Chatting with THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY Star and Emmy Winner Denise Burse

Denise Burse and Samuel L. Jackson in “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Emmy winner Denise Burse (“Black Mirror”) was on location in her hometown of Atlanta, GA from March to June of 2021 to shoot “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” the critically acclaimed limited series executive produced by and starring Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson. She appears in 5 of the 6 episodes of the series.

Denise Burse and Samuel L. Jackson in “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” now streaming on Apple TV+. (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” is based on the novel by bestselling author Walter Mosley, who adapted the story for the screen and serves as executive producer. The six-episode moving series about family, memory and legacy premiered globally on March 11 on Apple TV+ with the first two episodes, followed by one new episode weekly every Friday.

Hailing from Apple Studios, “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” stars Jackson as Ptolemy Grey, an ailing man forgotten by his family, by his friends, and by 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 BAFTA Award nominee Dominique Fishback (“Judas and the Black Messiah”). When they learn about a treatment that can temporarily restore Ptolemy’s dementia-addled memories, it begins a journey toward shocking truths about the past, present and future. In addition to Jackson, Fishback and Burse who plays Shirley W.R.I. N. G., the Apple Original series features Cynthia Kaye McWilliams (“Coyote,” “Real Husbands of Hollywood”), Damon Gupton (“Black Lightning,” “Bates Motel”), Marsha Stephanie Blake (“I Am Your Woman,” “When They See Us”), Walton Goggins (“Justified,” “The Unicorn”) and Omar Miller (“The Unicorn,” “Ballers”).

Marsha Stephanie Blake, Cynthia Kaye McWilliams, Charity Jordan, Dominique Fishback and Denise Burse attend the Premiere Of Apple TV+’s “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” at Regency Bruin Theatre on March 07, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Eric Charbonneau : Apple TV+

Alongside Mosley and Jackson, “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” is executive produced by Mosley’s producing partner Diane Houslin, Ramin Bahrani, Eli Selden and David Levine for Anonymous Content, and LaTanya Richardson.

Denise shared an email she received from Producer Diane Houslin, “Sam told us from Day One so very long ago that he knew exactly who should play Shirley Wring. Did he ever get it right! Thank you for all you brought to this project. Love you so much.”

Torrence, Producer Diane Houslin, and Denise Burse attend the Premiere Of Apple TV+’s “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” at Regency Bruin Theatre on March 07, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Photo courtesy of Diane Houslin

I caught up with Denise in November after her performance in The Acting Company’s reading of Marcus Gardley’s A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes: Or The Gospel of Tartuffe. We chatted about “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,”  her 50 year+ relationship with Sam and his wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and what she has been up to lately.

Peter Jay Fernandez with his wife, Denise Burse. Photo by Lia Chang
Denise Burse and Marcus Gardley. Photo by Lia Chang

Photos: The Acting Company’s Afterparty for Marcus Gardley’s A WOLF IN SNAKESKIN SHOES: OR THE GOSPEL OF TARTUFFE with Denise Burse, Jimonn Cole, J.D. Mollison, Adrienne C. Moore, Destinee Rea, Chelsea Lee Williams and C. Kelly Wright 

Lia: How are you?
Denise: I’m doing as well as can be expected given our present social existence in NY and around the world. I’m heartsick whenever I watch or read the news. Such inhuman treatment exist around the world it’s mind boggling.

Denise Burse and Samuel L. Jackson in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey on Apple TV+

Lia: How were you cast in “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey”?
Denise: I was called by my agent asking about my availability and interest in participating in the project. Sam had requested that they contact me to play Shirley W.R.I. N. G. He told me later that when he read the book by Walter Mosely some 12 years ago that I was the first person who came to mind to play the part. That’s really special.

Seret Scott, Regina Taylor, Arthur French, Novella Nelson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Lizan Mitchell, Denise Burse and Charles Turner at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York after an alumni performance of stop.reset. on August 25, 2013. Photo by Lia Chang

Lia: What is your history with Sam?
Denise: I’ve known Sam since his days at Morehouse College in Atlanta. His wife LaTanya Richardson Jackson is a good friend and she introduced us. They were friends who met during their days in the drama department at Spelman College where she and I both attended. They started dating soon after that and the rest as they say is history. We’ve all stayed friends some 50 years now. I was a part of their wedding, present for the birth of their daughter Zoé and many other important milestones in our lives. Birthdays, anniversaries award ceremonies etc. The best times are just when we hang out as friends.

Cotter Smith, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Denise Burse. Photo by Lia Chang

Lia: How has the response been?
Denise: The response to the series has been very positive overall in all areas of project. From the telling of the story to the costumes, the lighting, sound, cinematography, direction, set design and dressing and producing. The executive producers can all feel very proud of their work it gave birth to an outstanding project. I’m sure many nominations are in the wait. The performances have been hailed as some of the best work all around and certainly some of Sam’s best work. His care to detail his quiet nuanced work both verbal and physical can be seen in every frame and he makes it look so effortless. He and Dominique Fishback have incredible chemistry and it shows beautifully on screen. The story written by Walter Mosely is warm and loving. It’s a real honesty that renders a plethora of emotions – love, joy, sorrow, hate, fear, guilt, and forgiveness. It is a truth telling worth watching more than once.

Samuel L. Jackson, Dominique Fishback and Walton Goggins in “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.” (Hopper Stone/Apple TV+/TNS)

Lia: What other projects did you work on during the course of the shutdown?
Denise: Soon after lockdown was lifted I did a project called “Vacation Friends” that aired on Disney Plus. I shot a streaming project called “Partner Track” and I just finished a Miramax shoot starring Pete Davidson. That’s all I should say so as not to dishonor the NDA clause of my contract. I did a couple of virtual theatre workshops for New Federal Theatre and Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre. And a reading for Clubbed Thumb. The Acting Company’s workshop of Marcus Gardley’s adaption of Molière’s Tartuffe. What a great time with each project but I’m enormously grateful we’re back in person. I pray we can ALL continue to practice safety measures to help insure that our Industry can have work for the long haul. It took a lot to come back.

Let’s not take that for granted now that we have some stop gap measures in place.

Marcus Gardley with cast members C. Kelly Wright, Chelsea Lee Williams, Denise Burse, Destinee Rea and Adrienne C. Moore. Photo by Lia Chang

Lia: How have you been managing during the pandemic?
Denise: I have tried to monitor more carefully when I feel closed off from society and address the reasons causing the feeling so I can take steps to correct the situation before it becomes a problem. Sometimes it requires changing my behavior, and other times it’s communicating to others the effect their behavior is having and hopefully bring about a change on their part. In spite of all that most days are GOOD! I think it’s important to talk things out as much and as often as possible. And I’ve learned it’s more important now, because it feels like we are grappling with so many issues at once on a daily basis, and it seems we’re doing it with intense rapidity.

I pray. I pray a LOT! For me that’s the first step toward any kind of self care.

Denise Burse is a native Atlantan, now living, and working in New York City. Ms. Burse is a graduate of Spelman College. She had a long and prosperous career honing her craft in Atlanta, at the Alliance Theatre, Atlanta Children’s Theatre, Jomandi, and Just Us Theatre, before setting off for the bright lights of New York. One of her first jobs after moving to New York, was at The Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn, where she returned in 2017 to do “The Old Settler” with Pauletta Washington, written by John Henry Redwood, directed by Michelle Shay.

Warner Miller, Denise Burse, Pauletta Pearson Washington and Maechi Aharanwa. Photo by Lia Chang
Warner Miller, Denise Burse, Pauletta Pearson Washington and Maechi Aharanwa. Photo by Lia Chang

Ms. Burse shared the 2017 Emmy Award for her ensemble performance in “San Junipero” an episode on the hit Netflix series, “Black Mirror,” written by the creator of the series Charlie Brooker.

Annabel Davis as Elder Yorkie and Denise Burse as Elder Kelly in the "San Junipero" episode of "Black Mirror".
Denise Burse as Elder Kelly in the “San Junipero” episode of “Black Mirror”.

She had another stint at Billie Holiday Theatre in 2018 in Colman Domingo’s Dot which was a shared production with Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre. Directed by Kenny Leon and envisioned by Jamel Jude for the transfer, now Artistic Director of the aforementioned theatre.

Benedetto Robinson, Denise Burse, Amber A. Harris, Tinashe Kajese-Bolden. Brenda Nicole Photography
Benedetto Robinson, Denise Burse, Amber A. Harris, Tinashe Kajese-Bolden. Brenda Nicole Photography

Some of her other credits include, the now airing limited Apple TV Plus series “The Last Days of Ptolomey Grey” starring Samuel L. Jackson, and Dominique Fishback. “Vacation Friends” Disney, “Partner Track“ and a film produced by Miramax to be released sometime next year. Ms. Burse has worked on “Manifest,” “New Amsterdam,” “One Dollar,” “Greenleaf” and all of the original “Law and Orders”. She can still be seen as Claretha Jenkins (the noisy neighbor) on reruns of the original “House of Payne” created by Tyler Perry.

Denise Burse and Cassi Davis in House of Payne (2006).

Denise has worked on the Broadway stage, Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway and most of the regional theatres. Her more than 35 year career has garnered her a Theatre World Award, an Audelco Award, numerous Audelco nominations and a Gregory Award nomination.

Cult of MAC: Dreams haunt The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey [Apple TV+ recap]
Cult of MAC: Flashbacks and a funeral propel The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey [Apple TV+ recap]
Cult of MAC: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey finale will break your heart … in a good way [Apple TV+ recap]
Apple TV+ celebrates “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” ahead of March 11 global premiere
Photos: The Acting Company’s Afterparty for Marcus Gardley’s A WOLF IN SNAKESKIN SHOES: OR THE GOSPEL OF TARTUFFE with Denise Burse, Jimonn Cole, J.D. Mollison, Adrienne C. Moore, Destinee Rea, Chelsea Lee Williams and C. Kelly Wright 

“Black Mirror” Emmy winner Denise Burse, Pauletta Pearson Washington and More Open in THE OLD SETTLER at The Billie Holiday Theatre 

Lia Chang

Lia Chang is a Chinese-American actor, a multi-media content producer, an award-winning filmmaker, and a photo activist and documentarian, who lifts up and amplifies BIPOC communities and artists and the institutions that support them. Lia moved to New York from her home in San Francisco when she was 17 years of age and made her stage debut as Liat in a national tour of South Pacific with Barbara Eden and Robert Goulet. She spent many years working extensively Off-Broadway, including Signature Theatre’s revival of Sam Shepard’s Chicago. Her film work includes Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Last Dragon.

The decades of being viewed by others through the narrow lens of ‘Asian actor’ in the industry brought Lia to a turning point, and she picked up her camera, determined to create awareness by documenting the work and the lives of her BIPOC colleagues, resulting in the creation of thousands of photographs and pieces of video. Her photo archives are housed in the AAPI collection in the Library of Congress’ Asian Reading Room under ‘Lia Chang Theater Portfolio collection,1989-2011’ and in the ‘Lia Chang Photography Collection’ in The Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library.

Lia’s awards include the 2000 OCA Chinese American Journalist Award and the 2001 AAJA National Award for New Media. She is also an AAJA Executive Leadership Graduate, a Western Knight Fellow at USC’s Annenberg College of Communications for Specialized Journalism on Entertainment Journalism in the Digital Age, a National Press Photographers Association Visual Edge/Visual Journalism Fellow at the Poynter Institute for New Media, and a Scripps Howard New Media Fellow at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

More recently, Lia co-founded Bev’s Girl Films, which makes films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. She executive produced and starred in the indie films Hide and Seek (AA Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Best Actress Nomination), Rom-Com Gone Wrong, and When the World Was Young (2021 DisOrient Film Audience Choice Award for Best Short Narrative).

Lia is honored to have worked with Prospect Theater Company on a shared mission of lifting up BIPOC theater artists and creating a more diverse and inclusive musical theater canon. A retrospective of Lia’s photographs will be on view at the Museum of the City of New York later this year, documenting her BIPOC colleagues and contemporaries in the performing arts, which will include photos of Prospect Theater Company artists at work.

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