The Legendary Cicely Tyson

On Alex Cross, Staying Relevant in Hollywood and Tyler Perry

By Kristian Rose-Anderson

Some people may be familiar with the character Alex Cross who is a detective and psychologist from the James Patterson book series. Some people may be even more familiar with Morgan Freeman’s rendition of the character in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. This fall, Alex Cross will again hit the big screen as he is pushed to the edge if his limits, morally and psychologically, in the upcoming self-titled film Alex Cross starring Tyler Perry (Alex Cross), Matthew Fox (Michael Sullivan), Carmen Ejogo (Maria Cross) and the legendary, Cicely Tyson (Mama Nana). We caught up with Tyson to discuss her role in the film as well as her role in Hollywood.

Many people may already be familiar with the Alex Cross character, can you tell us about this film? How did you get involved with this film?
Well, I was totally oblivious of the series. I had not heard of it. I had not read any of Mr. Patterson’s books. I had not known that Morgan Freeman was involved, nor did I see any of those movies. So it was totally unfamiliar to me. But I received a call from Rob Cohn, who is the director, asking to meet with me with regard to this project. He flew me in to New York, we had lunch and he talked with me about the project and asked me of my interest. And I said that I would be interested in anything that Tyler Perry was doing, and I have been since the very beginning of our relationship when he cast me in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. On that, we [Cohn and Tyson] shook hands and that’s how I became involved.

Can you tell us a little about your character, Mama Nana?
Mama Nana is the [grand] mother of Alex Cross. I don’t know if you know anything about motherhood, but one thing that I have learned is that once a mother, always a mother. It doesn’t matter how grown your children are or what they have achieved in life, they are still your children and you are still a mother. That is the core of Mama Nana. She knows about the danger of the work that her son does, she doesn’t approve of it, but that is his choice. But when it gets to a point when his [Alex Cross] life and existence is threatened then she steps in very forcefully.

You mentioned that you would be willing to do any project that Tyler Perry was a part of, how was it working with him on a project where he wasn’t the writer, director or producer?
Well it was quite different, and a little threatening for me [laughs]. All he could say while he was standing there working with me was, “I’m in a scene with Cicely Tyson, I can’t believe it.” And I’m saying “God, I can’t believe I’m in a scene with Tyler Perry [laughs].” So we were both feeling the same anxiety and rightfully so, on my part.

You have had an absolutely incredible career. What’s important to you when you choose roles?
Well I have always had as my yard stick a way to judge, and that is when I read a script either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. When my stomach churns, I know that I cannot touch it. When my skin tingles, I can’t wait to touch.

I read a quote where you said, “Challenges make you discover things about yourself that you never really new.” In each role you play, do you discover new things about yourself? What did you discover in this film?
Absolutely, it has been my educator throughout my entire career. Because in order for me to find the truth and the seed of a person that I’m going to try to project to the audience, I have to know who that person is. Through the course of searching for the core of that person, I discover things that elevate me.

You are such an iconic figure, but how do you feel about the roles and the films that are out there today? Are you getting the skin tingling or more stomach churning?
I’m sorry to say, but more stomach churning. I came into the business as an actress and I felt that I would be permitted to do what actresses do. They play roles; roles that would expand their understanding of the craft. But I found from the very beginning that I was limited to playing only Black roles and of course, that was troubling to me. However, I have always learned from my mother to do what you can with what you have. I have been truly blessed in the business because I have been fortunate to have had some tremendous roles and to work with some wonderful people. So that is what kept me here. But I went through being a woman, a Black woman and now I go through ageism. So I’m still limited to the roles suitable to an aged individual. I saw Angela Bassett on stage play a thirty-five year old woman and they questioned whether or not she could do it. That is, until she came in and auditioned for it, and before she even got home she was told the role was hers. So I don’t believe in numbers limiting you. In the course of your life, you acquire a certain amount of experience that allows you to lend those experiences to other characters, and so that’s the basis on which you should be hired.

So have you seen any type of progression in the industry since you began?
Well, of course there has been some progression. Not in the mode that I think it should be. There are some young actors today who are doing quite well today with their careers because of the kinds of roles that they are being offered. Look back at the Steve Harvey movie Think Like a Man or the prospectus of Tyler Perry’s films, which did extremely well. But otherwise many of the films have only a scattering here and there of Black actors. There are millions of dollars going to movies, but it doesn’t show in the hiring of Black actors. There are few that work all the time, and males do much better than females. I don’t know any female in the business who commands the same salaries as a Denzel, Morgan Freeman or Jackson [Samuel L.], or work as frequently. I don’t know if there will ever be a better balance in my time.

Other than Alex Cross, what kinds of projects are you involved in?
There is something that I am working on, another film that I did that is due to be released this year. But I don’t have a date. Then I’m preoccupied with my school. That is truly my passion. It was named for me some fifteen years ago in East Orange, New Jersey. About four years ago we built a state-of-the-art facility for students starting from pre-school to middle school through high school. I’m very, very proud of that. It gives me such joy to watch the way these youngsters can evolve when they know that someone is in their corner. I can’t think of anything more rewarding.