As Samuel L. Jackson took the microphone to introduce the screening of “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” the acting icon reflected on the 12-year journey to get the limited series made.
“This was a project that’s been eating me up for 10-12 years, and I’ve been chasing it and running it to different places trying to get it done,” Jackson told the crowd inside the Regency Bruin Theatre in Westwood. “Fighting to keep it from being an hour and a half movie or two hours; you can’t tell this story in that time. But to get here is amazing. They say ‘Hollywood is a place of dreams,’ and this is a dream come true.”
In the Apple original series, Jackson stars as the 91-year-old Grey, a man slipping deeper into dementia, who sets off to solve the mysterious death of his nephew (Omar Benson Miller) with the help of new friend and caretaker Robyn (Dominique Fishback). The six-episode series is based on the 2010 book by celebrated author Walter Mosley, who adapted the work alongside Jackson.
As a personal note to viewers with a family member with dementia, Jackson referenced his late mother’s struggle with the condition.
“If you’ve been touched by this disease, like I was, I know sometimes it’s going to be a little tricky,” he admitted. “But if you stay with [the series], you’re going to take a marvelous ride, through a man who lived a life well-lived, and we’re going to solve a mystery… See what a man with dementia does trying to be a detective.”
Though the source material has moments of darkness, the mood was light on the elegantly-constructed carpet as the show’s cast and Jackson were joined by his wife and fellow executive producer LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and their friends Magic and Cookie Johnson, as well as Don Cheadle and Bridgid Coulter.
“It’s a major accomplishment to watch something go from the inception to fruition. This particular piece, Walter Mosley put his foot in it,” Richardson Jackson told Variety on the carpet. “I hope you haven’t had to go through the dilemma of having someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, but if you’ve been through it, then it really does shed a light on an insidious disease.”
She then described the series as a “labor of love” after having been the primary caretaker for Jackson’s mother. “[This production] was something beautiful. We are overjoyed with Apple and everyone who allowed this to happen,” she added.
For his part, Jackson believes viewers will find something familiar in this story.
“I just hope the people can watch this and say, ‘I know these people.’ That they watched something that’s familiar. That they understand the family dynamic,” he explained, adding that, for Black audiences in particular, “I want them to see that their stories can be told; that things that are familiar to you are entertaining. People tell you they aren’t, but they are.”
He also imagines that, through watching the series, audiences will be moved to view their loved ones with more compassion.
“These people that disappear on you, the light goes out in their eyes, remember when they held you; remember when they cooked for you; remember when they just told you a story,” he shared. “Know that they’re in there somewhere. We don’t know where they are? We don’t know what’s going on with them. But they may hear you and they may not make the effort. Love them like they loved you when they were there.”
From a performance perspective, Jackson relished the opportunity to dig into a character like Ptolemy, with the veteran superstar calling the role “a great acting journey.”
“To be able to recreate my grandfather’s face or my mom’s face, when I was talking to them and they’d answer another question or the frustration over things you’re ‘supposed’ to know, and they don’t know it. I wanted to humanize those things so that people can see them,” he explained. “But, as an actor, to be able to explore that space and hopefully kind of feel what they felt in that moment when I’m doing it with the right people, made me feel very good and was a letting go of all those things that are pent up in me.”
Amid Jackson’s illustrious career, “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” marks one of his first series regular parts. He’ll next reprise his role as Nick Fury in “The Marvels” and his own Disney plus show “Secret Invasion,” Jackson confirmed he’s done with the “basic part” of filming the series, but noted, “It’s a Marvel series, so we’re already talking about reshoots. We’ll get to that when it’s time to get to that.”
When asked if Fury also found his way into “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” — something Jackson has joked about being a real oversight — he said, “Wakanda’s in Atlanta, I was in London.”
While navigating the red carpet — and its spoiler-fueled lines of questioning — is old hat for Jackson, his co-star Fishback was celebrating a major career milestone with her first in-person carpet for a leading role.
“This is definitely a pinch-myself moment; it’s confirmation of God and his plan,” said Fishback, clad in golden Vivienne Westwood Couture. “When I was a kid, I said, ‘I’ve gotta do this. God wouldn’t have made me this way if I wasn’t supposed to do it.’ And I just went tunnel-vision.”
“I said yes to things and no to things that didn’t feel right in my soul, and now I’m here looking at Samuel Jackson on the carpet and being like ‘Wow!’” she continued, recalling how she’d attended the premiere for 2019’s “Shaft,” taking a picture with Jackson’s face behind her. “It was almost like we were next to each other, and I felt like a premonition or foreshadowing.”
Since then, Fishback has earned a BAFTA and NAACP Image Award nominations for her work in “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “Project Power,” starring opposite heavy hitters like Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But she certainly learned a thing or two from working with Jackson — namely how to be more herself.
“Especially as a young Black girl, you don’t want to make mistakes, you’re afraid, and it’s hard to be yourself,” she said. “But Sam, he’s gonna be himself, no matter where he is — on a carpet, on Instagram, on set — and it was empowering to see somebody do that. And it made me say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna be who I am. I’m gonna be a full person.’”
Emmy nominee Marsha Stephanie Blake, who also stars in the series, also learned a great deal from the legend.
“Every moment is a lesson — that’s the beautiful thing about working with Sam. Even the moments when you’re not on screen with him, where you’re not being the characters, he’s sitting down and telling you about his experience in the business or his life,” Blake recalled. “He’s as hilarious as you’d think, but also as kind. He doesn’t always have to be the center of attention. I think what really surprised me is just how simple he is.
“His way of trying to make people forget that they’re sitting with a legend is he will roast the hell out of you,” she added with a smile. “I think that’s his way of being like, ’It’s okay. I’m not scary.’”
Miller was likewise impressed by his experience working with Jackson, pointing specifically to the legend’s level of preparation.
“I didn’t see the man drop a line the whole time we worked together,” Miller marveled. “It was great to see such professionalism on display from somebody who, as the industry deems, could do and behave however he wanted to — but what he did was come prepared, which makes your job easier as a fellow thespian.”
Jackson was also supremely collaborative, Miller commented: “He’s constantly trying to empower [his co-stars]. He’s not trying to take anything from you. If you’ve got ideas, he’s trying to hear them.”
The first two episodes of “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey launch March 11 on Apple TV plus and debut weekly thereafter.