to overcome today’s unique challenges.

Still from BET’s “Ruthless” episode 105. (Photo: Charles Bergmann/BET/Tyler Vision, LLC)

All of the love depicted on screen, shared between the cast members, and imparted by the creator himself is exactly what makes a Perry project special to Lenny. “Everyone is looking out for each other… When it gets hard, people’s true colors come out and whatnot, but for the most part, there were no problems.” Thomas felt thankful for the intimacy coordinators who could make sure that the actors were fully prepared for intense scenes and also had time to decompress afterwards. “The willingness to adapt that Mr. Perry has and the willingness to not be rigid in his ways completely” stood out to Lenny, who also noted that “He knows what he wants, but he’s not going to sacrifice something or someone to get it.” He loves Tyler’s grace and his willingness to collaborate and listen to whatever anyone in the crew has to suggest.

Thomas will also be appearing in an upcoming guest arc on The Oval. “Dikhan is a character who is literally everyone’s business,” so when an Oval character’s daughter is discovered to be living in the cult compound, a clashing of worlds ensues. “Anyone who visits the compound, that’s not of the compound, has a steep hill to climb.”

Sometime soon, Lenny will also be releasing his motivational podcast, the brainchild of him and his best friend Tim, who he’s known for thirty years. “His presence in my life kind of sparked where I am right now… We would always encourage each other in ways that would challenge our limits.” At one point, they were both working jobs they weren’t happy with, and they decided to make a pact: If they weren’t on the path of where they wanted to be, they would join the military. “No offense to anyone who’s serving, in fact thank you for your service… but our spirits would not allow us to join the military on a whim like that.” Within six months, they both found themselves on that path. After that, they would meet every so often to discuss where they wanted to go and “manifest” the next thing. The podcast, titled Rise to the Occasion, is inspired by exactly that process, rising to the occasion and bringing what you want into your life. “It’s how to place yourself at a successful frequency.” It was delayed due to COVID, but episodes have been recorded, and while a release date hasn’t been announced yet, it should be available wherever you listen to your podcasts very soon.

Thomas has also been practicing his photography skills and has begun shooting his first clients. He’s currently developing some short film and feature film ideas and wants to cultivate his creative side in any way possible. “Anything I can do to feed this monster I’ve created, I’m going to do.” Right now, he’s purely in a mindset of “What else can I do? We are so ridiculously phenomenal and amazing. Human beings can do the impossible. I want to see more of that in other people. I want to help others unlock that within themselves.” Now that he’s found that, he wants to help others do the same.

“I keep expecting someone to pinch me, and I wake up in Brooklyn and none of this has happened. But no, I’m very much in Atlanta, and I’m very much in my own place, happier than I’ve ever been in my whole life.”

Ruthless is currently airing, and The Oval will be releasing its second season soon, both on BET+.

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