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Leslie Uggams is Unforgettable

Decades after she stirred our emotions in Roots, we’re enjoying her standout roles in Deadpool, on Empire, and now in American Fiction.

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Leslie Uggams
CJ Rivera/AP Images
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Gracing stages and screens beginning at the tender age of six, Leslie Uggams won over hearts in 1967 for her part in the Broadway hit, Hallelujah, Baby! For many sisters, her Emmy and Golden Globe nominated portrayal of Kizzy Reynolds in the powerful 1977 miniseries Roots is unforgettable. The daughter of the enslaved Kunta Kinte, headstrong Kizzy Kinte— renamed Reynolds— is determined to overcome and carry on her father’s legacy. Uggams evokes a host of emotions within viewers: Pride as she passionately relays family history to her grandchildren. Sadness when she passes just before receiving her freedom.

Now 80, the actress, Broadway talent and singer is as sharp— and beautiful—as ever, putting out some of her best work. She’s worked with legends like the late Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. More recently she’s co-starred with Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool), Taraji P. Henson (Empire), Terrence Howard (Empire) and other award winners.

Playing the role of Blind Al in the Deadpool trilogy (the third releasing in 2024) allowed Uggams to connect with a more new-aged and multigenerational fandom. As the visually impaired roommate to the series’ anti-hero, Deadpool, Blind Al turns out to be a motherly, safe haven for the popular villain—despite the pair often being at odds. Uggams shared in a 2016 interview about the film. “What I love about her is she’s old, but she’s feisty!”

Feisty can also describe her role as Leah Walker in the hit series Empire. The bipolar mother of music mogul, Lucious Lyons, Walker pops back into her son’s life after he’s convinced friends and family that she had passed away. Uggams, a Harlem native, says people still stop her on the street to praise her performance.

AMERICAN FICTION | Official Trailer
AMERICAN FICTION | Official Trailer
AMERICAN FICTION | Official Trailer

Now, the actress portrays another strong, and also disabled, mother figure in American Fiction, hitting theaters nationwide on Dec. 22, 2023. Based on Percival Everett’s novel, Erasure, and adapted and directed by Emmy winning writer, Cord Jefferson, the movie is generating awards-season buzz.

I love doing crossword puzzles and other things that keep your brain active. I read three or four books at a time.

Uggams plays Agnes Ellison, a mother of three adult children (played by Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross and Sterling K. Brown) who must also navigate a recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The satire sheds light on complex dynamics within Black families. I felt anger seeing how those struggles are often viewed by non-Black people as entertainment and capitalist opportunity. I also felt empathy for Agnes’ children, who simply want their mother’s unconditional love without judgement.

For instance, Agnes and son Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), share a sweet mother and son dance. Agnes, having transported back to a long-ago dance with her deceased husband, comes back to present reality and makes a hurtful, unfiltered comment about Clifford’s sexuality. This moment revealed how gut-wrenching Alzheimer’s can be on family navigating the present even as unhealed traumas surface.

Sisters spoke further with Uggams about her career choices, pastimes, self-care and happy marriage.

What was it like to play your current role, and from where did you draw inspiration?
I did know someone who was affected by Alzheimer’s in their early 60s, and it was unbelievable because she was such a vibrant person. To see this happen and know there was no way to stop it— that was the sad thing about it. How this person all of a sudden just faded away. Not only for the person who has it, but also their family. That’s what I felt with this role. There’s this mother who makes everything happen in a family, and now the dynamic changes because the children have to come together to deal with it while dealing with their own things. The roles are reversed; and rather [than] her being the caretaker, they have to decide who still step up to the plate to take care of her.

What was it like working with such a dynamic cast, specifically Tracee Ellis Ross, Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown, who are all revered today in Black Hollywood?
It was fabulous! When we weren’t shooting, we were carrying on like we were family, and it was so easy. Corde [Jefferson] wrote the script and I knew I had to be a part of it because it was so real. Walking on set every day…was absolute joy.

Speaking of joy, what things bring you joy?
Well, I truly love what I do. I try to be a part of things that make me happy but at the same time challenge me. From Blind Al and working with Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool, it was so different from anything I’ve ever done. But it’s brought me a new fan base because a lot of young fans love Blind Al. It’s a wonderful feeling, you just keep getting out there. The same thing when I worked on Empire. I got to play this really crazy woman and the kids loved her. It’s really fun!

You’re now 80, still in excellent shape. How do you take care of yourself?
Part of it is keeping up your stamina. I try to do as much as possible. I’ve always eaten healthy. The main thing as an actor is you have to keep your brain healthy. I like to do crossword puzzles. I read three or four books at a time. I also try to be around young people who keep me energized and keep me up with the current music and other things like that.

Of course, living in New York City, you walk a lot, too. So, I just try to do the right things so that I can keep going like the Energizer bunny.

I try to be a part of things that make me happy but at the same time challenge me.

Your husband of many years is your manager as well. How do you balance the career and relationship, and what has been the key to love longevity?
I was in another country when we met, Australia. We really had a lot in common and became friends before we fell in love. We love being together, and he still makes me laugh, even when he doesn’t realize how funny he is. It’s a wonderful thing. We still hold hands and kiss.

Know your craft. Even if you have natural talent, you still need to know your craft.

What advice would you offer to young entertainers?

Know your craft. Even if you have natural talent, you still need to know your craft. There’s a certain amount of discipline you have to have. So, if you have that plus the talent, you’ll have longevity for sure.

 
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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