‘Real Husbands of Hollywood’ Star Cynthia Kaye McWilliams on Voicing Marvel’s Gamora, Working With Samuel L. Jackson

Cynthia Kaye McWilliams is one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors. Currently appearing opposite Kevin Hart in “Real Husbands of Hollywood,” which has just returned to screens for a reunion season after a six year hiatus, McWilliams is also the voice of Gamora in Marvel Studios’ animated series “What If…?” and is soon to be seen in Apple original series “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” alongside Samuel L. Jackson.

The six-episode drama, based on the novel of the same name by Walter Mosley, sees Jackson play a 91-year-old man almost lost to dementia who has one last chance to regain his memories. In doing so, he has to try to come to terms with his past and also, hopefully, solve his nephew’s mysterious death.

McWilliams, who plays Jackson’s wife, Sensia, in the show, spoke to Variety about working with Jackson, stepping into Zoe Saldana’s shoes and whether there has been any real progress for women of color in the industry.

How did ‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’ come your way?

Through my agent. But as soon as I got this audition, I was really intrigued just because I actually was a big fan of Walter Mosley as a novelist. And when I found out that he was not only still attached to the project, but he was executive producing, show running, but more importantly, that he was writing all of the scripts, I was really excited.

What was it like auditioning with Samuel L. Jackson?

He was quite a challenge [laughs]. Auditions these days are so challenging, because they’re not in person, everything is in these Zoom rooms. But nonetheless, you know, I was like, let’s do this thing. But Sam was just – looking back now I wonder if his whole goal was, ‘Let me see if this girl can handle working with me,’ you know? Throughout the whole audition, I mean, over and over again, if I would make a choice he would literally say, “Oh, so that’s your choice? That’s what you’re going with?”

That sounds terrifying.

He just wanted to know if I would push back. He’s such a sweet guy. After having worked with him and being on set with him, his professionalism is remarkable. He is of course, this persona – we all know him as Sam “Motherfucking” Jackson – but what he really is, I think we forget, is a seasoned actor. He started in the theatre, he’s been around some of the most amazing performers, he’s had an incredible film career and stage career. He’s married to an incredible performer as well. I mean, the artistic blood pumping through his veins constantly – it is just so tangible when you’re interacting with him. I actually appreciated being given a little bit of ribbing and I think it was important for both of us to know going forward that we could joust, we could play.

How did you prepare for the role?

I believe 1,000% that all of the secrets for your character are buried inside of the script so it’s really about the treasure hunt of getting in there. But for this one, in particular, I had the privilege of being able to also have the book. I read “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” again, and looked over any and all references to Sensia and all of her scenes in the book, but more so to understanding who Ptolemy was, because so much of her character is about her relationship to him.

I think reading all of the story, the literature and the character clues about Ptolemy allowed me to fall in love with [Sensia], with the time [period] and with him. And that’s the biggest thing. I think our research always has to be something that allows us to fall in love with our character.

You’re currently also appearing in “Real Husbands of Hollywood” alongside Kevin Hart. How did you feel when you heard the series would be returning?

I’m going to be very honest. What I originally thought – my first feeling – was… “Really?” Like, I don’t know. I don’t know if that moment is still valid. Just how sometimes you’ll look back on a time in your life and maybe there’s a hair cut, and you’re like, “I don’t know what I was doing with that mushroom cut. It looked cute at the time [but] I don’t know what I was thinking.” I think my first thought was just a hesitancy about is this type of comedy – is this type of role – are either of these things valid? I ultimately let go of all of that and in the same way decided to fall in love with that character again. The show was beloved by so many people, it was such a cult classic, and they wouldn’t have brought it back if the fans had not demanded it.

How did you find out it was returning?

They’ve been talking about bringing it back for probably three years. We had said we would do a reunion season many times. After probably the third or fourth call from [producer] Jesse Collins saying, “Stay ready because we’re gonna do it,” I was like, “Jesse, we’re not doing it.” He had also called me many times to tell me that they wanted to do a spin-off with all the ladies [from the show]. So it would be like me and Nicole Ari Parker and Tisha Campbell, and just all the ladies. There were so many times, so many times. So it was not really a surprise, it was almost more so [when it actually happened]. But because the call was supported by my agent this time, he was like, “No really, they actually called. They put it on paper.”

You also voiced Gamora in Marvel’s animated “What if…?” What was it like following in Zoe Saldan’s footsteps?

My job most of the time is to create a character out of nothing and sort of imagine a thing. This one was like, “Oh my gosh.” I mean, come on. We all love Zoe Saldana and we love all the Marvel characters so much. I think for me, the only thing that made it easy is that I am a full-on Marvel nerd. So yeah, I felt definitely a bit of pressure, but also confidence in the fact that I knew Zoe’s voice, [Gamora’s] wry sarcasm, her very well-earned sense of superiority, because she is a master warrior and also the favourite child of her maybe not so beloved father. All of those things were things that I felt really tied to and familiar with and so if anything, yes, it was a challenge, but it was also just so much fun.

There’s been a lot of talk in Hollywood about diversity: do you feel change is happening or is it mostly lip service?

I think both can be true. I think that there has been an enormous amount of change and to deny that I think does a disservice to all of the people who’ve worked for that change. There are more women behind the camera than ever before, there are more Black women behind the camera writing and showrunning. There are more roles available for Black women in front of the camera, particularly more roles that are leading roles and dynamic characters.

Do we still need more? Yes. The point is I think that when we’ve really achieved change, as an artists community, and honestly as a whole community, is when we realise that every single person’s story is valid and that we all benefit by hearing it.

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