Based on the stage play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is hitting Netflix on Friday, December 18, 2020. The film adaptation of August Wilson’s popular stage play is directed by George C. Wolfe and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The film stars Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts. We Live Entertainment’s Jami Philbrick recently had a chance to talk with Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts about the film and ask them all about the project. The three incredible actors share their stories about working with Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman while also sharing their thoughts about what made August Wilson’s words so extraordinary. You can read the entire interview below or watch it by clicking play on the video link above.
Jami Philbrick: Hello, gentlemen. How are you?
Glynn Turman: Good. How are you?
Michael Potts: Right on. How are you doing?
Jami Philbrick: I’m doing good. Congratulations on the film. It’s a beautiful movie and beautiful performances by all three of you. So, congratulations.
Glynn Turman: Thank you so much.
Colman Domingo: Thank you very much.
Jami Philbrick: I wanted to begin by asking you; obviously, the film is based on a stage play, and I know in the theater you would ordinarily maybe have weeks or months of rehearsal time that you don’t often have on a film set, what type of rehearsal experience or time did you guys have together to prepare for this? Or did you just have to jump into filming and be ready with your characters and with your performances?
Colman Domingo: Oh, no. You couldn’t do it with this play. George C. Wolfe demanded. This is a top-of-the-line theater director who knew the kind of work that we needed to do to achieve the work on a film. So we had to rehearse it like a play. We had two weeks of rehearsal, two glorious weeks. Usually, you get about three and a half weeks in the theater. You said, months. I’m like, “I don’t know what show that was. I’ve been in theater for 30 years. I ain’t never had two months rehearsing a play.” (laughs) We got two weeks. We had two weeks to get in there, and do dramaturgical work, get to know each other, get the work in. It’s precious weeks because you want that time. You want time to go down the right path, the wrong path, the winding path to know everything and deconstruct the plate, open it up, and then bring it back together again. That’s what we had, and it was a beautiful period.
Jami Philbrick: For Glynn and Michael, tell me a little bit about getting prepared to play musicians. What sort of preparation did you need to do and also the beautiful music that Branford Marsalis lends to the film as well?
Michael Potts: Well, fortunately, we were given coaches. I had a coach here in New York for about two to three weeks who is a bassist with a jazz company. Then when I got to Pittsburgh, I got Bob Insco, another great jazz bassman. Coleman can talk about this too, how we didn’t know how much we had to learn of the instrument, how familiar we had to be. So, of course, you’d be home assuming, and certainly, I was. I’m going, “They going to come in here knowing how to play these instruments, so I better learn how to play this bass because I know who I’m getting in the ring with, I know who I’m going to be acting with, and so I better be prepared.” It became the case of dedicating myself to make sure I would not be the weak link in this band, and I would know my instrument as well as I could and be able to play those songs. Then the rest was through the process of rehearsal and interaction and playing with these incredible actors.
Glynn Turman: We rehearsed for eight hours every day, and we were all in the same hotel in Pittsburgh. After that, you’ve been working all day, and then you go to the hotel, and you get off the elevator, and down the hall, I’d hear… [mimics jazz sounds] rehearsing, still doing his rehearsal “Oh my God. He’s still rehearsing.” They are the very best. I was fortunate enough to have Billy Mitchell here in Los Angeles working with me, and then, of course, Branford Marsalis, who helped me out in Pittsburgh. So we had a wonderful, wonderful time. You can’t ask for better than those two guys at the helm. So much so that I’m still trying to keep my hand in on this piano that’s at the house that has finally realized that it’s a piano and not a picture frame.
Jami Philbrick: You want to keep those ivories tickling
Glynn Turman: Ivories ticking. Yeah. It’s been a wonderful experience.
Jami Philbrick: There’s a beautiful reaction shot in the film right after Levee gives his monologue about his mother. There’s a reaction shot of the three of you that I just thought was stunning, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that sequence and as well as maybe give me a little snapshot of what your experience was like working with Chadwick Boseman?
Colman Domingo: I think those scenes you’re required to truly listen and respond, because, let’s just say, that working these August Wilson monologues and scenes, it is such a tricky dance and you just have to have your ears open, and be open to it, and be surprised by what’s coming at you. I think the look that you see is we didn’t know all that. You didn’t know what operating system a person had. You were just taking them as, “First of all, you’re late. You’re coming in with these shoes. You’re disrupting what we have to get done.” So every given circumstance, you’re just in it for that bit. You didn’t set up the whole arc. So by the time you’re receiving a monologue like that, you have to take any information as new. There’s something that George said, which I thought was fascinating. He said that everyone tells their story in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or in August Wilson plays because they’re telling your story as well. So you give room to that. So he’s telling that story, but we all have our black trauma. That’s why people are allowed to speak for five pages long, because that is also your story, and when you take a breath and take that in. So I think that’s what our characters are experiencing. You opened up ourselves to your trauma because we also have our trauma. And working with Chad was a true delight in every single way. He’s our fourth band member, and he is powerful, joyous, inquisitive, and deeply human as anyone else. So we had a great time together.
Jami Philbrick: Yeah, Michael or Glenn, is there anything you’d like to add about working with Chadwick?
Glynn Turman: I think Coleman summed it up. He’s a daring guy. So unassuming in terms of if you think of the celebrity that he has at this time in his career coming off of one of the hottest pictures ever, worldwide, he could throw that hat in the room at any time that he wanted to. That could always enter the room ahead of him, but he never did. He always came in with his sense of self and an appreciation for being where he was and not taking anything for granted. For that, he was a young man who deserves all of the kudos that you have to give him.
Michael Potts: Absolutely. It’s that thing Viola says, “He didn’t make his presence the event. He came to an event. He came to help create the event, as opposed to trying to make himself the event.” You would never know. That time we went out for dinner, we’re out on the street, and those people who recognized Viola didn’t realize it was Chadwick Boseman, “This is Black Panther right here,” because he was so humble and unassuming. You would never think that because he didn’t carry himself that way. I keep saying it, just a man of extraordinary grace, extraordinary grace, and humility.
Jami Philbrick: You can see that in his brilliant performance in this film as well.
Michael Potts: Yes.
Jami Philbrick: Viola Davis, obviously incredible and gives a very transformative performance in this film. I was wondering if you could all talk a little bit about working with her and also if you could talk about how your character felt about Ma Rainey, what the band felt about her in your own eyes, in your own mind.
Colman Domingo: Interesting.
Glynn Turman: Well, my character didn’t like it when she would eat peanuts in front of us and not share any.
Jami Philbrick: No one likes that.
Michael Potts: It was a big bag of them too.
Glynn Turman: It was a big bag of peanuts. Toledo doesn’t play that. He had no qualms stealing some peanuts from her as soon as she turned her back. Toledo doesn’t play that.
Michael Potts: I think Slow Drag is terrified of her.
Jami Philbrick: What was the bit? Well, Coleman, she and Levee as well give him trouble, he really seemed to genuinely, and maybe this was your performance, care for both of them even if he couldn’t necessarily control them or stop them from causing trouble. Is that somewhat accurate?
Colman Domingo: That is absolutely accurate. I think he did care for Levee in a brotherly way like he’s a younger brother. He wanted to protect him and almost protect him from himself. I think he felt that responsibility. I think he felt that responsibility as the bandleader. He’s just trying to get this operation to work. He is Ma’s proxy, and he’s also the one who goes in to try to help Ma from herself too. He’s willing to go, and he’s got to go into the lion’s den and go out and put his head in the mouth of the lioness. But he realized that’s actually his position, and it has to be done with a lot of care and a lot of love for everyone. He wants everyone to win because even at the opportunity where he could have said, “Yeah, we need to get rid of Levee,” he protects Levee. He says, “Levee’s all right. He writes good music.” I love the idea that you get to know who a person is when they’re outside of the room and they’re talking about someone. You see in that scene that he cares for Levee as well. He wants Levee to win. So I think that’s very complex. I love that everyone has all these different notes they’re playing, so they’re not just in one way being headstrong about something or not, you know?
Jami Philbrick: Absolutely. Absolutely. I also want to ask all three of you about what it means to you to be in this film and, as actors, to get to say the words of August Wilson. Michael?
Michael Potts: It’s a dream. Every actor dreams of being able to do a role that expresses us in the fullness of our humanity. Something that black characters don’t get to do on a regular enough basis or regularly at all. August Wilson gives you that he gives you that. He gives you the challenge, and he gives you the opportunity to bring your full selves, your full understanding, and he gives you the charge to find it authentically and to find the truth, to mine the truth. So when you get to do that, and you get to be a part of the experience of Ma Rainey with everyone, with all of these genius children putting this thing together, it’s quite extraordinary and quite gratifying. It becomes one of the seminal moments in your life and your career.
Jami Philbrick: Glynn, do you feel the same way?
Glynn Turman: Well, yeah. Certainly, it’s an acknowledgment that black playwrights and black actors don’t often get to acknowledge [inaudible 00:12:44] even though A Streetcar Named Desire with Brando, going from a play to the motion picture, we don’t get that kind of luxury in our storytelling as playwrights. So for one of the few opportunities to cross that bridge and for us to be a part of it, for me to be a part of it, is seminal. It’s like, “Whoa, this can go down in history as an opportunity that gets to share a play that everybody knows is brilliant, but now the world is ready to see it, as opposed to the few thousands of people who saw it.” Thank God they saw it, but even more, so that the world would be able to see August Wilson and that I’m able to contribute to that experience is just, “Wow. Hey, man. I don’t do much right, but I must’ve done something right somewhere to get the opportunity to do this.”
Michael Potts: That’s right. You must’ve been living right. You must’ve been living right.
Jami Philbrick: Coleman, I just wanted to also, before we end, just ask you to talk a little bit about working with George and what was it like watching him execute his vision for this project?
Colman Domingo: It takes a moment to get into the great, great mind of George C. Wolfe. He is a man of such intelligence. He’s way ahead of you. He’s thought about it. He’s read about it. He’s digested it. He’s spewed it out. He’s digested it again. He’s created it, and so he’s got so much size of knowledge about the history of the context, The Great Migration, musicianship, you name it, because, that man, he absorbs all of it. Then in the room, he wants you to know as much. He wants you to also wrestle with it as well, and once you think you know it, to un-know it as well, which I think it’s fascinating. It’s funny. In the beginning, you have to get your mind ready for it because it’s a lot coming at you, to be very honest. It’s a lot, and we all know. He’s got stories and things. You’re like, “I’m trying to catch up. I need to learn my lines, learn this music, all this, and catch up with you who has been living in all of this.” So you have to get on that train and be willing to be challenged with what you know, what you don’t know. He’s going to push you. He’s going to push you like the way he’s supposed to. Even if you’re a little resistant at times because every artist could be a little resistant because you’re like, “This feels good to give this much, but you want me to give this? You believe I can go for the triple axle every time?” It’s supposed to be a double. I thought a double would work. I thought a double would get the people going, but you want me to land a triple every single time? Okay.” He demands it. He truly demands it, and I really respect him for it. I’m so grateful that I know we are that we’ve had a director like that to guide our steps. Listen, we’ve all been in the business for a long time. Someone who’s going to get in there and challenge you, who’s fearless, because he challenges himself, that’s what is brilliant about George C. Wolfe.
Michael Potts: Yeah, and to even jump in on that is that he’s willing to learn from you too. He’s won’t just say, “Do it this way or this way. This is what I want, and that’s all, and you may be…” No, if you do it a little different way, and he finds there’s a truth in that, he’ll go, “I like that.” He goes, “Good. Do that.”
Glynn Turman: No. But, Michael, what he says is, “I like that. I hate that I like that because it was you and not me. But I like it. But I like it. But I like it.”
Colman Domingo: Oh, he’s beautiful. He doesn’t decorate you with so much that he stops you from working. Every so often, he’ll just give you a little, “That was good.” And it happens so fast you’re like, “Did I imagine it, or did it really happen?” Because he wants you to go for it.
Jami Philbrick: Unfortunately, guys, we’re out of time. I’d love to talk to you guys all day, but congratulations on the movie. Glynn, I loved you in Fargo.
Glynn Turman: Thank you, Jami.
Jami Philbrick: Congratulations on everything, guys and have a great day. Thank you.
Colman Domingo: Thank you.