Cicely Tyson co-stars as the homicide detective’s grandmother in “Alex Cross.”
Updated: November 15, 2012 6:10AM
LOS ANGELES — At age 78, Cicely Tyson slows down just long enough to pass on some life advice.
“When I was younger, I didn’t know what a great gift God had given me with this life. I had no idea. But I’m grateful to have lived long enough to begin to understand what it is I’ve been given,” says the screen legend, spry and sure of voice.
What does she know about life after almost eight decades on earth? “I know that I wish I would have always been kinder. I wish I would have always truly loved every person in my life the way I wanted to be loved.”
Her inspiration is one of her beloved characters: the freed slave in the 1974 TV movie “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
“Jane was the grandmother I never knew. Even before I did the film, I bought the book because I was attracted to the photograph of Jane on the cover,” she says. “When I sat down to read it, I thought, ‘Here is a woman who proves to the world that age does not matter.’
“She was 110 when she decided to take things into her own hands and try to bring some end to this treatment of blacks. It proves that you’re never too old to live your dream.”
Her dream these days is to continue her celebrated acting career. Last year, she had a pivotal role in “The Help.” Now, she stars as Nana Mama opposite Tyler Perry in “Alex Cross,” opening Friday.
Perry plays the title role, the detective created by author James Patterson and portrayed earlier by Morgan Freeman in “Kiss the Girls” (1997) and “Along Came a Spider” (2001).
“Tyler is a genius who is an extraordinary human being,” she says. “He is not afraid to take on a challenge. It’s truly amazing that everything he touches turns to gold. It’s innate in his genes.”
Earlier she teamed with Perry in films including “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” (2005) and “Why Did I Get Married Too?” (2010). The actor-director calls her “his good-luck charm,” she says.
That helped, because Perry was nervous about doing a non-Madea acting role. “He was a wreck and kept looking at me saying, ‘I’m doing a scene with Cicely Tyson,’ ” she says. “I kept saying, ‘I’m doing a serious scene with Tyler Perry.’ We both had the same anxiety about working with each other.”
Tyson still gets nervous before starting a scene. “I’m glad,” she says. “If I was blase about it, I’d be worried. People think that because you’re in the business for such a long time and have become an icon that you have no fears and anxieties. I have more nervousness now than when I started in this business.”
She asks one thing of her co-stars. “I don’t allow anyone to call me by my name on the set,” she says. “I’m the character. Oh yes, I always stay in character for the whole shoot.”
Tyson grew up in Harlem after her parents moved there from the Caribbean island of Nevis. A fashion editor at Ebony magazine discovered her, and she became a top model before she started acting.
She is known for movies including “Sounder” (1972) and “Fried Green Tomatoes” (1991), and also starred as Binta in the classic TV miniseries “Roots” (1977).
“Alex Haley did the world a great service by writing that book,” she says. “What he did was made us question who we are and where we came from. For African Americans, somebody says you came from these roots. Then the world began to trace their roots. It was quite extraordinary.”
She was married to musical genius Miles Davis from 1981 to 1988. These days she lives alone in Atlanta.
As she approaches 80, Tyson says, “Age is a matter of mind over matter. If the mind don’t matter then the matter don’t mind.”
She’s the last surviving member of her family. “When I have achieved whatever it is the maker still has in mind for me, he will take me,” she says. “Day by day, I think there is something I still have to learn and something I still have to teach.”
Big Picture News Inc.