‘Life, For Me, Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair’: Glynn Turman on Relating to His Character’s Grief in ARRAY’s Justine

Glynn Turman

Glynn Turman
Photo: Bobby Quillard

Glynn Turman has lived—and most importantly, he’s “being.”

The 73-year-old Emmy Award-winning actor landed his most prominent acting role at the tender age of 12, co-starring with the original cast of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway. Racking up many credits throughout the years, his most recent role is that of a grieving father in Justine, written, directed and starring Stephanie Turner, which was acquired by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY.

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The film’s synopsis, provided to The Root, via ARRAY:

Justine chronicles the turbulent time of grief for Lisa Wade (Turner), a wife and mother of two whose happiness is tragically disrupted when her military husband is killed. Consumed with mourning as every aspect of her life falls apart, Lisa’s challenging relationships with her devastated father-in-law (Glynn Turman) and the feisty 8-year Justine (Daisy Prescott), who she cares for as a nanny, provide the motivation she needs to begin an uphill journey back to herself.

ARRAY’s JUSTINE Directed by Stephanie Turner / ARRAY (YouTube)

Portraying Papa Don was an experience that hit extremely close to home for the iconic actor.

“Life, for me, ain’t been no crystal stair,” Turman told The Root. “At my age, you’ve pretty much experienced the ups and downs, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I was able to relate to this character more than I wish I was able to relate to him; just put it that way. The grief of having lost not one son, but two, in my own personal life. So, that’s all it took.”

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“My job as an actor is to be as available as I possibly can, [and] to touch with self, as I possibly can,” Turman noted, referencing Beah Richards, who most famously portrayed John Prentice’s (Sydney Poitier) mother in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

“[Richards] was an actress whose method was called the Theatre of Being, by the actor and wonderful teacher by the name of Frank Silvera. […]The first thing they had you do was look up the word, ‘being’, Turman explained. “Being is existing in a perfect state, lacking no essential characteristics. So that means as a human being, you have everything. You are accessible to everything. You exist in a perfect state.”

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Turman’s rich catalogue spans several lifetimes, but if I were to choose two projects that I couldn’t get off the phone without talking to the legendary actor about, they would be Cooley High and A Different World.

First off, I had to tell “Preach” that my mother went to the titular high school in Chicago and, of course, raised me to watch the 1975 film. For him, almost 45 years since its release, there was one moment during the filmmaking process that still sticks out to him.

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“[It’s] the night we stole the car. If you watch this film again, you see how scared everybody was. As I’m—Preach is—driving, the warehouse and dodging obstacles, I was going really fast and the guys were really, really afraid. I mean, really afraid, man. If you listen closely, you could hear one of the guys say, ‘Ok, Glynn!’ [instead of Preach’s name],” Turman chuckled.

Glynn Turman

Glynn Turman
Photo: Bobby Quillard

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The aforementioned Theatre of Being was created by Silvera for black actors to be able to be cast in non-stereotypical roles. In the same sense, A Different World served as a platform to show what was possible for young black people beyond the stereotypical narratives thrown at them.

A Different World made it OK [and] cool to become educated, to seek out further education, to want to be a mathematician or a doctor or an entrepreneur. Made it cool to want to go to college. That, in and of itself was a major gem that was given to us as a community,” Turman said.

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Having co-starred in Queen Sugar and Red Line, this isn’t the first time Turman has appeared in an Ava DuVernay project. As someone who has worked with a variety of people in television and film and has had myriad experiences, I wanted to ask Turman if there was something special about DuVernay. She’s certainly created something special with ARRAY.

“[Ava] has picked up the baton and has been running her leg with excellent stride,” Turner mused. “She picked up a baton that has been passed on to her in her generation and has not missed a step. She reminds me of Lorraine Hansberry, Ruby Dee [and] Maya Angelou. All of these women who I was in the trenches with as a young man […] who I had the opportunity to see, up close, the fierceness with which they tackled the injustices [in order] to make change. And to see how they did it with such passion as well as compassion. She possesses that quality and I’m naturally drawn to her. I love this woman. She’s cut from that piece of cloth.”

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As for what’s next for Turman, he has a few projects to look out for, including The Way Back and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Additionally, the self-proclaimed history buff and rodeo enthusiast will be co-starring in The Outlaw Johnny Black.

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Justine is currently streaming on Netflix.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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