True Blood’s Tanya Wright on Writing, Acting, and Directing
June 11, 2012 by Felicia.Pride
Butterfly Rising is currently on the film festival circuit, and Tanya Wright helped kick off True Blood’s fifth season last night, so it seems like the right time to reprise the interview we did with her the day after Season 4 kicked off last year:
…Wright, who is as much writer as she is actress, has plenty on her plate already. The multiplatform creative wrote a screenplay, penned and published the novel Butterfly Rising based on that screenplay, then directed and starred in the movie version which recently premiered in Seattle and is currently traveling the festival circuit. The story follows two women who turn to the open road to find a medicine man who will make their dreams come true. She’ll also be appearing in the upcoming feature Predisposed alongside Jesse Eisenberg and Melissa Leo.
inReads talked with Wright about what it really takes to make one’s dreams come true, auditioning for True Blood, and why artists shouldn’t have to choose between mediums.
inReads: When did you get into writing?
Tanya Wright: I was always a writer. I won the Best Writer award in the fifth grade. I had dabbled with acting, but writing was the thing I was going to do with my life. Right after college, I got a job at the New York Times. I realized quickly that journalism didn’t energize me the way that creative writing did.
inReads: So how did you get into acting then?
Wright: Throughout high school and some of college, I was interested and dabbled in acting. Quite frankly, I was afraid of it for many reasons. Acting requires you to be a bit of an extrovert, and that was something that I didn’t always feel comfortable with. I was a shy kid; I didn’t feel comfortable with attention and my writing served that.
I met Malcolm-Jamal Warner and he mentioned that they were looking for someone to play his girlfriend on The Cosby Show. He kept pestering me about it, but I still didn’t do anything until I got a call from the casting director to audition for the role of Theo’s girlfriend. I was living in the Bronx at the time, which was about eight trains away from where they shot. I was young and didn’t know how to get there. I remember finally arriving and seeing Mr. [Bill] Cosby with his cigar. They gave me five pages and asked me to read it as I thought it should be read. I did, and I ended up getting the part. I just went with my raw gut feeling, and that’s how I continue to live my creative life to this day.
inReads: So while your acting career grows, you continue to write?
Wright: I’m always writing very quietly in the background. And when I got to Hollywood, the question was: Am I going to focus on acting or writing? And as I contemplated that decision, I began getting more acting jobs. I rode the horse in the direction the horse was going, but I wrote everywhere I could. I wrote in my dressing room. There’s a lot of downtime in acting when you’re waiting on the set. The time that you’re actually acting is really quite small. I have amassed a stockpile of screenplays, short stories, and television ideas, some of which I’ve already developed and the world will see very soon. Others are still in the box and I’ll get to those next.
I always knew that one day my acting and writing would intersect. And it wasn’t something that I could predict or that could be rushed. And I was very inspired by people like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck with Good Will Hunting. Emma Thompson with Sense and Sensibility; she wrote the screenplay, acted in it and won an Academy Award. Billy Bob Thorton with Sling Blade. I began to see people acting and writing and now it’s a lot more commonplace. I don’t have to choose. You can’t say acting is my favorite child or writing is my favorite child. I love them equally and in different ways.
inReads: Is that why you not only wrote a book, but also a movie that you could act in?
Wright: The project was born out of many things, including my desire to have some control over my creative life as an artist, actor, and writer.
I was also very interested in how to tell stories over multiple platforms. People mentioned that it’s not ordinary to write a book after the screenplay. I can’t really tell you why things happen the way they do; it served me right in this process. It’s not commonplace. It doesn’t always serve the artist to do things the way that people always do.
inReads: You published the book yourself and did the film independently. How important was it for this to be an independent project?
Wright: I wanted to be in control and this was absolutely an independent project. I raised the money for the movie outside of Hollywood. We shot it in Columbus, Mississippi, in twenty-three days. We worked with terrific actors, some of whom are friends.
I self-published my book, even though publishing options were available. I was aware of the stigma attached to the self-published author. I didn’t really need it to be approved by the powers that be. I already had the validation that I could write. I had an agent, won award for my screenplay, so it was really just aligning myself with strong people and developing a team. I found a confident editor, a great publicist and other stalwarts in the book industry.
inReads: So you encourage others to consider independent publishing and filmmaking?
Wright: Something interesting happens when you do that, when an artist says that I’m going to do this thing and do it well. I want to encourage people to make their mark. When you decide to move forward, then those publishers, editors, agents, and movie companies start to take notice without you asking them to take notice. The fact that you’ve taken a stance demands that they take notice. You help yourself out. And you’d be surprised how many people come to your aid then.
inReads: Did the powers that be take notice of you for a role in True Blood?
Wright: About four or five years ago, I was called in by people who cast me in several other television projects. They had hired me many times. I was told it was for a new show on HBO by Alan Ball.
I’ve been in Hollywood long enough to have an inkling that this was going to go. It’s HBO, Alan Ball, and a successful franchise of vampire books. That’s going to go.
inReads: What was the audition like?
Wright: Alan Ball was in the room along with the writer/director for that episode. I read the role. I always like to do something a little different than what’s on the page. I feel like that’s an artist’s job. I found that they laughed in unexpected places. I left the room with the typical questions in an actor’s mind. Were they laughing with me or at me? But you do it and you have fun, and you give it all you can, and you go on with your day.
inReads: Were you familiar with the novels?
Wright: Yes. And I knew that Kenya was throughout the vampire series, so there was a good shot that it wasn’t going to be a one episode deal. It’s a great place to work—smart people, talented cast, great group of writers and producers. They give you a wide canvas to be creative.
inReads: So beyond moments writing while on set, is it difficult to squeeze everything in?
Wright: My time isn’t spent much writing these days. I have a stockpile of scripts and things. I have a television show called Biloxi and a feature film that will be out in the world soon. I’m putting a team together that will assist with my film projects and this bigger creative life that I’ve fashioned for myself. I’m a true entrepreneur in that I was doing all things all the time. Then you realize, or life will tell you, in order to be efficient, you have to enlist partners; you will die trying to do this for yourself. It’s not efficient to do all things all the time.
inReads: From The Cosby Show to now, could be considered a lifetime in the entertainment world. What do you attribute to your staying power of being a working actress?
Wright: I don’t think that I’m different from anyone else who has done things. I think across the board, it’s a combination of traits that are uncommon and they have to be pursued relentlessly. You have to be uncomfortable for indefinite periods of time. You have to be determined in a way that’s uncommon. You have to be focused in a way that’s uncommon, and you will get uncommon results. The uncommon results are success, work, and earning a living doing the thing that you love.
Along the way, I have sacrificed. I don’t have much of a personal life. I can be relentless and a workaholic. I sometimes have to pull myself away.
inReads: The idea of taking charge and going after your dreams is a major theme in Butterfly Rising. Is that what you want people to walk away with?
Wright: A butterfly is a symbol of metamorphosis and change. I want people to be okay with those stages and changes in their lives. Because at the end of the day, the end result is the butterfly, no matter the pain that they’re going through. It’s all for the fulfillment of something greater, and bigger, and more beautiful.
Watch a trailer for Wright’s film Butterfly Rising.
Watch Wright’s December 2010 appearance at Eso-Wan Books in Los Angeles, CA.
About The Author:
Visit Felicia online at feliciapride.com or on Twitter at @feliciapride.