LaTanya Richardson Jackson knows a thing or two about the American dream. She watched people fight for it growing up in Atlanta, during the civil rights era. She earned a Tony Award nomination -- and rave reviews -- last year playing the matriarch of a black family moving to a white neighborhood in the classic "A Raisin in the Sun." Then there's her marriage to Samuel L. Jackson -- the two of them starting out as starving actors until . . . Hollywood called.
Now she examines the American dream in "Show Me A Hero," a new HBO miniseries from "The Wire" creator David Simon, starring Oscar Isaac and Winona Ryder, and directed by Paul Haggis, premiering Aug. 16. Based on a true story (and a book by Lisa Belkin), the series follows Yonkers residents in the 1980s and '90s after a federal lawsuit proves officials had used housing funds to segregate the city for decades. Integration proves tough on everyone, from the mayor (Isaac) and a councilwoman (Ryder) to housing project resident Norma O'Neal (Jackson).
What was it like working with David Simon?
It was an amazing collaboration between him and Paul Haggis. On set he let Paul lead. Occasionally we'd get line changes from David, but, basically, he didn't deal with us a lot. Now . . . it's very hard not to deal with me. [She chuckles.]
Made your presence known?
Oh, yes. I have so much respect for him. I talked to David . . . about how I didn't want everybody to think Norma's just another woman with the American dream. Unfortunately for Norma, her dreams had totally been deferred and she doubted this integration thing would work.
How'd you get inside her head?
I thought of my grandparents, who were involved in the civil rights movement. Back then Atlanta, where I grew up, was a mecca. I tried to create an amalgam of all these women -- my grandmother, women I know from church, women I see with shopping bags at bus stops . . . and my husband's mother. She wouldn't even put money in a white person's hand -- she'd put it on the counter, because she said, "You're not supposed to touch them."
That's a lot to consider while playing a role.
You know, Mike Nichols -- I got to work for him once -- told me, "LaTanya, when you're onstage, you're in it . . . but on screen you don't necessarily have to be in the moment."
You mean, not every second?
You should never be blank on camera . . . but the camera doesn't know what the hell you're thinking. It could be, "What's my grocery list?" You can fool the camera. I watch Sam -- he's so adept at that. He's a great technician. I'm not. If I'm not totally that character, then it ain't happenin'. [She chuckles.]
I have to ask you about "Blue Bloods" -- my mom's faaaavorite show. You played Lt. Carver, boss of Det. Danny Reagan (Donnie Wahlberg). You're not coming back this fall?
Your mother should write a letter, because my character was axed along with several others.
So who's gonna keep Danny in line?
They're gonna fly by the seat of their pants. We'll see how that goes for 'em. [She laughs.]
What accounts for that show's popularity?
It's a family story. But I think the fans skew older. That's why the budget got cut. This is gonna sound abstract, but go with me here -- this is one of the last shows that houses the vestiges of that American dream. You have a problem, you solve it, and at the end of the day we're together at the table as a family. That kind of slight sappiness . . . it's part of the American dream.
What's next -- Off-Broadway, yes?
I'm starring next year in a play, "Familiar," by Danai Gurira.
She plays Michonne on "The Walking Dead."
She's also a prolific writer. I play a mother from Zimbabwe eager to assimilate. My agents are, like, "But it's no moneeeey." [She laughs.] I say, "I have Saaaaaam."
Any summer vacation plans?
We had our vacation -- on a yacht, the Amadeus, with Magic Johnson for three weeks. It has to be the most beautiful yacht in the water. It's owned by [French tycoon] Bernard Arnault, a fan of Earvin's, so . . . he's been getting this boat now for seven years.
Wow. Where'd you hang?
The Mediterranean. We'd go into port sometimes, but mostly we'd sail. That's how people keep their community separate, let me tellya. They get in the water -- 'cuz they know ain't nobody goin' out there.