Tanna Frederick: “I don’t want to miss the cadence of the words or the syntax of the dialogue”

American stage and independent screen actress Tanna Frederick (b. 1979) first got noticed when she played the leading role in the comedy-drama “Hollywood Dreams” (2006) with Karen Black and Seymour Cassel in supporting roles. Playing the character of a young and aspiring starlet, Ms. Frederick gave a solid, startling and touching performance, which she repeated in the sequel “Queen of the Lot” (2010), when her character had become a B movie actress with a few films to her credit, while the third act, “Ovation” (2015), completes the trilogy with the leading character now working as a stage actress.

All films were written and directed by Ms. Frederick’s husband Henry Jaglom, who also directed her in “Irene in Time” (2009), “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway” (2012), “The M Word” (2014) and “Train to Zakopané” (2018)—to me their best screen effort together.

In between, she also worked with other film directors, appeared in shorts and collaborated with renowned filmmaker Randal Kleiser on his groundbraking VR series “Defrost” as his co-producer and leading lady. He was the one who introduced me to Ms. Frederick when I was in Los Angeles recently, and she then invited me to come over to her office to talk about her work and her upcoming film “Two Ways Home” which will be screened next Saturday, June 15, at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood—a world premiere— during the Dances With Films Film Festival. In her latest feature, she plays a character with bipolar disorder.

Ms. Frederick, “Two Ways Home” is totally different from films like “Hollywood Dreams” or “Queen of the Lot.” What convinced you to co-produce it and play the leading role?

“Two Ways Home” comes from the heart, and I have been working on it for six years. I wanted to film it in my home state Iowa, and not only to employ actors and a crew from there, but Iowa has such beautiful stories, beautiful landscapes and wonderful actors. A lot of the films that I’ve seen about Iowa are horror films [laughs] or they are misrepresentations of the Midwest. And so I wanted to make a great heartland film, a strong woman’s film about mental illness which I feel isn’t covered and represented enough in the media. It makes people not necessarily come out and say they’re bipolar and share their experiences. So I wanted to create a movie that would promote healing—it’s about a woman with bipolar illness who reconciles her relationships with her granddaughter, her daughter and her grandfather. The story was written by Richard Schinnow, also from Iowa and a friend of my family, and then it was filmed on a family farm. It was really a labor of love, just asking a lot of favors from a lot of people. And the product is a beautiful story about a very strong woman who is pushing through to success in her life, through adversity which is her mental illness, and I think that’s really an important message to send out, not only with the budget cuts that have happened with mental illness in this country, but with the stigma attached to mental illness where people feel ashamed or guilty. I think this film will really open up people to heal themselves by sharing their experiences with others—sharing their illness and not looking at it as an illness, something they can overcome and doesn’t define who they are. I love films that promote healing and that promote dialogue and inspiration.

Aren’t you swimming against the stream, if you look at the film output today, in an age of comic book superheroes and Marvel characters?

Absolutely, but that is a big part of who I am. I have always swum against the stream, sometimes making things more difficult for myself in life than they should be, but as an artist I’m a fighter. So this story was so important to me that it needed to be told, it needed to get filmed. It has taken six years, but nonetheless, it’s finished now, and I’ve seen it through to its completion. And the character is a real woman, this could be anybody in any town, anywhere in the Midwest, who’s a superhero within herself, fighting her demons, and fighting a society that’s against her. What she goes through, is a great superhero challenge, but it’s no different than what other people go through, especially the mentally ill. People go through superhero challenges all the time and every day, they manage to overcome them. There are so many beautiful stories on earth that need to be told, of real people and real situations. And I love telling those stories.

That makes it interesting for an audience, since they can identify with the characters they see on the screen.

Yes, I don’t want my characters to be perfect, but for people to be relatable, with their flaws. In terms of being an actress, what I gravitate towards is human flaws. They define us as human beings and they can be the beautiful part in the painting that we are, and the beautiful colors. Those are the wonderful things that make something art and makes human beings art in their own form—the imperfections in life.

Production still from “Two Ways Home” starring Tanna Frederick and Tom Bower. Photograph: courtesy of TWO WAYS HOME

What exactly did you have to do as a producer? Strictly finance the film?

Everything—finding the crew, getting the funds, location scouting, casting. We cast all over the state of Iowa, I think we ended up auditioning close to five hundred actors which is quite a bit. Iowa is a pretty large state and there were a lot of people who were very eager and exited to make the film or to be part of it. So going back and forth between Los Angeles and our casting director in Iowa sending us tapes of the actors, that was a lot of work. And it was crazy weather when we were shooting—sometimes when were down there filming, it got pretty cold while some days it was really hot. My dad actually helped me produce the film and that was really neat too, because the story is an intergenerational story. That’s a very important sort of Midwestern value: part of the Midwestern value system is generations and keeping families going, and passing things on to the next generations. My father has always been there since I was a kid acting. When I was in fourth grade and I wanted to start acting, he encouraged me and never said it was a stupid idea, he never told me I was crazy for going after that pursuit. He drove me around when I went to different colleges for theater scholarships. When I first drove my car out here from Iowa and it broke down, both my parents were on the phone with me, I’m really lucky to have such supportive parents. It’s so rare when you’re an artist, I think. So my father helped me produce this film as well, doing the smallest things from running and getting Subway sandwiches to writing checks. It was a really beautiful experience in that sense as well.

Has it been easy to fund your projects as a producer?

No, not at all. But I think that all of the projects that are under $2 million end up garanteeing that what is going to come through on the screen is going to be your heart. The more money you get—and we all like more money for movies obviously, I don’t choose to run after fundings, so hopefully I will get to a place where I don’t have to worry about that—but when you make it for such a small budget, you heart manifests itself through the screen because there aren’t layers of budget in which your vision can disappear through. Because you are doing everything yourself, you are looking over every single aspect. While you may be running yourself into the ground, you do retain a sort of authenticity to what you’re creating and to what you set out to do, and you’re not answering to other people necessarily, to a studio system or a lot of financers. You’re doing something because you don’t expect any money from it [laughs], you are making the picture because you want the message behind it to get through. You do the art, you’re doing the film because you have to do it from your soul and not because you got hired to do it. Those are different stakes to work than being hired for a film or being given a large budget for a film.

Since you worked on a tight budget, did you also hire and work with non-professional actors?

My intention was to employ actors from Iowa who work really hard, I wanted to highlight the talented actors in the Midwest. My family is in the background in some of the scenes, just to help out, but other than that, I was really focusing on the talent in the Midwest that sometimes can be overlooked there—sometimes because of us being too LA centric. Sometimes the film industry is overlooking that big trunk in the Midwest.

Could we talk about your craft as an actress, like how do you work on your lines, or how do you prepare them?

It’s different with every project. I just finished “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” a John Patrick Shanley play. We ran it for seven months out here, Carl Weathers directed it and I actually produced that as well. It was a really scary piece to produce because it’s a period piece that has been done all the time and it just had all sorts of traps involved, but it turned out really well. Because I graduated from the University of Iowa with an emphasism in playwriting, I believe the text is the thing, the words are the thing, I don’t want to miss the cadence of the words or the syntax of the dialogue. That’s what the author gives to you as a present. So when I’m doing a play, I want to be text perfect, and in film as well. When I ran the play, up to seven months before, I was running the dialogue twice with my actor before every single show. The show was an hour long, and then I would get to the theater three hours early and go through the dialogue twice before every show. Maybe that’s a little bit weird [laughs]. I think it’s kind of a thing where I can’t or don’t want to mess up the dialogue which is the most important thing of a play, especially when it’s been done for so long. Keeping that intact is my first priority. With theater it’s easier than in film—you get more chances in theater to go over and over it.

“Train to Zakopané” (2018), so far Tanna Frederick’s latest film written and directed by Henry Jaglom.

And when you do performance after performance, does your character go through a sort of an evolution?

That’s the beauty of theater, and one of the trickiest things as an artist, because you’re working with something that is not tangible. You’re working as a human being with emotions, with your own physical and mental state starting out at one point. As you get through a show, it’s making this arch and then you’re going to a completly different place by the end of the show. It’s really difficult and important to try and stay on track the entire time and keep the play consistent—the consistency is so difficult when we’re constantly changing. Also, the audiences are different every single night, it’s different on a Sunday when you have an older audience versus a Friday when you might have a younger audience, or a Saturday when some had wine before and are settling in. So you have all of these variables and you have to maintain the control. It’s interesting and it keeps me on my toes. And when I did “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” Carl was actually an amazing director in the sense that he came to every single show that we did—every single show he was sitting out in the audience for seven months.

Did he give you any feedback?

He just kept coming and he kept pushing us, it was almost like a boxing match, like he was the coach every single night. ‘Get back in there, you haven’t quite hit it yet, you weren’t in the zone yesterday, push yourself harder’—constantly recrafting and perfecting the show. He’s an extreme perfectionist in a fascinating way. As a director, it was the first play that he had directed, and the show was so physical. It was actually based on a French dance from the 1920s which was very physical and violent—men slap the women on the floor and drag them by their hair, women kick men and slap their faces, things like that, it’s like a back and forth struggle—it looks very violent but it’s a very passionate and a very well choreographed dance. I ended up cracking four teeth. You sort of lose yourself in the piece and in the moment, but those kind of war wounds so to speak are very worth it in the end, so theater is endlessly fascinating to me.

When appearing in front of the camera, do you need a lot of takes?

Henry always says I’m my best on my first take. Some of the other directors I’ve worked with, say that as well. But somehow—and I don’t know why—I feel like it’s the first and the seventh take [laughs], if we go to a seventh take. Of course, with independent films it’s better to be great on the first take because sometimes you don’t have the budget for more than three takes, so if I’m technically correct, it’s good if the first one is my best.

Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992). Photograph: Film Talk Archive

And when you’re on the set, you’re in character, you think about your scene and your lines, do you also pay attention to the camera, the lighting, etc.?

Always. That’s why I’m so inspired by the films of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the films they made in the 1930s and 1940s. I love reading literature about that era and women like Marlene Dietrich or Barbara Stanwyck who always knew exactly where the lights were, where the camera was, they always knew where to stand—sometimes to the detriment of the other actors in the scene—they always knew how to nail it on the first take, they knew what was going on. So being aware of that is so crucial and so important. They knew how to be divas, they knew how to be positioned correctly, but also could back that up doing the work necessary to allow them to be divas, knowing everything to be perfect.

Marlene Dietrich was nurtured by her mentor Joseph von Sternberg. Did you also have that experience for “Hollywood Dreams” for example?

When I made “Hollywood Dreams” with Henry, it took a whole year before we shot it, but that year Henry was kind of like von Sternberg in a sense. He had seen some of my plays and small films that I had done, and he was really shaping me to be the lead. We were writing that film together, we were casting together, and he was so hands-on and was crafting me as the character and as an actress in real life, picking out wardrobe and colors for me in a passionate, loving and artistic way. The year before, he had me watch three films a day from the 1930s and 1940s. It doesn’t show so much in the film, but my character was obsessed with the films from that era. I had never seen too many of the films from those days, but for a whole year basically I just shoved that material down my throat—all of the actors, actresses, and reading about it—just to prepare for the role. While Henry was getting me ready for the role of Margie in the film, sometimes I would get frustrated, because I was watching all these films and at that time didn’t have a script to go by. At one point, I thought, ‘Is this film ever going to get made?’ In the meantime I was still going to class and did theater, but in a way I was also taking a year off. But once we started filming, somehow I was able to pull off this character somewhat reminiscent of the actresses of the 1930s and 1940s. My character wanted to be like that in her soul, she had a historical sort of emotional tie to all those films. But even though I love films, I can’t tell you that it turned out one of the best year of my life, sitting and watching three films a day from Hollywood’s Golden Age [laughs].

Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990). Photograph: Film Talk Archive

Yet, it was a great performance, wasn’t it? And how do you know that it’s not too much, too less, too fast, or too slow?

You know, that’s one thing I will never figure out, but I’m okay with that. And that’s why I will never direct my own work. I feel to this day, if I’m truly in the moment, I can’t tell if it’s too small or too big, and I probably think it’s best that I don’t know, so I won’t be analyzing my own performance. I know if I’m authentic or emotionally in the scene, the director can say, ‘That’s too big, let’s pull it back halfway,’ or ‘That’s too small, can you just amp it up a little bit?’ But I never know. I just got back from shooting “South of Hope Street” in Switzerland with Jane Spencer, a great female director, and that’s the trust you need to have with a director. You just need to have a wonderful director there when you’re able to lose yourself in a scene, then step out of it and ask, ‘How was that?’ When I do a scene, the emotional reality is always within me, and then I always like to count on the director to say what he or she needs in the course of the whole film. Jane said she had already the whole movie edited in her mind, so I would say, ‘What do you want? Whatever you need, I’ll give you.’

Santa Monica, California
March 25, 2019

[The theatrical trailer of “Two Ways Home”]

FILMS

FIRST IMPRESSIONS (2003) DIR – SCR Barton Caplan PROD – CAM Richard A. Eisenstein ED Richie Edelson MUS Jeff MacDonald CAST Barton Caplan, Gary Ballard, Tanna Frederick (Madison), Kiva Dawson, LoriDawn Messuri, Sheena Chou

INESCAPABLE (2003) DIR – SCR – ED Helen Lesnick PROD Valerie Pinchey CAM Jessica Gallant MUS Kelly Neill CAST Natalie Anderson, Tanna Frederick (Susan), Athena Demos, Katie Grant

HOLLYWOOD DREAMS (2006) DIR – SCR – ED Henry Jaglom PROD Rosemary Marks CAM Alan Caudillo MUS Harriet Schock CAST Tanna Frederick (Margie Chizek), Justin Kirk, David Proval, Zack Norman, Melissa Leo, Karen Black, Keaton Simons, Eric Roberts, Seymour Cassel, Sally Kirkland, Sabrina Jaglom, Henry Jaglom, Katharine Kramer

THE HOSTEL POET (2007) DIR – SCR Brian Mahlum PROD Brian Mahlum, Jon C. Carlson CAM Jon C. Carlson ED Erick Ferman, Brad M. Bucklin CAST Brian Mahlum, Dinah Leffert, Tanna Frederick (Freyda), Libby George, Salvatore Porcu, Charles Gorgano, Jona Aguire

RISING SHORES (2007) DIR Kavi Raz PROD Kavi Raz, Hassan Jahan SCR Kavi Raz, Parvin Syal, Harshi Syal-Gill CAM Roy Kurtluyan ED Erick Ferman, Karl W. Lohninger, Iris Karina CAST Devin Anand, Sanjay, Ajay Vidure, Gugun Deep Singh, Kavi Raz, Tanna Frederick (Stephanie), Erica Grant, Kavita Patil

IRENE IN TIME (2009) DIR – SCR – ED Henry Jaglom PROD Rosemary Marks CAM Hanania Baer MUS Harriet Schock CAST Tanna Frederick (Irene Jensen), Andrea Marcovicci, Victoria Tennant, Karen Black, Lanre Idewu, Jack Maxwell, Zack Norman, Sabrina Jaglom, Simon Orson Jaglom, Louise Stratten

QUEEN OF THE LOT (2010) DIR – SCR Henry Jaglom PROD Rosemary Marks CAM Hanania Baer ED Ron Vignone MUS Harriet Schock CAST Tanna Frederick (Maggie Chase), Noah Wyle, Christopher Rydell, David Proval, Zack Norman, Paul Sand, Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Christopher, Jack Heller, Mary Crosby, Sabrina Jaglom, Simon Orson Jaglom

JUST 45 MINUTES FROM BROADWAY (2012) DIR – SCR Henry Jaglom PROD Rosemary Marks CAM Nancy Schreiber, Hanania Baer ED Ron Vignone CAST Tanna Frederick (Pandora Isaacs), Judd Nelson, Jack Heller, Diane Salinger, David Proval, Julie Davis, Harriet Schock, Mary Crosby, Simon Orson Jaglom, Sabrina Jaglom, Jack Quaid

THE M WORD (2014) DIR Henry Jaglom PROD Rosemary Marks SCR – ED Henry Jaglom, Ron Vignone CAM Hanania Baer CAST Tanna Frederick (Moxie Landon), Michael Imperioli, Corey Feldman, Frances Fisher, Gregory Harrison, Mary Crosby, Eliza Roberts, Zack Norman, Ron Vignone, Simon Orson Jaglom, Harriet Schock, David Proval

OVATION (2015) DIR Henry Jaglom PROD Rosemary Marks SCR Henry Jaglom, Ron Vignone CAM Hanania Baer ED Ron Vignone CAST Tanna Frederick (Maggie Chase), James Denton, Stephanie Fredricks, Cathy Arden, Simon Jaglom, Zack Norman, Brandon Kirk, Diane Salinger, Ron Vignone, Sabrina Jaglom, David Proval

THE BANDIT HOUND (2016) DIR Michelle Danner PROD Michelle Danner, Alexandra Guarnieri, Brian Drillinger SCR Matt Lutz CAM Federico Verardi ED Teferi Seifu, Scott Young, Miguel Valdez Ferrari MUS Kazimir Boyle CAST Catherine Bell, Judd Nelson, Lou Ferringo, Paul Sorvino, Jim O’Heir, Vernie Troyer, Nicholas Alexander, Tanna Frederick (Celia Starr)

TRAIN TO ZAKOPANÉ (2018) DIR Henry Jaglom PROD Ron Vignone SCR Henry Jaglom (also play) CAM Christopher C. Pearson ED Ron Vignone CAST Tanna Frederick (Katia Wampusyk), Mike Falkow, Kelly De Sarla, Jeff Elam, Stephen Howard, Cathy Arden, Simon M. Jaglom

TWE WAYS HOME (2019) DIR Ron Vignone PROD Tanna Frederick, Ron Vignone, Kimberly Busbee SCR Richard Schinnow CAM Christopher C. Pearson ED Kate Noonan MUS Kevin Brough CAST Tanna Frederick (Kathy), Tom Bower, Joel West, Shanda Lee Munson, Rylie Behr, Pat Frey, Kim Grimaldi, Elizabeth Bauman

SOUTH OF HOPE STREET (2019) DIR – SCR Jane Spencer PROD Jane Spencer, Clare Cahill, Jacqui Miller, Danijela Jasprica CAM Frank Glencairn ED Patricia Rommel MUS Marcel Vaid, Marc Holthuizen, Matteo Pagamici CAST Judd Nelson, Michael Madsen, Craig Conway, Gianin Loffler, Jack McEvoy, Elana Krausz, Meredith Ostrom, Tanna Frederick (Denise), Wendy Thomas

VR SERIES

DEFROST: THE VIRTUAL SERIES (2019) DIR – SCR Randal Kleiser PROD Tanna Frederick, Randal Kleiser CAM Christopher C. Pearson ED Kevin Joseph Barrett, Matt LaCorte, Alicia Cota MUS Greg O’Connor CAST Bruce Davison, Harry Hamlin, Tanna Frederick (Beverly Joan Perez), Carl Weathers, Veronica Cartwright, Ethan Rains, Christopher Atkins, Clinton Valencia, Ron Vignone