Jenifer Lewis Tears Up Remembering 'Icon' Tina Turner and Recalls 'Connection' with Her Family (Exclusive)
"I loved Tina Turner with all my soul and all my heart," said the actress, who played Turner's mother in 1993's 'What's Love Got to Do with It'
Love's got a lot to do with Jenifer Lewis' appreciation for the late Tina Turner.
After the legendary queen of rock 'n' roll died at age 83 on Wednesday following a long illness, Lewis spoke to PEOPLE about her memories of the 12-time Grammy winner and her experience playing her mother, Zelma Bullock, in the 1993 biopic What's Love Got to Do with It.
The I Love That for You star opened up about her reaction to Turner's death, telling PEOPLE, "I tried not to cry because I'm 66 and at some point, we all have to learn how to mourn and not fall apart. But I had to allow myself to cry, because she was one of the greatest entertainers that ever lived."
Lewis, 66, describes the "Proud Mary" performer as "one of the greatest to ever do it," noting that she studied her artistry from childhood and admired the way she was able to "stay up and sustain" a career in the entertainment business "out of the great love she had for it."
"I feel like a mother, a sister, a friend, a teacher has passed this plane, and I'm grateful to Tina for being who she was," she continues. "I got so much from her — my sass, my moves, everything."
When Lewis was performing in a national tour of the musical Eubie in the 1980s, she went to see one of Turner's concerts at a "four-star hotel" in Toronto — where she was invited backstage to meet the musician. "I bowed down, and she didn't say, 'Oh, honey, get up,' because she saw the sincerity," she recalls. "I was sitting in the front row, so it's not like she didn't see me worshiping her from the audience."
"I think I said something like, 'I want to be just like you,' and she said, 'I can see it in you," adds Lewis. "It was powerful to just have that moment in the dressing room with her."
While she didn't have the chance to meet Turner during the making of What's Love Got to Do with It, Lewis "serendipitously" had a run-in with Bullock and her older daughter Alline "in a vitamin store" after the film came out.
Related: Tina Turner Remembered by Celebs Following Her Death at 83: 'There Will Never Be Another'
"I heard her say, 'Alline, which vitamins am I getting?' And I immediately recognized the voice. I looked around, and there she was," explains Lewis. "Tina looked just like her mother. The legs were there, the tight body — even at her age — and she had Tina's face."
She says she was "bold enough" to say hello. "I was scared because of how I had portrayed her in the movie. I said, 'Ms. Bullock?' and she turned around, saw my face. She hugged me first, and then she held my shoulders as she pulled me back," recalls the star. "These were the words she said to me, 'Oh, I wanted to be so dressed up when I met you.' That's the sweetest thing somebody can say to somebody."
Bullock then invited Lewis to her house, which sparked a deep bond between them. "Alline called me when [Zelma] passed away, and I sang at her funeral," she says. "I loved Tina Turner with all my soul and all my heart, and I'm glad we had her as long as we did."
Lewis also got the chance to watch Turner perform "Proud Mary" alongside Beyoncé at the 2008 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. "I ran down front. I was sitting in the audience, and I just ran down the aisle to just get that close to Tina, to the power of those two women," she recalls.
Related: Angela Bassett Remembers Tina Turner's 'Final Words to Me' as She Pays Tribute to Singer
"She was an icon," adds the Poetic Justice actress. "Tina never gave 100% — she gave 2000. That was one of the things she taught me, and as I'm going through looking for the perfect picture to post on Instagram, it hits me more and more that we lost a great one. But she will never be lost. She is in the pit of everybody's soul that ever saw her or met her."
Working on What's Love Got to Do with It was also especially impactful for Lewis, as it was her first time playing a mother. "Now, I'm the Mother of Black Hollywood, but when they called, I was like, 'Tina Turner's mother?' Because I'm only two years older than Angela [Bassett]," she says. "Of course, they assured me of how young Tina's mother was when she had her."
"I think that was one of my best performances, doing Zelma Bullock. She was from St. Louis, and I'm from St. Louis, and I based that character on my mother and her nine sisters, all from St. Louis," continues Lewis. "It was easy for me to capture the character of Zelma Bullock, because I knew those women very well — pretty much trapped between a rock and a hard place, trying to raise children, coming from that abuse and having to run."
She explains that "so much of what I loved about Tina" was the way she "showed us how to have the courage to walk away, continue to be our true selves and rise above the bulls---."
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