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Glynn Turman on portraying Emmett Till's great-uncle, "Fargo," Jennifer Hudson's Aretha and a lifetime of acting

 Actor Glynn Turman
Glynn Turman
Actor Glynn Turman
Actor Glynn Turman

A painful but pivotal moment in American history is the subject of a new miniseries that debuts on ABC this week.

“Women of the Movement” traces the way the murder of Emmett Till galvanized civil rights efforts and exposed racial divisions that remain with us more than 65 years later. And it shows how one grieving mother turned her anger and despair into a push for justice.

Emmy-winning actor Glynn Turman gives a heartrending performance as Till’s uncle Mose Wright. In recent years, there has been what the L.A. Times called a “Glynnaissance,” with roles in “Ma Rainey’s Block Bottom,” “Fargo,” “The Way Back,” “The Wire,” and many more.

What drew you to this role?

Well, it's a story that was part of my growing up. I was a youngster when Emmett met that unfortunate demise, but it was a part of the dining room table conversation, you know, everybody was up in arms. And I remember the pictures in Jet and Ebony, you know, and I remember the talks and discussions that followed as a result in our household. So to be a part of this story once I read it, and so how, honestly and reverently, they were treating this character, his story. I was happy to be asked to be a part of it.

You must have been right around Emmett Till's age as those events unfortunately took place, or not too much younger.

Not too much younger.

What effect did that have on you?

Well, just like I said, you know, the details of caution, all of a sudden, everything became very, you know, be careful, be careful, be careful, you know. I wasn't clear as to if it was a direct result of that incident. But I knew there was a connectio, somehow. That was an effect of most Black kids becoming aware of where they stand in the community.

The character you play most right has a very interesting arc in this series, because it's clear that he's a very smart and strong man. But given the social circumstances where he lives in the South, he has to make some very difficult and impossible choices. What was your approach in playing him?

Well, one was that the first thing I knew was that he was a man of God, you know, and a man of the earth. And I think that those two things really informed his character, there were two things that I could relate to easily. You know, he was a man who has strong ties, not only to his faith, but to a place that he was proud to call his own, you know, which was his farm. And so the uprooting and the invasion of the sacred place for him had to be just horrible, just absolutely horrible on so many different levels. And so we were able to start there with that those kinds of similarities.

Early in the series, when Emmett Till is trying to come and stay with your character during the summer, your character says, well, we don't really have a problem with politics in the South, you know, they leave us alone. And it's a very heartbreaking moment. Because, in retrospect, obviously, that's not how things played out.


What was your take on his own sort of growth and understanding of the reality of the situation where he was living?

Well, that's kind of what I was alluding to earlier is that he had thought that…he was not unaware of what this what the dangers were, but he thought he had carved out for himself and his family through hard work and righteousness a place where that sort of terror would be warded off, you know. And so to have that dream, or that have that belief crumble right before your very eyes, you know, is enough to bring an ordinary man to his knees.

Watching this miniseries, I was really struck by how contemporary it felt, unfortunately. When you were on the set, and when you were working through your character, and so on, how aware of things like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and other cases that have been in the news recently — latter day examples of some of the problems exposed by this miniseries?

I think we were all very much aware of what that was. But as aware as we were, you know, it only helped propel us back into the time period that we were portraying, as performers and storytellers. It gave us a good meeting point, you know, to dive into the truth of what it must have been like back then. We were filming in the very exact same places where so many of the incidences occurred, you know, so it was like you were there. And then when it was time to leave the set and to come back to the world so to speak, you were still there. It was, it was not, it was a rough time. It was a crusade, you know, actually, it was a crusade, because those roads were well traveled with hate.

What effect do you hope that this miniseries might have?

Well, I hope that…well, it has already done something goo that I’m glad we've been able to accomplish. We're in a very, very dangerous time. Right now, the danger is that we're in a time in which people are willing to sweep history under the carpet so as not to have to tell horrible truths or face horrible truths. And that's in our schools. That's in our libraries. That's all under attack from facts that we have, and should be, addressing. And for ABC, and the producers and writers, MJ Cerar, Jay Z and Will Smith, and Aaron Kaplan, to take on this monstrosity of anger, of horror, and make sure that it does not sink to the bottom out of everyone's sight, but does reground everyone in a reality of truth, from now on to be seen on a major network, I think that that has a major accomplishment in itself. And I'm just glad to be a part of that.

It was very interesting from my perspective, as someone who works as a reporter to see how important news media and the way stories are framed was to the telling of what happened to Emmett Till. And that's part of the miniseries as well is that the folks who are on the side of justice are really relying on mass media to sort of awaken the masses.

Yes. Yes. Yes. It’s very important. Very important. Yeah, it's something that will resonate with all of us, I think. And I hope it does. I'm glad to hear you say what you said.

Well, you got your start as an actor, as a child actor in the stage production of “A Raisin in the Sun.” And you were working alongside some of the intellectual Black elite of the day. Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. Part of the miniseries is relying on the network of sort of Black intellectual elite of that time, including the NAACP, to spread the word of what's happened to Emmett Till. And I was just wondering, given the background and the people you grew up around in your home, and when you began working as a child actor, do you see arts and culture and civil rights as being sort of linked somehow?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. And then so many of our prominent actors, especially if those times and actresses were, you know, part of the they links that were used to draw attention to the injustices, you know, and I was able to witness that and be a part of that in so many ways and so many times. And so it's something that I’m glad to be a part of, not that anybody asked, or has to volunteer, but that the work itself sort of pulls you in.

A lot of people who begin working so early, eventually stopped working or they want to take a long break from acting. When did you realize that you actually wanted to do acting for your life and your career?

Once I got to the High School of Performing Arts, where I did well for the first time in school, because I was not a good student prior to getting to that school. But when I graduated with honors, from the High School of Performing Arts, I had made a promise to my mother that I would graduate. And I did and I did with honors and pursued it. And we've been together ever since, this acting thing and myself.

Has your approach to the job of acting and how you get inside a character changed from what you did when you were starting out to how you do it now?

Yeah, it has evolved. I was trained as a Method actor, you know. Stanislavski, the Actors Studio, Lee Strasburg, and all that, you know, but I incorporated and modified and developed techniques and styles and learned things from different people and stole from actors that I admire. So that I have a technique that I rely on to develop characters that I've been able to play and it has served me well.

You know, one of your recent amazing performances was as Doctor Senator on the latest season of “Fargo.” When I was getting ready to speak with speak with you, I was wondering how you approach playing a real character as you do in this latest miniseries versus a fictional character? Because I have to imagine the background work that you do is different somehow.

Well, you know, it's just a different responsibility. The responsibility playing a real character like Moses Wright. You know, I have a responsibility that is ever present in my awareness of who I'm who and what I'm doing. I'm not satisfied until I get the OK from the people who are alive, if possible, to tell me as it has happened in this particular production of “Women Of rhe Movement,” the family has come forth and said ‘Glynn, you did a great job portraying our uncle.’ Well, now I'm relieved of my responsibilities, I can say, hey, I did my job, and I'm walking into the sunset. But characters like Doctor Senator can be a composite of so many other things and, and, and uses of my imagination, you know, that I can pull in to develop this character seeing as how he's an original, you know, so I can reach back to uncles, I can reach back there, I can use a wardrobe, I can use all the things at my disposal and build this guy, to hopefully be someone that's entertaining enough to have to do is believe that he exists.

As an actor, do you like spending time in different time periods as in the two series we've been talking about?

Yes, it's really fun. You know, make velieve. And it's what kids do, you know, and it kind of keeps you young, because you're really just doing what you did as a kid, you know, just making believe.

Tell me about working with Chris Rock on that series. You both give really just kind of incredible performances.

Well, Chris is great, you know, we had met each other. But we didn't get to know each other until that series, “Fargo” and he’s a wonderful guy. We're working together right now, we just finished working together on Bayard. And it’s wonderful to see his acting chops developed, you know, aside from being obviously a great, great comedian. But he's taken this acting thing so seriously, and doing everything he can to deliver performances that separate him from his comedic persona. And so I've been enjoying being there and watching him going through this metamorphosis.

Just a couple more things. You were married for a time to Aretha Franklin, and then you remained close with her afterwards, as I understand. What did you think of Jennifer Hudson's performance in the movie “Respect?”

When Aretha and I spoke, honestly, and I’m going to tell you, and she told me who she wanted to play, which was Jennifer. I said, I don't think she's right. And she said I think she is and I said, no, I think people are gonna spend too much time comparing your voices. She says I want Jennifer, like only Aretha can do. Well, OK, so, and then I saw Jennifer's performance. And once again, I had to say to myself, well Aretha was right again. Because Jennifer was wonderful.

What are you working on now that you're excited about?

Well, just wrapped Bayard Rustin’s story for the Obamas’ new Netflix company Higher Ground. This is the story of Bayard Rustin, who was the man who formulated the March on Washington, coordinated the March on Washington, and who never received credit for it because of his sexual persuasion. You know, the story is again with Colman Domingo, who I’m reunited with, and Michael Potts who I’m reunited with, and George C. Wolfe, who reunited us and put the band back together from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” So much of the crew and the cinematographer is from then, and so we had a great time reuniting to tell this story tat's another powerhouse of a story and when you see this one, man, this is this will knock your socks off.

I can't wait. Are you having time to get on horseback recently?

I just left the ranch yesterday. Cold as hell. So it's too cold to ride. Just left and it was good to get back and roll the dirt and shovel some you know what. That I was looking forward to and the first thing I did when we got back home from Pittsburgh, which is where we were filming. So yes, I’m back in the saddle again.

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