Glynn Turman plays Toledo in the new film, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a role he previously played on stage. The veteran actor just earned his first Screen Actors Guild Award nomination as part of the cast of the film, following an individual win from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Turman recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Sam Eckmann about translating his performance in “Ma Rainey” from stage to screen, working alongside the late Chadwick Boseman and his other notable work this season on “Fargo.” Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: What was interesting to me, watching your performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” is it’s not the first time you’ve actually played Toledo. You’ve done that on stage in the Mark Taper Forum. So did you feel like when you came into this picture that you had a head start at all with the role?
Glynn Turman: Well yeah, but that’s, of course, both a blessing and a curse. It’s a wordy play. August Wilson is all about his ability to construct words so beautifully. That puts weight on actors to remember all those words. So I had a head start on that part of it, but then again, at the same time, there’s different interpretations of the character, different facets of the character and we’re in a different medium, from stage to motion picture. So it presented its own challenges and the challenge also is for the actor to not get comfortable and rely on things that worked for you previously, to discover the character all over again, so that was a challenge.
GD: And I think I read, is that where Denzel Washington first approached you for this role?
GT: Right. He saw the play that we did at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and came backstage afterwards and let me know that he had plans on doing the show as a motion picture and that he wanted me to stay ready. He wanted me to be ready. “Be ready, Glynn! Be ready.”
GD: You mentioned, August Wilson is so much about the language and there’s very few playwrights like him. Many people refer to him as the Shakespeare of America. So how does delivering his words compare to other playwrights? Do you prepare differently for an August Wilson script?
GT: No, I don’t say that I prepare differently. I have a technique that suits me after all these years that I kind of rely on in terms of what I’m looking for in order to ground the character and the words. It’s just that August has such a distinct rhythm in his works and you want to pay homage to that rhythm and if you can lock into that rhythm, all of the rest of the stuff becomes so much easier. It’s like reading sheet music, if you’re able to do that. It’s like playing in a Count Basie band.
GD: You have, as Toledo, there’s three big monologue moments. One of them that always sticks out to me is your speech about the stew of America and how all these people come together in a stew and in it he refers to Black people being the leftovers. What does that mean to you when you deliver that monologue and how do you read that in today’s society?
GD: Well, not to get topically political, but there was a tweet from 45, damn it, that Black folks are lazy, that Black people are lazy. Well, you’re talking about a people who built a country for free. Was it lazy then? Were we a lazy people then? And if indeed we are called lazy, is it because there’s nothing that we’re allowed to do? That all of the usefulness has been sucked out of us? So it becomes our task as a people to make sure that we’re relevant by engaging ourselves in activities that both support us, both identify us, and both put a lie to that notion that we’re lazy people. So I think one of the furthest things we’ve ever been as a people is lazy.
GD: Absolutely, and it’s a great moment that sometimes when you see a play transition into film, it can be difficult sometimes. There’s a challenge in adapting it to a new medium and that’s a moment that really translated well. I was really struck by how well George C. Wolfe made it so cinematic because it is a play that mostly takes place in two rooms. What were your conversations with him like? What insights did he bring to you for this?
GT: Well, let’s stay on the topic that you so aptly identify, which is that particular monologue about leftovers. On stage, because of a few things, but first of all, because we’re playing in a house of 700, maybe 1,000 people, I was able to devise an activity along with that monologue that was, I think I was wrapping sandwiches. There’s a part in the play where he says, “Your sandwiches are here,” and so on and so forth. Well, then at the end of that, I use the leftover sandwiches to accompany that particular speech. So I was wrapping the sandwiches as I was saying the speech and putting them away. The sandwiches in the movie were so obsolete that you didn’t even really realize that they were there. Second of all, George said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, Glynn.” He says, “Just sit at the piano and simply deliver that speech. Just break it all down.” So he guided me, directed me to that nuance that was a complete tone shift and completely everything shift from what I had depended on in the stage production and he was absolutely right because he let the camera do the work. He brought it in. He held me right here and the next thing I knew, I was sort of blues singing it. I was singing a song in that monologue and striking the keys on the piano, which then Branford [Marsalis] laid in this beautiful, easy little blues score and just changed the whole dynamic of the piece. Yet, all the meaning was still there and because it was the medium, I was able to reach the world with that particular thing. And thank you for bringing that up and saying that it struck a chord with you.
GD: Yeah, it certainly did. And the other thing is the members of the band, those three members who have been there, the veterans of the band, have such a synergy going on. How did you create that kind of familial quality with your fellow actors?
GT: Don’t tell them that I said this, but they’re not well. Either of them. They’re just a little off (laughs). But that’s really the kind of fun that we had with each other. We just enjoyed each other’s company so much. Viola Davis, one day after rehearsal, said, “Let’s all go out and get blasted.” (Laughs.) So we met at a diner in Pittsburgh and we had a wonderful meal and we got joyful and got to know each other, let our hair down a little bit, and embarked on the road of getting to know each other outside of the confines of the studio and we found that we really genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. So that translated easily onto the screen.
GD: I wanted to get your words on, because we very sadly lost Chadwick Boseman, and you obviously have very intense moments with him in this film. What was it like working together on this?
GT: Well, I’m an old school guy, so I’ve been in it a long time, so I have certain expectations. I come seriously to work. I come hopefully knowing my lines as best I can. Not as easy as it used to be, but still, I come on time. I do all the fundamentals that an artist is expected of, who has a responsibility to his fellow actors, and that’s what I look for and a lot of young actors, new actors, you don’t get that because celebrity can sometimes cloud that vision. Celebrity didn’t cloud his vision of his responsibility to his fellow actors. So once I realized that was there, I immediately loosened and vested myself in his professionalism and realized I could depend on his professional attitude to allow me to do my work professionally as well. So that’s respect. At the same time, offscreen, when the cameras yelled, “Cut,” I enjoyed the human being, the individual, because he had a great sense of humor. He was able to kid. I kidded him quite a bit, had a lot of fun with him and we talked about all kinds of crazy things. I enjoyed his relationship with his fiancée, Simone [Ledward], who was there. They were the sweetest couple as you could see, their budding love affair. So I just enjoyed him so much as I got to know him as a guy. So it was quite a blow when we discovered that we had lost him because it was a friendship in the making.
GD: It was great watching that intense final moment of the play between you two. It struck me as interesting, I don’t know if I’ve always seen it when this play is performed on stage, but you as Toledo look back at him in your final moments in a very intense way. What do you think Toledo is trying to telegraph to Levee?
GT: Are you talking about the moment when…
GD: Yes, when he’s stabbed.
GT: Does me in? (Laughs.) I think what the moment is is disbelief, a sense of disbelief and such utter disappointment. It’s almost not even for himself, Toledo. It’s for the disbelief and the disappointment and the sorrow is for him, for Levee. “What a sad thing you’ve given up. What a brilliant career.” Toledo feels bad for the boy.
GD: Well, I should also mention, you have another doomed character that you’re playing this season with “Fargo,” Doctor Senator.
GT: I’m full of doom this season. I told my agents, “No more doom, man. You’ve gotta find me a sitcom (laughs).
GD: (Laughs.) Well, there’s great material with doomed folk. The thing I love about “Fargo” and especially this season of “Fargo” is sometimes different television shows, the performances feel like they’re painted with one brush in order to fit into the same universe but “Fargo,” there’s such a room for different styles of performances from every actor. I mean, you can look at Jesse Buckley in your season, who is so heightened and so wild, but this character is really much more reserved. Is it difficult playing the sort of cool, calm person while there is all these heightened characters around?
GT: Look how cool and calm I am (laughs). No, it’s not difficult. It’s a choice you make and you figure if that’s working, your director says you’re on the right track, and you pursue that. I’m working with Chris Rock, who’s doing a fantastic job and you see him definitely trying his best and doing the work it takes to transform the viewer’s opinion of him as a comedic performer and take him seriously, which I think he accomplished and I wanted to make sure that I was that foil for him to help make that happen. So what I had to do, my job was to stay focused into him and be that straight man for him.
GD: I also wanted to make sure to talk about, you’ve had such a great long career and I think your first role was at age 12, I believe, with “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee. Did you know back then that you wanted a life as an actor and how big a deal it was to start there?
GT: No, no, not at all. Not a clue. Acting was the furthest thing from my mind. I was a typical kid growing up in the streets of New York, born in Harlem, which is where I started out and then at the age of about 10, nine, moved to 10th Street, as we talked about downtown in the village, but found myself as a result of my mother’s relationships with different characters in the village at the time, surrounded by people who were just very, very astute and very progressive and very talented people. So that was a world that I never sought out. I just found myself in, and as a result of that familiarity, anything that they were doing was discussed in our living rooms. Those conversations were going on as I was just a kid asking for a quarter to go outside. Whether that quarter came from James Baldwin, fine with me (laughs). “I don’t want to hear about your plays or your books or all that shit. You got a quarter? The ice cream man is downstairs and uncle Jimmy, I’d like to go down and get some ice cream.” (Laughs.) So it was that kind of an upbringing for me, so that when the opportunity came, I was a kid that was comfortable in my gregarious positions.
GD: Well, that’s quite an upbringing. I’m sure many people would be jealous of such an upbringing. But before I let you go, we keep track of awards here at Gold Derby, so I do need to congratulate you since the L.A. critics just gave you their best supporting actor prize for “Ma Rainey,” you were runner-up for National Society of Film Critics as well and you won an Emmy for guest actor in a drama for “In Treatment.” So I’m wondering, you have had experience with awards before, do you think that Emmy win opened doors for you? What was it like after that Emmy win?
GT: The thing I really enjoy about that Emmy win is that now when I’ve introduced, people don’t try to describe me through my credits. They just say, like on the red carpet, “And here’s Emmy Award-winning actor, Glynn Turman,” and that covers it. You don’t have to say, “You know him from ‘A Different World’ or ‘Cooley High’ or remember you saw him in ‘The Wire,’ he was the mayor.” All you got to do now is say, “He’s the Emmy Award-winning actor, Glynn Turman,” and that just covers a whole lot.
GD: Well, that’s a good way to end it. Maybe there will be more awards that people can introduce you with coming soon.
GT: From your lips to God’s ears and I thank you so much for this opportunity.