With more than a combined 100 years in the business, Cicely Tyson and Glynn Turman have endured plenty; they launched their careers in an America that was still governed by Jim Crow laws, and have worked consistently since, both on stage and screen. And they certainly have a lifetime of fascinating stories to tell, having starred opposite screen legends including Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte and more. They’ve worked together on several occasions, first in a 1974 staging of Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under The Elms,” to playing mother and son in the film “The River Niger” (1976), and co-starring in “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich” (1978). The beloved pair now find themselves in contention for Best Drama Guest Actress and Actor Emmy consideration for their roles in ABC’s Shondaland legal series “How to Get Away with Murder.”
Created by Peter Nowalk, the drama stars Viola Davis as Annalise Keating, a law professor at a prestigious Philadelphia university who, with five of her students, becomes entwined in a murder plot. Davis has received critical acclaim for her performance en route to becoming the first black woman to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
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A 16-time Emmy nominee and three-time winner, Tyson plays fan favorite Ophelia Harkness, Annalise Keating’s mother; a recurring role for which she has received four Emmy nominations – including this year’s – although she has yet to take home the trophy. At 94 years old, should her fourth nomination result in a win, it would be history making because she would become the oldest person to win an Emmy, replacing Sir David Attenborough’s 2018 win at the age of 92.
Turman is nominated for his recurring role as the imprisoned Nate Lahey Sr., a character that was introduced in Season 4, as part of a class action lawsuit that Annalise Keating’s class studies. It’s Turman’s second Emmy nomination. His first came in 2008, for his guest appearance on the HBO series “In Treatment,” which he won. And he would certainly love to pick up a second win with this year’s nomination.
In an interview with IndieWire, both Tyson and Turman talked about how important it was to build strong foundations early in the careers, what attracted them to their respective roles in “How to Get Away with Murder,” working with Davis, their love of the craft of acting, and more.
IndieWire: Who were your mentors when you were just getting started as actors, especially given that these were years when there weren’t many black people in the business to look up to, or emulate?
Cicely Tyson: Vinnette Carroll, who was a teacher at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, where Glynn went. She formed an acting school outside of Performing Arts called Urban Arts Corps, which was a nonprofit, interracial community theater where she was able to provide a professional workshop for aspiring young actors. And a lot of the young people who did not have access to Performing Arts went to her studio.
Glynn Turman: Ditto what Ms. Tyson said. Vinnette Carroll was extremely important in my development as my teacher in the High School of Performing Arts. She was also responsible for me coming to California. It was theater that brought me to California, not motion pictures or television. I came here to be a part of Vinnette Carroll’s role at the Inner City Cultural Center, where I appeared in a play called “Slow Dance on the Killing Ground.” And my screen career developed from that point on.
Tyson: And there was Lloyd Richards also. He was divine as far as I was concerned.
Turman: Oh yeah, Lloyd was the man. “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway, playing young Travis alongside Sidney Poitier, was where I got my start. He was the first director that I’d ever worked with.
Tyson: I made a movie titled “Carib Gold” (1956) with Diana Sands, and I was not secure about this talent that everyone said I had. I didn’t understand what they were talking about and so I was kind of reluctant after the movie was finished to continue with acting. I said I wasn’t going to do it anymore and Diana asked me why. I said because I don’t know what I’m doing. Everybody’s telling me that I’m so talented and I don’t know what they mean when they say that. So she said to me, “Don’t give up yet.” We were in Cuba filming at the time, and she said, “When you go back to New York, go to the Paul Mann Actor’s Workshop and study with Lloyd Richards.” This was were actors like Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte all studied, under Lloyd. And Diana said, “Go there and after you work with him you can decide if you don’t want to do it anymore, but give yourself a chance.” And so I went there and that’s where I found my rock, in Lloyd Richards.
Turman: He eventually went to teach at Yale and so many young, black actors at the time studied under Lloyd’s tutelage. Angela Bassett, Charles Dutton, Courtney B. Vance, all of them studied with Lloyd. He was a legend.
Tyson: I have to tell you how important it is for young people to know that the foundation that they are given in the early years of studying is extremely important, and that you should have people who are as brilliant as Vinnette and Lloyd were in their teaching and interest in developing good young black actors and actresses. Because it is that foundation that will carry you through your career. If you don’t have it, you’re going to slip and fall too many times. So I consider myself very fortunate to have had them in my life at the beginning.
IndieWire: And how does Ms. Tyson feel about being called a legend and an icon herself?
Tyson: That means I’m old! That’s what a legend means, you know. I looked it up in the dictionary. Well, it means that I’ve been here for a long time and to be in this business a long time and still be working is quite extraordinary and so I do appreciate and honor it.
IndieWire: Earlier in your career especially, you played what would be described as strong, black women. Was that by design or were those the kinds of roles you were being offered?
Tyson: I said to myself after I saw the impact “Sounder” had on people, “Cicely, I don’t think you can afford the luxury of just being an actress.” I decided that there were some issues that I wanted to address and that I would use my career as my platform. And that’s what I did.
IndieWire: Both of you have accomplished so much. You have won Emmys, Tonys, have been nominated for an Academy Award. Does your Emmy nomination this year mean more than any previous accomplishment?
Turman: It’s a big deal for me. I’m always really kind of surprised when I’m nominated for anything really. But this is my second Emmy nomination, and just like the last time, I was caught off guard because I haven’t campaigned at all. I hadn’t done the typical kinds of things that people do when they are seeking awards recognition. This conversation is a campaign trip, but I didn’t campaign to get here. So I try to keep it all in perspective.
Tyson: There was a day when I came back from an audition dejected because I didn’t get the part. My mother sat me down and said to me: “What is for you in this life, you will get; what is not for you, you will never get.” You know mothers are always full of all of these parables.
Turman: That’s my philosophy as well, passed on to me by my aunt. Except she put it differently. She said: “What’s fire is fire; and what ain’t, ain’t.”
IndieWire: What attracted Mr. Turman to Nate Lahey Sr., the character you play on “How to Get Away with Murder”?
Turman: I knew that the script was going to deal with how unjust the justice system is. And I was asked to come in to speak with the writers and producers, and was able to contribute to this story from a very personal point of view. My father was incarcerated and was treated very unfairly, so much that it did some damage to him. And so the story struck a chord. This particular story was going to deal with an issue that hit home for me in a very specific way and I welcomed the challenge, and hopefully did it justice.
IndieWire: It must have been devastating given what happens to the character. He dies.
Turman: Yeah, it is, but it isn’t. It makes sense within the context of the story.
IndieWire: And what drew Ms. Tyson to the character of Ophelia Harkness?
Tyson: Viola asked me to play her mother which came as an incredible surprise and honor. I’ve had such tremendous respect for her from the first time I ever saw her on stage, and so, that she asked me was, in and of itself enough. I didn’t care if they just gave me one line, or if all I had to do was walk around her, pat her on the shoulder, or whatever it was. I would do it. And so that was enough for me. But it became much more than that because I don’t think it’s necessary for me to say what a brilliant actress Viola is. I’ve had some wonderful acting partners during the course of my career and one that looms is Mr. Ossie Davis.
IndieWire: In “A Man Called Adam” (1966).
Tyson: He was the first one who made me really feel like I wasn’t working at all. It was so easy with him. And it was a glorious experience for me and I never got over it. And so after that experience, I kind of kept looking for that with work that I take. And with Viola, I didn’t have to look for it. It was just there. I felt that she was my daughter and that every single emotion that struck her like a chord, I felt as well. It is priceless and it’s rare.
Turman: Yeah, but that’s what it’s like working with you, Cicely. That’s what it’s like watching and working with you. You are amazing, always have been. And I make people jealous when I say that, in the play we did together, “Desire Under the Elms,” I got a chance to kiss Cicely Tyson. Oh my God, you talk about a highlight of one’s career. Oh boy! That was wonderful, yes indeed.
Tyson: Not too many can say that. Paul Winfield and you. That’s it! There was another play where I was supposed to kiss the actor and I wouldn’t kiss him. And the director took me outside and asked me why. And I said that the actor smokes and I’m allergic to smoke.
Turman: Well, I’m glad I didn’t smoke!
IndieWire: Finally, what do you both love most about your craft?
Tyson: The education. I consider myself a student of every woman that I have played because I have been taught always to do as much research as I can about the character I am about to introduce to you, and that’s what I do. I spend a great deal of time trying to figure out who she is. I think if you don’t feel, smell, and taste the life of that person, how do you know who she is, where did she come from, you know? I have some of the earth from Texas when I was researching for “The Trip to Bountiful” that I brought home and put in a jar, because that’s how important it is for me to be as close to the character as is possible. But I’ve learned so much along the way from every single experience and that’s what I’ve become – the sum total of my whole life’s experience. I’ve learned from every single one of these women that I have had the blessing to project in exchange.
Turman: That’s a similar thing for me, especially in the last couple of decades. I’ve been able to honor [and] dedicate my performances to different people in my life who have meant something to me. And for me to be involved in a profession that allows me to tell the story of the men and women who have influenced my life makes this a very special occupation for me to have fallen into. And therefore I continue to try and bring my very best to it because I know who I’m honoring.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 15 through Thursday, Aug. 29 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmys Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 22.