An Interview With Tanna Frederick
By Shirley Craig
Tanna Frederick's life has been a stage life. Writing, directing, producing and acting since childhood, she has been instrumental in carrying off adaptations, indie film projects and on-camera performance. Most of her days are spent planning the next venue, and the next. Weekends are often back-to-back shows in the same theatre—adding to the mania. Frederick tells Reap in an interview that she is doing great, that she's elated, exhausted and very happy after an all-day double bill of Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and Train to Zakopane, a new play by partner, Henry Jaglom. Frederick explains how they pulled off switching out the sets for both plays, pushing the main train car to the back and reading on the same stage setting a row of folding chairs to mock a subway.
Frederick first caught the acting bug, she says, when she was 8 years old. "I knew I was very passionate about the arts, and I started out doing ballet in first grade and my teacher said to my mom, 'You know, she does her own thing.' I don’t remember much, except I remember her correcting my feet all the time and my just wanting to freestyle it. It was a kind of an exclusive dance company in Iowa and the teacher sort of suggested to my mom that maybe I should go in another direction." Frederick says with a laugh.
Even at that age, Frederick says, she marched to the beat of a different drum. She began taking classical piano lessons, which she soon realized she loved. Studying classical piano brought a passion to her life and she took to it right away. " I practiced all the time, and then I remember going with my Girl Scout troop to see the musical Oliver at a local children’s theatre and it was so great!” Frederick says. The musical played to a full house, and she and her fellow scouts sat in the aisle. "My best friend was playing Oliver and I remember watching it. It was my first theater experience and I just remember being completely mesmerized. And when the Artful Dodger walked on stage, I just knew in my body and my soul, I knew I'd found what I would be doing for the rest of my life." Frederick says.
She joined the little children’s theatre the next year and started doing every role possible there. Before Frederick knew it, she was the actor friends were coming to see onstage. "I was trained in this children’s theatre by my director to be very professional—we were. I mean, we were treated as adults, and so even then as I was doing theatre with adults, kids and with high-schoolers, there was no room for any unprofessionalism and that was one of the greatest gifts that I was given, because it became ingrained: 'You will not chew gum on stage. You will be quiet when the other actors are up there. You will learn all of the stage directions. You will come to the other shows. You will tech other shows. You will write in your scripts with pencils so you can erase it.' There was no discrepancy between adults and children and the expectations for actors, and that was fantastic."
Frederick stayed with the children's theatre well into high school. She did summer musicals, and her career began to take off. In the auditorium at the local community college, Frederick performed in a 1,200-seat venue. For the most part, Frederick managed to lock in one of the lead roles, and produce and even structure their performances—this was true ensemble. This experience would be the foundation of her career. It was, Frederick recalls, the breeding ground for an actress and an artist in Iowa.
The art of learning competitive performance was one that she would learn to take in stride. “We were very competitive, and we also went all over with our choir competitions. We were well-respected. Again, it was just a very vivacious playground yet, at the same time, institution that was being upheld for us to be nurtured in as blooming artists,” Frederick adds. When she received a full scholarship to the University of Iowa for theatre, she knew there was no going back.
"The writer’s workshop in Iowa was amazing. New playwrights were constantly coming in and new material was constantly being performed. Everything was just rich with new plays and that really taught me the craft." Frederick sighs. "It's crazy. I had the most fun in that medium. In the most interesting plots and plotlines from different artists whom were all exploring and trying out their work and it was daring and crazy. I would always somehow find the way to connect with the character, no matter who that character was, and I would take it on. It was a really a great place for me to learn," Frederick says.
Frederick recalls that her life nearly took another direction, but her parents discouraged her and she agreed to go on to college. "After high school I almost moved to New York and was actually offered to room with a younger Uta Hagen—my uncle was friends with Uta's daughter—and they wanted her to live in the city and study at the Herbert Berghof Studio! Much to my chagrin, although I guess I’m thankful for it now since my career wouldn’t have panned out the same way, I went to L.A.,” Frederick says.
Frederick just packed up her little Honda and moved to the Golden State, and she says everyone thought she was nuts. "I didn’t know anybody here, but I just knew it was the right decision to make if I wanted to do theatre and to get the television and the film credits under my belt. I’m very glad I made that decision.”
"I wanted to do film,” she says." I was already waiting tables trying to do my survival job, and pay rent with that—and I met Henry Jaglom.
"Henry gave me his original script of A Safe Place and said, 'If you want to take this and do a scene for acting class, fine. I think you’d be brilliant at this role and I haven’t said this since Tuesday Weld and Karen Black played it, but you’re perfect for this part.’” Relieved, she read for it and was happy to fit right in. It was spot-on casting to play the role, and Frederick asked Jaglom if she could have the rights to it as a play, thinking she could go all the way with it. "I felt that if he would give me the rights free, I could find a theatre to produce it, and he did." Jaglom had only done this once before, charging a fee of $600. "I knew I had something that was quite worthwhile," Frederick adds. "There was never a stage production by Henry Jaglom done anywhere all over the world and I was getting the rights for free, which was incredible, and I knew I was perfect at the lead. The Beverly Hills Playhouse at the Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles was to be the venue, and we had a producer who believed in the company and it was all set," Frederick says. “After Camelot Artists got the play produced and ran the production for eight months, I felt like I truly had made it. Henry came to just about every single show," Frederick says, and that’s when I made the hard transition from stage to film acting. Frederick worked very closely with Jaglom. She says there were days where she “just wept,” but that her frustration culminated into Hollywood Dreams getting done. Next, she portrayed an 'Eve Harrington' kind of character in Hollywood Dreams who ends up turning love away, which was not so joyful. But despite this, Frederick says, the role was a joy to make, and it “sealed the deal” that from then on, Jaglom and Frederick were going to keep working together. And eventually, real-life romance would add to the mix. "We had a ball working together," Frederick explains, "Like I said, it was not always easy with peers, but, by that time I had been under fire from him and I was used to his way of working." Of her partnership to Jaglom, Frederick says, "That’s just one of those things that happened over the course of 13 years making films together." From the first project, to the last, she recalls, that shooting his movies were awesome experiences quoting “sheer heaven and sheer excitement and amazing—a dream come true.” Frederick says the added bonus of getting to work with a brilliant mind was that in the process, not only did she find love; she found her place on the screens of the indie film world.
"So, I guess we’ve been making films together for 11 years, but we’ve done a number of plays and a number of films together. So at a certain point, we just sort of realized we’re best friends and that we loved each other and that was just, it was always there, kind of. What a neat thing that an actress could encounter, creating films with somebody who she loves and vice versa." Theirs is a true indie Valentine story.
Never forgetting her roots, Frederick created a film festival in her hometown in Iowa, The Iowa Film Festival. Frederick muses about how the best part about the October event is being able to give back to the kids and the filmmakers there, and to bring more encouragement into the community where she got her start. The pride of American architecture—the Historic Park Inn, which is the only Frank Lloyd Wright hotel in the world—lends all its refurbished glory to the magic of independent film. “Frank Lloyd Wright was there and his students were there,” Frederick says, “It is just an amazing place to hold the festival. We put together a couple of screening rooms and it’s also been a lovely place for the filmmakers to stay while showing their films.” Frederick says she never would have been successful in any other line of work, saying, she ‘had to be fair to her heart and soul and passion.” She is still learning and developing as an actor and collaborator, still working hard and as often as she can.
Of Jaglom’s current production, the onstage production of Train to Zakopane, Frederick says she had mixed emotions upon her first reading of it, calling into question many moral issues that still press audiences today. “I think we’re in the correct political landscape right now where people need some sort of emotional event. They need somewhere that’s not just an intellectual acknowledgement of these fires that are raging around the world in terms of racism, anti-Semitism. They need somewhere to actually feel something. And I think that this play is so important and people being able to support this play, I think, gives them a feel as though they’re doing something because they’re sort of reconciling with their own ideals, especially being a town full of Jews, their own belief systems about—it’s the most difficult play I've ever done because the whole second half is a love story about an anti-Semite and a Jew.” Frederick explains.
Frederick’s challenge was to make her character likable and to get the audience to sit in their seats for the second act, despite the vehemently difficult plotline. Frederick says she felt physically sick after reading the script. So much so that she was unsure about taking it on even at this stage of her career. “I thought ‘I can never do this. Nobody’s going to want to see this. I’m never going to get hired in this town again.’ But Henry was very passionate about making it and with Gary’s brilliant direction and a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful cast I just went for it.” Frederick compares her co-star Mike Falkow as a modern Leslie Howard. Laughing, she adds, “It’s his elegance and his poise. I really see him as that and Henry does too, and he makes this character. We’ve worked our assess off to really develop the love,” Frederick explains.
“Now I've come to a place where I’m really passionate about the story, the character, what people walk away with, and know what I need to do to bring the forgiveness in there, to bring the reconciliation of these two characters, to help people understand where seeds of hatred come from. And it’s been quite amazing. I’m actually, I don’t want to say having a good time doing it, but I do want to say I’m having a joyful time playing the role.” Frederick embraces the history and the importance of telling these kinds of stories, but admits that working on this project has changed her forever. “I've done beautifully, wonderfully storytelling plays like The Rainmaker that we ran for a year and got standing ovations for. It’s beautiful storytelling. It’s lovely. I did Sylvia, which was so much fun because I got to play a dog. But doing this piece right now at this specific time for everything brought me such pain.” Frederick says. “I was a mess during rehearsals, but the international relations political science geek in me is thankful that I have something right now that means something. Sylvia—yeah, it was a fun play—but I don’t think right now would be the time to do something like Sylvia.” Frederick says.
“Today, we need plays like these. Now is the time to do something that does create change. I believe one of the ways that people can change is through emotional understanding. So, yes, it’s been a tough ride to really feel in my heart and really grasp the fact that, as an actor, I have to look at the role of Katia as a protagonist in order to explain where her hatred comes from. … The audience has been incredible because it’s like I come out, and there’s Holocaust survivors and Polish Jews. It’s amazing, the specificity of Henry’s story about his father. And using the complete specificity of that has given this play a universal understanding, if you will, because everybody has specific stories from that time.” Frederick says.
Train to Zakopane is running through March 28 at The Edgemar Theatre in Los Angeles. With onstage performances still to come and two other films in postproduction, 2015 is already kicking into high gear. Frederick’s own film, Garner, Iowa is to be shown in this year’s Iowa Film Festival. “Working on Garner, was amazing. We shot in the freezing cold. We shot in the ungodly heat. We shot with local crew, local cast—the talent is amazing. And so that will be coming out in 2015, and I’m so excited for it to come out! It is a gorgeous, breathtaking film, for women especially, and confronting the stigma against mental illness.” Frederick has played many a damsel in distress, and she has played quirky, whimsical characters in Jaglom’s films with great success. But playing a mentally ill woman in a small Midwestern town—in this role she presents a very serious, tough, Olive-Kittredge sort of gritty woman. Frederick says, “We showed a short sneak preview at the Iowa film festival last year. The response was so incredible. Many people came up to me and told me their story after: mothers who were bipolar, people who had struggled with bipolarity, people whose kids were bipolar. Their stories were incredible and again, to me, doing work that creates a dialogue, that just sparks any sort of talk about something that people are not inclined to talk about or are too frightened to talk about, that is the kind of work that I find myself drawn to,” Frederick adds.
As if Frederick’s schedule was not crazy enough, she is also training for the LA Marathon. She is raising money for a village in the Ben Tre district of Vietnam, where funding is needed to install a hundred water filters. “I had a really hard time the last run and was very discouraged. This time, for this cause, I just said, ‘You know what? I’m just going to run this.’ I’m going to run it to raise money for our kids and our clean water initiative, and I’m not going to care about what happened last time.” Frederick laughs. “I've been doing my long runs and training and taking the pressure off and it has brought the joy back to my running, which I love doing, and it really does help me onstage to get rid of all the chaff with doing the shows. It’s a necessity for me to do something as equally as difficult physically as what I’m doing onstage,” Frederick says. “That is how you do it when you know it is all you can do. You just get back on the horse and keep on riding.”
Frederick’s life is a true Hollywood story. Gaining happiness, experience, continuing her fitness, keeping up with a creative partner, and managing to pull it all off so gracefully.