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The Surprising Way Glynn Turman Landed His Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Role - Exclusive

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, already one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2020, is actor-producer Denzel Washington's newest adaptation of an August Wilson play. He's long had an arrangement to adapt nine of Wilson's plays to screen, and he's currently working with Netflix on that deal. Looper spoke with veteran actor Glynn Turman about, amongst other things, his part in the movie, how he got cast, and what he wants audiences to do once the show's over.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is the story of an afternoon in a Chicago recording studio for blues legend Ma Rainy (Viola Davis). The movie follows Ma battling with record executives while tempers rise among the session musicians. Turman plays Toledo, the older piano player and the philosopher of the bunch. He spends his time worrying about what everyone is leaving for the next generation of Black kids in this country, much to the chagrin of his live-fast-have-fun bandmates. Toledo's main motivation was "to get out of the heat and get away from all those white people standing there on the corner looking at him like that," Turman explains. He especially comes into conflict with Levee, the young and brash trumpeter played by Chadwick Boseman in his final role.

Turman was cast in the movie after playing the same role in a stage performance of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom two years ago. Denzel Washington saw the play and met Turman backstage. As the actor recalls, Washington told him, "Hey, Glenn, my old friend. Stay ready, I'm going to do the play as a movie. And as soon as I get that going, I'll be coming back for you. Just be ready." 

"My job at that point was to stay ready, which I did," Turman says. "And here I am, talking to you."

Stage/screen performances and August Wilson

Turman didn't have any difficulties moving the role from the stage to the screen. "The acting between the stage play and the movie was not that different," he says, noting that "my job was to say those words and say them from a truthful point of view," rather than perform in a particular way. Dealing with the differences between theater and movies is "not my job at this point. That's a technical job."

When asked what he wants people to take away from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Turman has a precise answer: "I want people to take away that they can't wait until they see the next August Wilson Netflix movie. I want them to search out August Wilson. I want them to not even wait. I want them to go to the library, go to the bookshelf, wherever you're getting reading material from now and read up on August Wilson's material. You'll find some of the greatest material and you'll be entertained. I guarantee you."

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is in select theaters now and will debut on Netflix on December 18th. Stay tuned to Looper for more exclusive coverage.