Cicely Tyson doesn’t mince words when reflecting on her six-year journey as Ophelia Harkness on ABC’s recently concluded drama series “How to Get Away with Murder.” “I don’t like goodbyes. I don’t like endings, so I rarely ever think about anything that I’m doing as ending,” the 95-year-old actress tells me. As for no longer working with leading lady Viola Davis, who portrayed her daughter Annalise Keating, Tyson declares, “I will miss her deeply.” You see, it was Davis who originally wanted Tyson to play the part, and her reaction at the time was priceless: “When I heard that, my mouth fell open like a broken pocketbook!” Below, listen to our podcast interview or read on for the complete transcript.
Tyson has received four Emmy nominations as Best Drama Guest Actress (2015, 2017-19) for playing the fan-favorite character, and she has one more chance to earn a bid at the upcoming 2020 ceremony. “HTGAWM,” created by Peter Nowalk and produced by Shonda Rhimes, made history in 2015 when Davis became the first black woman to win the Emmy Award for Best Drama Actress. The series signed off in May after 90 twist-filled episodes.
Looking back at her six years on “How to Get Away with Murder,” Tyson confirms that her favorite moment was in Season 1’s “Mama’s Here Now” when Ophelia confesses to her daughter about what happened to Uncle Clyde. “That’s the scene she’s sitting between her mom’s legs and her mom is combing her hair and while she’s combing her hair, she’s telling her the story about how Uncle Clyde died,” Tyson recalls.
Did the actress face any challenges in playing Ophelia, a character who suffers from dementia? “Frankly speaking, do people who suffer dementia, do they know that they’re suffering from dementia?” Tyson wonders aloud. “Do they know? I don’t think they know … So that’s the way I treated her. She didn’t think anything was wrong with her.”
Also in our interview, Tyson speaks about how she’s coping with being quarantined because of the coronavirus, how Ophelia compares to some of her other iconic characters, and what she really thinks about awards. Tyson’s had a great awards run the past couple of years, taking home an Honorary Oscar in 2019 and being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame this past January. Will an Emmy for “HTGAWM” be next?
Gold Derby: First of all, I just wanna know how you are doing with the quarantine and with everything that’s going on in the world right now.
Cicely Tyson: I am not a person who is sedentary. I am a person who moves like a bee and that’s the way I’ve been ever since I was a child. Having been incarcerated for the last four months does not make me feel comfortable at all. I understand the circumstances and I think it’s one of the worst things that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. I do remember my mother and father when I was a child at the dinner table, they would talk about the Depression and how the world had changed, certainly here in the United States and how people were jumping out of the window and killing one another and losing their minds because of the state of affairs at that time. I, who spent her life sucking her thumb and not eating her meal, looked at the both of them and I said to myself, “Nobody does that.” Well here I am in the midst of it all and I cannot believe it. I wake up every day and look outside and say, “I cannot believe this,” to have lived long enough to witness anything like this in this country or in the world.
GD: I would love to talk about your role on “How to Get Away with Murder” now. Looking back on your six years playing Ophelia, do you have a favorite moment that really sticks out in your mind?
CT: (Laughs.) Yes, yes, yes. And I guess when I’m finished you’ll understand why I don’t watch my work. It was in the first season and it was Episode 13. I think it was entitled “Mama Is Here Now” and it’s the scene in which she tells Annalise what happened to Uncle Clyde. Uncle Clyde obviously had done something wrong to Annalise and her mother found out sometime after and she quickly made a pact with herself that he would not get away with it. That’s the scene she’s sitting between her mom’s legs and her mom is combing her hair and while she’s combing her hair, she’s telling her the story about how Uncle Clyde died.
GD: I remember that scene. That was a very impactful, emotional moment on the show. That’s also the moment that sticks out for me. Such a powerful moment. Somebody like Ophelia who suffers from dementia, what was the most challenging part about playing somebody like that, this extra layer to the character?
CT: Frankly speaking, do people who suffer dementia, do they know that they’re suffering from dementia? Do they know? I don’t think they know. I think that they’re treating their lives as they go on from day to day as natural and normal. It’s people that we are surrounded with that become aware of the change, and sometimes the manner in which they treat people with dementia makes those people question why they are behaving differently from the way they had been behaving towards them. So that’s the way I treated her. She didn’t think anything was wrong with her. People were trying to make her understand that she was different now than she was yesterday or last week, but to her, it’s absolutely normal, her behavior.
GD: Now that the show is over, what will you miss the most about working side by side with your fantastic leading lady, Viola Davis?
CT: I will miss her deeply. I really will. It was, first, a gift to me that I never expected in my career, when I was told that she said that she wanted Cicely Tyson to play her mother. When I heard that, my mouth fell open like a broken pocketbook (laughs)! I was stunned beyond belief and the strangest thing happened. I start working immediately, the script, as soon as I know it’s mine and the character is mine, and that’s what I started doing. The first day on arrival, Viola was standing at the door of the studio waiting to greet me and she was all smiles. I had become so deeply embedded in the character that I just walked right by her. She said it devastated her. She said to me later on, “Uh oh, I better get to work!” (Laughs.) When I start working, that’s not me, that’s that character. That’s the mother, Ophelia, and we’re not speaking. We have no relationship at that time. So when I walk into the studio, that’s who I was, Ophelia. Sometime afterward she said, “You don’t know what that did to me. I cannot tell you.” Because I saw the smile on her face and I just didn’t react to it. She hasn’t been talking to me for some time, I wasn’t talking to her, so all of the sudden I’m gonna start smiling and hugging and kissing her? No! That was not Ophelia. So I walked right in and I went to my spot on the set and played the scene like I was supposed to, I think (laughs).
GD: One of our contributors, Luca Giliberti, he has a question about the series finale. There’s this great moment when Ophelia encourages Annalise to fight for herself in court because it’s God’s choice and only God’s choice to determine whether or not she’s worthy. What was that like to film knowing that this was probably the final time you would have a scene with Viola?
CT: I never even thought about that. First of all, I don’t like goodbyes. I don’t like endings, so I rarely ever think about anything that I’m doing as ending. I realize I never thought of it being the final scene. I never did. I played the moment that we were trying to transfer to our audience. Now, if that is and was interpreted as the final scene for “Murder,” to them, fine. I never thought of it as being the final scene.
GD: The creator, Peter Nowalk, he has an ear for always listening to his actors if they have any ideas about their characters. I’m wondering, did you have any influence on crafting Ophelia’s rich backstory?
CT: Oh, we talked a lot about his concept of the entire piece and the role that I would be playing in the piece. I tend to deal with things that happen within the confines of the scene that I’m playing as naturally and as normally as humanly possible and when I say that, I mean that if I could explain what I was doing in acting, I wouldn’t be an actress, because it’s very difficult. It’s easier for me to do it than to try to explain it, if you follow what I’m saying. To try to tell him who she was, for me, does not work. I have to be who she was.
GD: When you look back at your career in television and in film, how does Ophelia compare to some of your other iconic roles?
CT: She doesn’t compare to anybody. Every character that I have ever played is an individual unto themselves. Every single one of them. I don’t even think about them. They are individuals and that’s why I choose them, ‘cause they are different, each one, and that’s the challenge for me, to make you see this person as someone that you have never met before. That’s what excites me when I read a script. When I read a script, one of two things happen to me. Either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. When my stomach churns, I know I can’t do this thing, and I can pass it very easily. I don’t care how much they offer me, I can’t do it. Now, when my skin tingles and I can’t be still, that’s mine.
GD: A couple years back, you had the pleasure of being involved in the crossover event between “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Scandal,” Shonda Rhimes’ two series. Tell us about playing opposite people like Kerry Washington and Glynn Turman. Had you ever worked with Kerry Washington before or was that your first time?
CT: I had the opportunity when the NAACP gave me an award and I asked for her to be the presenter and she did a magnificent job, and everybody talked about it. I was blown away. So we became friends after that. When “Scandal” was about to close, because like I said earlier I don’t like endings, especially if there’s something really important going on, if you have something really to say to your audience that they have not heard or seen before, why are you taking it away from them? Do you understand what I’m saying? I was not too happy about that and I don’t know if they read that. I knew Glynn from High School of Performing Arts. I knew him quite well. As a matter of fact, I had not seen him for some time and I told him a story that blew his mind because his mother took ill and she was about to pass away and Vinnette Carroll was a teacher at the High School of Performing Arts and his mother told Vinnette, “I’m leaving here, and I want you to take care of my son.” So when I saw him, and I hadn’t seen him for such a long time, he had become a man, a well-established actor, he had a wife and so on and so forth. I said, “My god, I guess she took good care of you, Vinnette Carroll,” and he said, “You remember that story?” I said, “Of course! Why wouldn’t I remember that story? It was such a sensitive moment, you losing your mother and she chose this woman who was your teacher to put you in her care. Why wouldn’t I remember that?” So now he talks to me all the time. I say, “I’m not Vinnette Carroll!” (Laughs.)
GD: Last year you won an Honorary Oscar and you were later inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. What do honors like this mean to you and what would an Emmy nomination mean for this final season of “Murder”?
CT: Well, I have to tell you how I feel about awards. I think it was maybe the first time I was nominated for something and I didn’t get it and I came home a little downtrodden, so when I walked in the house, my mother said, “What’s the matter with you?” I said, “Nothing.” And I went into my room and I closed the door. She waited for a good 10, 15 minutes and she didn’t knock on the door, she just opened the door and she looked at me, I was sitting on the edge of the bed and she said, “What’s the matter with you?” I said, “Nothing.” “You’re telling me nothing? Look at your face. Get up and come outside.” I went outside to sit down. “I didn’t get the role.” “And that’s what has you looking like this,” she said. “I didn’t get it.” She said, “Let me tell you something. This is your choice, this show business, whatever it is that you call it. That’s your choice. You chose it, and one of the things you had better learn right now is that what is for you, you will get it. What is not for you, you will never get it, okay? So when you go to get something and it don’t come for you, then it’s not yours. Something else will come along that is for you, okay?” And I’m sitting there looking at her and I’m saying, “This woman is crazy.” Here I am aching because I lost this role and she’s telling me that it wasn’t mine.
Well, about two years later I was asked to do a film and after I read it, I realized that it wasn’t something that I wanted to do. It was about a woman who was single and had five children each for a different male, and I simply said, “That’s not the kind of woman that I want to project,” and I passed on it. Now, the head of 20th Century Fox came to me and said, “Why did you do that? That’s a fabulous role. Probably would’ve gotten nominated for this.” I said, “It’s not the kind of woman that I want to project.” They tried to talk to me and talk me into reconsidering. The woman who wrote it said to me, “Well, you know, there’s nothing wrong with that.” She said there are women like that. I said, “I know that.” And it was her maid that she was writing about. I said, “I know. But then there are doctors and lawyers and physicists. We have those too, and those are the kind of women that I would like people to be aware of.” So they finally resolve themselves to the fact that I was not gonna do it and it was fine. Two weeks after I turned it down, I got “Jane Pittman.” What’s for you will come to you. What is not for you will never come to you. And I tell you, I never forgot that. Whenever I went out for a job and I didn’t get it, I said, “Well, it wasn’t for me.” I could shrug it off very easily. It wasn’t mine. It wasn’t for me. And that’s what kept me strong, because there’s always something there that’s gonna be yours.
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