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NYFF ’12: Tamara Tunie talks Flight, producing a new musical, and singing at Feinstein’s

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NYFF ’12: Tamara Tunie talks ‘Flight,’ producing a new musical, and singing at Feinstein’s
By Wilson Morales

October 14, 2012

She’s played a lawyer. She played a government director and medical officer. She’s a wife, producer, and director. In a nutshell, Tamara Tunie is simply one of the hardest working women in showbiz. Having been seen on TV everyday for over 20 years with her roles on the soap ‘As The World Turns,’ ‘NYPD Blue,’ ’24,’ and currently as Medical Examiner Melinda Warner on ‘Law & Order: SVU,’ the Pennsylvania native has played different and strong female roles throughout most of her career.

There’s one platform we haven’t seen her often in and that’s the film world. With a few film credits that include ‘Devil’s Advocate’ and ‘The Caveman’s Valentine,’ Tunie will next be seen opposite Denzel Washington, with whom she worked with on the Broadway play ‘Julius Caesar,’ in Robert Zemekis’s latest film, ‘Flight.’

Co-starring with Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Garcelle Beauvais, and Melissa Leo, ‘Flight’ is about Whip Whitaker (played by Washington), an airline pilot who saves a flight from crashing, but an investigation into the malfunctions reveals something troubling. The film opens on Nov.2

Besides being in front of the camera, Tunie has also worked behind-the-scenes as well, directing her first feature a few years ago with the romantic comedy ‘See You in September,’ and won a Tony and Drama Desk Award as a producer on the Tony-Award winning theater musical ‘Spring Awakening.’

In speaking with, Tunie talks about her role in ‘Flight,’which closes out the New York Film Festival.  She also talks about producing her new musical, and her return to singing at New York’s Feinstein’s Supper Club.

What role do you play?

Tamara Tunie: I play Margaret Thomason, who is the flight leader on the doomed aircraft. She is a friend and colleague of Denzel Washington’s character, Whip Whitaker. He’s the captain of the plane.

What was the attraction to doing this film?

TT: I loved the script and I loved the role. Margaret was in the crashing plane and is called into the cockpit to help save the plane, so it was a little bit of an action film for me, which is what I have never done. That was great. Then of course, it was working with director Robert Zemekis and I’m a huge fan of his work, which is just phenomenal. Then you add into the mix, my friend, Denzel Washington. It was a no brainer.

This film has a lot of morality issues presented. What do you think the audience will get from seeing the film?

TT: That’s one of the things I loved about the film. It really is a moral tale. It’s about someone who is really looking into the abyss and has a choice of whether or not to continue on this path to darkness and ruin or to save themselves. I think the audience walks away with that there are choices that we make in life and we are presented with a life saving choice, that we will make the right choice. I hope that’s what they walk away with.

How was working with Robert Zemekis?

TT: Working on a film is so great because you have the luxury of more time when you on a movie than when you’re on television. There was an opportunity prior to the cameras actually rolling to sit down with Robert Zemekis and Denzel and talk about the script and read through the script and talk about what’s going on. So that when you show up on the first day of shooting, you’re not just showing up cold, which is often the case in a television situation. That’s really the beauty of doing films, the luxury of having some time.

Having worked with Denzel before when you worked on Broadway in ‘Julius Caesar,’ how different was it working with him in a film?

TT: The stage and working in front of a camera are two completely different mediums. Each requires different techniques. As far as working with Denzel, he’s adaptable to either or because he came from the theater before he was a big movie star. For him, it was coming back home (when he did ‘Julius’). I think he’s very comfortable in both genres and I loved working with him. It was not a lot in ‘Julius Caesar’ because we didn’t have many scenes together. We had one. So, working with him on a film where we were up close and personal and having to be emotionally connected, it was just terrific. He just gives you so much. It’s just a joy. He’s such a pro and so completely there and utterly helpful for me to be transported into the situation. He’s completely supportive and giving and just to play back and forth with. It was great.

Living currently in New York and having read about the plane that went down in the Hudson River a few years ago, did that incident or anything about this film resonate with you?

TT: Definitely. When I was reading the script, Whip Whitaker is considered like a Sully Sullenberger, who landed that plane in the Hudson River and saved everybody. Although, in our movie, there are a few casualties, Whip is considered a hero for what he’s done. The problem with his alcohol and drug addiction come to the forefront because of that, which ultimately puts him in a position as to whether he’s going to jump into the abyss or not. In doing my research to play this role as the flight leader, I have a cousin who was a flight attendant for many years who I spoke with. I also spoke a friend of hers who is still flying as a flight attendant and was actually in a plane crash. I was able to talk to her about what her thoughts were, when it was going on and how she responded to the situation, and what was the first thing that came to her mind. Ironically, she had a small son, like my character has in the movie. She shared with me that all she could think about was who was going to take care of her son if she died in the plane crash. That really fueled some of the emotional content of what my character was doing.

Since you are working on different projects, especially with your day job on ‘Law & Order: SVU,’ when did you find the time to do the film?

TT: Fortunately, I’m known as the hardest working woman in showbiz, not to compete with James Brown. I’ve always been a multi-tasker. I’ve had a few things going on simultaneously. There was a time, when I was doing ‘Julius Caesar’ on Broadway, I was also shooting ‘As the World Turns’ and shooting ‘Law & Order: SVU’ at the same time. I believe in saying yes. I love to work and I always believe that the schedule can work out if everything is willing to allow it to work out. Fortunately, last season on ‘SVU,’ my character became more of a recurring character than a series regular, so that actually freed me up to do the movie. So, the timing was perfect.

Was it your choice to have a recurring role so you would have more time to do other projects?

TT: We have new producers who came in and had other ideas and thoughts on the show to freshen it up. As you know, Chris Meloni had left and two new characters came in. There was definitely a shift in what they were going to focus on. There weren’t going to spend a lot of time on forensics. Previously, our executive producer was a doctor. He loved having the sort of work involved in the show. Since that change happen, there weren’t going to need Dr. Warner as much. I was cool with it. That just frees me up to do other things.

Speaking of other things, you directed a film a few years ago called ‘See You in September.’ How was that experience behind the camera? Are you looking to direct more films.

TT: Yes. It’s a sweet romantic comedy and we had a good time doing it. I would love to direct more films if the right script were presented to me and the right situation presented itself, I would love to. I really enjoy directing and I really enjoy leading the film. I had great people working with me. Kasi Lemmons, who many people know as a fabulous director who did ‘Eve’s Bayou’ and ‘Talk to Me,’ is a good friend of mine. Rob Marshall, who directed ‘Chicago,’ is a good friend of mine. Both of them were like, “If you put the right people in place and allow them to do their job, you’ll be good to go.” I heeded that advice and I did. Along with my co-producer, Jennifer Maloney, were able to line up a really great team and the actors were all terrific. As an actor, I loved working with other actors. I love watching them and guiding them and suggesting things to them and seeing sparks of things happen and them encourage them to go further with it; or reigning them in if it’s a little too much. I try to keep everyone in the same movie. I loved it.

You also served as a producer on a couple of theater productions. Is there anything coming up soon?

TT: Actually, I’m in the throes of a new musical called ‘Frog Kiss.’ It’s based on a novella that’s called ‘The Frog Prince: A Fairy Tale for Consenting Adults,” which is based on ‘The Princess and the Frog’ fairytale. Our musical is fantastic. It’s a little more sophisticated sort of take on the fairytale but it’s kid friendly. The music is traditional music theater but with a lot of jazzy overtone current running through it and a bit of eastern philosophy that tells us to accept change and go with the flow and be embracing. It’s just wonderful and we’re going to mount it out of town in Norfolk, Virginia at Virginia Stage Company in January 2013. We’re casting now and it’s about to be announced; and we go to rehearsals in December. It’s the first time that I’m the lead producer of a musical so I’m very excited about it.

Are there other projects you are working on?

TT: Yes. I’m opening up at Feinstein’s Supper Club. I was supposed to be on Oct. 30 but because of Hurricane Sandy, it’s going to be on Oct. 31. I’m going to be singing back in the club, which is what did when I first came to New York. I’m very excited about that. The music is jazz standard and some show tunes with a bit of jazz influence on them. There’s some music with some Brazilian flavor in it as well and Chuck Mangione. It’s going to be an evening of great music. I have tremendous musicians that I’m working with that I’m very excited about. I think people will leave uplifted particularly after this weekend and this terrible storm. I’m hoping to lift everyone’s spirits and having them enjoy themselves.

What’s a good reason to see ‘Flight?’

TT: It’s just one of those movies that will stick with you after you walk out the theater. It’s going to make you want to have conversations and I think that’s what great art is supposed to do.

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