Actor, activist and visionary Cicely Tyson’s memoir, Just as I Am, is as graceful as it is funny, as measured as it is charming. The audiobook features a number of treasures, including a foreword read by Viola Davis and an introduction from Tyson herself, but narrator Robin Miles carries the majority of Tyson’s life story, and she does so beautifully. Here Miles discusses the humbling and thrilling process of narrating this remarkable book.
Tell me a bit about transforming Just as I Am into an audiobook. How did you prepare, and what did you most enjoy about the preparation?
I Googled to find every interview [of Tyson] I could, and then watched them repeatedly. Not to copy her voice, but to hear and feel how she communicates, her energy and pace, her intellect and humor. And I wanted to feel her energy as a young actress, then again as a mature actress. I just loved how self-possessed she was in all of them.
Tell us about your personal connection to Tyson prior to narrating the audiobook, and did you work with her at all during the audiobook’s production?
Cicely Tyson was very special to me; she was a big reason why I wanted to be an actor and believed that it was possible for me, the Black girl with the buck teeth. I did get to speak with her during the process, and it was thrilling. Also humbling, because she asked me to take my time more in the reading. (Ironically, I had stepped up my pace, fearing that my original tempo might be too slow. She assured me that my instincts were right, and reminded me to always trust them. Sigh . . .)
Was there anything you felt strongly about getting “right” as you narrated her words?
Absolutely. I wanted the moments when she expressed a strong reaction or deep impression to be organic, natural and true. No pretense, no overplaying.
As you told Tyson’s story, what were you most surprised to learn about her? Was there any section that was particularly challenging to narrate?
I was surprised to learn that she came from the same neighborhoods of NYC that my Caribbean grandparents, aunties and uncles lived in. I keep thinking that one of my great aunts must have known her as a little girl. It was a six-degrees experience knowing that, and that my acting teacher at Yale Drama, Earl Gister, was a close colleague of her teacher, Lloyd Richards.
Do you have a favorite Cicely Tyson performance or memory?
Oh yes . . . Sounder. That film left an indelible impression on me. I think it was the quiet intensity, the way she portrayed perseverance, love and grounding with a soft femininity. It just shattered the stereotyped images of Black women we had been fed in entertainment up to that point.
How does the experience of narrating an audiobook differ from other kinds of performances?
With audiobooks, I conjure and project images in front of me the whole time (the place, the people, etc.), so I am reacting to something outside of myself that I must invest in, but that isn’t tangibly there. With theater, film, TV, there are so many levels of real images to use as a source; you endow them with meaning and let them do their work. The movie of the audiobook narrative happens solely in my head.
What’s the hardest part of limiting your acting toolbox to just your voice?
Good question. One thing is definitely the urge to move or gesture. I cannot tell you how often I’ve whacked a mic. The other is that you cannot hide; you have to release the thing you’re feeling and pursue the things you want or else you leave your listener squinting (i.e., left in a state of confusion about what’s happening between characters).
What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a narrator?
I would say a deep understanding of language, strong acting chops and a strong ear for music and rhythm, which helps with accents and emphasis. I was blessed to have exceptional speakers modeling the use of language in my family. I had a leg up in understanding complex sentences from my grandfather, who was a Shakespeare and Victorian poetry professor. It’s like the family legacy, so I cannot take credit for it. I also grew up in a neighborhood of immigrants from everywhere, and I absorbed their accents. Then, drama school added solid acting training to my arsenal. It turned out to be a perfect storm for audiobook narration.
What is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to this experience through your reading?
The most rewarding thing I’d have to say is offering up my emotional intelligence as a community service. When I express what characters feel and want from each other, what is happening beneath the words, I like to think I add to the emotional intelligence of the community. At least, I tell myself that when I freely allow a character’s pain to play through my body and voice. It emotionally hurts to let that pain into my body, but it is necessary to make complex human dynamics recognizable.
What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
I think people believe that narrators read super fluidly and make very few mistakes. And that can be true for me with colloquially worded nonfiction books and some very fluidly written fiction. But we narrators misread or stop to redo a line every few sentences, particularly with fiction. Especially in the beginning of the book, before I have absorbed the feel of the author’s style and the individual characters. My students who accompany me to a session are always so surprised.