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.

James Patterson on Alex Cross and Bringing Him to the Silver Screen

Alex Cross movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is in regards to a press day which took place in 2012.

It has been over ten years since the last Alex Cross movie, “Along Came a Spider,” made it to the big screen. But now director Rob Cohen, who directed “The Fast and The Furious,” has brought the heroic detective and psychologist back in a reboot which is simply entitled “Alex Cross.” No one appears to be happier about Cross’ return to the world of film than the man who created him, James Patterson. The writer was recently at a press junket for “Alex Cross” at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, and he shared his thoughts on the new movie and the character he created.

James Patterson: I think it turned out great. Summit Entertainment (which is distributing it) has been fabulous to work with and they didn’t get in the way. They were helpful and supportive in every aspect. I think Rob did a terrific job especially given the budget ($24 million) which was not enormous and about a quarter of what he’s used to.

There was also the talk of Tyler Perry taking over the role of Alex Cross from Morgan Freeman who portrayed the character in both “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider.” Many were baffled as to why Perry was cast, and they were also intrigued as to what Patterson thought about him in the role instead of Freeman.

JP: Morgan is Morgan, but Tyler is much closer to the character in the books. The character in the books is bigger, he’s physical and he’s bright and I think Tyler did a great job. I think he’s going to blow people’s minds with this. When I went to Atlanta to meet with him, he said to me “James, I wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t sure that I could pull it off. And I’m going to give myself over to Rob. I’m not going to be the director.” And I think that’s what he did, and he took off some weight and bulked up as well.

As for Freeman, Patterson said the actor was never contacted about this movie. Like everyone else, he thinks Freeman is a wonderful actor but remarked how he is now 77 years old, and having him play a detective at that age was not going to work this time as Cross is around the age of 40 in the books.

Patterson was actually involved in the production of “Alex Cross” and even wrote the first draft of the screenplay. He had a lot of input as he owns 40% of the movie, but he was also able to step back and stay out of the way which he said is “the most useful thing that you can do sometimes.” The script did change a lot from what he originally wrote, and Patterson said he was perfectly alright with that.

When asked how he created Alex Cross, Patterson said he grew up in a town which eventually became known as “the murder capital of New York State,” and it was half black and half white. His experiences in this town enforced his reaction to the way blacks were treated in the media.

JP: I felt for a long time that the way movies were portraying African Americans was kind of stupid. I wanted to create a hero who really was a hero; an African American guy who is bright and anti all the stereotypes. Here’s a guy who’s taking care of his family, and this movie gets more into family than the first two did. He’s taking care of his kids, he’s cool with their grandmother, he’s well educated and a graduate of John Hopkins University, etc. So, I just wanted to go against the stereotypes, and I think that has worked and that’s what I’m happy about.

Returning to the movie, Patterson said one of the things which makes “Alex Cross” especially good is it has moments that are “really emotional,” and you don’t always have those moments in a film like this.

JP: Film crews can sort of not really be into the movie they’re working on that much, but there were times where they were watching the monitor and they were crying. It was very very emotional stuff and I think that’s unusual in a movie like this.

In talking about Matthew Fox who plays Michael “Picasso” Sullivan, Patterson described him as terrific and that his performance is one of the best and most original things about the movie.

JP: I think Matthew wanted to show everyone that he had this tremendous range which he does, and he wanted to be a bad guy. Once he got the part, he really pushed it. He took off a lot of weight because he wanted to have a certain look, and he was the madman.

Patterson believes what makes “Alex Cross” work so well as a movie was everyone went into it with a real hunger to do it. Cohen wanted a hit, Perry wanted to do something different and to show he had different skills than people thought he had, QED International (one of companies producing the movie) wanted to do something which would be a break out hit, and Patterson himself wanted another movie made about this character.

JP: Everyone was hungry and I always think that’s great. That does tend to produce a pretty good product.”

This was certainly the case here as “Alex Cross” proved to be a riveting action thriller with great performances from the entire cast and a lot of real emotion which never feels faked. Here’s hoping it finds the audience it deserves when it is released on October 19, 2012.

Click on the links below to check out the exclusive interviews I did with two people involved with the making of “Alex Cross.” These are interviews I conducted on behalf of the website We Got This Covered.

Rob Cohen

Ed Burns