Samuel L. Jackson brings personal experience with dementia to 'The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey' on AppleTV+

·8 min read

Samuel L. Jackson takes on the emotional, personal role of a man with dementia, alongside Walton Goggins, Dominique Fishback and Omar Benson Miller in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, now streaming on AppleTV+, based on the novel by award-winning author Walter Mosley.

“I read the novel 10, 12 years ago and I've always thought Ptolemy was just fascinating and a wonderfully, I guess in my mind, cinematic character that I thought would be fun to play,” Jackson, who plays the lead role of Ptolemy Grey and serves as executive producer of the series, alongside his wife LaTanya Richardson Jackson, said ahead of the series’ premiere.

“In the midst of all that fun to play I realized, OK I'm dealing with my grandfather and my mom and her brother and her sister, these people all have Alzheimer's, dementia, and I'm kind of surrounded by it… I gathered more poignancy in terms of what it meant, in terms of my life and who I was and what I was dealing with, and how I would want to present this story to the world.”

Samuel L. Jackson in
Samuel L. Jackson in "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” premiering globally March 11, 2022 on Apple TV+.

When we initially meet Ptolemy in the series, he’s forgotten most of his family members and frankly, his life to date. What’s unique about The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is that while Ptolemy’s deterioration is clearly seen in the series, it’s not a story that’s led by his weakness.

“A lot of people, they come from the point of view of not the person experiencing dementia, but the person seeing it and that person seeing it is saying, ‘oh, isn't that terrible, isn’t that awful,'” Moseley explained. “But if you're in the mind of that person they’re saying, ‘no, I'm not doing that.’”

“You identify with that human spirit that's in there, that hasn't gotten any weaker… Because I identified so closely with the main character, Ptolemy, and I identified with him even when he was experiencing dementia, that made a softer look of him and also a more heroic look at him, and certainly not him as a victim, because every time he was victimized, he fought back.”

Omar Benson Miller in
Omar Benson Miller in "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” premiering globally March 11, 2022 on Apple TV+.

Ptolemy still remembers his nephew Reggie Lloyd (Omar Benson Miller), who supports Ptolemy and helps him run errands.

“The book is very detailed about the relationship that Reggie has with his uncle in the sense of…him teaching him things, and I took all that and then I mined my own real life for the experiences that I have with the elderly in my family,” Miller said. “I felt a weight and understanding of how important it was to get this relationship right, and to portray it as honest and authentic.”

Other people who are able to cut through the fog of Ptolemy’s dementia are his late wife Sensia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams), who he continues to see in these ghostly memories, as well as the late Coydog (Damon Gupton), a sort of paternal mentor, honorary uncle to Ptolemy when he was growing up in Mississippi.

After the sudden loss of his caregiver, orphaned teen Robyn (Dominique Fishback), the daughter of a friend of Ptolemy’s niece, Niecie (Marsha Stephanie Blake), takes over the caregiver role.

“It was important that I present Ptolemy as a person that I hoped that people who were dealing with people like that in their lives could see, and get an honest feeling of how they felt when they sat and talked to that particular person, or was expecting a specific response from those people,” Jackson said.

“I tend to kind of get a little squirrelly when I go into a room and can't remember why I walked into it, or if I can't remember a name that I know that I know… But I think the fact that I'm still working, I'm still learning lines and that faculty still works, I think I'm OK, for the moment. So hopefully that'll be the case and I won't just wake up one day and not know.”

Robyn discovers that Reggie had made an appointment for Ptolemy to see Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins), who has been working on a drug that completely restores the mind and memories of someone with dementia, for a short period of time. That leads to a major question posed in the series - if you had the opportunity to get that clarity for a short moment in time, would you do it? That’s when Ptolemy sets off on a quest to retrieve a forgotten treasure, put together for him by Coydog.

Dominique Fishback and Samuel L. Jackson in
Dominique Fishback and Samuel L. Jackson in "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” premiering globally March 11, 2022 on Apple TV+.

Emotional, dynamic performances across the board

While Samuel L. Jackson gives a gut-wrenchingly emotional performance, the entire cast, but particularly Dominique Fishback, really impress in terms of bringing characters with complex and dynamic storylines to life.

Jackson recalls seeing Fishback in Show Me a Hero (alongside his wife) and Judas and the Black Messiah, but it wasn’t until the actor saw her in Project Power with Jamie Foxx that he knew “that’s Robyn,” even if he additionally didn't realize it was the same person from those other projects.

“Omar, I've been watching for a very long time too,...he's just a wonderful, sensitive actor and I thought having this big bear of a man that took care of Ptolemy, and Ptolemy’s shrinking size and the way Ptolemy clung to him,…made a lot of sense,” Jackson said.

“To have somebody like Walton Goggins come in and be the doctor, who I've acted with in other films and watched him on television for a very long time,...to have Marsha Stephanie Blake come in and be Niecie who I've worked with in other films… To be able to give people jobs that I trust,...you know that the emotional impact of that particular scene is going to resonate with an audience.”

Cynthia Kaye McWilliams in
Cynthia Kaye McWilliams in "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” premiering globally March 11, 2022 on Apple TV+.

For Cynthia Kaye McWilliams who plays Sensia, what she was most surprised by was Jackson’s “excitement about the process.”

“I would say that the crux of the communication, or the collaboration, between [Samuel L. Jackson and I], was simply about individually setting in our own characters, living in these characters, and then just listening to each other,” McWilliams said. “He just knows how to give back in the most subtle, silent way and he allows for the space of seeing what you're going to bring.”

Fishback definitely put in extensive work to understand Robyn, writing a 28-page document about the character, using quotes from the book and including a picture of Natalie Portman in The Professional, which she brought into the role as a bit of inspiration, particularly when Portman, as Mathilda, says, “Leon, I think I’m kind of falling in love with you.”

“Journaling is a big part of just who I am as a person, I have journals from when I was like, 10 years old, 12 years old… I started acting and writing at the same time and so they do go hand-in-hand for me… It gives me a sense of freedom, a sense of confidence to journal because…I know deeply and profoundly who she is, or who she is expressed through me.”

Marsha Stephanie Blake, Samuel L. Jackson and Dominique Fishback in
Marsha Stephanie Blake, Samuel L. Jackson and Dominique Fishback in "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” premiering globally March 11, 2022 on Apple TV+.

'Breaking up this myth of the Black culture being monolithic'

Particularly unique to this character is Robyn’s relationship with Niecie (Marsha Stephanie Blake). They’re not family but she’s basically the closest thing Robyn has to family, which causes unique tensions to rise amid the love and support.

When it comes to the different aspects of family relationships that are explored throughout the series, Omar Benson Miller highlighted that The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is “breaking up this myth of the Black culture being monolithic.”

“This is a dynamic representation of a real family and a multigenerational, real experience,” he said. “Warts and all, as they say, flawed people who are doing their best in life.”

“I think we can always deal with telling more stories, seeing it being told more often, in different ways, that shows that the Black family is not just about trauma, that there's joy, that there's intrigue, that there is love,” Marsha Stephanie Blake added.

“I think the difference we're seeing now is that these stories are being told by the people who have lived them, and so we're getting, finally, to a place of honesty and authenticity that feels real and feels varied, because…the people making the decisions, they look like us.”