Walter Mosley remembers the call.
Samuel L. Jackson had just read his novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, not once but three times. “He called up and said, ‘I want to make this.’ He explained how he wanted to do it and I said, ‘Wow, you really want to make this as a show,’” Mosley recalls of the intial chat about Ptolemy Grey, first published in November 2010. “I said let’s go and that was it.”
Only it wasn’t. The road ahead was long and winding with many detours over the course of a decade before the adaptation eventually found a home at Apple TV+ with Jackson in the title role. He plays “an ailing man forgotten by his family, by his friends, and by even himself. Suddenly left without his trusted caretaker and on the brink of sinking even deeper into lonely dementia, Ptolemy is assigned to the care of orphaned teenager Robyn (Dominique Fishback). When they learn about a treatment that can restore Ptolemy’s dementia-addled memories, it begins a journey toward shocking truths about the past, present and future.”
Jackson, said to have sparked to Ptolemy’s emotional arc involving issues of race, family tragedy and buried memories, executive produced the six-episodes alongside Mosley, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Anonymous Content’s David Levine, Eli Selden, Diane Houslin and Ramin Bahrani. The entire team and cast turned up in Westwood Monday night for the world premiere at the Regency Bruin Theatre along with guests like Magic Johnson and Don Cheadle.
Despite the long development journey, Jackson told The Hollywood Reporter on the carpet that the biggest challenges were early call times and the extensive make-up process required to make him look like a 90-year-old man. “Everybody thinks being a movie star is glamorous but 4:30 a.m. pickups aren’t glamorous,” he said. “No matter what time you go to bed, it’s 4 a.m. when you get up and you got to get ready to get in a car so I could be in the makeup chair for an hour and a half.”
As a boss, he said the biggest surprise was “that even somebody like Apple will use the word budget. And you go, ‘What happened? They stop selling phones?’” But seriously, other than that, “it was always fun to go to work,” in part because of longtime collaborators like hairstylist Camille Friend and makeup artist Jake Garber. “They’ve been with me for a while and we play music, laugh, talk and gossip like everybody else so it’s a great time to be in the chair with them. I like them both and like spending time with them.”
Jackson’s team loved spending time with him, too, especially the crop of actors who relished the chance to work with a legend. THR asked more than a handful of Ptolemy Grey stars to share the most valuable thing they learned by working with the soon-to-be Oscar winner. Below are their answers.
DOMINIQUE FISHBACK He’s going to be himself no matter what. Sometimes that’s really hard to do as an artist, especially as a young Black woman, because you want to go into a space and be yourself but you’re afraid you might be misunderstood. He’s going to be who he is whether he’s on set, on a red carpet, or on social media. Watching him gave me the freedom to say, “I will be myself, too.”
OMAR MILLER [This cast] is very much attributed to Sam and to Walter Mosley who wrote the story. But Sam has the juice to say, “It needs to look like this. We’re not going to change these characters. And guess what? This character doesn’t have to be somebody that you already recognize. We’re going to grab somebody and give them an opportunity.” That’s really where he excels as a boss.
DERON HORTON I learned that he’s a master, for sure. He’s also extremely giving; he’s not a selfish actor at all. As long as you can be real, he can be real with you, and you’ll get a good product.
MARSHA STEPHANIE BLAKE I learned to always love the moment you’re in. We were talking to another actor about finances on set — how much money you make, how much you could make and how far Sam’s career has gone from where it started. Sam’s point was, “Listen, when I was performing off-Broadway making $200 a week, I loved it. I loved being there. I gave it as much effort as I give now, being the superstar that y’all are looking at. To me, the work isn’t any different. I’m as committed now and I love it as much. I’ve enjoyed it all.” Love the moment.
CYNTHIA KAYE MCWILLIAMS He is a meme guy. Sam loves an Instagram video and he loves sending them. They’re always videos I’ve never seen. Sam is hipper and more up-to-date on all of the pop culture than I am. He knows the catchphrases. He knows the dances. He might not be doing them, but he knows all the dances. I still say, “That’s what the kids are talking about,” but it’s really what Sam is talking about.
PATRICK WALKER Sam is the perfect person to learn from. I watched him the whole time, grabbing and stealing different things throughout the show. It was great. Right after this, I did Gaslit with Julia Roberts. Like I told everyone on that show, Sam has this great ability to take his time. During a scene, I would say a line and he’d say, “Hey, you should try it this way.” It was always helpful and, as you can see, he’s done all kinds of characters in so many different movies so it was amazing to see how he changes his style with these little nuggets. I also learned to just play, have a good time and enjoy the craft.
DAMON GUPTON I learned ease, and the ability to control and take any risk you want because this man has literally acted with everybody, for everybody, around everybody. And he does it with ease.
WALTER MOSLEY He is so sophisticated as an actor and as a thinker that it’s a little bit beyond me. It’s hard to explain because he’s such a brilliant guy that if you were a boxer and you just finished 10 fights, you’re a better fighter but you might not know how or why. He is the reason why.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey debuts globally March 11 on Apple TV+.
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‘Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’ Stars on What They Learned From Samuel L. Jackson: “Love the Moment”