Master Class: The Ava Duvernay & Cicely Tyson Interview

Cicely Tyson Ava DuVernay
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Maarten de Boer

Cicely Tyson stood about 5-foot-3, but she had the presence to command attention in any room. A year before she passed away on January 28, the actress stepped into TV Guide Magazine‘s busy photo studio at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California, to pose with accomplished film and television creator Ava DuVernay. Immediately, the hustle and bustle ceased, and the staffers hushed. A legend had arrived.

It didn’t remain quiet for long. The two women, who worked together on DuVernay’s 2020 OWN drama Cherish the Day, embraced and laughed like friends who’d known each other forever. Seeing their connection, we knew that a conversation between these two was a must for our Master Class series, where we bring folks of different generations together for a lively discussion. That chat took place not long before Tyson died at age 96 (at press time, no cause of death was given).

Born in 1924, the native of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood worked as a model before segueing into performing when she was in her twenties. In Hollywood (where she took acting class with Marilyn Monroe!), Tyson went on to break barriers as the first Black woman to star in a TV drama (CBS’s 1963–64 series East Side/West Side).

Over the course of her storied career, she earned an Oscar nomination (for the 1972 drama Sounder) and three Emmy Awards (two for 1974’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and one for 1994’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All). In 2013, at age 88, Tyson became the oldest person to win a Tony Award (Best Actress in a Play for The Trip to Bountiful). Her memoir, Just As I Am, was released last month.

DuVernay, 48, has an impressive résumé of her own. She directed the Oscar-winning historical movie Selma (2014) and the acclaimed documentary 13th (2016), and she created the OWN drama Queen Sugar, which launches its fifth season February 16. But she still greeted Tyson with a reverent, “Hello, your majesty!” when they connected on the phone amid the global pandemic. TV Guide Magazine listened in as an eager DuVernay peppered Tyson with questions.

Ava DuVernay: I’m glad I get the chance to interview you. I’m very excited! I’ve looked at photographs of you through your whole life and wonder what would you say to that younger Cicely?

Cicely Tyson Ava DuVernay

(Credit: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images for Discovery, Inc.)

Cicely Tyson: First of all, I don’t go back to anything. That’s number one. I was brought up in a very strict, religious [home]. We were not permitted to go to the movies. So I had no aspirations to be an actress. Whatever I did that represented itself as acting came from my dad [William, a carpenter and painter], mostly. Everybody thought he should be in the business because he played the guitar, he sang. I think that that’s what he really wanted to do. He was always setting us up to sing, and we did that at concerts in church.

DuVernay: Do you enjoy watching yourself on film and TV?

Tyson: [Laughs] I never watch myself!

DuVernay: You never?

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Tyson: I never! I was forced to do it when I did a movie [1966’s A Man Called Adam] with Sammy Davis, and Leo Penn directed it. He realized when they were watching the screening that I wasn’t there. And they said, “Where is Cicely?” They did find me. I tell you, I sat down in the seat, and before I knew it, I was on the floor because I kept sliding down out of my seat. I felt this hand tap me on the shoulder, and it was Leo, and he said to me, “You may leave.” I haven’t watched [screenings] since. I act for the audience.

DuVernay: What do you do on set when you’re afraid or uncomfortable?

Tyson: I don’t have any of those anxieties. It’s the [character] that the writer has introduced me to that’s there. Once I step into her skin, Cicely is out!

DuVernay: So that might be why some actors have difficulty, because they’re not giving themselves over to the role totally.

Tyson: There you go!

ava duvernay cicely tyson

(Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

TV Guide Magazine: Ms. Tyson, when did you first become aware of Ava?

Tyson: I was visiting a friend in Washington, D.C., and she said, “There’s a young lady who has directed a film. Come and go with me.” The movie was I Will Follow, and it was Ava’s first [narrative] movie [which came out in 2011]. And when I met you, I said, “I saw your first movie!” I think it endeared me to her.

DuVernay: I’m endeared to you forever. And you were one of five people who ever saw that movie! So, it means a lot to me.

Tyson: That’s not true! Because the movie house was full that night, so it had to be more than five people.

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DuVernay: I know. It was my first little independent film, and I’ll always be grateful. We know you like to get out on the streets in the city, so it was a good night! I just want to tell you how much I love you, and miss you, and just thank you for always taking time to talk to me.

Tyson: Oh, please! It’s a mutual admiration society here. [Both laugh] Keep doing the things that you’re doing, because there’s one thing that I have learned: that what God gives you, no one can take away from you.

DuVernay: Amen.

Stream Cicely

(Credit: Kelsey McNeal via Getty Images)

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman(HBO Max)

Tyson won a Best Actress in a Drama Emmy and a special Actress of the Year Emmy for playing a 110-year-old former slave reflecting on her life in the 1974 TV movie.

The Help(Netflix)

As a devoted Southern housekeeper fired by her boss (Allison Janney), Tyson emanated anguish in this hit 2011 theatrical film.

How to Get Away With Murder(Netflix)

And you thought lawyer Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) was a piece of work? Her fierce mother, Ophelia Harkness (guest star Tyson), held all the dark family secrets on the 2014–20 ABC drama.

Roots(HBO Max)

In the 1977 ABC miniseries, Tyson played Binta, the mother of African native Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton), who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in America.