If the saying is true that “all a man is, is what he remembers,” then the very vivid—and at times very fleeting—memories of Ptolemy Grey’s life, as shown in the new AppleTV+ series The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, undoubtedly serve as proof to a man worth knowing.
The aforementioned anecdote is central to the six-part drama, which is based off the novel of the same name by acclaimed author Walter Mosely. Starring Oscar-nominated actor Samuel L. Jackson, Dominique Fishback, Omar Benson Miller, Damon Gupton, Cynthia Kaye McWilliams and more, the drama series sees Jackson in the titular role of Grey; an ailing man with dementia forgotten by his family, his friends, and even himself.
Suddenly left without his trusted caretaker, and on the brink of sinking even deeper into a lonely dementia, Ptolemy is assigned to the care of orphaned teenager Robyn, played by Dominique Fishback. When they learn about a treatment that can restore Ptolemy’s dementia-addled memories, it begins a journey toward shocking truths about the past, present and future. Those memories are paramount, as Ptolemy and Robyn embark on a quest to find out what happened to a beloved family member and a treasure that awaits them—both internally and externally—that by the series’ end, is one that’ll leave viewers both moved and angered by its lasting implications.
Jackson’s long-documented and award-winning range shines effortlessly in this series, bringing both the tenderness and vulnerability of man who’s become a shell of his former self and the defiance and determination of someone who’s hellbent on justice and vindication for both his family and his legacy. The Root recently got the chance to chat with Jackson, (a recent NAACP Chairman’s Awards recipient, BTW) over Zoom where he discussed the new series and how he hopes audiences interpret Ptolemy as the story unfolds.
The Root: What was it about this series, this story of Ptolemy, that drew you to the role?
Samuel L. Jackson: I’ve always like Ptolemy in terms of who he was and what his life was. His life situation was something I was very familiar with because a lot of people in my family had Alzheimer’s and dementia. So I was kind of surrounded by it and thought it would be great to pay homage to them in a way. You have people that have been very special and you’ve watched them and you’ve seen the light go out of their eyes at a certain point. But you also know that they had rich and fruitful lives that need to be celebrated and talked about with other people. So it’s an opportunity to create a character and say this is who he was, this is who he is now but this is what he was. This is what made Ptolemy the man that he is.
TR: This series has elements of the past, the present and the future and how it often all intersects and informs what decisions we make or don’t make in our lifetime. How, if at all, did that notion influence how you approached bringing Ptolemy to life?
SLJ: Well, Walter wrote those things. So the things that happened in Ptolemy’s life totally informed how he sees the world. Him leaving the country and going to what could be called “the big city” to help his sister and raise her kids, the way that he approached life in terms of the richness of him being a man in that particular time of life, meeting a woman and falling in love and what that means. And [him] being able to open his heart to something that may not have been a traditional love to a lot of people...but knowing that he was a family man whose family has pretty much thrown him away.
But then this young woman who comes into his life kind of takes him out the trash heap, dusts him off, polishes him up and all of a sudden he’s worthwhile again to a certain group of people. So it was being able to show what we oftentimes say: All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk, or all kinfolk ain’t skinfolk. And this little girl comes in and becomes more family to him than the people who are.
TR: There’s been recent discourse about the burden artists and creators may feel about doing projects that walk the fine line of realism while still maintaining those fantastical and escapist elements of creative storytelling. At this point in your career, does that line of thinking influence the type of roles you take on?
SLJ: I’m always concerned with an audiences take on the reality of what’s happening and how we portray situations and people—in terms of not doing something that’s crazy or fantastic or something that’s not honest to the people that are sitting there watching—and treating them like they’re smart enough to understand what’s going on and not beat them over the head with the point. Giving them the opportunity to make their own decisions about simple things but portraying the reality of what’s there as what’s real and not something that’s a joke.
Even though there is a fantastical part to Ptolemy—in that he has a cure for a specific amount of time—so that people don’t have to live a six-part story about a guy who can’t think or doesn’t know who he is or where he is. You have an opportunity to breath for a moment and watch his life. And understand what’s going on with him and the kinds of things he has to deal with in terms of these things that’s bothered him for so long that he cannot remember—that he finally has an opportunity to remember and correct and carry on with his life afterwards.
The first two episodes of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey premieres Friday, March 11, with new episodes streaming weekly only on AppleTV+.