A version of this story about Cicely Tyson first appeared in the Comedy/Drama/Actors issue of TheWrap’s Emmy Magazine.
At 94 years old, Cicely Tyson finally has the ability to pick and choose any role she wants. “I’ve said this to a number of directors and writers recently, but I just would like to have fun,” Tyson said. “I want to do a role that’s funny, I want to do a foreign role. I just want to be an actress.”
That’s not a freedom Tyson has enjoyed throughout her career. That’s partially due to Hollywood’s historically limited offerings for African American actresses, but also because she came into the business with high standards for herself and an imposing sense of duty toward her community. At a press screening of her breakout film “Sounder” in 1972, Tyson recalled that a white man stood up after the movie ended and announced that he was upset by the portrayal of a black family whose sons referred to their father as “daddy” — because that was what his own two young sons called him.
“It was at that moment that I realized that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress,” Tyson said. “There were a number of issues that I needed to address, and I made the decision then to use my career as my platform. And as difficult as it was — I went for years without working because of this choice–ultimately I know I made the right choice.”
But now, seven decades into a trailblazing career as an activist and humanitarian, Tyson finally feels able to select whichever roles speak to her as an artist. And for the last five seasons, that’s meant guest starring on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” opposite Viola Davis. “One of the most talented actresses in the business — she’s flawless,” Tyson said of Davis, who herself has cited Tyson as an inspiration. “When I have an opportunity to work with someone that giving, it’s extraordinary. It doesn’t happen too often in one’s career.
“There isn’t a moment in a scene with her that I don’t feel that she is my daughter and that I am her mother,” she added. “It truly is a gift.”
Read more from the Comedy/Drama/Actors issue of TheWrap’s Emmy Magazine.