In Sundance TV’s six-hour drama series THE RED ROAD, created by Aaron Guzikowski, Tamara Tunie plays Marie, a Native American living in a smallNew Jersey town in theRamapoMountains. Marie isn’t thrilled when her grown son Phillip Kopus (Jason Momoa) comes back from prison, even before he gets tangled up in dark doings involving his old schoolmate, sheriff’s deputy Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) and Harold’s wife Jean (Julianne Nicholson). Marie is busy raising her adopted son Junior (Kiowa Gordon) and wants to keep him away from the kind of trouble that Kopus seems to attract, but that may not be possible.
Actress Tunie – first name pronounced Ta-MAH-ra – still recurs on NBC’s LAW & ORDER: SVU as coroner Dr. Melinda Warner. She’s also had significant roles in feature films including RISING SUN, CITY HALL, EVE’S BAYOU, THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, THE CAVEMAN’S VALENTINE and FLIGHT and in television series including 24, NYPD BLUE and the daytime drama AS THE WORLD TURNS. Additionally, Tunie has an extensive stage career as both an actress and a producer.
For this interview at the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton, held during Sundance’s portion of the Television Critics Association press tour, Tunie opts to sit in the sunshine on an outdoor terrace, enjoying the warm contrast to the snow back east. “New York’s my home, and that’s where I’ve always worked from. I’ve done jobs in L.A.and I’ve come out for the work, and spent time, but New York is always my home base.”
AX: Regarding THE RED ROAD, first of all, are you actually old enough to be the mother of someone played by Jason Momoa?
TAMARA TUNIE: No, I’m not. I want that for the record [laughs].
AX: In the first scene you have together, until the dialogue makes the relationship clear, it seems like Marie could be Kopus’ ex-wife or ex-girlfriend.
TUNIE: Oh, wouldn’t that be nice. I was like, “Can’t I just be his girlfriend?” But no. In actuality, biologically, I could be his mother if I had had him when I was young, and that is the idea. Marie was very young when she gave birth.
AX: How did you get involved in THE RED ROAD?
TUNIE: My manager and my agent sent me the script. They were casting, so I guess the casting director reached out to the different agents and said, “This is what we’re doing and these are the characters were looking for.” Now that I think back, I didn’t have the full script. I just had a synopsis of what the show was about and pages and two scenes that my character was in. They were casting in L.A. and I had to put myself on tape in New York, and we sent the tape out to L.A., and that was the end of May, and there was some excitement, and then it kind of died down, and I thought the job had gone away, and then in July, I was actually on vacation without wi-fi for a week, and when I finally got to a place where I had wi-fi, there was an email from my agent, saying, “Congratulations, you got THE RED ROAD.” And I’m like, “What?!” Because I had completely forgotten about it. I was like, “Okay, onto the next,” because that’s how you do.
AX: There’s another woman in the house with Marie. What is their relationship?
TUNIE: She and her husband are living on lands where this blue sludge is bubbling up out of the earth, so I take her into my home and have her stay with me. So she’s a friend. Kopus is my biological son and Junior is my adopted son.
AX: Marie has a very un-maternal attitude towards Kopus. How was playing that relationship?
TUNIE: That was very hard for me, because first of all, my idea of a mother’s relationship with her child is one that is connected. And the relationship between Marie and Kopus is very disconnected, so I found that very challenging. And then just also, as a human being, Jason I love like a younger brother, so it’s very hard to be distant or mean or disconnected from him, because I just like him as a person. So as an actor, both those things were challenging, and in the beginning of the show, we don’t know why the relationship is as estranged as it is, but it will be revealed in future episodes what that history is.
AX: How do you play opposite Kiowa Gordon, the young actor who plays Marie’s adopted son?
TUNIE: It’s great. I’ve worked with younger kids before, down to even babies, and Kiowa is a terrific young actor with great instincts. He’s young, he’s new at it, but he’s very available and very open and I found that to be great.
AX: There’s a scene where Julianne Nicholson as Jean is banging on the door, trying to get into Marie’s house. How did you approach that?
TUNIE: I just went with the situation. A lot of acting is about imagination and what-if, so I just thought, well, what if some woman showed up at my house acting crazy with a weapon? What would I do? That would be terrifying, so I just responded accordingly.
AX: Was that shot with Julianne Nicholson actually banging outside on the door and you inside the house?
TUNIE: Yes. We were there. We were there for each other on both sides of the camera, playing the scene full-out.
AX: So RED ROAD is shot where everybody’s there for everybody else off-screen, so when you have your close-up, the other person’s feeding you their performance from behind the camera?
TUNIE: Yes, we’re all there. We’re all there for each other.
AX: Kopus starts out rejecting his Native American heritage; he has a white father, played by Tom Sizemore. Is Marie supposed to be fully of the tribe, or does she have a varied ethnic background?
TUNIE: Well, the tribe itself has varied ethnic background. That is the ancestry of this particular Native American nation. They are mixed ancestry. I think because the makeup of this tribe – they are descendants of Lenape Indians, African-Americans/former African slaves and Dutch. Their names are Vanderveen and Mann. So that defines this particular Native American tribe. And they have lived in this community for over a century, so I don’t think somebody from outside could go, “Well, I have ten percent Native American blood, so I’m a Native American and part of this tribe.”
AX: How much do we find out about Marie in the course of the first season? She has kind of an affronted dignity to her. Do we find out what’s happened to her and why she decided to adopt?
TUNIE: We won’t find out this season, but – and my fingers are crossed and I’m knocking wood – I hope we go into Season 2, and then more will be revealed.
AX: RED ROAD producers Aaron Guzikowski and Bridget Carpenter have said that the production circumstances were very physically challenging and people were getting chomped on by insects.
TUNIE: Yes, the mosquitoes were vicious [laughs].
AX: Is it hard to keep your concentration when you’re being attacked by bugs?
TUNIE: [laughs] Yes, it is hard, and sometimes you do just go [slaps at invisible insects], “Stop biting me!” “Cut!” It was challenging. We were in ruralGeorgia, and we started shooting in August, and the humidity and the insects – it was a lot to contend with, but I find as an actor that once I immerse myself in the scene and the world, I kind of forget everything else. It’s like if I have a cold, the symptoms of the cold go away, or if I hurt my back, I don’t feel the pain that I have in my back any more, because I’m just focusing on now being in this world and being in this reality. But when you’re sitting around, waiting for them to set the lights, et cetera, et cetera, and the mosquitoes are eating you alive, you just get angry [laughs]. I can carry it into the scene.
AX: Have you gotten to have any input into Marie?
TUNIE: Not so much as to who she is and where she’s come from, because Bridget and Aaron very extensively fleshed out these characters for us. But, through the process, there were times when there might have been a particular line that I thought, “This doesn’t feel organic.” And Aaron or Bridget would look at it and go, “You know, you’re right. Let’s lose it.” So those kinds of things.
AX: You had a really striking scene in DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, where your very fashionable character suddenly turned into a demon. Did you wear prosthetics for that shot, or was that done with computer effects?
TUNIE: It was all done in post. So when I went to the premiere, I had just shot the scene, smiled at Charlize [Theron] and everything was normal. So when that scene happened in the movie, I was just as shocked and terrified as everybody else in the audience – I was, “Oh, my God!” [laughs] I wanted to do that part, because that’s the kind of a movie that I like. I loved the whole Faustian situation of it, I loved the writing of it, and I loved that character, and that was a role that I really pursued. I really wanted to be a part of that.
AX: A lot of the projects you do – DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, LAW & ORDER: SVU – are very mainstream. Is RED ROAD the most indie project you’ve done in awhile? It’s attached to a network, but Sundance itself is kind of independent …
TUNIE: Absolutely. And it’s the first time I’m playing somebody who isn’t a professional in a suit, or isn’t of means, and it’s great. That’s what attracted me to playing this role – it’s somebody who’s struggling and who doesn’t have it all and doesn’t have all the answers and isn’t the smartest person in the room necessarily. So I really was excited about practically no makeup and bringing it down. So I was thrilled to do that.
AX: You’ve worked on several daytime dramas, aka soap operas. Did doing those, where you had to memorize so much and do so much in such a short timeframe, make everything else a little bit easier?
TUNIE: I guess so. I really think, to do a soap opera, to do a daytime drama and to do it well, and to not fall into some bad habits in doing so, is the most challenging thing an actor can do. And I feel like while you’re still doing film and theatre and television, if you can do a soap opera, then you can do anything else, because the pace is so fast.
AX: So is it easier to memorize your dialogue now?
TUNIE: Yeah. But I attribute my ability to memorize to my principal from grade school. Each year, she would hand out these booklets of poetry that were appropriate to every grade, from first to sixth. And you would have to learn the poetry and recite it to your teacher, and your teacher would stamp each poem that you [recited successfully], and when you completed the book, you were rewarded with a field trip, by going to the planetarium or to the botanical gardens or to a Broadway show that was in town. And so from first grade on, that memory muscle was being exercised because of my principal.
AX: Did those recitations feed into your desire to act?
TUNIE: I think so. I think also because I did school plays when I was a kid – I think my first play was RUMPELSTILTSKIN when I was in third grade – and so I always participated in dancing and acting, but I didn’t actually decide to pursue it as a career until I was a senior in high school. Prior to that, I was prepping myself to go into the world of medicine. I was a great student, and chemistry and math were my strengths, and so I was on that trajectory, but still continuing to perform here and there, at school, at church. And then in my senior year of high school, I was like, “You know, this is what I really love. So I’m going to do that.” I’m from Pittsburgh, and Carnegie-Mellon University is fifteen minutes from my home, and they had a great drama program, so I said, “Well, I’ll just audition for that and see what happens.”
AX: Do you still do a lot of stage?
TUNIE: Yes, absolutely. I love the theatre. It’s my first love and my true love and where I’m most at home.
AX: Is there anything comparable between RED ROAD and the theatre, or is RED ROAD really television camera-specific?
TUNIE: I think that there is a theatricality about this show. Visually, the look of it, I think, is cinematic, but at the same time theatrical.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?
TUNIE: Well, I’ve been producing a new musical called FROG KISS that I’ve been cultivating along over the past few years, from reading to workshop to a production at Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk, Virginia last year in January, and it’s rungs on the ladder to get it to Broadway, so that’s my other baby that I’m focusing on. It is a new twist, grownup twist, on an old tale. It’s a singing, tap-dancing, fantastic frog [laughs].
AX: Like Michigan J. Frog?
TUNIE: From Looney Tunes? Yeah, but ours is a little sexier than Michigan.
AX: Will you be in that?
TUNIE: No. I’m producing it, I’m leading the charge, I’m the champion for the show, and it is my mission to have it realized, and I have a fantastic director on board, Kent Gash, who has directed incredible shows all over the country and regional shows all over the country, but it would be his first Broadway venture. My writing team is incredible; the book and lyrics are written by Charles Leipart, and Eric Schorr is the composer.
AX: How long have you been a stage producer?
TUNIE: I began about six, seven years ago now, with SPRING AWAKENING. It was hugely successful, as you know, so it really whet my appetite. And my second venture, that same season, was August Wilson’s last play, RADIO GOLF. Most recently, two seasons ago, I was with the team that brought MAGIC/BIRD to Broadway, that was the play about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
AX: Is anything happening with the SPRING AWAKENING movie?
TUNIE: Not to my knowledge. There’s talk, talk, talk, but I don’t know if there’s been any real forward motion at this point.
AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about RED ROAD?
TUNIE: I think that anybody who loves really smart, compelling television with great writing and acting and directing will really like this show.
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Article: Exclusive interview with THE RED ROAD’s Tamara Tunie