Glynn Turman interview: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’
“August has such a distinct rhythm in his works and you want to pay homage to that rhythm,” explains Emmy winner Glynn Turman of the late legendary playwright August Wilson. The actor portrays Toledo, the wise piano player in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The key to bringing the character to life in this Netflix adaptation was operating much like a musician, according to Turman. He describes Wilson’s dialogue “like reading sheet music,” and locking into that musicality makes the rest of the job easy. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
Turman has already won the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Best Supporting Actor prize for his performance as Toledo. Critics have recognized his skill and comfort in the role, and indeed Turman has lived with the character for some time having played Toledo on stage in a production at the Mark Taper Forum. It’s there that producer Denzel Washington came backstage and told the actor to “standby” for his chance at the film adaptation. Turman refers to this prior experience as “a blessing and a curse” when it came to committing Toledo to film. “The challenge for the actor,” he explains, “is to not get comfortable and rely on things that worked for you previously. To discover the character all over again.”
His efforts in rediscovering Toledo were aided by Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe. In one of several infamous monologues from Wilson’s script, Toledo muses on the “stew” that is America, with the pianist noting that black people are “the leftovers.” Wolfe encouraged Turman to toss out the business the actor had created on stage for this moment in favor of a simpler delivery. Turman was thrilled with the “complete tonal shift” that Wolfe guided him towards, and ended up improvising at the piano while he delivered the lines. “The next thing I know, I was sort of blues singing it,” remembers Turman, “sing-songing it on the piano.”
Turman has worked with esteemed co-stars in his projects this year. He praises the late Chadwick Boseman for his professionalism, explaining that “celebrity didn’t cloud his vision of responsibility.” He also enjoyed getting to know the young actor off-camera. “It was quite a blow when we discovered that lost him,” says Turman, “because it was a friendship in the making.”
In addition to “Ma Rainey,” Turman also had a commanding presence in Season 4 of “Fargo” on FX. He appreciated Chris Rock’s effort of “transforming the viewers’ opinion of him” with a dark, dramatic turn. “I wanted to make sure I was that foil for him,” states Turman. The actor then played his role of Doctor Senator with a sense of restraint. A sharp contrast to many of the larger than life characters around him. Is it difficult playing cool and calm alongside many heightened characters? “No,” the actor replies with a laugh, “look at how cool and calm I am!”
Glynn Turman won an Emmy for “In Treatment” and earned an additional nomination for “How to Get Away With Murder.”