Emmys: Cicely Tyson Reflects on Her Legacy, Race in Hollywood and Breaking Down Barriers

Cicely Tyson Mug - P 2014
AP Images/Invision

Cicely Tyson Mug - P 2014

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

At 80 years old, Cicely Tyson recently became one of the oldest people to win an acting Tony, for her 2013 performance as Ms. Carrie Watts in Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful -- a production featuring the play's first-ever all-black cast. Then she earned an Emmy nomination for the same role in Lifetime's TV movie adaptation of the 1940s-set story about an elderly Texas woman (Tyson) who wants to travel back to the small town where she grew up. Here, she reflects on her incredible year -- during which she joined a small and elite group of actors who have been Tony- and Emmy-nominated for the same character -- the kismet of landing the Bountiful role and how she feels about being a professional mentor to so many women of color in Hollywood.

In the 1970s, through projects like the film Sounder and the TV productions The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Roots, you were instrumental in changing the way that blacks are portrayed on screen…

It has always been my mission to get people to understand that we are also human, that we are human beings with all the nuts and bolts of being human. That has always been my premise. I deal with every character on a humanistic face, because that’s what we are—we all feel the same things and think the same things, whether we want to admit that or not. Why we should be treated differently simply because of the color of our skin is far beyond me.

After those early projects, did you have a desire to break away from parts pertaining to the black experience and instead play roles that could have gone to a white actress?

I have to tell you, there was so much going on at that time that was projecting negative images of black women that my mission was to change that. I said, “Yes, we have drug addicts, and prostitutes and low-lifes, but we also have doctors, lawyers and teachers, and we have women who are just mothers to their children and wives to their husbands that have decency about who they are and what they are and why they are on the face of this earth.” And so I didn’t feel that I could afford the luxury of doing anything else.

The role of Ms. Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful is one you wanted to play for a long time, right?

In 1985 I was wandering around Hollywood and saw Geraldine [Page]’s name on the marquee. I absolutely adored her, but I had no idea what The Trip to Bountiful was about—I hadn’t ever read it, I hadn’t seen it on television, I just was not familiar with it—so I just went into the theater to see her. And I walked out, got in my car, drove right to my agent’s office and I said to him, “You get me my Trip to Bountiful and I will retire!” He just laughed. But I made a visit to his office every single month, and every time I was there I said, “Where’s my Trip to Bountiful?!” Now, tell me if this is not miraculous: in 2011, I’m sitting in my house; the phone rings; it’s my assistant, and she says, “Van is looking for you.” Van Ramsey is a costume designer whom I have worked with a number of times. He was looking for me because, he told me, he had a friend who wanted to meet with me and talk about a possible project, so we met. She said to me, “My father had such tremendous respect for you. I want to do one of his plays. I’d love to do it with a black cast. And if you say no to the lead, which is what I want you to play, I won’t do it.” So I said to her, “Who was your father?” She said, “Horton Foote,” and I fell off the chair. [laughs] When I could recover I said, “And the play is what?” She said, “The Trip to Bountiful.” Is that something? It was 26 years later!

The show was very well received and you won a Tony. What did you think when you were approached about doing it again for film?

I said, “That’s impossible.” My agent said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I can’t do a movie of it. You can do what you want, but I can’t do it.” He said, “What are you talkin’ about?” I said, “I finally got myself to the place—by doing vocal exercises and stuff like that—where I could reach the last seat in the balcony. And now you’re asking me to bring all of that back into my navel? Are you kidding me?! That can’t happen—it’ll never happen!” He said, “Oh, you’ll be alright.” Well, it wasn’t easy for me, because I had to fight to harness what I had on the stage and bring it down for the small screen.

What are your thoughts on films for theaters versus films for TV?

I was talking to a friend of mine the other evening who has a movie that she’s interested in having me do, and she said, “I’m not interested in doing it on television.” I said, “I’ll tell you one thing: I was upset that Jane Pittman was not done as a movie in theaters.” I said, “I might have been able to have an Oscar in my hands if that was so. However, I’ll tell you, I don’t regret that it wasn’t, because millions of people have seen it, over and over and over again. And that makes me feel good.”

Many black actresses who are enjoying terrific careers, from Viola Davis to Kerry Washington, credit you as a real inspiration. How does that make you feel?

I could not be happier. If, in fact, I have, in some way, been the inspiration for any of them, I will feel that I have accomplished what I set out to do, and that is to break the mold and the concept that limited people’s vision of what we, as black women, or black actresses, could do in this business.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg