For Samuel L. Jackson, the topic of Alzheimer’s disease is a very personal one. The acclaimed actor, who has starred in over 150 movies and made the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest-grossing box office actor in Hollywood, has lived with the specter of the debilitating disease as it claimed his mother, grandfather, aunt, and uncle.
“I remember one of the rules was don’t ask my mom things that she’s supposed to know the answer to because she can’t come up with the answer. She gets very irritated,” Jackson recalled.
In the Apple TV+ original series “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” Jackson takes us inside the mind of the titular character who is battling dementia. Based on the novel by acclaimed author Walter Mosley, “Ptolemy Grey” is a blend of familial drama, murder mystery, and science fiction, when Ptolemy takes part in a drug trial that momentarily restores his memories and reveals some shocking truths.
IndieWire spoke with Jackson via Zoom to discuss his latest project, working with his wife, actress LaTanya Richardson, and the kind of legacy he hopes to leave behind in Hollywood.
IndieWire: Was there anything that you used from your interactions with family members who have dementia to inform your performance as Ptolemy?
Samuel L. Jackson: You can’t help but remember certain aspects of their physicality and things that informed you about the kind of mood they were in that day or how that affected them when you spoke to them in a certain way. So, being able to understand and being able to mimic those particular things, hopefully, audiences watching it who have family members or loved ones that are suffering from dementia, can look at that and see the reality of it and not be triggered by it. Of course there’s the fantasy part of the story with the cure that temporarily allows him to be clear and go back in his mind, which informs the story in other ways so that they won’t have to sit there and be depressed watching a person deteriorate, but instead get to watch a person live a full life prior to getting to that particular point.
Through a series of flashbacks, we understand that Ptolemy witnessed some horrific acts of violence when he was a child, and Dr. Rubin tells Ptolemy that maybe his memory loss is a blessing in disguise. Since a lot of those memories are rooted specifically in racial trauma, what are your thoughts on that?
It depends upon the closeness to that particular experience and what it means. A lot of times people just decide not to remember the trauma and maybe that is a blessing that you’re able to get rid of it. But I don’t think it’s a blessing when your memories are taken from you without your acquiescence to it. If you want to shut something down, then you should have the power to shut it down and not just have something taken from you. I feel that way sometimes because I’m surrounded by Alzheimer’s and dementia, and when I can’t remember something, I feel the frustration of not being able to remember a name that I should know or a place or thing that I should remember. But I don’t dwell on that particular thing because I’m still doing everything I’m supposed to do to make sure that I can do those things. And one of those things is getting up going to work all the time. I’m still remembering lines so I must be okay!
Your wife LaTanya Richardson is also an executive producer on “Ptolemy Grey.” What was it like working with her?
Working with her, that can be a difficult thing because she is from a theatrical aspect of what we do. That’s what she does. She does performance and character-driven stuff and her opinions always come from that place. I’ve done all the cinematic stuff. So we clash in that way, but it is always a joy to have her input in terms of people because she worked with Dominique on a film in New York before I knew [who] Dominique was. So when we started talking about the role of Robin, [she] was saying, “Dominique, Dominique, Dominique!” for a long time and I asked, “Who are you talking about?” And then I saw “The Deuce,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and then it was, “Oh! that girl.”
What’s the best memory you have of you and your wife that you would never want to forget?
I guess that would be Zoe, the birth of our child. We were there for that. It was this thing that cemented us, as like this nuclear revolutionary family that we were supposed to be. We have a legacy now, so we have to take care of her.
Speaking of legacy, there’s a wonderful piece of dialogue when Ptolemy realizes his purpose in life — he says he thought it was to save Black people but now he realizes it’s to pass on the blessings until everyone is lifted up. What do you hope your legacy will be to younger Black actors like Dominique Fishback and others coming up after you?
Hopefully, what I’ve done and how I’ve done it shows that there is an appetite and an audience for us as artists. That I showed up on time, hit my marks, said my lines, and I put a lot of butts in seats. There’s somebody else out there who can do that too, so give them an opportunity to do it.
“The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” is streaming now on Apple TV+.