Actor LaTanya Richardson Jackson talks to Awards Daily TV about working in Shondaland and the personal connection to her role as a cancer victim.
The work has begotten itself, and to say yes to her was a no-brainer. This was like manna from heaven and a great gift that I will forever write on the resume of my soul as being one of the greatest gifts.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s career spans over four decades working in theater, television, and film. Richardson Jackson received a Tony Award nomination in 2014 when she starred alongside Denzel Washington in Broadway’s Raisin In The Sun. Earlier this year, Richardson Jackson appeared on Grey’s Anatomy as Diane’s mother. Her character’s fate evolved into one of the most-emotional episodes. The episode also marked Ellen Pompeo’s directorial debut.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson pulled from personal experience to create one of Grey’s Anatomy‘s most intense and gut-wrenching character moments. Her performance could land her in the running for a Guest Actress in a Drama Series Emmy nomination. I talked to her about the performance, about Shonda Rhimes, and about portraying her character.
I jumped on to Grey’s Anatomy from the get-go, and here we are still going all these years later.
13 seasons! It’s Shonda’s [Rhimes] baby. It was her coming out party, her great baby, and it’s her firstborn. I too was watching it because my friend James Pickens Jr. was on the show, and we all support each other. I thought he had this great job that kept going. You never know how long the job is going to be. Once it hit its stride in the third year, we joked he was set and how great his job was.
All these years later is a testament to the fortitude of a producer, writer, and showrunner who is determined to be about the truth and stay current, and that’s the thing I think Shonda does so well. She tells the truth about the situation and she hits us where we live and we can all relate on a human level. I start crying just thinking about how blessed I got to even be a part of it.
When your storyline began, I wondered where she was going to go with you because we hadn’t yet cried, and you know it’s going to come at least once a season. So, how involved was Shonda with your character?
I think that this was all her idea, and the writers that she assigned to it were so motivated and so entrenched in their craft. A director once told me that, “Excellent writers are able to pull things from the zeitgeist of what’s in the ether and write it because it comes to them on that spiritual level.” It was uncanny because I had just gone through this with my daughter’s best friend in December. What was uncanny was that it was this rare strain of breast cancer.
Oh my goodness!
First of all, I was relating on a level that I had to detach myself truthfully from what I had just experienced with my friend and try to go into this with the vantage point of what they have written and deal with her from that point. Shonda was there when we did the read through with her computer and she’s typing. It’s something to see the process of it all.
I can’t say enough about the writers who were supremely incredible. When you can allow yourself to give all of yourself to what’s in the words, and I tell my students this, “Don’t worry about how something is going to be done. Worry about the words of why. Always get involved with why we’re saying this because why will inform how.”
Having had the benefits of Sidney Lumet be a teacher, he used to say, “Put the bag down when you look at the script.” Actors come and they have a bag full of everything that they want to do. He said, “Start doing nothing.”
He was a great man and a great friend.
Your background is theater, and you’ve done TV and film. What made you say yes to this, aside from Shonda being a god?
She is a god. I have always wanted to be on Grey’s, but I figured I’d be a doctor. It’s so weird that she attached me to the project, and after all these years she said, “I have something for you that I want you to do.” I’m still in awe of her having just chosen me. I was in the middle of a lot of things. I was working for John Singleton doing Rebel. Actually, I had just turned down Spike Lee for his project because I couldn’t stand being in New York when I had work to do in LA. I’m not kidding. I am old.
So for me, I was like “Really? All of this is falling in my lap now?” I thought well Sam (husband Samuel L. Jackson) is done, Zoe is a producer, and now I can get back to me full-time. I never left the business and I have been so blessed to cross all the borders. When I was doing Raisin in The Sun, Paul Haggis came to see that, and all of a sudden I was in Show Me A Hero. The work has begotten itself, and to say yes to her was a no-brainer. This was like manna from heaven and a great gift that I will forever write on the resume of my soul as being one of the greatest gifts.
That scene with Maggie and Diane when she’s painting her nails was heart-wrenching. When they countdown the deaths in Grey’s Anatomy, Diane will be there.
You think so?
Honestly. It’s right up there with George and Denny.
Remember how great those were? They never write it or put you in the spirit of just laying into it. She goes at it with an alignment to it until it’s done.
Did you know your arc coming in?
You didn’t? So what happens as you’re getting the script each week and then you see what’s happening to your character?
Well, first of all, you know that if you’ve been a devotee we know that Grey’s kills people. Let me see how many people have died. Oh, no one is dead. Given what I have been through over the last 12 months, surely I have to stay optimistic that whatever the circumstance. It’s just a situation that we will rise about because it’s Maggie’s mother and surely they’re not bringing her in here now to kill her. [Laughs]
We’re going to have a job for a little while.
I thought it was going to be your character because they haven’t killed anyone yet.
I thought it wasn’t going to bode well, and it’s March.
A lot of people approached me saying, “Oh no, this is not looking good. Just tell me, is she going to die?” [Laughs] I said, “You know what, I don’t know.” They don’t give you the scripts ahead, and no one was telling me. I went along with it like everybody else.
Then you get the table read and the script. I can tell you this. When we sat at the table read, we were all crying. There’s a certain slight detachment when you’re doing the table read. It’s like watching a movie and thinking, “Oh, that’s happening to them, that’s sad.” Then you realize it’s happening to you. [Laughs]
The actors themselves, the ones who are there all the time are such a great ensemble. Ellen [Pompeo] directed that last one.
She’s an amazing lady. It was great to see her to take that step with directing.
She has such a good eye, and I hope she stays with it. I talked to her about directing and if she loved it, she said, “I’m not sure. I think I do.” I told her that she has those trepidations because she’s never done it. You’re going to it for the first time, but by the time you finish, you have the gift of it, so if you want to do it, you got it.
What great advice to give her. What was it like for you to go through those scenes and her arc?
I did research on those kinds of breast cancer. I try to be a person engaged in the world that we live in and I know there are a lot of us out here who are challenged just this way. Truly, I wanted to be as honest without slurs and without being too brave, but at the same time being brave. I wanted to have all of the homogenous emotions that I could gather from the information that I had been given so that as an artist I could join the writers and the people who were responsible such as Kelly [McReary] who plays my daughter, and all the others who had that history with the show to tell the truth and communicate a message that the larger aggregate of populate could possibly hear and see a way to improve our lives.
I know a lot of people who passed away because they didn’t go to the doctor. There was one lady who passed away and she didn’t believe in it, she was taking advil. I said, “OK, here’s a teaching moment. Here’s where I can take whatever talent that God has given me and use it to inform communities that we live in, then maybe we can get a grip on this give and improve a lot.”
I think that that’s what any artist from the writers and directors should be. We’re here to provide a service. We hold up a mirror for humanity to better ourselves and to have a better world. I think that’s what any great artist should be doing and the rest of the stuff becomes fluff to keep everyone engaged and interested.
I was trying to work from an honest space and allow the information that I had been given to affect me from a truthful and natural place. This is my daughter, this is where I am, and this is what is happening to me. How do I feel about this? I had to feel a certain way, and I was caught up in the investment in what I had been given. I felt I had been given a lot… been given the words, the people, and the opportunity.
You talked about advice and giving some to Ellen. What do you wish you had known before you started acting?
It has to be from Sidney Lumet and telling me to put the bag down. I think that if I had been comfortable with whatever physical shape I was in and to allow myself to just be that. If I had been comfortable in my body. That stuff plays in your head because it plays in your head when you’re saying to yourself to pull your stomach in. That really affects your performance because you’re watching yourself. If I had known that early on and the commitment has to be 100 percent you can’t direct yourself and watch yourself, I think I could have got along much better than I did.
When I went for auditions, I thought I’d get the part, and I didn’t because on reflection I was self-conscious and you can’t be self-conscious in this work. It’s so unorthodox because what we do isn’t normal. I would have judged myself a little less. I enjoyed it, but I would have enjoyed it more had I judged myself less.
You have a great background in theater. How does theater differ from TV and what’s your love?
Theater because I love the process. You get to dig into these characters and explore them. When people ask about doing eight shows a week, you’re working. It’s slightly different because you hold the same tone, but each night is different because you continue to work. Those of us in long runs, that’s where you get to keep it fresh because it’s an immediate process. It’s right there and every time is different.
The audience is also different.
Yes! The audiences are different and that affects you. I just like how you get to study it and the process of what other people say about how they feel about you. It allows you to grow into it. With TV, that thing is fast. It’s immediate and you have to do it with a different muscle. Those people that do it well, they can microscopically fit it in there and keep going. You have to fit that performance in there. That’s why I’m in awe of Grey’s because I got to watch them up close after watching them on TV. I see how they study their lines, put that script down and go, “Can we stop? Can we discuss this?” I like to roll about in it.
Last summer, I got to work with Phyllida Lloyd and those people that she brought from the National Theatre in London, and they were all doing Taming of The Shrew. That process had me wondering how I got to be so old and not experience any of this. I got to be the happiest person in the world. My friends talk to me about still working, and yes, I am. How did I get to be so blessed? I thought I was getting ready to die because all of this is falling into my lap and I’m working with all of these great people.
I have been so happy. Jazz, I can not tell you how happy I’ve been. I still wish I had my young body because all of this running about is a lot. I miss the theater.
What’s your favorite Grey’s episode? OK, that’s mean.
That’s mean because you remember the plane crash. I don’t know. My friend Mare Winningham was on there too, and that’s something I thought about, they killed Mare so I don’t know what’s going to happen to Diane.
Ellen was directing your episode, but something was coming.
Mare is so incredible. Her episode maybe? There have been so many. Of course, there’s Denny, we all fell in love with him.
Maybe Shonda can have you in another show?
[Laughs] Listen, we were all sitting there trying to figure out if Diane had a twin or if a sister was going to fly in afterward, and she was a pilot and couldn’t get her plane there in time.
That’s an idea.
With Shondaland anything is possible.
What’s next for you?
I just got back from Virginia shooting a film. That was a phone call. It was one day, shooting six scenes. It was another immediate learn the lines moment. Alfre Woodard and Blair Underwood are doing it. They’re still there shooting. I am all over the place and I’m excited about living.
Everybody has to understand something, we all need each other. The sooner we get to that the better we will be able to get a grip on living because we need to get a grip on things and get it done.
To have gotten to do Grey’s with Kelly, playing against that and Jim was like being in the best banana pudding ever.