Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Bronx-native Tanya Wright. Her elite education and fancy for the “unknown” may take a backseat to her familiar face on shows like 24 and as “Kenya Jones” on True Blood (pictured left.) Even lesser known are Tanya’s similarities to my short film’s title character Jackie.
Like Jackie, Tanya is a multifaceted intellectual who was also born to a teenage mother in New York City and like Jackie, it was education that afforded Tanya the confidence to have a “choice, even when your back is up against a wall.”
Tanya made the choice to transform (write, direct, produce and star in) an idea that’d been in the pipeline for fifteen years. Today Butterfly Rising has not only had a successful film festival run, but is also a novel and is soon to be an interactive game. In our interview Tanya dishes on feature film production, Heavy D, Jackie, True Blood and more.
Let’s start with the basics: What three words best describe you?
Oh God hmm three words: independent, for better or worse. It’s a good thing or a bad thing sometimes—a double-edged sword. Focused, and determined, those are the three that come to mind. Though I’m sure there are many, many more. If you ask other people I’m sure they would be happy to chime in!
I wanted to congratulate you again on Butterfly Rising [BR.] I read about it in (Shadow & Act’s) interview being “the only trans-media project written, directed, produced, and starring an African-American woman on the film festival circuit right now.” I realize that the timeline of this project is a little unconventional. Can you explain a bit more about the iterations of Butterfly Rising and how they’ve come about?
Butterfly Rising is about a journey, it’s about a transformation, it’s about change. The way that it came about…well I should talk a little bit about a script that came right before BR. BR is really a an outgrowth of a script that I wrote 15 years ago called a ‘A Turn to Grace.’ It was a screenplay I wrote that was a semi finalist in the (Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’) Nicholl screenwriting competition.
It was a screenplay and it was about black people and it was in the Harlem renaissance. I had lots of meetings around the time about it because this list of the semi-finalists goes out to all the production companies around town. [I’d become part of] this new crop of young writers that people should be taking a look at. Lots of people read the script. They were very interested in me as a writer but no one wanted to make a movie about black people in the 1920s in New York.
[W]riting was actually my first love. Acting just came, I just got an acting job another one and another one but I’ve always been a writer. When I went to Hollywood people told me I had to pick one. I had to be an actor or a writer. There was no way I would be able to do both. But I saw lots of people that I liked and I admired doing Matt Damon and Ben Affleck did it with Good Will Hunting and Emma Thompson did it with Sense and Sensibility, Billy Bob Thorton did it with Sling Blade. Now it’s common place but the idea that those two things needed to be separated was a prevalent idea and it’s like asking which one of your children do you want to kill off: the actor or the writer.
[Acting and writing are] both my children they both serve me in different ways and sometimes they work together sometimes they don’t but one certainly helps the other its not like I could choose one. They’re both equally and vitally and important. So I was just going along in the world and in life as an actor but I was very quietly writing and I really amassed a stockpile of scripts, ideas, TV pilots, web series, short stories, and I have a stack of them and I knew at some point that the acting and the writing would come together.
Then my brother died and I had just bought a house and I had this great tree in front of my house. It was a trumpet tree and when he died I used to notice a lot of butterflies came to this area of the house. They enjoyed the nectar on the tree and I became almost obsessed with these butterflies and I would make up stories about them and there’s this particular story in the Bible I was reading at the time about these two sisters, Mary and Martha. They were two sisters who had a brother named Lazarus who had died and they were weeping in the town square and Jesus said I need you to believe that your bother will rise its only through your belief that your brother will rise and they said no, no he’s dead, but they sort of took his word for it and they believed and their brother Lazarus rose.
So it was a story that resonated with me for obvious reasons and I was thinking about butterflies and Mary and Martha and I wrote this story about these two women. “Mary and Martha” turned into “Rose and Liza” and this screenplay I had written many years ago, the title character was Grace and for whatever reason Grace kept interjecting herself or itself into my Butterfly Rising and so there were elements of that Harlem Renaissance script that nobody wanted to do in this new story, this new sort of evolution. So BR is really kind of a contemporary take on ‘A Turn to Grace’ and I updated the story and made it a multi-cultural cast.
Wow so this has kind of been in the pipeline for 15 years now?
It’s been gestating for a while yes, this incarnation is the fully realized incarnation. So I wrote the screenplay and then I shot the movie. I wrote the book and then I edited the movie. I put the book out into the world and then I put the movie out into the world in the film festival circuit and now I’m developing the last component of it: the game that’s going to live on the website.
I have your book and normally the book comes first but in this case the movie came first. So that’s really, really interesting…
It’s the natural growth because it’s the world that I am; I’m an actor. So the story came out first in terms of dialogue and then in terms of picture. Visual, that’s the world I am in. I wasn’t an author. I wasn’t in the book world; I was in the movie world so it was actually very natural for me for it to come out as a movie first.
And now it’s great that it’s going to be a game. Well you answered like two more of my questions in that response so thank you I just wanted to share a quote with you: “It’s a good time to be a black woman with vision.” – that’s by Michaela Angela Davis (True or false)
I would say it’s never a bad time to be a black woman with vision. Yes that’s what I would say it’s never a bad time; it’s always a good time. It was a good time 20 years ago it was good times 100 years ago it’s a good time now. I expect it to be a good time 50 years.
[I]t just so happens I’m living in a world right now where this idea of telling a story over many different platforms is an idea that assists my vision. It’s an idea or concept that expands my narrative and can expand my reach and I think it’s an important story and my goal is to reach as many people as humanly possible so however many products I need to, I mean I can go on to infinity, but I know I got to move on to the next project…my next lists of projects.
Thank you. My next question: As a native Bronx-bred woman, you have a knack for envisioning characters and manifesting them in environments that are fantastic and/or unfamiliar? As a cop in True Blood’s world or in Butterfly Rising’s magical setting in [Mississippi.] Both are very different from what you’re “used to.” Do you have any advice for artists who desire to, but may have trouble realizing a creative space that is so disconnected from his/her own reality?
Well, I think those places are the best places to be in as far as creation is concerned. I think an artist needs to be inspired by everything all the time especially the things that give us trouble especially the things that seem like they don’t belong because in my experience is that the absolute converse is always true and you have to be somewhat flexible and open.
The South and magic seem to be recurring themes in your work. You’d mentioned, in a previous interview, that the South is a special place for you, although you’re from New York, because of your family’s roots there. How has magic placed itself in your world?
Magic is a consistent theme in a lot of my stuff and I don’t know what that is. I’m very attracted to other worlds and even True Blood is a fantastic world that is very complicated and different from anything that I can even imagine. Whatever role I’m playing as an actor, somehow informs my life in some way. It’s never random or an accident.
I mean True Blood is about a lot of things. It’s a very complicated show. It’s vampires and it’s sexy buts it’s really about being an outsider, it’s really about love, it’s really about fundamental human things and sort of couches them as entertainment and sexuality. It’s a pretty deep show in a lot of ways. And I feel very grateful and very fortunate as an actor to have worked on, I think is some of the best of what television has to offer, from 24, NYPD Blue, True Blood, and even the Cosby Show. All that external stuff it’s all inspiration and its always going to be.
I just that’s just the way I’m built. That’s the way I think. If someone says something to me I’m always listening beneath the words. That place beneath the words is where the magic is. I have a very vivid imagination and magic lives very, very well there.
Have you always had a very vivid imagination from where you were a child?
Yes when I was a child…Okay, my mother had me when she was 15 years old. When I was a child we didn’t have any money for a Christmas tree at all and there was this drawing contest in 2nd grade and the contest was to draw the greatest Christmas tree and I apparently drew this exquisite Christmas tree and I got this award for it and everyone was like “This tree is so gorgeous!” [When] they told my mother about it and she was like, “Oh my God. We didn’t even have a Christmas tree here.” But it was like if I could have a tree this is what it would be. It would be magnificent. Yes, so my imagination [has always] served me in my life.
You’ve mentioned you’ve been in some of the best TV shows including three of my favorite shows of all time: The Cosby Show, Living Single and True Blood. You answered that you don’t separate your identity as a writer [from that of] an actress but if you had to numerate the hats you wear: producer, director, actress writer, what would be the order?
I would say actor first, 51% actor and 49% writer. It would be actor first, writer second and then it could actually be director third. I was director by default almost on BR. And the only reason why I directed it was because if somebody f*cked it up I was going to cut them and it was like that OK?! So I was like well I guess I’m going to have to do it, because that’s just the way it’s going to be (and you can quote me on that.)
Got you. Next question is as a Black woman in an industry where less than 20% of tastemakers are women, what were your biggest obstacles in producing this feature film, BR? What were your biggest assets?
Well, I’ve been asked this question before and I’m going to answer it quite honestly. My biggest obstacle was people; my greatest asset was people. People can be very helpful or they cannot be helpful.
[I]n hindsight, it wasn’t really about the money for the way this film got done, or really I think how any film gets done, its really about people. It’s about human beings because they’re people. People can do greater things than money ever can.
Okay we’re almost to the end I have two purely fan questions to ask…What was it like working with Heavy D? (That episode of Living Single is epic.)
I remember something to do with fish sticks and Smurfberry Kool aid, but vaguely. I wish I could see that on YouTube anywhere.
It was so long ago. I just remember he was really nice and pleasant and easygoing. He was a star, but very easy to work with and we had that similar east coast thing. Both in LA at the time and at that time he was really just starting working as an actor so he was very open and willing to learn. I just remember it being a pleasant experience.
Cool and my second fan question is what is the most difficult/fun part of working on True Blood?
The most difficult thing is the hours. A lot of the stuff is shot at night and I’m not a night person and there’s a lot of sleeping in the dressing room between set ups. The greatest thing about working on the show like TB is that the reality is so heightened that it’s almost like doing a play or an opera because it’s so over the top the externals are so stylized that for an actor to be working in that world it’s so much like theater that you don’t really get a chance to do that too much in television so that’s probably the coolest thing working on a show like that.
Thanks for [indulging me]. We’re very aware of your amazing talent however I was introduced to you as an intellectual as a fellow alumna of the [Albert G. Oliver] program. So I’m curious to know what role has your education played through your creative career since you have been to these elite schools and have had this kind of great education, what role if any has that played in your creative career?
I think it is has played probably the most important role. I think education informs people that they have a choice; if it does nothing else. I’m very grateful to have had a world class education [at George School and Vassar that’s empowered me to] go out to into the world and make a difference or make a change with whatever it is I decide to do; it just so happened I decided to be an artist.
Education gives you the confidence that you have a choice about everything and anything. In fact there is a quote in BR where my character says “you always got a choice even when your back is up against a wall. You always have a choice so don’t every think you don’t have a choice.” It may seem sometimes that your choices are limited but they’re only limited by your own vision. And sometimes if you don’t see a choice you like you might have to make one up. I think that’s what education has given me and afforded me the confidence to have a choice.
In your eyes, what (if any) is the relationship between education and cinema?
I think that there is a direct relationship. I think that is the whole point of cinema quite frankly. It’s always imparting something or at least cinema should be imparting something, [or else] I don’t know if there’s any reason to make it. Even if it’s just narrative entertainment there’s always some lesson that’s learned with movies.
That’s the greatest thing about movies and I think why it appeal to so many people and it’s that there is some sort of lead character or number of characters and they go through something and at the end of the story or at the end of the movie they are changed. They are less ignorant than they started. They are more educated in a way or more informed about whatever their flaw is. Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely these two things go hand in hand.
Great, yeah I totally agree. That’s the whole motivation behind DiDE (D-Day) from which Jackie was inspired. Kellye’s performance has just opened new worlds of possibility for it as a feature-length.
Yeah she was great.
You’d so graciously critiqued [Jackie] while it was still in post-production. What’s your take on the final cut?
Jackie is a fresh take on an orthodox story between mother and daughter and a glimpse into what I’ve always suspected was true: that we are all far more similar than we are different…Kellye is a fresh, natural talent I hope to see more of in the future.
Thank you is there anything else you would like to share about yourself or your film?
Well I have lots of other projects in the works that are moving along quite swiftly actually. Butterfly Rising is the one that is obviously closest to my heart, it’s really my “passion project” and I’m just very eager and excited to share it to the world in an important way.
**Butterfly Rising is the Opening Night film at Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival this Tuesday, 8/7 at 7:30 PM. Jackie follows on Wednesday, 8/8 at 11:30 AM.**