Tanna Frederick: Going the Distance
by Dianne Lawrence
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Tanna Frederick is a shining example of the ‘Just Do It!’ philosophy required to succeed in one of the most competitive fields in the world, acting in Hollywood. Stuck as an actress/waitress in Mason City, Iowa, Tanna embarked on a letter-writing campaign to directors in Hollywood in an effort to wedge her foot in a door, any door. Henry Jaglom, a big supporter of beautiful smart women with chutzpah, responded. A few years later, Tanna was starring in the first of several films for Henry and gathering enthusiastic reviews from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and the LA Weekly. She also received a best acting award at the Montana Film Festival. Tanna’s “go get ‘em” spirit extends into activism. She created the Iowa Independent Film Festival and co-founded the Make a Wave Project, an annual surfing event that raises money for the Oceana Foundation. Are we exhausted yet? She’s just getting going. Tanna has a daunting physical regime of running, surfing, and tae kwon do. The world of Hollywood, closed to so many, appears to be Tanna’s oyster.
Dianne Lawrence: Before we begin I have to disclose that I appeared in a Henry Jaglom film.
Tanna Frederick: Which one!?
DL: Someone to Love. I was one of the people he interviewed about being single. I’d met him at a party and instantly got into an argument with him. I thought, “He thinks he knows everything, but I know everything!”
TF: [laughing] That’s the way to get cast in his movies!
DL: You know you are single-handedly responsible for directors being inundated by fan letters from aspiring actresses.
TF: I know! I was hesitant to tell that story because Henry got a billion letters from actresses telling him they loved his film and that he was completely brilliant.
DL: But it really wasn’t as simple as him getting a letter, being flattered and putting you in a film.
TF: No, it was a much longer process than that. I was writing a lot of letters at the time and trying different angles, because I figured in Hollywood you have to be creative. The casting process isn’t the end all and be all. I had actually written Steven Soderbergh eight or nine letters. It was really pathetic, but I was desperate and waiting on tables so I thought, “Why not just go for it?”
DL: Good for you! You were being proactive and marketing!
TF: [laughing] Well, it could have been considered stalking, as well. By the eighth letter, I figured his office wasn’t getting them, or he was throwing them away, so I just kept sending the same eighth letter for months every other week. I put the letters out there to others, as well, and although Steve never called, who should call me back but Henry. We got into an argument [laughter], and I thought he was a total nutcase, but something about him was very endearing as well. Then he invited me to a screening of A Festival in Cannes.
DL: Had you seen any of his films before?
TF: No, but when I did sit in the screening room on Sunset and watched this film, I was just beside myself. It really was a big moment for me because I’ve done lots of theatre and certain things he did, just fit. I was really blown away. So we continued to talk on the phone and he sent me more films, his usual routine with other actresses. Loved some of them, liked some of them.
At the time, I really needed a job, because I’d been fired from one of my waitress jobs, and he suggested I come and help out at his office. He was getting ready for the premiere of A Festival in Cannes and told me I could put up window cards so I hung up window posters in every neighborhood in Los Angeles. He had never seen me act so while I was working there he gave me a play he’d written called A Safe Place and suggested I do a scene from it for acting class. I thought it was a golden opportunity, because he hadn’t done any plays, so I found a company to produce it, and it ran out here for three months.
DL: Wow. That took some chutzpah.
TF: It took a long time, too, because I approached probably 12 different theaters and finally Camelot Artists produced it. It was a great hazing experience, because Henry is a very different personality than when he’s working on a film. Much more particular and structured, giving notes after.
DL: Did he direct it?
TF: No but he came to almost every performance and gave notes. “You can’t say ‘a’ when it says ‘the’!” It was fascinating.
DL: Because most of his films are improvised.
TF: Yeah! He approached me at the beginning of the run and told me he wanted me to be the lead in his next movie so it was really helpful going through the process with that stickler personality side of him. When I got to the set it was more freeing. I had expected it to be more rigid than it really was.
DL: So you survived the trial by fire. He’s been using you a lot.
TF: Yeah. He’s close to finishing the editing of Irene in Time. Andrea Marcovicci plays my mother, and she’s amazing in it, a beautiful talented woman. I look up to her a lot. I have a film festival in Iowa that I started last year, the Iowa Independent Film Fesitval, so we’re going to show a rough cut screening there and I imagine the film will be released in the fall. We’re also filming a sequel to Hollywood Dreams called Queen of the Lot, starring Noah Wyle, with the same people from the original film, David Proval, Karen Black.
DL: You are clearly living one of the great American dreams. Small-town, talented beauty finds a director to champion her, moves to Hollywood, stars in his plays and films. From the time you wrote the letter to the time you were starring in the film was maybe what, a two- or three-year period, and you’ve been working ever since. Is this a surprise for you or did you sit around as a young kid and visualize all this.
TF: Yes, it’s an American dream, but I’m also blessed with that insane Iowa work ethic where you just relentlessly work. I’ve never considered myself a lucky person, just someone who works really really hard and then the opportunities manifest themselves. I was valedictorian of my liberal arts class and president of Phi Beta Kappa but all those things I worked so hard for.
DL: Yes but I’ve seen talented people work very hard but they just don’t get the opportunities.
TF: Well, one thing Henry said to me during some of my difficult first years, when no one was casting me, was that the people who persevere are the ones who get the opportunities. If you hang in there, you will inevitably make it, be a part of the community, get work, be known. It’s endurance. I think that’s so true. It takes a good solid seven, eight years to get that opportunity. I was doing crazy things trying to hustle up work and I knew that eventually something would happen. I was always confident that I would land where I needed to be. It was scary not knowing what that would be and I was lucky that I got there and there’s so much work left to be done. There were times when I couldn’t imagine something good happening but you push that aside because there’s something deeper that just knows to keep going and you just don’t give yourself an out.
DL: What was the most unexpected thing you discovered about Hollywood?
TF: I didn’t expect the diverse terrain, the desert, ocean, Big Bear. I was also most surprised by the fact that people speak so negatively about Hollywood personalities and that if you come here you’ll get involved in drugs. But when I got out here I went into a bar and was shocked. No one was really drinking. I discovered that everyone is in AA. I was surprised by how healthy and low-key people actually are. And the other thing that pleasantly surprised me was how much like a small town it is. It seems like everyone knows everyone else, and people who are working in those upper echelons are so nice. There’s a sense of community and family. I thought people would be cold and shut off but as I continue to work it reminds me of my big huge family in Iowa. People are really open.
DL: And one can continually meet incredible people doing interesting things.
TF: It’s very inspiring.
DL: And what is the most unsettling or disturbing aspect about Hollywood?
TF: Not to alienate anyone but the most disturbing thing is the issue of women’s identity, self-esteem, self-value and the whole age thing. The idea that you have to lie about your age or that some ages are unacceptable, seems ridiculous. I was really fortunate in growing up with a mother who was very positive about her body image and herself and loving every change with every year. She really embraces her own sexiness and intelligence. I understand the need to get facelifts, if it makes you happy and improves things but sometimes I wonder if some of it isn’t just covering up a lack of self worth. Anouk Aimee, a French actress who appeared in Fellini’s 8 1/2 and also in Festival at Cannes, is as sexy now as she was when she was in her twenties. Maybe sexier. It’s probably more of a European thing but she is unapologetic. I love that.
DL: My theory about aging is a good haircut, a good car, a good wardrobe and your done. For every wrinkle something new gets fixed on the car!
TF: [laughing] Perfect!
DL: What is the most joyful thing you’ve discovered about Hollywood?
TF: The endless opportunities. There’s no “no” out here. If you are ambitious and have energy, then you can pretty much try anything.
DL: What kind of films and roles do you aspire to?
TF: Everything. Right now, I’m working on a script that Charlie Eastman wrote with his sister, who wrote Five Easy Pieces. It’s a fascinating script and different from what I’ve been doing. The role is a strong, powerful woman lawyer. But I’d like to try everything. I like changing my perspective of life through a character. I’m always reading books that I might want to adapt into screenplays, reading new scripts. People are starting to send me things and what’s nice about it is that they are really diverse characters and really intelligent roles. I thought I might be pigeonholed into a kind of ditzy neurotic actress type.
DL: You have quite a few physical disciplines, tae kwon do, surfing. Do you think that helped with your focus and confidence? That if you work hard enough it pays off?
TF: That’s an interesting point. As a kid, I watched my parents train and run five or six marathons and those things really inform you. I knew that they would finish the marathon. I ran a marathon when I got here, and it paralleled my life. You think that you can’t do it, but if you keep running, you will finish the marathon. It’s pretty simple, but then people start telling you how hard it is and are amazed you are even trying. Once those voices got in my head, I’d notice my knees hurting. It’s the same thing out here. After being here for three or four years, my relatives would start telling me, “Oh, it must be so hard for you,” and those negative messages can sidetrack you. If you just don’t pay attention to them, then you can accomplish things. A lot of being an actor in the first stages is shutting out the negativity from people around you.
DL: What’s your current physical regime?
TF: I surf. It’s so therapeutic.
DL: Where do you surf?
TF: All over. I just go every single morning. I’m really addicted to it. Even if the conditions are bad, you have to keep working at it.
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