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Glynn Turman Talks Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fargo - Exclusive Interview

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom — the story of a tense afternoon in a recording studio with blues singer Ma Rainey and her band — is one of the most acclaimed movies of 2020. Much of the attention goes to the two leads, played by Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman in his final role, but it's got a solid ensemble. Part of that ensemble is veteran actor Glynn Turman, who portrays philosophizing pianist Toledo. A more mature contrast to the rest of the session musicians, he also shares the final scene ever put to screen with Boseman.

Looper spoke with Turman about the role. He told us about working with a cast of heavy hitters, whether there were any hints about Boseman's health condition, and whether Viola Davis is that scary in real life. We also took some time to ask about his turn as Doctor Senator on Fargo. He explained how he got extraordinarily lucky with his character, given that production was halted due to the pandemic.

Getting the job, Toledo's motivation, and stage vs screen

So how do you get into character for Toledo? What was your thought process getting into character for him?

I thought that he thought that he was very proud of himself for being educated, for educating himself. So in other words he could read. And I think that's a major part of his self esteem, his education, and it's self-taught education. So I took that as a place to go from.

Yeah, and I remember he's the one who's making the big deal about leaving a future for people.


What would you say Toledo's motivation was?

To get out of the heat. To get out of the heat and get away from all those white people standing there on the corner looking at him like that.

So the style of the movie is very theatrical. It reminded me a lot of a stage play with both with the flow of people speaking the way it was shot. Did you go in acting like it was a stage play or was that just how it kind of came off the page?

No, I didn't go in acting like it was a stage play. It was a stage play. So I went in knowing that it was a stage play when we were shooting it as a movie. So the acting between the stage play and between the movie was not that different. It was not an effort where you say "I have to make sure I'm acting like this is a movie and not a stage play." That's not my job at this point. That's a technical job. So like I said, my job was to say those words and say them from a truthful point of view.

Were you ever in a production of the play or did you see any productions of the play?

I was in a production of the play two years ago. That's how I got this job.

That answers my next question — how you got the job.

Yeah. Denzel Washington came and saw the play two years ago and came to me backstage afterwards and said, "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." So my job at that point was to stay ready, which I did. And here I am, talking to you.

Did you play the same role in the play?

Same role. Absolutely same.

Great cast, great chemistry

So this movie has a great cast and you have a lot of heavy hitters. You got Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Michael Potts — a little bit of a mini-Wire reunion going on right there. What's it like being in a show being around all that star power so much?

It's perfect. Absolutely perfect. With Colman Domingo and that cast, we all jelled beautifully. We'd never worked together before, even Michael and I hadn't worked together though we had both been in The Wire together, we'd never worked together in The Wire. And I was always a big fan of his, so it was good to get a chance to work with him.

Viola and I had worked together before in her series How To Get Away With Murder, so that was a wonderful reunion between the two of us. But this was a completely different character in a different relationship so that made it fun as well.

So it was a wonderful, wonderful project. Getting to work with Chad was wonderful. He was a very determined and very professional young actor who took his job absolutely seriously and was always ready to do another take. Which when we thought about it later, it was like "Wow, he's ready to go again?" After you realized what he was going through at the time. So he was kind of Hercules strength. And so all these things make this a project of production that have so many variables on the table that if there's one that as you go forward in your career, you're not going to forget.

Everybody had easy and natural chemistry with each other right off the bat. Was it like that automatically or did you have to work to get to that?

No, we did our due diligence and made it that way. We made sure, first of all, our director set it up so it was like that. We had to do two weeks to rehearse. So that rehearsal period, we were able to work together at that point. We also took it upon ourselves to make sure that we took time to go out together for dinner, for drinks or whatever, and sit and talk with each other as much as possible. And so that helped break barriers down. And we got to know each other and sitting in the tents afterward, waiting for the next shot, the tents that they set up.

So we spent a lot of time together laughing and joking and carrying on and then finding out about each other's lives. What our families were like, what we liked individually. So it was getting to know each other's process. But in some cases you're fortunate enough to be part of casts who worked that way and being that, finding that support important. And we just happened to all jell in that same area.

Hints about Chadwick Boseman's health

You mentioned Chadwick for a second there. Did anybody have any idea what he was going through at the time on set? Was there any hint, looking back?

Chadwick had a small group of people with him, maybe four or five people with him that were there with him every day. Who we just kind of thought were part of... not groupies, but part of his entourage. Somebody looking as though they were there to fix his hair and fix his makeup. He had his own this, he had his own that, he had his wonderful fiancee there as well. She was mostly on the set.

And so we just kind of thought that he had a small entourage. We didn't realize that those people were part of a health team that was there to make sure that he stayed healthy and didn't need it for anything. They were taking care of him. They were looking after him, and we didn't realize that's what that was about. And so it was not until after he passed that we realized these people had a very specific functions in terms of taking care of this young man.

Wow. That makes his performance even more incredible, knowing that.


Fargo, mid-pandemic

I loved Doctor Senator on Fargo this season. Was this year hard to be an actor? Were there any stresses that went into any of this, because of the pandemic?

I mean, aside from there being a COVID pandemic and when you go to work at one moment, then you go to lunch and then when you come back from lunch, they say "Okay, everybody pack it up, go home, we're shutting this puppy down?" That's what happened on Fargo.

So was your role in Fargo wrapped by the time COVID hit? Or did you have to do more afterward?

It wrapped up March 12 or 13 or something like that. We literally went to lunch and when we came back Noah Hawley said, "Okay everybody, we're shutting down." I had already shot my last sequence, so I didn't have to be back again. I had literally wrapped on the show. So I got out of there. But remember we had people on Fargo from Italy. Those actors were from Italy and Italy had a horrible crisis at that time. And those guys couldn't get back home. So yeah, I'd say it was a little stressful.

What was Chris Rock like on set?

Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. I'm so proud of him. I think this is some of the best work he's ever done. He did a wonderful job. We had a great time together and worked well together and I made a friend there.

The real Viola Davis and a cake on set

So you worked with Viola Davis as well, and Viola Davis portrays characters that are kind of... scary. Is she anything like that in real life?

Yes, absolutely. [Laughter] No. She's very quiet. Very shy actually, yeah.

You didn't really have a lot of scenes together in this movie. So what was it like being in a room with her together again, after How to Get Away With Murder?

The best time was when we were both in the same room, where they presented us with the cake because we won the nominations for the Emmy for her show. So we were together when we went to leave for work at the end of the previous evening, we went to our separate dwellings. But between then and the next morning, we both realized that we were nominated. And so when we came in, it was like, "Oh, congratulations, congratulations!" So it was really a special kind of time and it was a wonderful time together.

So that happened on this movie?

That happened on this movie, yeah!



Behind the scenes stories and closing thoughts

Sounds like a lot of interesting stuff was happening behind the scenes.

Well, I'm telling you, this is one of the productions, as you go forward in your career, that you never forget.

Was there anything that really stood out on the production to you? Anything I haven't gone over yet?

You know it was wonderful when we wrapped up with Marsalis — the great Branford Marsalis is the music director of the show — and I'm a great jazz fan, as is Colman and Michael and we all got together with Branford one evening, and we went out to a jazz club that we'd heard about. And when we got there everybody knew right away, cause it was all jazz enthusiasts in there. And then when Branford walked in and everybody was like, "Whoa, that's Branford!" Whispering goes around the club. [mimics whispers through the club] And so the musicians, they came up and they introduced Branford Marsalis and we all got to watch this great jam session that evening. A hell of a night, and it just went on and on, I mean we had to drag ourselves out of there, we had to get to work the next morning. So it was fantastic. So it was a special shoot.

What do you want people to take away from Ma Rainey's?

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 streaming on Netflix.