Tanya Wright Talks About True Blood’s Kenya and Butterly Rising

October 15, 2010 by  

Tanya Wright on Red Pillows

If you ever want to have a great, intelligent and fun conversation with an actor we highly recommend talking to Tanya Wright who plays True Blood‘s Sherriff’s Department Officer Kenya. Tanya has had a fascinating life and knows the entertainment business inside out from acting, to producing to writing-she’s done it all and best of all, she’s not afraid to color outside the box. So get out your Crayola’s guys… and enjoy our conversation with Ms. Wright!

Tanya’s Early Years

TBN: Reading your bio it states that you grew up in the Bronx, New York and then earned scholarships to George School in Pennsylvania, a Quaker boarding school. Then you completed an independent/writing major at Vassar College.
Can you tell us a little bit about those early years?  How did a girl from the Bronx end up at a Quaker Boarding school?

TW: First let me say that a lot of people get Quaker and Amish confused and they are not the same thing. In fact, I was on the subway the other day and some Amish people came on the subway. It could be like a scene out of a movie with New York and its gritty streets and then these people come in with bonnets and these mid 18th century garb and it was so funny. I was watching peoples’ reactions to the Amish people but for me it was like “OK, these people are Amish and I’m familiar with that world”. Quaker is very different. Quakers are very much a part of contemporary society and they are conscientious objectors. They are plain people and they are called plain people in that they are very simple living and they believe the light of God exists equally in everyone. It was a great way to grow up. It’s very different, obviously, from the Bronx, from the mean streets of the Bronx, to this Quaker boarding school existence with rolling lawns. We called our teachers by their first name. We wore Birkenstocks and it was all very crunchy granola. It is still the basis from which I live my life. I do sometimes have difficulty in Hollywood because there is no hierarchy in the Quaker religion and there is aggressive hierarchy in Hollywood and I just didn’t grow up that way.

TBN: How did you end up going there?

TW: I received a scholarship. My sister and I got a scholarship for academic achievement and we went there for 4 years. It was a wonderful, great experience.

TBN: So you got to go with your sister so it made it nicer.

TW: (laughing) The sibling rivalry was pretty hard core so we didn’t speak to each other in high school but we are really good friends now.

TBN: Growing up did you always dream of pursuing an acting career or was it secondary to writing? What was the driving force to make the transition from writing to acting?

TW: It was secondary to acting yes. Writing is what I always wanted to do. I think that I was, if I am honest with myself, scared to admit that I wanted to be an actor too, because that would require other things of me. It would require me speaking in public which is something that I really didn’t do much as a child. I was very shy and acting is just putting myself out there in a way that writing didn’t require of you. Acting was the thing that scared me a little bit more than writing and writing was the thing that sort of carried me on. There was no transition–, it was more like inclusion. from one to the other—from acting to writing I do both I included acting, writing in my acting. It was sort of both.
TBN: What was your very first performance and how did it go?

TW: Oh my God! My very first performance was as the little birch tree. I played the little birch tree. I had no lines. Not one line. I just stood on the stage and I remember it vividly! Looking down at people and I was just the birch tree standing on the stage from beginning to end. And I guess I was hooked.

TBN: That was a perfect beginning, especially if you are afraid to speak, a non speaking role.

TW: A non speaking role. That was a great question, no one has ever asked me that.

TBN: Did you start off on stage in New York or go directly to LA to start your acting career?

TW: Yes I did. I spent some time at the williamstown theatre festival in Massachusetts before I went to Los Angeles.

TBN: What were some of the plays that you did?

TW: We did a play called “Orestes” and “Twelfth Night”. We did some play with “Hanging Woman” and we work shopped “Othello”.

TBN: That doesn’t sound like a very upbeat play.

TW: What, “Othello”?

TBN: No, no, “Hanging Woman” .

TW: No it wasn’t. This man literally had women hanging off him. Not like hanging by a rope!

Tanya is a Multi-talented Force of Nature!

TBN: Your screenplays have been critically acclaimed! “A Turn to Grace,” was a semi-finalist in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual Nicholl’s Screenwriting Competition and “Prelude to a Revolution” accepted and performed by the Mark Taper Forum’s Blacksmyth’s Playwriting Program. Can you tell us what these plays were about?

TW: “A Turn to Grace” is a screenplay and it was one of my early screenplays. A friend of mine in Hollywood read it and she suggested I enter it into the Nicholl’s Screenwriting Competition. I had no idea what it was or who was doing it or how competitive it was. I was a semifinalist in that. “Prelude to a Revolution” is a play I wrote along the lines of a play called for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enough. It doesn’t have a conventional structure. It is music and dance and poetry, but it’s all a story.

TBN: Not only do you act, and are a successful screenwriter, but now you are also developing a children’s cartoon?  Can you tell us about it?

TW: Yes it’s one of the things that I have been working on, a children’s cartoon.

TBN: So has it been sold yet, or is it still in development?

TW: No it still is in development.

TBN: And do you want to tell us what it’s about? Or do you prefer not to?

TW: It’s called “Mikey and the Fabulous Fear Fighters”. That’s all I’ll say right now.

TBN: What was your favorite role played in television or film, besides “True Blood”?

TW: There was a Mini Series I did years ago called “Mama Flora’s Family which was Alex Haley’s last book. It was shot on location in Atlanta with Cicely Tyson and Blair Underwood and Queen Latifah. I would say that would be my favorite role because I had to age from 15 to age 37.

TBN: What actor would you want to work with?

TW: Sean Penn. He’s divine. There is a scene in “Mystic River” that’s just like geez…. He is present as an actor. I would love to work with him.

Tanya Talks True Blood

Tanya Wright as True Blood KenyaTBN: What do you think about your character in the book vs. the show?

TW: I like that the TV show is sort of doing its own thing with Kenya. It’s different but the genesis of her is the same. What’s great about the show is that the writers and producers are good at scratching the surface of the actors that play the roles and letting them go a little bit.

TBN: I just have to tell you that Kenya is one of my favorite characters. I’m ex-military and so to see another woman being the strong arm character is great.

TW: She is way tougher than me.

TBN: She’s the toughest one in the whole Bon Temps Department, except for Jason who isn’t really….

TW: He’s a hot mess, the hottest….

TBN: So far, what’s been the most rewarding and the most challenging aspect of working on “True Blood?”

TW: Well what’s rewarding is that the people there are so enormously talented. I would say that constantly in interviews, the cast I think overwhelmingly is an extraordinary group of people. I think when a show is successful it has a lot to do with the people who work on it. The people: meaning the crew, and the producers, and writers, and actors. It’s like the stars have to align in some way. Everyone contributes to this show in an extraordinary way and they are the most talented group of individuals I’ve worked with and I have worked with some pretty big shows before. I think that they are talented, they are funny, and they’re kind. You can’t ask for a better work situation than that. And then you get to play in this heightened reality where people are biting and they are turning into werewolves. You get to say these firecracker lines and you are like, “they are actually gonna say this on television? Wonderful!” So it’s a lot of fun for an actor. A lot of fun.

TBN: What would you like to see develop for your character?

TW: I would love to see little Miss Kenya put in situations where she is forced to believe. You know where something is happening right before her eyes and she can’t be dismissive as she has been about some things. Where she’s really forced to deal with something that she has experienced in this world of vampires and we see her change because she has to.

TBN: When you said that I thought, “Yeah she has been in denial and is the salt of the earth.” That would be interesting. I’m sure in the 22 years that the show is going to run that they’ll have time to do that.

TW: (laughing) 22 years? From your lips……

TBN: See, I envision Kenya actually as forcing reality to meet her vision instead of….

TW: I love that! I love that.

TBN: Like Tara would still see the pig and the naked woman and Kenya will see the pig.

TW: That would be hysterical!

Butterfly Rising cover artwork

Doing Things the Wright Way

TBN: What inspired you to write “Butterfly Rising”?

TW: Well, I was listening to an Aretha Franklin song one day at the beach with a friend, and I was listening to the words of the song. Together they made the composite of a woman. Boy, it would be really interesting to tell the whole story of this woman with the lyrics of this song. So that was the jumping off point for me. Then I went in my brain and made the woman into two women. I was really inspired by her music. Music is definitely what inspired the movie and definitely the book. The book is written in a sort of lyrical fashion I think.

TBN: It’s interesting that by splitting her into two people you allowed her to have conversations with herself. Who or what did you base the characters Lilah Belle and Rose on?

TW: I think that they are composites of everyone and no one. They are composites of similarities of me and sort of opposites of me. I would say that Rose and Lilah, and I could have played either role, but I chose to play Rose because I was more interested in playing that role just as an actor. But they are opposites in many ways. Rose is a woman who is fiercely independent. She has a torrid reputation with other women’s’ husbands in this small town. She is fierce and sort of actually quite masculine characteristics and aggressively sexual. Lilah Belle is just the opposite. Her brother just dies which is something that I can definitely relate to. She is a singer that doesn’t actually sing anymore when we meet her in the movie because her grief is so overwhelming. She’s odd, she dances in the streets, and she dresses strange. She is just on a different rhythm in this small town. These two women are thrown together by circumstances. They have to make a hasty retreat out of town. And they set out on the open road to find a better life for themselves.

TBN: If they are like you and not like you, are you the one dancing in the street?

TW: Sure, there’s a part of me that would like to dance in the street. I don’t literally dance in the street. I would say that there’s a lot that goes on in my mind that I don’t necessarily live out in my life. My life is simple actually. But I have a very vivid imagination.

TBN: Did you have any challenges in writing the book or directing the film? What were they?

TW: No more challenges than are normal. I do well with challenges. I certainly don’t invite them but I don’t get all crazy about them. So I just, if it’s a challenge I just take it in bite size pieces and I don’t try and solve the whole problem in a second. I just have to take a step, deal with that step, and when that step is taken care of then I move on to the next step. Then ultimately I find myself on the other side of the problem. That’s a good thing.

TBN: What do you hope readers take away from the novel after reading the final page?

TW: I hope that this novel inspires people to live their dream. After my brother died about six years ago, his death inspired me to get on with the business of living my life in the way that I wanted to do it. That’s why I write the book, and made the movie. These were all things that were percolating in my mind and quite frankly I hadn’t cultivated the courage to do it. Then he died and you sit with yourself for a while and you try to figure out well if your time is over tomorrow what do you want to be doing? And then I got to writing.

TBN: How long did it take you to write the book?

TW: I write in a slightly obsessive fury. So the first draft of the book took me 30 days. I keep a very aggressive schedule, where I don’t talk to anyone, I do not eat, I do not see anyone, I do not talk on the phone, nothing. All I do is eat, sleep, breathe, think. I put myself on a schedule and I got through it. For me, it’s important as a writer to get through the first draft because you can make a lot of excuses not to. Now as far as the rewriting is concerned, it took several months, but I got my thoughts on the page in 30 days after I had an outline in my mind.

TBN: So you mentally outlined everything and then went back and wrote it? I know some people write everything down on cards or… everyone has their own method. Was it hard to get a publisher or since you are well known for certain things was it easier?

TW: I didn’t shop for a publisher. I self-published this book. I did not approach a publisher at any time. It wasn’t something that – I just didn’t see the point – I just wanted to get the book out. I had a vision for it, the film was shot, I knew what I wanted to say, I knew how I wanted to do it, and if I involved other people and publishers, it was going to take a lot of time and be more involved and be a lot more complicated than this process needed to be. So I am so glad I did self publish. Next time around I do have an idea for a book , I probably would like to do it in a more conventional way. But I did this one in the down and dirty way, exactly how I wanted to do it. And it is incredible how well it has been received. I just found out that the book has been listed as one of the top 5 debut novels of 2010 by the Brooklyn Book Festival.

TBN: Wow! Congratulations!

TW: I’m really excited about that. There’s a stigma about self-publishing. I was vaguely aware of it, I’m not in the publishing industry per say. It’s just something that people are going to have to get used to, that publishing doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘oh because you didn’t get a publisher’, because I didn’t approach one ever. I got the very best people, as far as my editor is concerned and the people on my book team, who are the best at what they do. Highly experienced people who took me to task on the book and I liked it. It kept me sharp and I feel like I did it right. I thought about it for a while before I did it. But I had no interest in shopping the book. It just felt like that was going to zap my energy. I was less interested in approval and more interested in getting the book out to the people and let them decide. And I am over the moon about it.

TBN: Considering that if you had gone to a publisher your vision in the book could have been changed around, correct?

TW: I’m sure it would have been. I’m used to dealing with that in Hollywood which is why I didn’t even approach a publisher because I know what that means. It is as if I was in Hollywood and was an actor that didn’t have an agent. My agent legitimizes me. I’m no different an actor than I would be if I had an agent or didn’t have an agent. The world views me more legitimately if I have an agent. Certainly the world views me more legitimate if I am on a show that is successful. I know I just wasn’t interested in that, on this project. I just didn’t feel like it.

TBN: Publishers often give good feedback, but I have often felt like with people I know that are in the book industry. Years ago I ran the science fiction fantasy Guild website and it seemed to me a lot of times it was watered down so it was acceptable to so many people that it didn’t say as much anymore as an individual story so I’m glad to hear that you can self -publish and that you are really breaking some boundaries. That’s wonderful!

TW: And I wanted to do that. I wanted to break the boundaries. I wanted to do things in a way that was sort of unorthodox and say this is what an artist can do because the conventional modes of distribution are changing – books and music and movies – the way all these things are being distributed. So many new and exciting ways for an artist to reach its audience without a whole lot of – you know cultivate a relationship with your audience and let it be that instead of spending a lot of your time, energy, and attention in getting people to approve of you. It is so draining. It just didn’t interest me.

TBN: But I could definitely see Kenya self publishing.

TW: Yeah, yeah if need be…. (laughing)

TBN: So you wrote this as a book and then you decided to film it and you had already filmed other things. So was this a fairly easy step for you to make?

TW: I actually shot the movie before I wrote and published the book. I had shot a couple of other things, some book trailers and commercials, but I had never directed a feature film before. It was very familiar territory because I have been in this world since I was 17 so it’s really all I know. I was heartened that I had more knowledge of it, that I had more of it inside of me than I thought I did.

More True Blood Tidbits from Tanya

TBN: What might True Blood fans be surprised to know about Tanya Wright outside of the show?

TW: First that Tanya is nice. Kenya is pretty hard core, you know, and Tanya is much softer and more accepting and she doesn’t drink herself into furies when she loses promotions. I’m a pretty balanced girl and I live a pretty simple life. I think people are surprised that I write and have been writing since the beginning, even before I was acting. I am similar to Kenya in that I like to get things done and I‘m a pretty straight shooter. But I am not nearly as rigid as she is.

TBN: If Kenya died what would you want on her headstone?

TW: This is so funny because I was really thinking about the answer to this question and so I wrote a little ditty:

Miss Kenya was not a believer.
Andy’s promotion was one that had grieved her.
So she took to the bar,
Getting drunk wasn’t far,
Oh Kenya, that you were a believer.

You know, Kenya needs to believe.

TBN: That’s so great! Thank you no one has ever written us a poem before!

TBN: Do you have a favorite charity?

TW: I am actually sifting through charities now to see which one I would like to work with. I am most interested in 2 things: mentoring projects that have to do with young women, self-esteem and artists and independents. I’m very concerned with fellow artists, musicians, and actors, writers, poets, and cultivating art. You don’t have to be – How you can get your message out to the world in useful ways that can help you.

TBN: So are there organizations already set up like that and are you picking one or thinking of starting your own?

TW: Well, I teach this class called BUA-its “business of the unique artist”. Ultimately, I really admire what Robert Redford has done with his institute so I kind of have the idea to do something similar for artists with the focus on finances. I think that is – you know we don’t learn in high school, financial literacy is not something that is taught in school, unfortunately. Artists in particular sort of go around and there are so many talented people I know that are struggling. A lot of them really divorce art and commerce and that is that thing over there and it has nothing to do with art. It’s great that you are talented but you still need to pay the rent. You still have to eat. So you have to figure out how to do the thing that you love and make money doing it.

TBN: So are you interested in teaching them those sorts of things or actually setting up grants to help them?

TW: Well I do I teach BUA.

TBN: Right but are you interested in setting up an organization that would reach out to more artists?

TW: Yes, eventually I will.

TBN: Well, when you do that keep us in mind because we love to do charity stuff.

TW: Ok, I definitely will.

TBN: Do you twitter and would you like your fans to know what your twitter name is?

TW: Yes I twitter! Whoo Hoo! And I would love for them to know what my twitter name is. Its @tanyaTTwright

TBN: You know the fans love to talk to people on True Blood and they love it when people respond back. One thing we’ve found with the True Blood fans is that they have your back, put it that way. We say that your character can’t even die and get out of the True Blood Realm.

TW: That’s wonderful! That is great to hear!

TBN: They are very devoted and encouraging. Once they know your twitter they will be twittering to you. They want to know what are you doing, what is your next project, they really have your back basically. And associated with that, anything else you do, we are interested in promoting it. Your book, your movie, we are happy to promote anything you are doing. We put an article up last night on appearances, but any other appearances you are doing, any projects you are doing, anything else you are coming out with. Have your agent let us know or drop us a line or a tweet and we are happy to retweet it for you.

TW: I really appreciate that. We all really appreciate that. It’s the people who watch the show and are enthusiastic that have made it successful.

TBN: It’s kind of our thank you too because, for us, each of us were facing a lot of challenges at the time that True Blood came out. And we still are. It sort of helps us through the worst periods. It is very odd, it’s like all 3 of us were really, and I found that a lot of the other people that come to post on our website, some of them found that True Blood, how the acting, or it’s just something about the storyline, it really helped them through a lot of difficult times for some reason.

TW: That is so cool! In a way I’m not surprised about it because the person who helms this show, Alan Ball, has a very interesting quality about him that I don’t even know if he is aware of, that is really encompassing. And it shows in the cast and the crew and the actors that he has chosen to be part of this show. He really has a great, wonderful, generous spirit. I’m sure that it has to come through in the show.

TBN: It has really touched the fans hearts and really helped them through difficult times somehow.

TW: That is so cool. That I can be a part of that. That whole idea. That’s great!

Tanya Wright Looking Right At You

TBN: Has True Blood changed how you think about good and evil?

TW: No I would say it validates it in a way. I think that the show says that life is really grey. Life is lived in the grey. There is no good or bad, there is no dark or light, but that life is a lot more complicated than that. That dichotomy between positive and negative is really blurry. The judgment about things people, I don’t know like on what this country was founded, a lot of judgment happens. I think True Blood is a place that allows questions about judgment or differences about people. It helps get a dialogue going about it. I think the show has been useful in that way.

TBN: Are there any questions you would like to ask the fans?

TW: I would love to see what the fans would like to see of Kenya. I said I would love to see Kenya in a situation where she is forced to believe. I would also love to work with Nelsan Ellis. I think that would be an interesting dynamic between Kenya and Lafayette.

TBN: You are like the mother he needed to have.

TW: I know how he’d respond to that.

TBN: Not that his mother isn’t great. She is, but…

TW: But I would like to see what the fans would like to see for Kenya. What sort of situations they would like to see Kenya in and deal with.

TBN: Do you know when your film is being released yet?

TW: It is going to be released next year sometime. We are focusing on the book right now.

TBN: And do you think you are going to do the film festival route or wide release?

TW: I’m not sure yet.

Tanya’s “Butterfly Rising” Available for Auction!

TBN: Well thank you for the interview, it was very interesting listening to you talk and answering our questions. We really loved it.

TW: You guys had great questions.

TBN: I do have one more question, so I’m sorry, but would it be possible to do a giveaway of one of your books?

TW: Absolutely!

TBN: That would be great because right now we are working for the Amanda Foundation. They are an animal rescue in LA.

TW: Marcarena, my dog, is a rescue!

TBN: What kind of dog is Marcarena?

TW: She’s a black Labrador.

TBN: That would be perfect then. The money goes directly to the Amanda Foundation.

TW: Are you kidding? I would love to!!! Just send me the information where to send it to.

TBN: Well you have a great rest of the summer!

TW: Thank you I will. Thank you so much!

Talking to Tanya Wright was just a joy! We truly enjoyed the opportunity to speak with her. Before the interview even began, Tanya had many questions for us so that by the time we began the interview it felt more like a conversation than any other interview we’ve done. She’s a unique, inspiring and self-assured woman who walks the walk. We want to thank Tanya for taking the time to talk to us and for being so very, very patient while we prepared to auction her book. Please click HERE to bid on the autographed copy of Butterfly Rising. All proceeds go to benefit The Amanda Foundation!

Transcription credit: Jennifer Murillo

Photo Credits: Tanya Wright and HBO, Inc.

Screen Cap: James

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  • lizzie1701

    I wish Tanya well and hope her character gets a promotion and lightens up on the show!

    Thanks for posting, KS.