How Glynn Turman Played the Long Game
There have been few dramatic performances in an episode of television that are as good as what Glynn Turman did late in the first season of In Treatment. There has likely not been a better one.
In a 2008 episode of the HBO psychiatry drama titled “Alex: Week Eight,” Turman plays Alex Prince, Sr., father of Alex Jr. (Blair Underwood), recently-deceased patient of Gabriel Byrne’s Dr. Paul Weston. Prior to his apparent suicide, Alex had spent many of his sessions telling Paul horror stories about his abusive, domineering old man, including the time Alex Sr. smothered his own coughing father to death to avoid the entire family being found by a racist lynch mob. The tales Alex recounted were so monstrous, so larger-than-life, they seemed as if they couldn’t possibly all be true — and, if they were, that no actor alive could play such a man and make him believable.
Turman proved otherwise, living up to everything and nothing that Underwood had teased. His performance was full of pent-up rage and pain that flooded out at the end, when Paul insisted that Alex died loving and admiring his father. “Do you think that comforts me?” Alex Sr. wailed, his voice sounding like it was being dragged over jagged rocks.
It was an Emmy-winning, career-altering role for Turman, a veteran actor who was recognizable from decades of strong work in the business — including stints on A Different World (as Col. Taylor) and The Wire (as Mayor Royce) — but not necessarily at the top of any casting wish lists. (Famously, he auditioned for Star Wars, a role he later learned was Han Solo, but didn’t get the part.) In the dozen years since In Treatment, Turman has worked more, in more challenging and high-profile parts, than at any point in his career. That steady progress has culminated with a big one-two punch that landed at the end of 2020: This fall, he stole Fargo (streaming on Hulu) out from under an all-star cast as the wise, patient, charismatic mob advisor Doctor Senator. And he more than holds his own opposite Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in the new film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (out December 18th on Netflix), based on the August Wilson play about the legendary blueswoman recording an album of her greatest hits on a hot Chicago day in 1927.
Still, despite rising to certified national-treasure status, Turman considers himself just “a blue-collar guy.” As he puts it, “I go to work with a lunch pail, punch out at the end of the day, and go home. That’s it.”
Here, Turman talks about his career highlights, humble beginnings, and, to kick things off, the role that changed everything.
When you’re doing a performance like the one in In Treatment, where your character has been talked about for weeks before you first appear, how much do you draw on what’s been said in your absence?
I didn’t draw my picture from what I got from Blair. I just drew it from my own life experiences in terms of seeking truth for this man. I didn’t want to play him as a monster. I wanted to play him as somebody who had a history and had a way of life that he thought was right, you know? I don’t think the monsters ever think that they’re wrong; they think that they’re right.
Did you have any idea the impact that performance would have on your career?
No, but I did realize it was a hell of a role. It spoke to a lot of issues, and a lot of sore spots. And that I would have to dig deep in that. The common denominator was inescapable for me, in that I had lost a son in real life. [Turman’s son, Glynn Turman Jr., was murdered in 1986 at the age of 21.] So it was from there that I marched forward in that journey, in itself. It has been and always will be a source of undeniable and unbelievable pain and anguish. So that was really all I had to do, was tap into that reality for me and go from there.
I’m sorry, I hadn’t realized that. Channeling something so close to you, what was that shoot like?
It was excruciating.
You won the dramatic guest actor Emmy for that performance, beating Robin Williams, Charles Durning, Stanley Tucci, Robert Morse, and Oliver Platt —
That ain’t chopped liver! [Laughs.]
You’d been working a long time by that point. A Different World was a big hit, you were on The Wire… At that stage of your career, what did winning the Emmy do for you?
I playfully tease with this, but it’s the truth: Now, when I’m on the red carpet or being introduced, I say that you don’t have to introduce me by trying to figure out what play or what movie you know me from — “You know him from The Wire” or whatever. All you have to do now is say, “Emmy Award-winning actor Glynn Turman.” That takes care of the introduction [laughs].
Did it change the kinds of offers you got?
Not immediately. But since then, I’ve never been busier, and never felt included with more ease and comfort than as a result of being able to say, “He’s an Emmy Award winner.” My career is, right now, in a swing that is surprising me.
Scrubs cast you for an episode about a terminally ill man who knows he won’t live through the night (“My Last Words”). One of the producers told me they wanted you specifically because they’d loved you in In Treatment. Do you think these offers were because of that performance, or because you now had that Emmy?
I think it was a combination of the two. I’ve been acting for a long, long time. I’ve always taken my craft seriously, so I’ve always brought everything that I had to the game. I’m one of those guys who’s all-in. That’s what they call me: “All-In Glynn.” When I was a young man starting out, some said then that if it had been a different era when it came to acknowledging black performers for awards, that’s what I would have received back in the day. But back then, they weren’t giving us our propers. So, I’ve always brought my best game. And sometimes, it has been good, sometimes it’s been very good, sometimes it’s just OK [laughs]. But at this stage of the game, for me to still be in the game, I’m more than honored to still be asked — for whatever reason, whether it’s the accolades behind the name Glynn Turman or the craft behind it.
Do you think you’re a better actor now than you were in the Seventies or Eighties, or even back in 1958, when you were a 12-year-old kid in the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun?
I don’t think I’m better. When I was a kid, I was just natural, doing it. It was all natural instinct, unbarbed, uncomplicated, un-thought-out. Not trying to do anything; I was just doing. That’s what you want. Once you learn what the craft is, what the work is, you go about doing the work. Well, trying is trying and doing is doing. They’re two different things. When I was just doing it, that’s what I’ve been trying to get back to.
Can you think of a role where you were just doing and not trying?
The role that you spoke of, In Treatment, I didn’t have to try to do anything. It just happened. I think Fargo, the character that I play, Doctor Senator, is just a character that I didn’t have to try to do anything with him. Just do it. Most of the things I’m doing now, I’m at a place where I’m comfortable just doing what I do. But it’s taken time to get back to that level of clarity as a performer.
So when you’re saying “doing what I do,” what is that? What does Glynn Turman do as an actor?
I play the notes of the moment. Sometimes, a director will say, “Can you do it like you did it the take before?” And I can’t. I can’t copy a performance. Every take is a different take. Every performance on stage is different. Every line reading is different. It’s like jazz music for me now. It’s all about the moment, it’s all about the thought that’s behind the moment, behind the picture that my character is painting. So, I can’t repeat a performance.
Clockwise from back left: Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, Colman Domingo as Cutler, and Chadwick Boseman as Levee. Cr. David Lee / Netflix
Jazz brings us to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. You’re playing Toledo, the philosophizing pianist, a role you already played in a 2016 stage production. So you’re repeating a character, if not a performance. How is what you’re doing in the film different from what you did on stage?
Very clearly in terms of two things. One being that the medium has dictated a different level of performance. It’s a different level of performance when you have to do a close-up and convey, as opposed to fill up a thousand-seat audience to convey the same emotion. Just in terms of economy, the Toledos are different. Where he might have, on stage, been in a rage of trying to convey, in this medium that we’re doing now, his movements and his energy are much more concise.
What was it like working so closely with Chadwick Boseman?
Oh, it was wonderful. He was a lot of fun, very daring and risk-taking, so that made it fun for all of us, as we were all in a room full of musicians, jazz musicians both literally and figuratively. As performers, actors, we were bouncing off of each other, just as a quartet would in a musical band. He was right on top, picked up his queues, and we were able to go and move forward [together].
How did you first hear about the role of Doctor Senator on Fargo?
My agents said they had an offer to play this role, and they sent this script over, and I read it and said, “Holy moly, this guy’s fantastic, this guy’s got depth. Do whatever you have to do, fake it as long as you can, but don’t lose this role.” So they did. And we got to work. Met Noah [Hawley, the creator], we had a great dinner, and we found that had something in common: We grew up and went to the same school in the West Village in New York. Of course, this was many years apart, but it was fun to find out that we had this in common, that this brilliant young man was from the ’hood I came from. Not “the ’hood” like Boyz n the Hood, a different ’hood — a very artsy kind of colony that Greenwich Village was known for.
Doctor Senator has intellectual and academic bona fides. He was assigned to interrogate Nazi commander Hermann Goring as prep for the Nuremberg trials.
What was wonderful was, as gangster-ish as this character was, he had a backstory that was really fascinating to me. He was a Howard-educated black man, a lawyer, with credentials, and had such a unique experience, the story of putting the Germans on trial in Nuremburg. I found some real people who told me about it, in words similar to what I was telling [on the show]: “We were used just to torture them, because they had to answer to us, and it was torture for them to answer to men of color.” Those stories were just wonderful to tell.
Fargo has room for a lot of distinct performing styles. What you were doing was understated and reserved, very different from what somebody like Salvatore Esposito, who played Gaetano, or Jessie Buckley, who played Oraetta Mayflower, both totally over-the-top characters, were doing. Did you ever think about going much bigger with your performance?
Never went through my mind. I always just play the thoughts of the character. I try to learn how the character thinks, and that informs how I deliver the lines, and how I approach the character. If I can figure out how he thinks, I can get an understanding of how to play him.
Glynn Turman (standing) in Season Four of ‘A Different World.’
You’ve had these big peaks and valleys in your career. The 1975 coming-of-age film Cooley High was a big hit, and then you spent years on A Different World when it was one of the highest-rated shows on TV. But before you got the Emmy, did you have to hustle a lot more for work when you weren’t part of a hit?
Yeah, like in any actor’s career, there are lulls and storms. You’ve got to remember, Cooley High was not a financial-gain endeavor. It was part of a black exploitation of films. Exploitation means just that. They were paying us very little for the work. It brought me a certain amount of exposure, especially in my community, but it didn’t make me a worldwide, international star. It made me a folk hero. Therefore, the monetary value was not that I could rest on my laurels. I had to do whatever I had to do to continue to work: Broadway, off-Broadway, black-box theaters, TV shows, PBS shows. I’m a blue-collar guy, a blue-collar actor. I go to work with a lunch pail, punch out at the end of the day and go home. That’s it. That mentality has given me a certain sense of how to survive this, and longevity.
Even now, things don’t always quite work out. Earlier this year, you were fifth-billed in The Way Back, the Ben Affleck vehicle about a recovering alcoholic, but you only popped up briefly a few times. What happened?
There was a whole bar community of characters that were his drinking associates, and all of us, we suffered the scissors. Actually, I fared better than most in that slaughter. And I can understand that the movie, for whatever reason, that’s the choice they made. Listen, the world not long remembers some of the shows I’ve been cut out of.
I want to go back to that Raisin in the Sun production, to try to understand what it must have been like for you as an adolescent to be on a stage in that production, with actors like Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. Did you have any sense at that time of what this meant and who they were?
Only from the behavior of my parents and my family — my mother and her sisters, the screaming they were doing because I was up there with Sidney Poitier. Once, the show was still on the road, I think in Philly, and they posted the reviews on the bulletin board backstage, and Sidney read it, and he yelled out, “We’re a hit!” And he picked my mother up and spun her around, and she had this look on her face. She screamed, and next thing I know, she was on the phone, calling back to my sister and my aunt in New York, going, “He picked me up and spun me around!!!” And I said, “Who is this dude?” That’s when I realized how big a star he was, and how important all of this was that we were in.
Did you know you wanted to be an actor at that point?
Hell, no! I was gonna be Jackie Robinson. I was gonna be a baseball player. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had gotten into it because Lorraine Hansberry and my mother were friends. We had grown up in Greenwich Village, where Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Jack Klugman, those were all my mother’s friends. I went to school with their kids. My mother said, “You know my friend Ms. Hansberry? She says she’s written a play, and she has to cast a little boy.” I said, “Well, if it’s on Saturday, I can’t do it, because I’ve got a baseball game. But I can do it as long as it doesn’t interfere with the baseball.” And she said, “Well, it might.”
I didn’t know what an audition was! I thought it was my role, so what the hell were these other kids doing there? I auditioned, and got the part, because I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t know I was competing. So I got it, and had to leave my public school and join a children’s school for performers. And these were all kids on Broadway — Patty Duke and all of them, because Patty was doing The Miracle Worker. My school, we were all little junior thugs. Just hanging out in this [new] preppy little school, talking about their agents and shit like that, I’m like, “What the fuck? Agents? What are they talking about? Get me out of here!” But I did it, because it was helpful. We weren’t doing so well, rent-wise. The lights were sometimes on, and sometimes the electricity was off. This was a steady little check coming in, a brown envelope that had maybe 100 bucks, 140 bucks in it. At any rate, it was something to do, and I did it for a year. I got to meet everybody that were heroes in my household: Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne. Even for a 12-year-old, Dorothy Dandridge was something. So, that was what that world was.
How did you feel when the play was over?
I didn’t leave it with the intentions of ever doing it again. I had a great time, and was ready to move on to whatever I was planning to do as a teenager, which was mostly to play ball and get in trouble. And next thing I know, I kept getting all these different job offers to do different things. I was all of a sudden the little black boy for any play or TV thing that came up for a young black boy. So I found myself working with Robert Redford and Jimmy Caan in a [TV-movie] called Black Monday. They were some white supremacist cowboy guys who were stopping us from being bussed into the school; it was Ivan Dixon and Ruby Dee and myself. So there I found myself, and because the times were so historical, the pieces were so meaningful — this was civil rights times, so the stories were amazing, and the actors and performers and pieces were iconic. We were all on our way up, moving along. And I was being moved with the wave. It’s not like I dove in with some knowledge that I was a part of this movement. I just got taken with the wave of people in the mix, changing, or holding up a mirror to, society.
And this was all before I even declared that I wanted to be an actor. So when I decided that I wanted to be an actor, because I ended up at Performing Arts high school, I got an A for the first time in class. I had been a truant all the time before going to high school. I said, “Mom, I got an A in that acting thing!” She said, “What do you think I’ve been trying to tell you?” So I decided to become an actor — and that’s when things got rough.
I graduated with honors from the school, but when I went back into the acting world purposefully, I couldn’t get hired. So I went into Macy’s and Gimbel’s, did all these 9-to-5 jobs, and got fired for going to auditions during the day. I ended up becoming a truck driver in New York, 19 or 20 years old. I had a truckload of furniture, and a crew of guys, and I was reading Backstage. At every traffic light, I would stop and go down the list of who was being cast. And I saw that Lloyd Richards, who had directed me in A Raisin in the Sun, was involved in a production at the American Place Theater, and there were auditions that day. I made a U-turn with this 22-foot truck, across 8th Avenue, and snatched the key out. The guys asked, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’ll be right back!” I jumped out of the truck, they were screaming and hollering, and I told Roger Robinson, the great actor, who was waiting, “I have to go ahead of you.” Even inside, you could hear the guys in the truck going, “Turman, you motherfucker! Get the fuck back here!” So Lloyd comes out, hasn’t seen me since I was 12. He goes, “My god, Travis” — the name of my character in the play — “come in!” I had to cold read for him right then and there. Then I dashed out and got back in the truck, the guys are cussing me out, and we made our deliveries. By the time I got back to the depot and got back home, my wife said a call had come for me. They said I had the part. That was the first professional job I got, and I’ve been working ever since.
You’ve told the story before about how you auditioned for Star Wars, didn’t get the part, and only found out years later that you were reading for Han Solo. Have you ever thought about what you would have done with that character if George Lucas had cast you?
No, no I don’t. I don’t think about it. I think about what I would do with the money that Harrison Ford has made since [laughs]. I think about that quite often. What would I have done with the role? I don’t give a shit. But that damn Harrison Ford, he’s living large on my money.
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