Call Redialed: NEW Tamara Tunie Interview: "JAZZLAND: In Concert", "Dietland", "Black Earth Rising" and "Law & Order: SVU"
I am so excited to be able to catch up with actress, producer, director, Tamara Tunie! We last spoke in 2015 when Tamara returned to Feinstein's/54 Below with her cabaret show Mash Up. Now, Tamara & I are taking a different musical journey. We are going "down the rabbit hole" to 1930's Harlem, where the music endlessly flowed out of every club in town as we discuss her latest project JAZZLAND: In Concert, a new musical inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, set in Depression-era Harlem at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.
JAZZLAND: In Concert is a presentation of the Harlem School of the Arts’ Theater Department and in partnership with Manhattan School of Music and Harlem Stage.
If this wasn't enough, Tamara is also busy with several television projects. First up is the new AMC series Dietland, which premieres on June 3, based on Sarai Walker’s 2015 best-selling, critically acclaimed novel of the same name, it is a dark comedic story that explores a multitude of issues faced by women today – including patriarchy, misogyny, rape culture, and unrealistic beauty standards. Tamara plays "Julia," manager at “the beauty closet,” an underground warehouse filled with every kind of beauty product imaginable. "Julia" is on a mission to deprogram the women of the world on what it means to be beautiful.
Tamara will also be seen in the new political thriller streaming on BBC Two/Netflix Black Earth Rising, starring her FLIGHT co-star John Goodman.
1. This weekend, JAZZLAND: In Concert, A new musical Inspired by Alice in Wonderland, opens at the Harlem School of the Arts, which you co-wrote and are directing. How did you come up with the idea to re-imagine the Alice in Wonderland story, and set it in Depression Era Harlem? What about that time do you think suits the story?
Tamara: Several years ago Charles Leipart and Scott Crockett (a brilliant animation artist) approached me with a picture of a 12-year-old girl set in Harlem and proposed the question "What about Alice in Jazzland? and I was utterly intrigued. I was like, "Okay, let's talk about this." So basically we have been developing this animated feature JAZZLAND that is inspired by Alice in Wonderland. I say inspired by because the story of JAZZLAND is completely different, though the characters have some of the same similarities. Our story is really a coming of age story about a young girl who is finding her voice and finding her place in her community. She does that through this magical journey through "Jazzland." Also, Scott, Charlie, and I talked about how when we were kids, our introduction to classical music & jazz was through cartoons. It was through Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. We thought wouldn't it be great to expose children to jazz music through this animated feature. We also set it in Harlem in the '30s because it was the Harlem Renaissance with such great music bubbling out from Harlem at that time. So, we thought that would be a perfect concept. Then we reached out to my good friend Eric Reed, a brilliant jazz pianist, to see if he would be interested in joining us to compose the music, and he jumped at the opportunity because he had never done this kind of work (composing a musical). We kind of put our heads together and developed a treatment for it, we wrote a script together, and we demoed five of the songs and so we started shopping it and we've gotten a lot of interest.
But, every time we would share the trailer with people, they would say, "Well, is this a Broadway show?" Our response would always be, "No, it's not a Broadway show, it's an animated feature. Maybe one day it would be a Broadway show, but our focus is the animated feature."
However, last summer, Charlie and Scott gave me a call and said to me, "You know, everyone keeps asking if this is a musical. What if we were to theatricalize it, but do it with kids and do it with an organization, an arts and education program that focuses on young people?" And I said, "Absolutely! I think that's a great idea. I know who just to reach out to." So, I e-mailed Eric Pryor, who's the president of Harlem School of the Arts, and sent him a one-page synopsis of the story and a few of the songs and said, "We'd love to do this with you, partner with you guys, develop it there at Harlem School of the Arts, what do you think?" He responded immediately with a yes and we had our first of several meetings. Also at the same time, in the community in Harlem, we are striving to form as many partnerships with the other arts-based organizations in the area, if possible. Harlem Stage, which is the premiere performing arts center uptown that I serve as Chairman of the Board, has been looking for something to partner with Harlem School of the Arts. At Harlem Stage, we have an educational component where we take the arts into the public schools. We're always looking for what works can we bring into the schools and what works can we invite the children from the schools to see. So, I thought this might be a great collaboration between the two organizations and we can create a curriculum around the show and really expose the kids to jazz and to the history of jazz.
The two organizations agreed to partner together. Additionally, both Harlem Stage and Harlem School for the Arts have a relationship with Manhattan School of Music, so we thought, what if we see if Manhattan School of Music would provide the band/orchestra for the show. Well, we reached out to them and they thought this was a great idea. Now, our musicians and conductor are all from Manhattan School of Music. So, the three organizations have really come together to make this happen.
Me: It's amazing to have all those students actively involved in the production, that's wonderful.
Tamara: And that was the point. It wasn't our intention to have me direct it, since I was one of the writers. We originally wanted to just give the piece to Harlem School of the Arts and have someone on their faculty direct it, have their music and dance departments involved, and have them run with it, but as circumstances turned out, it was in the best interest of everybody that I step in and really have it manifest in the vision that we had all seen.
When the kids came in to audition, whether it be to sing a song or read a scene from the script, they were so excited, eager, and willing to do it, I knew I had to direct this run. These are not professional kids. Some of them have never done a musical in their lives. After witnessing their excitement during auditions, I knew I had to find a way to have everybody be part of the show and we did. It has come together so amazingly!
Me: This is going to be something they remember forever.
Tamara: And that's the point Adam. The goal of art and having children being able to express themselves through art is to instill all those necessary life skills that are going to carry them forward regardless of the direction life takes them. This will give them the self-confidence, the self-esteem building, the feeling that "Wow, I did that. I can do anything." That's what I want them to get out of this experience. That's my goal.
Me: They are so lucky to have that from you. You always remember the good teachers and the ones who helped you.
Tamara: Yes, you do. This has been a great experience so far.
2. You are co-writer and director on JAZZLAND: In Concert. Which hat was the most difficult to wear or do each have their own dynamics? I think each has its own dynamic. Being part of the writing team informs how I direct it because I know the script inside out. I think that has expedited the directing process because I have been envisioning this whole idea as an animated feature, so then how can I adjust this vision to live performance.
We are presenting this as a concert version, like they do at City Center. We have minimal production value. We have a few prop pieces, hats, a minimal set, along with a few accents to define who these characters are. It's very minimal and scaled down, so we are really asking the audience to use their imagination.
3. As the story goes, "Mama's Golden Music Book" is stolen from "Alice" by "Mr. Whitey," the trumpet man. "Alice" chases him all the way to the Rabbit Hole Nightclub and then down, down, down to Jazzland. What is something that you would run after to get back if it was stolen from you (either physical or emotional)? Laughs. Oh what a good question! I would say joy. If my joy was stolen, I'd have to go get that back. Absolutely!
4. In addition to JAZZLAND, you are also going to be starring in the new AMC series Dietland, which premieres this June. What do you relate to most about your character "Julia"? What is one characteristic of hers that you are glad you yourself do not possess? I think "Julia" is extreme. I am not extreme. I think I'm pretty moderate and measured. I'm a bit more thoughtful and she's a bit more impulsive. I relate to "Julia" because she is a very caring person. She's a strong believer, but her impulsiveness gets in the way. I feel we have that in common.
5. Since Dietland deals with self-image, what tips can you give for loving yourself?
Tamara: You know it's so interesting you ask that. I subscribe to this weekly e-blast called The Daily Om, which sends us inspirational quotes, courses all on self-help/spiritual kinds of things. One of the blasts that came talked about our bodies and how we must stop body shaming ourselves because our bodies are our partners and they carry us through this life. This just really struck me. So I sent out an e-mail to my sisters and some of my closet girlfriends and told them I'm no longer talking about diet, weight, size, how much food somebody ate or didn't eat. I'm refusing to engage in the conversation about weight and body. My focus is going to be on health and whether the body is healthy and in shape to be able to provide the demands that we make on our bodies on a daily basis. That's what I'm going to suggest to everybody. Focus on health. Don't focus on weight or size.
Me: That's wonderful. I'm going to take that advice because I've been working out more, especially these past few months, in preparation for this photoshoot I'm doing in July, so I started weighing myself once a week and I noticed that one week I lost a few pounds and another week I gained a few pounds, and if I keep weighing myself it's going to mess with me, so I'm just going to...
Tamara: It is going to mess with you because muscle weighs more than fat. So if you are working out and creating muscle mass, the scale is not going to continue to go down. I think getting on the scale and weighing yourself is self-defeating because you get frustrated and you think it's not working when actually you are making progress.
Me: Exactly. So I'm just going go by what I see in the mirror.
Tamara: And how your clothes fit. Laughs.
Me: Yes. So, I'm going to focus more on health than weight.
Tamara: There you go.
6. You have another project coming up too. I don't know how you do everything. You are also going to be part of the new political thriller Black Earth Rising, streaming on BBC Two/Netflix. What was it about the role that it made it a must for you to be part of this show? Well, first of all, I read all the episodes when I was approached to do the show. I found it to be a complete page turner. It was an interesting story, one that I hadn't seen before. Then the character I was being considered for, "Eunice," was a great character. Her sense of humor was very dry and I don't get to be funny that often, so I was really looking forward to the possibility of being funny in a political thriller.
7. And how was it reuniting with your FLIGHT co-star John Goodman during the filming of Black Earth Rising? It was great! It was so great! We shot in London and we were the only Americans in the piece. He was there shooting long before I got there. When I arrived on set and walked by his trailer and his door was open, I stopped in front of it and I said, "Hey you!" and he looked at me and he was like, "Wait! What! What are you doing here!?" I said, "I'm 'Eunice'" and he was like, "Oh my gosh this is fantastic." So, it was really great to see him!
8. I can't do an interview with you, without asking about my favorite role of yours, as "Dr. Melinda Warner" on Law & Order: SVU. If you, Tamara, were to have dinner with "Melinda” today, what would you want to ask her that you just never got about her? I think I would ask her why did she and her husband divorce because suddenly in one episode she wasn't married anymore and I was like "What?" Laughs
More on Tamara:
Enthralling, charismatic and passionate are just a few of the words that characterize the type of performances Tamara Tunie is known for delivering. Her background spans film, television and stage. It doesn’t stop there. Her wealth of talent encompasses producing and directing.
Memorable television roles include her portrayal of Medical Examiner "Dr. Melinda Warner" on the NBC drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and “mean Alberta Green” in the Fox hit series 24 Season One, as well as attorney "Jessica Griffin" on the CBS daytime drama As the World Turns, for which she received two NAACP Image Award nominations and two Soap Opera Digest award nominations.
In film, Tamara has worked with some of the most respected directors in Hollywood, including Robert Zemekis, Taylor Hackford, Brian De Palma, Mimi Leder, Harold Becker and Oliver Stone. She also worked with the legendary Al Pacino in her portrayal of "Jackie Heath," the possessed wife of a partner in his law firm in the box-office topper The Devil’s Advocate, and as Pacino’s press secretary in City Hall. Among Tamara’s most unforgettable performances was her co-starring role as "Margaret Thomason" in the Oscar-nominated film Flight, which starred Denzel Washington & John Goodman. Tamara narrated Eve’s Bayou, directed by Kasi Lemmons & later worked again with Lemmons on the film The Caveman’s Valentine, opposite Samuel L. Jackson, for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
Tamara made her feature directorial debut in the indie romantic comedy See You in September, starring Estella Warren and Justin Kirk. On Broadway, she has produced hit productions including Magic/Bird, August Wilson’s Radio Golf (2007 TONY and Drama Desk Award Nominee for Best Play), and Spring Awakening (winner of the 2007 TONY Award for Best Musical and the 2007 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical). Currently, she is producing, and developing for Broadway, Frog Kiss: The Musical – a re-imagined “bed-time story” with a bawdy twist. Frog Kiss earned more citations for excellence than any other musical at the 2010 New York Musical Theater Festival.
Tamara extends herself beyond acting, producing and directing. She is deeply engaged in the community. She has served as chair emerita of the Board of Directors of Figure Skating in Harlem, a nonprofit organization that teaches education and life skills to young girls through the art and discipline of figure skating. Tamara is also President of the Board of Directors at Harlem Stage/The Gatehouse, a board member of God’s Love We Deliver, and she serves on the Advisory Board of Hearts of Gold.