I had the chance to speak with actors Omar Benson Miller and Marsha Stephanie Blake about their work in the new Apple TV+ series The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, a genre bending murder mystery also starring Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Dominique Fishback, and Cynthia Kaye McWilliams. Miller is well known for his work in Ballers, The Unicorn, Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, 8 Mile, and – to parents on young children – as the voice of Raphael on Ninja Turtles the last few years. Blake was recently nominated for an Emmy for her work in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. She’s also known for her performances in Orange Is the New Black and I’m Your Woman.
Both Miller and Blake bring wonderfully realized characters to life in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Miller plays a great nephew of Samuel L. Jackson’s titular character; their relationship is the emotional hinge for much of the series’ action. Blake plays a fascinating character who is set as something of an antagonist figure. Both performers are doing excellent work in the series despite relatively limited screen time.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
The Appeal of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey for Omar Benson Miller and Marsha Stephania Blake
It’s great to meet both of you. I appreciate the chance to speak with both of you today.
Miller: What a great name! The Invention of Dreams!
Thanks! It comes from a book that Scorsese turned into a movie called Hugo. We’ll start with an easy one, what drew you both into the project? Obviously, there’s a lot of appeal here, but what in particular for each of you?
Blake: For me, it was the idea of it, this beautiful and varied story. And the fact that it was being told by an ultimate storyteller, Walter Mosley. As soon as I saw who was attached to it, attached to the script, I went and read the book. I loved the book. I honestly loved every character in the book, as flawed as they all are in their own different ways. He just writes wonderful characters and he’s such a great storyteller. That drew me in.
Miller: For me, after getting hip to the project I went and read the book. Seeing that bond between Reggie and his uncle, that really made me identify with different portions of my life when I’ve been the younger person to the older person. Growing, and seeing what that relationship has done for me even though I did something for them. It was the idea of taking that and putting it on the screen and to have that shown in a way that you never really see. You never really see it black man to black man so the chance to do that, and do that with one of the greats? It’s an easy call to sign up.
Miller’s Screen Partnership with Samuel L. Jackson
Omar, I think your relationship with Samuel L. Jackson is one of the most interesting parts of the show even though there isn’t a ton of screen time. It feels like there’s so much texture to it and I was curious how you and Sam went about building that out.
Miller: That’s exactly what we were going for. A lot of that falls on his shoulders of being a really, really strong and solid performer. There’s not a tool in the box he doesn’t have. Thank God he shared a lot of that with me through the rehearsal process. I think between the times we got to rehearse, both of our life experiences, working with a great director in Ramin [Bahrani, the director of the first episode], and what was already on the page between the book and the script, it gave me a clear road map to do what I needed to do to help show those bonds in a minimal amount of time. I felt like it was really important for the story to work.
Blake’s Approach to a Complex Character
Marsha, I wanted to ask about Niecie because obviously she’s introduced to the audience in a difficult situation. One of the first times we really get to know that character is the scene where her niece has pulled a knife on her son and then her character becomes more nuanced as the show goes on. I was curious how you approached this part and brought this extra depth to the Niecie character.
Blake: A lot of it Walter has written. In six hours we can’t see everything Walter wrote. I referred to Walter’s writing a lot from the book, not just the screenplay. He puts a lot of it down. I think Niecie’s primary motivation is love. Even in the most difficult times and difficult scenes, where it seems like you wouldn’t agree with the decisions she’s making, I felt like I had to approach it from a standpoint that Niecie was coming from a place of life. She loved Ptolemy as much as she loves Robin as much as she loves Hillie. You talk about the knife scene and that just makes everything very complicated. I quite enjoy a complicated, messy character, someone who is very gray. It’s gray in what she has to deal with. It’s gray in the decisions she makes. You don’t always agree with her, but it’s interesting. But she’s coming from a place of love. I tried to remember that throughout the six episodes, that Niecie is trying hard to love everyone and take care of everyone… but sometimes she gets it wrong.
The Authenticity of the Show’s Writing
I wanted to ask about the writing. You just brought up Mr. Mosley, and obviously he’s something of a living legend. In a lot of projects of this scale and budget with a movie star like Samuel L. Jackson in the lead on a major platform, even coming from black creators, they can sound – for lack of a better phrase – like they were written by a white person. One of the things I most appreciated is the way that this show doesn’t code switch to accommodate white viewers. I’m curious how the way it’s written – how people actually speak – informed your performances in this project?
Miller: It just made it all the more real. The way that you remedy that issue is to have stories actually written by black people. If the story should sound like how black people actually speak, well, we are most familiar with that and how to portray that. With Walter, everything is honest and authentic. I don’t know if he’s ever actually done a project that was so personal because I know he has an experience with dementia as well. Although this is fiction, there is truth in there. I think that also informs a lot of what was written thus making it easier as a performer to act all that stuff honestly. I really think authenticity is the key.
Blake: But also look at our creative team. This is a team of people known for making authentic work. All of our directors to our producers. And, obviously, Sam is not a man who is going to put anything fake up on the screen. Between he and Walter and Diane Houslin, Ramin, Debbie Allen, these are people who are going to bring you honesty and reality. The rest of us just stepped up to the game.
History Repeats Itself Through Ptolemy and Reggie
Omar, one of the things I thought was interesting was the commonality between your character and the Ptolemy character. You both have these complex, difficult relationships with the women in your lives. There’s almost a direct through line from Nina’s behavior with how Cynthia’s character behaves. I was curious to what extent it informs your performance thematically.
Miller: For me, it connects the dots between how Reggie [Miller’s character] goes to his uncle for advice. In the book, they go into more depth about his relationships and Ptolemy’s past relationships. I think that that’s another layer of that authenticity and the bridge, another reason for the texture and another layer of the onion. We are products of our environment. What do we end up seeing? History ends up repeating itself. One of the things Ptolemy is really trying to do is to not have history repeat itself, and to get a resolution and to right a wrong, several wrongs. He needs his strongest asset to do that, which is his memory.
Blake’s Relationship with Dominique Fishback
I know we’re coming to the end of our time but Marsha I did want to ask you about your relationship with Dominique. The scenes between the two of you are electric and I was curious what it was like to work with her and build out that dynamic.
Blake: From the very first day, Dominique is one of those people who will call you and talk to you about history and family history. For her, in the moment, the character is the actor is the person. As far as Dom is concerned, I am Aunt Niecie and I’ll probably be Aunt Niecie to her for the rest of her life. She’s still FaceTimes me that way. I love that about her. I very often will meet actors like that. It’s really one of the beautiful things about the community we build when we do these projects with each other. It’s really important if I’m going to go out there and pretend like I’ve known this girl her whole life that there is a part of me that needs to feel like that’s real. The conversations are real and I actually interact with her on a level that’s much deeper. It has to be very quick so the person has to be super accessible and generous and open-hearted. Dominique is so open-hearted! She lets you right in. In the same way she expects to go right into your heart, she expects you to come right into hers. It’s really a beautiful thing. I do love her. In the show, she’s my little girl – I’m mad at her! But she’s mine!
I really appreciate you both taking the time to talk to me today. The show is fantastic and I hope than an awful lot of people get to see the work that the two of you have done.
Blake: Thank you so much!
Miller: Thank you!
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey debuts on Apple TV+ on Friday, March 11, 2022.
Please read our interview with Cynthia Kaye McWilliams: A Conversation with Cynthia Kaye McWilliams on Apple TV+’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.
Our review of the series will be published on Thursday.