Cicely Tyson on Playing Nana Mama in ‘Alex Cross’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a press day which took place back in 2012. RIP Cicely.

The great Cicely Tyson has worked only so much in movies over the years as she is strongly determined to play only strong and positive images of African-American women. In Rob Cohen’s “Alex Cross,” she finds a very strong character in Regina “Nana Mama” Cross, Alex’s grandmother who helps keeps his children in line when he’s not around. At a press conference which took place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Tyson explained why she took on this particular role.

Upon meeting James Patterson, author of the Alex Cross novels, he said out loud “we finally found Nana Mama.” Watching her in “Alex Cross” makes this crystal clear to those who have read Patterson’s books. While Nana is Alex’s grandmother, she’s really more of a mother to him as we learn how he lost both his parents at an early age.

When asked if she would describe Nana as feisty or cantankerous, Tyson said “she’s all of that and more.” But she also sees the character first and foremost as being a mother.

Cicely Tyson: To me it is the most important feature in her personality. Then add to that fact that if anything ever happened to her son, she would not only be grandmother but mother to his children. So, I was torn between his love for the work that he chose and the fact that any day he could not come home to me or his children. So that was extremely difficult for me.

It is the danger of Alex’s work which leaves Nana Mama is constantly on edge because there’s always the possibility he won’t come home one day. Tyson said Nana knows the facts of how not only Alex’s life is in danger, but also her own and his children’s.

Tyson had previously worked with Perry on several of his movies, and when Cohen offered her the role, she told him anything with Perry interested her greatly. When asked what it was like working with him on “Alex Cross,” she talked of how he heard him say time and time again, “I can’t believe I’m in a scene with Cicely Tyson,” and he at one point told Cohen he didn’t know how to act around her. In turn, she responded that she could believe she was doing a scene with Perry.

Cicely Tyson: We both had the same anxieties about working in this particular capacity with each other.

When it comes to choosing roles, Tyson made it clear she never takes anything offered to her at face value.

Cicely Tyson: I have always maintained one way of selecting a role that I play, and it’s through reading the script. If my skin tingles, I know it’s for me, and if my stomach churns it’s a pass. That’s my way of deciding.

When asked what made her skin tingle about playing Mama Nana in “Alex Cross,” Tyson said it was working with Perry.

Tyson said she would definitely love to reprise the role of Mama Nana if “Alex Cross” is successful enough to generate a sequel. Despite its somewhat middling opening weekend at the box office, a follow up does look to be in the works with Perry returning as Alex. Tyson herself looks to work for as long as she is able to, but did she admit there is a certain play she wants to do. Now she wouldn’t say which play, but she is intent on retiring once she does it. While she never expected this opportunity to happen, it is now a possibility she will do this play sometime next year.

From “Sounder” to “Roots” to “Alex Cross,” Cicely Tyson has given us one unforgettable performance after another. Here’s hoping she doesn’t retire just yet.

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