6 Questions with “The Red Road” Star Tamara Tunie
Actress Tamara Tunie (THE RED ROAD’s Marie) discusses her diverse heritage, nurturing the Lenape community and finding the time to win a Tony.
Q: You’ve been in crime thrillers before (including Law & Order: SVU, NYPD Blue and 24); how is THE RED ROAD different?
A: Well, for one, it’s not really a cop show. Whereas [on the others] there were crimes being committed and the show was geared toward solving those crimes, with THE RED ROAD it’s much more interpersonal. Even though the protagonist is a police officer, he’s a police officer of a certain level of moral confusion because of the circumstances that life has presented him. And even though Jason Momoa plays an ex-con, he isn’t completely the bad guy. The families on both sides of these men, their stories are so integral to what’s happening with these guys, and why they make some of the choices they do, that it’s a much more complicated and multi-level kind of show. And very much character-driven—which is what I love about it.
Q: Does that make your job more or less challenging than, say, your work on SVU?
A: Well, on SVU of course I play Dr. Warner, the medical examiner, and my main role as that character is to disseminate information, and so it’s a lot of exposition. In THE RED ROAD, it’s more about the relationships. I’m actually having conversations with people, with family members—and it’s just more personal. And for me, I find that more challenging and I also find it more interesting, and something that I can really sink my acting teeth into.
Q: Marie is both an actual mom to Kopus (Jason Momoa) and a foster mom to Junior (Kiowa Gordon), but isn’t she also kind of a mother figure to the whole Lenape community?
A: She actually is. She is definitely the matriarch of that community. She has an open door policy in her home, she helps anyone who needs help. People go to her for advice, and for guidance and for food sometimes! So yeah, she’s definitely the nurturer of the Lenape community and definitely the strong woman figure in that community.
Q: Your own ancestry is similar to Marie’s—a mix of Native American, African and European. Was it interesting for you to tap into your heritage in that way?
A: Absolutely. It’s the first time in my career that I was presented a character to play whose genetic makeup is the same as mine. It was great, because I needed to supply the production with photographs to go around [Marie's] house, of family. When my uncle passed away—many, many years ago—I kind of confiscated and inherited all of his family photos and stuff, so I went into that shopping bag I had that they were still sitting in. I started looking through some of the photos of my grandmother and, you know, her grandmother and I landed on one particular photo that is very dear to me. It appears to be my grandmother’s mother and her sister, and it’s a very Victorian picture. They’re clearly Native American, but they have Gibson Girl hairstyles and they’re in high-collared Victorian dresses, and it was just really kind of like, “Wow, there it is!” So that was awesome, and it makes me proud. It makes me very proud to be able to acknowledge all of my ancestral makeup, even though of course I consider myself African American. There’s definitely a joy to be like, “And yes, I’m Native American, too!”
Q: We know you made your directorial debut a few years ago with the film See You in September; will you return to working behind the camera?
A: One never knows, does one? [Laughs] I mean, I’m totally open to that. I really enjoy directing very, very much. It was great to apply my experience in front of the camera in a different way. I loved working with my actors, I loved working with my crew. My crew definitely respected and supported and were proud and impressed with what I brought to the table as a director. So I’d look forward to doing that again, absolutely.
Q: Your TV fans might not know that you’re a theater producer and in fact earned a Tony Award for Spring Awakening; you’re also working on a new musical, Frog Kiss—how do you balance theater and TV/film work?
A: I don’t sleep much. [Laughs] No, I feel like I’ve always had this kind of just-do-it attitude, like the Nike commercials. I’ve always been a multitasker as well. So I just kind of delineate and set aside time for accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, and because our shooting schedule for THE RED ROAD is about three months, not nine months like some of network TV, there definitely are periods and chunks of time when I can totally focus on some of these things like producing. So I work it out!