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February 2005
Because of Winn Dixie: An Interview with Cicely Tyson

Because of Winn Dixie: An Interview with Cicely Tyson

By Todd Gilchrist

It isn't every day that even journalists get to meet a talent like Cicely Tyson. As the woman who immortalized so many classic African-American characters, Tyson's career- and her life- has been marked by diversity and ambition; "Sounder" and "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" still resonate with the same importance they did when they first appeared on television more than 30 years ago. Appropriately, Tyson's latest character is one who has lived a life full of challenges and rewards; in "Because of Winn-Dixie" she plays a blind woman who finds a couple of new friends in a cheerful little girl and her dog. Tyson recently sat down with blackfilm.com to discuss the project, her collaboration with stars past, present, and future, and her legacy as an actress who has left a mark as much in real life as on the silver screen.

How responsible were you for the look of your character?

Cicely Tyson: Very. When I read the script, I went and bought the book, which is what I do when a script is based on one, and I saw her very clearly in my mind's eye. I knew exactly how I wanted her to look, because that's how she appeared in my vision. When I spoke to Wayne, who is just one of the dearest persons in the world, and such an incredible director to work with, I explained to him and his eyes kind of [bugged out] (laughs). He wasn't sure and he was apprehensive and I could understand all of that because when you have your own personal vision of the person and someone else comes in with something that's completely off the wall, it's a little disconcerting to say the least. But he had me send him photographs of the different hairpieces and how I thought she should look at one particular part in her characterization to make the contrast work. So we tested and ultimately he was pleased- obviously, otherwise, I probably wouldn't have been there- and we went on from there. There was just something about this woman that was so wonderful to me in terms of the character being able to grasp her and put my teeth into the role because I realized that anyone who had come to the end that she had come to had an incredibly full life- active and constructive in many, many ways. As time took her sight away from her, her mobility away from her, her friends away from her, she began to see her life differently, and therefore you have the bottles in the tree. So to be able to find those moments in her life that led her to that position for the rest of her life and then to encounter this child who came in as a result of the dog, who also looked at her and said, 'you can't live the rest of your life behind closed doors' and was able to extract that wonderful human being once again and share her with everyone in the neighborhood.

How much research did you do to play a blind character?

CT: I spent a lot of time at the lighthouse for the blind, working with one particular woman who I was stunned to find was actually blind, because she was talking to me and she was looking right at me and I was responding to her. I did not know until they finally introduced her to me that this is Nora, I think Schlesinger is her last name, but she is blind and... because I was really concerned about the validity of- you're playing a blind role, what do you do? You close your eyes or you look up at the sky, but people who are actually blind, when they talk to you, I mean you really can't detect it. This woman told me she went blind I think at the age of seven, and she refused as she got older refused to use a cane or to rely on anything but her own senses, just feeling when you encounter danger you know that there's something wrong in the area that you're in, and I thought, 'but you're looking right at me!' and she said 'yes, because I'm talking to you and I feel your presence.' So for me that was the key- not to pretend that you're blind. She went blind lonely and she stayed within her own environment and so she was used to everything around her. She was accustomed to the garden, her kitchen, and so on and so forth, so it made it much more comfortable for me to be able to do that knowing that when I was talking to Opal, I could look directly at her and know I didn't see her, but her presence was there and I could see her presence. So it was quite a challenge, but she was the one that gave me the key.

What was it like working with a first-time child actor?

CT: We taught each other. She was so lovely and so sweet and so willing ask, 'well, how do you do that?' and she would get so excited about anything that you did. 'How did you do that?' and then of course, she taught me a lot in the process.

When you worked with Eva Marie Saint, did you swap anecdotes?

CT: Actually not too much, because we were so immersed in the character. Her character was so wonderfully colorful so we talked about each other's character, maybe, but not about our history in the business. I don't remember that we had one conversation about it, no.

What do you look for in a role before you accept it these days?

CT: Well, my way of making the decision is one of two things: when I read a script, either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. It's that simple. If my skin tingles, I cannot wait to do it, and if my stomach turns, I know that I would never be able to do it, because I have that nausea in the pit of my gut. If I took the money, it would end up in the hands of psychiatrists.

What if it was a great role in a so-so script?

CT: Well, I've done scripts, and it's interesting because an article comes to mind. I did a role in a particular movie and the script needed a lot of work, and they did try to improve it. But I took the role, I would have taken Jane Pittman if it was written on toilet paper or it was produced in the basement of a basement- I would have taken it. I would never have passed that up for any reason whatsoever, and so sometimes that does happen, and I allow my own, I'm so organically oriented that I am now my own censor to make the decision, and if it's not right, I get this [stomach ache], and that's it. I can't do it.

Did the party continue even between takes?

CT: Oh, Lord, that was, you know, they were going to have rain, but rain, rain and rain, rain, rain is quite different. So it was difficult. No, it didn't continue, because we had to go reshoot it- we had to go try to dry ourselves, change costumes, get our hair done again and so forth. It was like a remake of hair and dress and we didn't have that much time to do it in order to reshoot the scene, so no, it wasn't all about a party. It was about getting the scene right, and hopefully it's right.

You were waiting for rain?

CT: No no no. The rain came, the rain was mechanically made, but once we were drenched, I mean, it was pouring, pouring rain. All of our costumes, the hair, make-up, everything was soaking wet. So we had to go and redo hair, redo make-up, re-costume before we could shoot the scene again if it warranted being reshot.

The set design for the party was stunning.

CT: Absolutely. Overall I think that the entire production values of the show are excellent.

What distinguishes a good director from a bad one? Is it that important collaboration on character prior to production?

CT: I think that's important if you have differences of opinion, that you have to work that out in order to have a good working relationship, but I've found that for me the best director is one who hires you because he knows you can give him what he wants and allows you to do that and sometimes, of course, you fall off of the track, and that he's there to put you back on and I have been very fortunate. I started with the best, so I knew what was ultimately required in order for me to do my best work. I worked with Marty Ritt at the very beginning of my career- I worked with him twice- and I'll tell you, it was extraordinary at the beginning of my career because ti set the foundation for what I should look for in a director, and then I had John Korty, who took out a two page ad in one of the trade newspapers that said 'I had absolutely nothing to do with her performance in "Jane Pittman". I saw this very young woman come in at five o'clock in the morning and six hours later, out came this old woman (laughs).

You worked with Martin Ritt in "Sounder" and what else?

CT: Um, golly. Uh, you have to know that I do my work and then I forget it. I can't recall. (Jamie says something else, to which she replies, "yeah. That was 1970.

What kind of legs is "Jane Pittman" having on DVD?

CT: Well, as a matter of fact, this month they released it on a new format, and I'm not so sure of what that is, but the reformatted that and the reformatted "King" and they are supposed to be released for air this month. I haven't seen it yet, but I know they interviewed me for "King". I wasn't available for "Jane Pittman", but they did interview me for King, and what they were planning to do would with the interview was to enter between the scenes rather than do commercials. They had actors that were in the movie tell stories about what went on in the process of shooting. I have not seen either of them yet.

Do you have pets yourself?

CT: I've grown up with a dog all of my life. We've always had dogs, but the last one I had made me vow never ever to own another one again, because I was then married to Miles Davis and he was very, very ill in the hospital and undergoing some major surgery, and I left my dog, whose name was Stuff, with my sister and her family to take care of him, and she said at one point Stuff was downstairs and she came upstairs to the top of the steps and she let out this bloodcurdling howl and fell over and died. And so I just said she gave her life for his, because he was pretty close to leaving at that time, and I vowed that I would never ever have another dog, and I haven't had another one. I've kind of become allergic to them, so it was very difficult to get that dog to jump up and kiss me [in the movie].

How was it working with the dog in the movie?

CT: Well, that dog, actually, much like when you work with children, you always have to have two, and one was much more interested in being in the movies than the other (laughs). One was thankful for the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the other one didn't care anything about it, so it was really good that they do that, because like children, they get tired. But on the whole, I'm always fascinated by animals that you can teach to do human things. I mean, in Thailand, they had these elephants, and the elephants played soccer. You know, they took the ball and they take their trunk and they throw it up into a basket- it's just unbelievable- and after their performance, they come down front and they cross their legs and they bow, and I just think, 'my God, you can teach animals to do almost anything,' and some people you can't even teach how to read.

Do you see awards season as the finish line for a film?

CT: I don't think that "Sounder" will ever have a finish line. I did not know, I remember Marty coming to me one day and he said, 'Cic, we're supposed to be making a children's film, but if we are not careful, we are going to make a damn good film and it's not going to be just for children.' and he was absolutely right, and what amazed me is the longevity of it, that at any given time of the year you can see it on television. I remember speaking, I speak to young people during the course of the year across the country, and this nine year old got up and asked me about "Sounder" and about "Jane Pittman" and how did it feel to do that, and I looked at him and I thought, 'this kid is nine years old. he wasn't even in existence. His parents probably weren't even married.' and I said to him, 'I can't tell you how it felt to do "Jane Pittman", but I can tell you how I feel standing here, knowing that you were not even born and you're asking me that question: it makes me feel very good. And I think that's what pleases me most about some of the work that I've done- the longevity, that people will say 'gee, I saw you do this film and people are still saying to me 'I just saw so-and-so' and I think nothing could be more gratifying.

What about this year's Oscar race?

CT: "I'm not at liberty to reveal, but it's very, very tough, especially in the male category, there have been so many extraordinary performances, and also female. This young actress in " Hotel Rwanda" has, I mean, so it's very very difficult to call. I don't know how they are going to do it.

Have you managed to see most of the nominated performances/ movies? CT: I have to see most of them in order to vote, and usually when I don't go to the theater. They send the DVDs of the movie, so I take five of them at a time and what you saw in the last one, and after a while you just go absolutely bleary-eyed, but it's a responsibility that I have and hopefully I'm part of the choice.

What do you think of the increased number of nominations for actors of color?

CT: I have mixed emotions about it, because it's not happening with women. I wish African-American women would find themselves in the same position. I can name any number of men who are in that position in lead roles, and making that kind of money, but there aren't women doing that. I can count the fingers on one hand and not use them all, so I really wish the day will come while I'm still here when I can say, hey, finally we have one position equal to the men and we're being compensated in the same way.

Have you found that TV is more hospitable than film for you?

CT: Well, that's not a kind thought as far as I'm concerned because I know that if "Jane Pittman" had been done on the screen, it would be- I had mixed emotions about that too, because it would never have reached the audience that it did on the big screen. Because it was done on the small screen, it reached a much wider- over the years, every time they played it- the audience is widened. So in that respect, I am pleased. However, I do remember the vice president of CBS who spoke to me and he was working late that night and over the weekend and as he was leaving, he saw this book on the desk and took it home as something to read over the weekend. And he started reading it and he could not put it down; he could not get to the office fast enough the following Monday, and he said 'we've got to do this,' and he didn't stop until he convinced them that was a movie that they had to do. It was just by chance that it happened, but I always say 'if that had been on the big screen, I wonder if it would have made the impact that it did.'

It was a major miniseries, correct?

CT: I don't remember. I do remember that the sponsor, which was Xerox, did not interrupt it for commercials. That I remember, and that was the first I think.

What's next for you?

CT: Not at the moment, but I do have another film that's going to be released February 21st here, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman". That's going to be really [interesting]. I play the mother of Kimberly Elise. Now that's a talent.

Do you live in Los Angeles?

CT: I shuttle back and forth. Yeah, where did that come about? Maybe somebody said I lived in Atlanta and I didn't correct them. No I shuttle between the East, actually I shuttle between Washington now, the east coast, New York and California, and I just came from Thailand. I went to Phuket, and that was an experience. I'm working on rebuilding schools- hello, that means stop.

Please continue.

CT: I really, when these disasters occur, we all get highly emotional about wanting to do something, and it's so overwhelming it's hard to decide what to do and people just get all caught up in a lot of turmoil and can't make decisions and I've had one or two experiences where you know you commit money and you never know where the money goes, and so I make it a point to go right to the source and find out what there is that I can do and the day before the Tsumanis, they had just opened a brand new school that had been built for elementary children, and they celebrated that opening on Christmas day, and the next day it was no longer there, so my foundation and another, a doctor friend of mine who was also there contributed medications. I'm working on trying to rebuild that school, so that will be my contribution.

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