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Samuel L. Jackson gets personal about dementia in 'The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey'

Samuel L. Jackson accepts his first Oscar, an honorary lifetime achievement award, during the 2022 Governors Awards at The Ray Dolby Ballroom last month in Hollywood, Calif.
Mike Coppola
Getty Images
Samuel L. Jackson accepts his first Oscar, an honorary lifetime achievement award, during the 2022 Governors Awards at The Ray Dolby Ballroom last month in Hollywood, Calif.

Updated April 3, 2022 at 5:35 PM ET

The afflictions of aging and the beauty of community are at the center of Samuel L. Jackson's latest project, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.

The Apple TV Plus miniseries, adapted from Walter Mosley's novel of the same name, stars Jackson as a 91-year-old man suffering from dementia. His character takes an experimental drug that temporarily restores his memory to solve his nephew's murder.

The 73-year-old actor has appeared in more than 100 films and is known for his dramatic roles in movies such as Pulp Fiction, Jungle Fever, A Time to Kill, Snakes on a Plane and as Nick Fury in the Marvel Universe. He received an honorary Academy Award last month for his body of work.

But for Jackson, all of his acclaimed work was not about chasing a statue. He was doing work that was fun and resonated with an audience.

"When my agents would send me a script and they would go, 'This is the one right here,'" Jackson said, "I'd go, no I don't want to do that. Or this is one's going to be [an Oscar winner]. I'd say no it's not going to be, but I'm gonna have fun doing it."

He added, "According to the Black community, or the people that watch movies, I had an Oscar a long time ago."

Jackson spoke with Weekend Edition about what drew him to play Ptolemy Grey, the importance of community, and what it really means to be a legend.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On why Walter Mosley's The Life of Ptolemy Grey is meaningful to him

Because of my history with Alzheimer's and everybody in my family and me having to watch it and deal with it and kind of absorb it and understand it and grapple with why is this happening, and is it going to happen to me?

That's the crux of what all that was, and reading it in Walter's book was one of those kind of revelations for me — that this would be an interesting character for me to dissect and to play and possibly get rid of some of the demons in my head about what's going on and why the world would do that to all these people that I loved.

On how long it took 12 years to turn the book into a show

It's a Black story about Alzheimer's, and they didn't need that content, you know. And all of a sudden, when people need content, you start telling stories and somebody finally realizes, well, it is Walter Mosley, can't we make this work?

On the power of community in Ptolemy's story

[Community is] one of the things that I used to constantly try and make people understand when we were talking about this story to the other entities. Because they would go, well [the character] Robyn is not really a part of [Ptolemy's] family. And I'd go, well, you don't understand the dynamic in the Black community about people that come to live in your house, or people's children or cousins that come and stay there, or people who die and they leave their kids — and people in the neighborhood or in that community take them in and they become your family.

That was a big thing for them. Well, can we just say she's a family member? No, that's not what the story is. The story is this person who's not part of the family comes in and cares more for [Ptolemy] than the people who should be caring for him. Black people look at this story and they immediately grasp what's happening and who these people are and how it works.

On finally receiving an Oscar

I've thought about the scope of my career for a long time. When I go back and think about all the things that I've done and remember them, or specific moments when people say to you, "Oh my God, you know you're going to get an Oscar for that." You reach a point, when it doesn't happen, that you kind of let it go. Or, it's almost like when I was a young actor in New York or even an older actor at a certain point, I was never going to come to Hollywood just to see if I could be a movie star. I wasn't coming out until they sent for me. When they sent for me, I was ready to be here.

I was blessed to do things like A Time To Kill or I was blessed to do Jungle Fever. Gator is this iconic character that people remember. It was the first time somebody said, "Oh, you're going to win awards for that." A Time to Kill comes close behind that. It's like, boom, you're going to win awards for that. Pulp Fiction comes behind that. And it's like, boom, you're going to win awards for that. And when they don't happen, you got to let it go. And just go to work. I'm not going to statue chase.

On being called a legend

Everybody can't be a king. Everybody can't be a legend. Everybody can be a diva. A legend means I've done some stuff that's beyond believable. I've done a whole bunch of believable stuff, things that are achievable. And hopefully, kids can look at that and understand that hard work and dedication will get you to a lot of different places. You don't have to accidentally fall into it and have a magic wand. There's no magic, you know? Luck is the perfect meeting of preparation and opportunity. So, be prepared when the opportunity shows upsamuel because opportunity don't knock every day.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Ashley Lisenby