WFilm founder, Scarlett Shepard, caught up with Tanya Wright, actor, director, writer, and entrepreneur. She has appeared on some of the most successful shows of our time: HBO’s True Blood, Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, NYPD Blue, 24, ER, and The Good Wife. She also wrote, directed, and starred in the feature film Butterfly Rising, which is based on a book she authored. She is the founder of the hair-care line HAIRiette, which has its own book and webseries.
Scarlett: Was there a particular time or event you recognized that acting wasn’t just a hobby but something you wanted to pursue as a lifelong career?
Tanya: I was an English major at Vassar, and I went to work at the New York Times where I was a news clerk for 9 months exactly. I decided I was going to go to Los Angeles to pursue acting. My intention was to stay in LA for 6 weeks, and I ended up staying here for 15 years! I was working consistently as an actor, and all the while writing and knowing that at some point writing, directing, and the other things I wanted to do would converge.
Scarlett: You’ve been on a ton of High Profile shows: Orange is the New Black, True Blood, and The Good Wife. What attracts you to a role?
Tanya: What makes a good role for me is a character that’s going through something and comes out on the other side in an interesting, unpredictable, very unique way. As an actor, I’m able to look at a script and really understand it. The script is really a roadmap for everybody: the director, the production designer, and certainly the actor. I can look at a script and understand the journey that the writer is trying to illustrate.
Scarlett: Do you ever get a script and say to yourself, “Oh this character would not say something like this,” and would you change a couple of lines?
Tanya: Yes I do (laughs). If they tell me they want to do it the way they wrote it then that’s fine. But it’s my job I think as an actor when I have material to sort of make it my own, within reason. On NYPD Blue they were very specific about saying the words as written – exactly as it’s written on the page. I respect that and I honor it. However, I love for acting to be a collaborative process. I’m all about “who has a great idea” and using that great idea even if you’re not the one who thought of it. I’m a writer also, so generally my thoughts are well received because I don’t stray from the intent of the writer.
Scarlett: Let’s talk about your film that we premiered at our film festival in San Francisco in 2012 called Butterfly Rising. You wrote, directed, and starred in the film. What are the most important decisions you make as a filmmaker?
Tanya: The most important thing is the people that you’re working with, particularly with an independent film. I basically made Butterfly Rising with spit and glue. We shot it in Columbus, Mississippi for 21 days. It was hot and we had a lot of scenes to do, so in terms of casting I knew I had to have actors that would be able to deliver in one – maybe two takes because that’s all the time we had before we had to move on. I had to choose actors that I felt confident would be able to deliver. I think that casting the greatest actors you can get is the best thing the director can do for him or herself. So what money I had I invested in getting great actors because it’s a very character-driven piece.
Butterfly Rising is a story of two women who take a road trip to meet a mythical medicine-man named Lazarus.
Scarlett: It’s a really powerful film! What films have been the most inspiring to you, and why?
Tanya: I like out the box films. I really loved Black Swan. That film stayed with me for a long time. I also really love an older movie called Shawshank Redemption with Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins.
Scarlett: Shawshank Redemption is a great screenplay to read for aspiring screenwriters.
Tanya: I just love that movie and I’ve never forgotten it after all of these years. It’s quite moving.
Scarlett: Why do you think representation in the film industry is so important?
Tanya: I think you said it with the word “representation.” You want to represent accurately what the world looks like. Why wouldn’t you as a storyteller? The fact is that films and tv shows with diverse audiences do the best financially! It all works, and I think that there’s more and more energy and fuel to support diversity in the media. I’ve certainly seen it with my own stuff. This is all very good and exciting, and people who are diverse and multicultural need to be prepared, and they need to go make stuff and get it out into the world.
Tanya: I have a haircare line for women with curly hair. We use Kokum butter and oils based in ayurveda to heal the body. I’m really excited about it! The task for me was getting it all out into the world on a wider scale. The book is I Found God in My Hair: 98 spiritual principles I learned from…my hair!
Scarlett: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, and it is so great to hear what you’re up to!