In a more fair and just world, Glynn Turman would have become a big star in 1975 after the release of Cooley High. While that film has a significant cult following and is seen by many as a landmark in Black cinema, it didn’t create the sort of career boost Turman might have enjoyed had the film been released now, when cinema is more diverse and friendlier to stories focused on minorities (and more specifically, the Black experience).
Still, Turman stuck with the actor’s life, working often and always adding to the quality of whatever project he was attached to in parts large and small. From Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg to the Cosby Show spin-off A Different World, and his fantastic portrayal of Mayor Royce on The Wire, Turman has etched out a great, honorable career on film and television.
Yet it was last year, some 45 years after the release of Cooley High, where we got to see Turman bloom in full as the outstanding actor he’s always been. Great actors need great parts, and in 2020, Turman got two of them: Doctor Senator on Fargo Season 4, and Toledo in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (for which he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actor). It’s been a long time coming, and as you will see in our discussion below, Turman is grateful that his grit and perseverance paid off.
Awards Daily: How did you come to Fargo?
Glynn Turman: When it was presented to me (an offer came in to my manager) and the script was sent and I read it—I read this wonderful character, Doctor Senator, and I just fell in love with him right away, and with the whole premise which was unique, and presented Black characters in a different light and I was like ‘Hey, I’ve got to be a part of this.’ So, it was a go.
AD: I think it’s an interesting thing you said about ‘Black characters in a different light’ because typically when we see gangsters on film and they involve people of color, it tends to be not that often in a period setting, right? It tends to be more in a…
GT: Right… some kind of contemporary urban setting and this is not that. There was just a whole different feel to it. And of course when I got there and saw the beautiful construction that the set designers had made and the environment created for us to play in, it was beyond what I had even imagined.
AD: I can imagine too just putting on the clothes, and your hat in particular – which was practically a character in and of itself [Laughs] – helped creating the vibe of Doctor Senator.
GT: Yeah it did. I never think I have a role until I go into wardrobe, and when I go to wardrobe I say, ‘OK, this is real.’ When I went to wardrobe and discovered that hat, I said, ‘And there’s my guy, he’s over there. That’s my guy right there.’ So yes, you are absolutely right.
AD: Doctor Senator is such a formidable character but he’s also a subtle one. He doesn’t say a lot of words, but they all count, and he rarely raises his voice.
GT: He was just one of those characters where less is more. I can be gregarious and exuberant and all that kind of stuff, but he was a contained guy. He was very contained in his emotions and his movements and his thought process. He was very precise. There wasn’t a lot of wasted anything with Doctor Senator.
AD: When you mention he less is more aspect, I remember reading an interview with Chris Rock saying that he wouldn’t have been ready to play his part when he was much younger and I think he had to sort of bring down that natural Chris Rock-ness, I guess. You are so key to his character and his chracter is key to you – what was that interplay like?
GT: Well, it was built on a mutual respect that he and I have. I’m a big Chris Rock fan, you know? We had never spent a lot of time together. We had met on a few occasions, but he let me know right away that he was a Glynn Turman fan as well. One of my favorite lines that he told me was that his mother told him he better act his ass off ‘cause he’s with Glynn Turman now. [Laughs] You can hear him saying that, right? He won me over with that remark so we just had such a mutual respect and had fun working the scenes together. I think it translated to the characters that we were portraying on screen.
AD: I can’t imagine there’s been too many times in your career where you’ve ever played a character where someone has compared them a little bit to Janet Leigh, but I’m gonna do that now; which is to say that the death of Doctor Senator happens earlier than you might anticipate in a show of eleven episodes length, but the death of Doctor Senator is so significant to everything that happens afterwards. It’s sort of like what Hitchcock does in Psycho with Janet Leigh – upsetting your expectations. When you were reading the script, and you thought, ‘Wow this is a great part, and I’m out halfway through.’ How did that feel?
GT: I was like ‘Oh no!’ [Laughs] But you’ve got to roll with the punches and it was a testament to the importance that Noah thought the character had that I think he was banking on the audience having a strong affinity for Doctor Senator. Senator was the first character that we lost where the audience was supposed to go (and hopefully did go) ‘Oh no! Not him!’ If we got that reaction, it seems like then I did my job.
AD: I think that his death is sort of the turning point of the entire season. It hangs over everything that comes after.
GT: What I liked about it was how Doctor Senator’s counterpart with the Italian gang was upset that I had been taken out by his guys. He was not only saying, ‘We made a mistake taking out Doctor Senator but you also took out somebody that I respected.’ Doctor Senator had an impact, and I was really happy to play him. He was one of my favorite characters.
AD: There’s two parts to that: one is that it’s like a breach of protocol, and the other part is that you took away somebody that we could talk to. After that there is no control.
GT: There is no path back to any sense of sanity after the muirder of Doctor Senator.
AD: I thought one of the subtle fascinating things that was in this season is that it points out even that there can be inequality between gangsters. The Italian gangsters, because they’re white, they have more options. Italians were not always treated well when they came to America but black people were definitely treated worse than Italians because of their appearance. So Chris Rock’s group has less resources at their disposal than Jason Schwartzman’s gang.
GT: You are absolutely right. One of the scripts makes that statement when the Black gang (Chris Rock’s group the Cannon boys) are all arrested and they are all in jail. Jason comes to the jail and he says, ‘What you have to understand is I’m a gangster and I’m doing bad but the world/America will forgive me because they look at me as someone who is just trying to pull up their bootstraps, but when they look at you doing bad they don’t see anyone who’s trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They see an enemy. They see somebody who is beneath them and who is bad. Period.’ I’m paraphrasing, but that was a very profound acknowledgement.
AD: Between Fargo and Ma Rainey, 2020 was a hell of a year for you. You’ve been doing this for a long time and to get a little bit into the inequality issue, people of color always have a challenge in the workplace and that’s not different in entertainment. I feel like you should have been a big star way back when Cooley High hit. Since then, you’ve just kept at it taking on all these great character roles and in 2020 it felt like the world came together for you.
GT: I don’t know how to explain it, David. My wife and I and some friends of ours were just talking about that and all I can say is I’m blessed. I’m glad I didn’t quit, [Laughs] and the best is happening on the back nine.
AD: I was preparing for this interview and I don’t know why I didn’t pull this together until moments before we got together today, but both of your characters (in Fargo and Ma Rainey), the significance of them is in part due to the way they die and how that affects everything around them. I was upset in Fargo when you died, like ‘You can’t do this now’ but also in Ma Rainey. It’s just astonishing. Your character in Ma is trying so hard to understand and also maintain dignity and not back down. Did it occur to you ‘I get to die real good this year and people are going to love me?’
GT: [Laughs] I’m not looking to die in any more pictures that I do, but the thing that has been rewarding in its own right is the fact that the impact that those deaths have made on the audience means that they were along for the ride that I was there to take them on, and that they were invested in the humanity of the characters. Both of those characters have something in common and that is their great sense of humanity and dignity. Therefore they both presented a glimmer of hope. The hope was in their knowledge of the experiences that they had lived through. Because they had lived long enough and seen so much, they represented a hope and so when they were killed, a great sense of that human common denominator, the fact that we all want to think that things will turn out for the better, those two characters took that with them. Those are profound characters that I’m sorry got killed off but I understand from the artistic point of view what they represented and tried to do it service.
AD: What I think is really interesting about those two characters is Doctor Senator is trying to give wisdom to a willing audience in the Chris Rock character. In Ma Rainey, you are trying to impart wisdom to an unwilling audience in Chadwick Boseman’s character.
GT: I was fortunate that I had terrific co-artists working opposite me in those roles. Chadwick was fantastic in the energy that he brought, the cockiness that he brought, the arrogance that he brought and yet the inquisitiveness that he brought informed how I responded to him. He brought all of that energy beautifully. Chris, at the same time, brought a whole different kind of energy. His energy was based on his intelligence, and Chris is an extremely intelligent man. His character embodied that intelligence so that it was a completely different task that I approached in a different way.
AD: I wrote a piece for the website for Boseman after he was nominated for an Oscar, and I can tell you that the scene where he is basically railing at God and says ‘Turn your back on me’ was so powerful that I almost wanted to hit pause because it was so hard to take. Part of what was so profound about that speech and the one he gives about his father and what his father went through is the reaction of you and Colman Domingo in the room. When an actor is being that expansive around you and you have to respond to that, it is very important for your character to give the gravity to what he is saying like you are the audience too. How did you get to that place?
GT: That’s August Wilson. The thing that August Wilson does beautifully is that he writes from the soul of the common man, especially the common Black man. So what’s happening with Chadwick telling that story is he is telling all of our stories. It is very easy and yet difficult at the same time to sit there and to relate to what he was talking about. Each one of those men in that room listening to that story had a story like that. Yes, he was ranting and raving about his experience, but we had the same experience, so all we were really being was the Amen corner. When we go to a black church everybody goes in. Let the church say Amen… ‘Amen.’ What that Amen is meaning is ‘I understand. I know what you are talking about. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I know what you are talking about.’ So, all I had to do was be the Amen corner. If he had passed the ball to me, I would have gotten up and said, ‘Yeah well my father did such and such a thing and he served X amount of time in prison because such and such.’ The story would have kept going on through all three of those men.
AD: Your facial expression felt like the facial expression in that scene felt like the one I was wearing. The heartbreak and the horror of it, essentially of this soul getting lost and going to a place where he is unretrievable.
GT: Right, David. Thank you. Thank you very much. That is a wonderful compliment. I appreciate it.
AD: It was staggering work. I remember thinking ‘Does Glynn Turman get to be in all the good stuff this year because I’m down for it.’ [Laughs] Speaking of potential good stuff, I did just want to ask you what’s next?
GT: Keep watching, David. I hope to be talking to you next year as a result of a piece that I am in that we just wrapped called Women of the Movement for ABC. Women of the Movement is about the Emmett Till story, and I get to play Mose Wright, Emmett Till’s uncle, the man who brought him to Mississippi from Chicago where that terrible thing happened to Emmett Till. This is a story that is still resonating in me. Even though I have been finished for over a month, I can’t shake it just yet.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.