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'Empire' Matriarch Is Full of Surprises

Life is good, outrageous good, for the illustrious Leslie Uggams

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From fan to cast member of “Empire," Leslie Uggams recalls the moment she was watching the show and thought she’d be a perfect fit.
Amy Sussman/Invision/AP

If we had a nickel for every actress who jumps into her third — or 10th — act in her 70s, well, we’d have a tiny handful of coins. Even more unusual? The septuagenarian who finds herself trading profanity-laced barbs opposite Ryan Reynolds (in Deadpool) while on hiatus from playing the bipolar matriarch at the shaky top of a dysfunctional family of music moguls (on Fox’s Empire, the fourth season of which will premiere Sept. 27).

spinner image Terrence Howard and Leslie Uggams in 'Empire'
Leslie Uggams guest-stars as Terrence Howard's mother on Fox's "Empire."

Not that Leslie Uggams, 74, is anything like your typical actress. Perhaps the most famous entertainer you might have trouble naming, Uggams says she got her start singing alongside “Louis and Ella and Dinah” (that’s Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington), at age 9, and then went on to star in Broadway musicals and create such groundbreaking roles as Kizzy on the 1977 TV miniseries Roots. Her award-filled, barrier-bashing résumé aside, Uggams insists she’s as surprised as anyone over her latest turns in one of TV’s hottest shows and Hollywood's most category-breaking superhero movie franchises.  

An early fan of Empire, which she describes as “like Dynasty or Dallas but about today’s hip-hop world,” Uggams was watching the show one night when she turned to her husband and remarked, “‘Do you know, I should be on that show. I could be his mother!" Then she adds, in her regal and expressive voice: “Not even thinking in my wildest dreams that I would end up doing this fabulous show.”

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Snagging a role in Deadpool was even more unexpected. After getting called in to read for a project shrouded in preproduction secrecy, Uggams arrived “with no clue of anything about the character, other than the lines I’m reading.” Given that her dialogue in the highly irreverent superhero film covers everything from Ikea furniture assembly to firearms and masturbation, Uggams relays her struggle: “I’m trying to guess, 'What am I doing here? What is my motivation here?' ” While preparing for her second audition, she recalls stumbling onto one early insight: “I turned to my husband and I said, ‘You know, I think this woman is blind!’ ” 

When she was finally allowed to reveal her role as Blind Al to others, Uggams says she was in for another shock: how important the character was to serious comic book fans. “I went, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m in another different world now, and I love it. I just love it.' ”

But if life is good — or good, with a side of outrageous — she’s both deeply appreciative of her good fortune and always prepared to embrace it. Just as her father reminded her early on to protect her “chops,” Uggams says she’s always nurtured her gifts and looked ahead to the next great gig. “I prepare for my craft so that when opportunities come, I can deliver something hopefully even more interesting than the writer had on the page.” 

To play bipolar Leah Walker in Empire, Uggams researched the disease and drew on her experience with a relative who has been newly diagnosed with the mental illness. And while her character can be as outlandish and unpredictable as the show’s plot — who threw whom off a roof or faked which paternity test are par for the course — Uggams says she seeks to lend Leah some depth. Within her character’s instability, there’s the “wisdom that comes with being older” and a struggle to “catch up” on all her character has lost in life. Not that the former Juilliard student has much time for Method amid the madness. Uggams says she gets the script very soon before shooting a scene, and describes her typical reaction as similar to the audience’s: “Oh. My. God.”

spinner image Leslie Uggams in 'Empire'
Leslie Uggams says what she likes most about her character, Leah Walker, is that she never knows what to expect from her.
Chuck Hodes/Fox
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Working on Empire nine months of the year also means juggling all the other joys of life — from her musical act, "Uptown Downtown," to time spent with her only grandchild. Not that the seasoned pro will admit much stress. “At this age, it’s less complicated,” she says of balancing family and career, adding that her grown children, conveniently, both live in New York.

“And when they’re invited,” she jokes, “they can catch a plane and come hang in Chicago,” where the TV show is taped. And what happens when her granddaughter wants a highly specific seventh birthday party at “Nana and El Grande’s house,” on a date Uggams may or may not be back in town? “Of course, we’ll indulge her! We’re grandparents!” she trills — adding that preparing for two parties, after all, isn't that much harder than prepping for one.

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