In one of his most personal performance to date, Samuel L. Jackson stars in the new Apple TV+ limited series The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. The series is based on the novel of the same name by author Walter Mosley.
Starring alongside the veteran actor is Cynthia Kaye McWilliams, an actor who also has paved her own way in the industry today with versatile and critically acclaimed performances. She’s appeared in series such as Prison Break, The Chicago Code, Nashville, Prince of Peoria and Bosch. She also recently returned as lawyer Trina Shaw in the Kevin Hart led series The Real Husbands of Hollywood.
We had the chance to sit down and chat with the Theatre School at DePaul University graduate about her new series The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, what it was like working with Samuel L. Jackson and what she hopes viewers take away from the series after watching.
Pop Culture Principle – What was it about the scripts for The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey that made you want to sign on to the project?
Cynthia Kaye McWilliams – Well, that’s an easy question! The fact that it was based off a Walter Mosley novel, and he is also one of my favorite authors. Also, the fact that this was such a unique novel of his. Of course, I am more familiar with his work with the Easy Rollins character and know all about him as a crime fiction author, so to be introduced to the fact that there was this interesting and very personal novel, I thought that was something.
Also, the opportunity to work with the great Samuel L. Jackson was check number two and the opportunity to play this very dynamic woman was the trifecta of a great project, a great character and working with a phenomenal actor. Also, a bonus was getting the chance to work with Apple TV. I am really impressed with how quickly Apple has come on to the scene and made a name for themselves. They are allowing each individual show to produce itself in its own way with its own voice. They are really becoming this arthouse streaming platform. I have all the reasons to want to be involved and I was very fortunate that they wanted to work with me as well.
Cynthia Kaye McWilliams – Yes! I think it definitely made a different. Walter’s hands being in the story and on that script all throughout the process I think really mattered. For fans of the book, they are going to feel that the series is really quite true to the novel. It does not veer off track at all. If anything, I think it’s just really doing its best to limit itself to the six episodes, but they have filled in everyone one of those episodes with every chapter and page in that book I think.
Pop Culture Principle – The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a six-episode limited series. Do you feel the small number of episodes helps make the story and writing more concise and crisper?
Cynthia Kaye McWilliams – I think that has more to do with the shooting schedule which is the technical side of a project. I know Sam and Walter fought very long and hard to make sure that this was a series and wasn’t told in movie format like many had thought it should be. Both of them knew that it couldn’t find it’s full life in a movie, but I think they also understood that to drag it out, I think we would have lost the stories potency. I think they landed on the sweet spot were Walter and the writers could tell the story and honor it and not start to milk it.
For only being a six-week project, it certainly was not rushed. We spent a great deal of time in Atlanta working on the project. The actors all spent a great deal of time preparing before getting there. We took the time to do table reads. Each director really did a great job taking on the story and getting in with each of the actors and learning what happened before and setting up the director who was coming in next. So, even though it was only six episodes, none of the details or the labors of love were cut short.
Cynthia Kaye McWilliams – Sam is of course formidable and one of the greats of our time. He is literally a brand name at this point, and he is an icon. So of course, there was a bit of an “oh my goodness” factor going into working with him, but as he said, he loves the set, and he loves the process.
So really, once you are in his presence and you start working, all of that disappears because he’s just an actor who absolutely loves his job. Immediately, he does a great job of dispelling the myth of himself because he comes to every sort of interaction just so humble to the opportunity to work and to play. So, for me, if I had any fear it definitely was gone pretty quicky and watching him became sort of my favorite thing to do! 😊
Pop Culture Principle – It seems the memories Ptolemy Grey has of Sensia are his most vivid memories which shows her importance to him. Would you agree?
Cynthia Kaye McWilliams – Absolutely. The two memories that he is clinging to are of course Sensia and also Coydog. I think both of those are so interesting because at the end of his life as he is lost in this fog and haze of dementia, what he remembers most is the love of his life and also a sort of father figure in his life and the person who gave him his greatest lessons, his sense of who he is and his sort of ethos in life. As we age or as life wears on us, what we are left with really are the memories of who we love and who we are. I thought that was very important for sure.
Pop Culture Principle – Do you hope that this series gives the viewer an intimate look at Alzheimer’s and how it not only affects the person who is suffering from the disease, but also how it affects the family and friends of that individual?
Cynthia Kaye McWilliams – Yes, absolutely. I think that this story was so personal to both Sam and Walter because of that and I think it’s written with care, and I think it’s also portrayed with an enormous amount of vulnerability and honesty. Sam does a wonderful job of playing not just a condition, but a whole person.
What I hope is that it encourages people who are dealing with either people who are suffering with dementia or family members who are caring for those people suffering with dementia. I hope that everyone else is able to have the same sort of empathetic gaze that Sam gave to this character.
I hope that people understand that aging, elderly and deteriorating minds and bodies are more than just that. They are whole human beings with stories and valid lives, and they are worth listening to. Even people who are sort of grasping at their minds and memories, they will remember and will hold on to things and if you are patient enough what they have to offer you will be very valuable. I hope after watching this series, people call their mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers and check-in with them.
Pop Culture Principle – If you personally where in Ptolemy Grey’s shoes at that time, would you have taken the vaccine knowing what that meant?
Cynthia Kaye McWilliams – I mean, of course. The only real downfall if we are given the same options he was given, it’s about the memories in exchange for something. So, the exchange is the tough question right? Would I give up the added time? Would I give up whatever unknown time that I have to live for a guaranteed amount of time that would be lived in a certain way? My answer would be yes, only because the truth is that we don’t know when our last days will actually be.
The last days of Ptolemy Grey were blessed because he knew they were his last days. Of course, it is scary, but I think it may be even scarier when we live a life where we don’t know when the end is coming and because of that, we are taking time for granted. So, I think there is a wonderful blessing in knowing when your end of days are arriving so you can prepare, and you can allow people who love you to say their last words and to give you your flowers and/or have their closure. I think that would be a wonderful give to give to anybody.
A huge thank you to Cynthia Kaye McWilliams for taking the time to talk with us! You can watch the limited-series The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey on Apple TV+ on March 11th!
**The Days of Ptolemy Grey photos courtesy of Apple TV+**
**All other photos courtesy of Cynthia Kaye McWilliams**