Jazz Tangcay talks to Cicely Tyson about playing Ophelia in the Emmy nominated How To Get Away With Murder, “When she hits the nail with the hammer, she does not miss.”
Cicely Tyson, or Ms. Tyson as I address her is a true Hollywood legend. She received an honorary Oscar last year, and the last time she won an Emmy award was in 1994 for Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. She is an inspiration in every sense of the word, and at the age of 93, she is still putting in fierce performances.
We’re on the phone talking about her recurring Emmy-nominated role as Ophelia Harkness on the hit show How To Get Away with Murder, and as Ms. Tyson says, “She’s unpredictable.” Fans rejoice whenever Ophelia breezes into town, not knowing what she’s going to reveal, do or say to Annalise Keating about her past. Ms. Tyson is a gift and it’s time Emmy-voters to recognize that and honor her for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series.
Congratulations on your Emmy nomination.
It’s the fourth one. Do you think I’ll get it? This is my fourth nomination, you know.
They need to give it to you. Every time Ophelia breezes into town, you never know what she’s going to bring with her, and she’s so much fun to watch.
I’m madly in love with her.
What is it like when they tell you, “Ophelia is coming back?”
I don’t know how to express that in words. I’m just madly in love with that woman and her spirit, her wisdom and her ability to take things that seem complicated to other people, especially her daughter, and make sense out of them, so that they understand what her behavior comes from.
She’s quite a challenge to me and so I enjoy it whenever I’m on the set. She’s unpredictable. When she hits the nail with the hammer, she does not miss.
That dinner scene with the family. That was something. Seeing and hearing everything that Ophelia had to say and reveal more of the backstory, that was so great to watch.
It’s like all family dinners, holiday dinners especially. It doesn’t differ. Everybody talks all over everybody, and nobody hears what anybody says. [laughs]. It’s just a jumble of words and singing and carrying on, but that’s what families do when they get together. In that process, there are revelations that trickle in. And so, we can begin to understand why each individual in that family does and acts the way they behave.
Your career spans TV, Stage and film. You once said that “it’s the role that determines where you land.” What was it about Ophelia that drew you to the show, aside from Ms. Viola Davis wanting you on the show?
I was just going to say, Viola asked for me, and I was not about to turn that down. [laughs]. You understand? It didn’t take much more than that. Phew. It took my breath away.
There are so many beautiful moments too between Ophelia and Annalise. One of my favorite scenes is when she’s on the floor, and you’re doing the hair. We have never or rarely seen that on TV?
Why would you? Why would you have seen that moment? That moment was meant to happen at the time it was meant to. I don’t think there was a black woman alive who did not identify with that moment. Every black child at some time or another sat between her mother’s legs while she was telling her a story and braiding her hair. I think the rating went through the roof.
They did. Everyone was talking about it. It took until 2017 or 2018 to see that on TV.
Yes! YES! And then, she took advantage of that moment to reveal to Viola how her uncle died. She tells the story how he was sleeping and fell asleep with the cigarette and she let him burn up. That was her way of taking care of what he did to her daughter.
On the subject of progression, that it took this long to see that on TV. You’ve been going and seen and done it all. What has kept you going?
Almighty God! [laughs]. Let me tell you something sweetheart, he put me on this earth at a specific time and he gave me a job to do. When he’s finished with me, he’ll take me out of this world. He’s not finished with me yet, and I’m happy. [laughs].
I love your fire. I love your determination. One of my favorite things I love from you is that you have said, “Do not have the word “can’t” in your vocabulary.” It’s the best piece of advice.
What does that mean? What does that word mean when you’ve not done it or tried to do it? What does it mean? Someone, please tell me, “I can’t do it.” How do you know what you can do or what you can’t do if you haven’t tried to do it? It doesn’t make any sense.
It’s like No.
I say no to everything. [laughs] I say no to everything because it gives me time to think about it. [laughs].
When you say, “I can’t,” how do you know? Did you even try? It just doesn’t make any sense. There is nothing on the face on this universe that you can’t do if you really want to do it. You will at least try and nine times out of ten you will surprise yourself.
Wise words. What’s the wisest piece of advice you’ve ever received and from whom?
My mother. I went out for an interview, and I didn’t get it. I came home like a beaten rat. My mother looked at me and asked me what was wrong? I said, “Nothing.” She said, “Don’t tell me “nothing,” I can tell something happened.” I told her nothing had happened, and I didn’t get the role. She said, “Come here and sit down.” When she says that, you’re in for a long talk. So, I went over and she said, “Let me tell you something, what is for you in this life, you will get. What is not for you, you will never get.” I said to myself that it didn’t make the least bit of sense to me, but I said, “Thank you ma’am and I understand.”
Shortly after that, I was sent a script and I passed on it. I got a call from the head of the studio asking me why, and I said, “It’s not the kind of role that I’d like to project.” I turned it down. Two weeks later, I got The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. OK? I said that was when it made sense to me because I was not supposed to do the other movie. I was supposed to wait for this one, and thank God that I did. That was it, what’s for you in this life you’ll get, and what’s not for you, you’ll never get.
That was from my mom, and every time I didn’t get a role, I said, “It’s not for me.” That enabled me to move on and not stop and to not be shattered by rejection.
My mom always said to me that, “you can’t lose something you never had so don’t be upset.”
They’re so sensical. It makes so much sense. It never occurs to you, but when you hear it from a person of wisdom or an elder, they know what they’re talking about.
Let’s do a fun one, what do you watch on TV? What do you watch in your downtime?
I enjoy what I’m watching whenever I’m watching whatever it is. [laughs]. That’s my answer to that one. You’re not going to get me into trouble. If I say I like a show, my friends will say, “Oh, you didn’t like my show?” I’m not getting into that one. I’m too smart for that. [laughs].
Oh no, I’m not getting caught in that trap. [laughs]. I enjoy what I’m watching. Whatever it is, whenever I watch a show that I want to watch.
Best answer ever.