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Just telling the truth


When Tamara Tunie calls me from New York City, it’s right after a recent storm on the East Coast, and she says she’s looking out the window at “about twenty feet of snow.” She laughs, and tells me that, although she grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s drama department, she moved to New York right after school, and she’s never lived anywhere else. “I’m a New Yorker,” she tells me, “My mother says, I was born a New Yorker, I just happened to be born in Pittsburgh.”


She was able to shoot much of her most recent film, The Caveman’s Valentine, in New York. She has worked with director Kasi Lemmons previously, as the unforgettable narrator for Eve’s Bayou. Now, we talk about what it was like for her to play Sheila, the estranged wife of protagonist Romulus Ledbetter (Samuel L. Jackson), who is only seen in Caveman’s Valentine as a shadow in a doorway, or as projection in his imagination.



Cynthia Fuchs:

Was it tricky to play a character who is essentially another character’s fantasy?



Tamara Tunie:

The difficult part for me was that Sheila was so isolated. She would always appear in the scene, and everything would go into an extremely slow motion. To get that, Kasi [Lemmons, the director] would shoot everything around Sheila and then come back and come back to me. So it was disjointed for me, trying to be a part of the scene but yet not be a part of the scene. That was the challenge.



CF:

How was it for you on the set? Do the actors have a lot of input?



TT:

Kasi sent me the script long before we started shooting, and we started talking early about who Sheila is, who she is to Romulus, which is really what her role is in the film, because you don’t see her except in his [mind]. So who she is to Romulus and who she really is are two different things. So I talked to Kasi about that, and just kind of jumped in. We also needed to have a sense of who she was in each scene, because in each scene, she serves a different purpose.



CF:

And that must be different, since most roles are premised on the idea that a character “develops.” How did you and Samuel Jackson work out the rhythm you have in the film?



TT:

Sam and I have been friends for years, Sam and his wife Latonya and their daughter. We go way back. So we already had our own natural rhythm, and it was easy to step off from there to Rom and Sheila.



CF:

You work a lot, in a variety of projects, from big films like The Devil’s Advocate to TV and theater. How would you describe your experience on this film?



TT:

It was interesting. You have a movie we were shooting for half of what it would really cost to fully realize the film. The budget we had was a lot of money, but in ratio to what it really needed, it was like shooting a low budget movie. So there wasn’t enough money, there wasn’t enough time. I do a lot of small, independent films, and it felt like working on one of those.



CF:

You’re also working regularly on tv [in a recurring role as the medical examiner on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit]. How do you find working on network tv?



TT:

I do enjoy it. The thing that I like about network television is that there’s a set schedule. They really have to make their days. The work moves along pretty quickly, though not as fast as soap operas, because I’ve done those too [As the World Turns], and that’s the fastest shooting medium in the world. You don’t have the luxury of time that you sometimes have when working on a film. And now, for me, I do a lot of tv in New York, so even if the show is new for me, there are crew members I know. So there’s a level of comfort there, because I know the camera man, the focus puller, the driver. There’s a good film and television community in New York.



CF:

How do you decide what roles you want to pursue?



TT:

I look at a script, and if the character strikes some kind of truth in me, I can pursue that. The character can be many different kinds of people, but I need to be able to connect with that truth.



CF:

You’ve had a wide range of “truths” in the characters you’ve played.



TT:

That’s right. [Laughs.] Even in Devil’s Advocate, I totally knew who that woman was.



CF:

What’s your sense of the possibilities available for you?



TT:

One reason I work so much is that I work in all media, so I can constantly keep the motor going. There are scripts that come my way that may not connect to, and if I don’t, I don’t try to force something on it. That’s what I think good acting is, just telling the truth, in that moment or that scenario. I’ve been able to knock down some doors, because I have great people working with me, my agent and my manager. They’re looking at roles as the characters, not necessarily the colors. So there’ve been many occasions when I’ve stepped into a role that was originally written for a Caucasian person or even a man, and been able to change minds. You just have to keep knocking on the doors.



CF:

What is your sense of the concerns or themes of The Caveman’s Valentine?



TT:

I think it poses questions on so many different issues. You have this homeless man, and living in New York, I encounter many homeless people. It sheds light on his history, and you forget that they have a history, that they were somewhere before they ended up on the street. It also deals with family, a fractured family, and the relationship between the father and the daughter. It poses a question about art—what is art? Is something sensational necessarily artistic, or is it just for sensationalism’s sake. It’s a very thought-provoking film.



CF:

Can you say more about the way the film deals with this “fractured family” in a way that’s not stereotypical or overly familiar?



TT:

For me there’s a certain level of tragedy, but it wasn’t stereotypical to me at all, because despite this man’s obvious mental illness, he’s trying to maintain a relationship with his daughter. He reaches out to her. On one hand, he’s a complete disappointment to his family, but at the same time, he’s still struggling to be a man and to be respected in their eyes. As far as Sheila is concerned, I tried to look at why or how, whenever Romulus tries to connect with the daughter, Sheila is always around. It’s like, when the phone rings, she recognizes his ring. Sheila, after all these years, still has a connection with this man. Even when she’s saying, “He got a phone in that cave?” or trash-talking, it’s almost like there in the same room, they have a repartee with each other. It was a family that’s disconnected but somehow connected.



CF:

That must have been an interesting way to think about making a character, as Sheila often appears literally at the edge of the frame, so you’re conveying an emotion just with your arm or the slope of your shoulder.



TT:

Right, what’s the body language saying?



CF:

How does the film fit, in your mind, into a culture that demands categories—is it an art house film or something else?



TT:

My sensibilities tend to go toward the art house film or the foreign films. But I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that film is fantastic. Though it’s being marketed as an art house film, it’s completely commercial and mainstream in the story it’s telling. So I think it’s dangerous to force a category on a film, because any film has the possibility to be anything. I know Caveman is being released as an art house film, but I think it’s a commercial film. I think it’s completely entertaining. But those decisions are made up front, and limit what a film might become.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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