Bethany Rose chats with actress Adria Tennor
I recently spoke with actress, writer, director, producer, and restaurateur, Adria Tennor. We talked about her work in front of the camera, on stage, and behind the scenes, as well as her work at her two restaurants, barbrix and Cooks County.
Bethany Rose: You recently wrote, directed, and produced the short film Cracked. What inspired you to write this film, and what was it like working behind the camera?
Adria Tennor: I just thought it would make a really good short story. I don’t know why I felt like that. The story is about these two little kids, and you think at the beginning that they are friends or siblings, but kind of quickly you realize they are related in a really unique way. The little ten-year old boy is the little nine-year old girl’s uncle. Because he’s so much younger, and his life is pretty bleak, he has a much older mother, his father passed away, and he has this really intense time with his niece in the summer when they come to pick raspberries in the grandmother’s yard. And then there’s a long period of time where they don’t see each other. They see each other at the holidays. They break something when they are playing , and it seems inconsequential, but it just kind of comes back to haunt them. [The girl] does something really brave for her uncle.
A thing that inspired me to shoot this, is that I wrote it because I wanted to apply for the Women’s Directing Fellowship at AFI, and you need to submit a piece of work that you will work on. I wasn’t accepted. I had no experience, so I wasn’t surprised I didn’t get it. But just a few months ago I was auditioning for a play, and there was a little girl who was auditioning. Often you audition with another actor. They tell you, you’re going to audition this scene with this person,and then they give you a few minutes to read it over. I saw this little girl. I wasn’t paired with her, but I saw her meeting with some of the other women, and I saw that she was really special and really talented and it just immediately made me think of this piece that I had written and I thought, if I could have that girl in my movie, I could make my movie. You know, the other thing that was really challenging about this piece is that these two main characters are kids.
I went to Louisiana this past summer. I really wanted to learn how to produce, and I shadowed Doug Blake, who had produced The Sessions with John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. He wound up going to Louisiana where I have also been working lately. I have an agent there and she gets me a lot of local film work. There was an area I was already familiar with. I had a place to stay. So I went and I did that, and when I came back I felt that the next step for me was to make my own film, but I wanted to do something manageable. So I thought of this short film. I thought of that little girl. And I just went for it.
BR: You’re also in two upcoming films. Smothered is billed as a horror comedy and stars a few members of horror royalty. Tell me about your role in the film, and what makes it a horror comedy.
AT: That is the film that I shadowed. I was really there to be like an intern, but as soon as I got there they were throwing the ball at me and it was clear that I was not just an intern. [Laughs]. Thank goodness they saw that I was practicing producing, so they gave me the credit, which was lovely. And then there was the role. Everything was so last minute. The money came together last minute. The writer/director was John Schneider. He was a pretty full-time actor working on The Haves and Have Nots with Tyler Perry, so he kind of came in at the last minute because he was working. There was a role at the end of shooting that had not been cast yet, and I said, “John, I think you should,” it was the role of a dad, “make this the role of a mother and I should play it.” I wanted to be a part of the movie. So I had dual roles. I was an actor in the film, had a couple scenes, and I was Associate Producer of the film.
And it did have all of these amazing horror icons. It was fun to have them all there. And it was a pretty brilliant idea on John’s part. He knew all these guys. They all go and do these autograph signing conventions. It’s just funny because you’re there as a celebrity, and people want your autograph, but a lot of times you’re a celebrity but you’re living out of your car. And that’s what this movie is about. They are these supposedly “washed-up” horror icons—even though they’re not—going to this autograph signing, and they get invited to go haunt a trailer park, and they decide to go do it. No one wants their autograph. They’re not making any money at this horror convention, and they are the ones that end up getting haunted. The reason it is a horror comedy is because it’s funny. John has a terrific sense of humor. There’s a lot of smart humor to it. These guys are playing themselves. That’s the other part that makes it funny. We idolize them as these scary guys, but in reality they are pussycats and it’s hilarious. This big scary guy is, you know, afraid of the dark. It’s just funny.
BR: Another new film is D-Train, which is also filled with a talented cast and crew. Tell me about this film and your experience on the set.
AT: That was super fun. That was also shot down in Louisiana. And it stars Jack Black, James Marsden, Mike White, Kathryn Hahn, so amazing people. And the script is so good. It’s really funny. It’s written by Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, and they have written comedy for awhile. But this is their directorial debut as a partnership, as a team. Jack Black plays this guy who is under the radar in high school and has always been under the radar his whole life. Now he’s on the committee to plan his high school reunion and it’s his time to come out of the woodwork and create an amazing reunion. His idea is to get the most popular boy in school to come to the reunion, and [he is] played by James Marsden. And the story takes a really crazy, weird turn. It’s a little horrifying and a really uncomfortable turn.
I didn’t get to read the script before I auditioned. I didn’t read the script until I was on the plane ready to go shoot, which is a lot of times what happens, and I couldn’t believe that somebody, first of all, has the balls to write this, and second of all that somebody has the balls to make this movie. It’s so great. It’s so awkward and horrible, and true. Just really awesome. I just love that all these people were down for making this movie. Jack Black is so talented. We see him on the screen and we think, “Oh, that guy’s talented,” but to see him in person it’s like being on steroids. He’s such a great comedian, a great actor. I really, really respect him. He’s so sweet and so humble. And another nice surprise, because everything always happens at the last minute. Kathryn Hahn, is a friend of mine. She is a regular at our restaurants and I got to know her. We both had no idea that we were both shooting this movie, and then I was in the makeup trailer and she was in the makeup trailer and we were just like, “Oh my God!” So that was really fun, too. Often when you’re doing the supporting roles you feel like you’re the new girl in school because all the movie stars are kinda hanging out together, and you don’t want to impose on them. So it was really fun to have an ally, not that they weren’t allies, but just to have this person who was like, “Oh, this is Adria, I know you from L.A.” It was really nice.
BR: Along with your film work, you have been in an impressive amount of television shows. I always imagined it would be difficult work to do a guest role on a show, as the cast has had the time to know each other and work together weekly. For instance, you were in an episode of Monk that aired during that show’s last season, so a lot of the cast and crew had worked together for years by that point. What is it like, and how long does a typical episode’s filming take?
AT: Being a guest on a set for a week or ten days when shooting is very similar to a guest or supporting role on a movie where you’re not there for the whole four weeks or whatever the shooting schedule is.
You don’t want to intrude or impose. I feel they are being polite and giving you your space. It is interesting. The vibe of each show is totally different. There are sets I felt really welcome on, and sets that I just felt like, I cannot wait for this day to be over. I loved working on Monk. Tony Shalhoub was so gracious, and walked right over to me in the makeup trailer to say, “Thank you so much for doing this.” I was thankful to be on a show that was so successful for so long. That was a pretty intense thing. I had to be really in an emotional state [for the role], so there wasn’t a lot of socializing for me in between takes. But there’s other things I have done that have been totally easy. I worked on Crossing Jordan a long time ago and Jill Hennessy was so lovely, wanted to run lines, wanted to chat while we were sitting there. A lot of stuff happens in the makeup trailer. Jerry O’Connell was super lovely and nice. Most of the time people are nice.
This is funny but, one of the things I like about being a guest on a television show is that there is a lot of time where you’re sitting and waiting because you’re not in every scene, but you have to be there really early to get ready. You sit there for awhile, sometimes things just take longer. It’s just a nice time for me to do my own writing. I always get a lot of stuff done. No telephone. You’re kind of sequestered. I tend to do a lot of work. [Laughs.]
BR: I had to ask about Monk. I am a huge fan of the show, and I loved Tony Shalhoub.
AT: You know, what’s funny too, there was a producer on the show named Doug Nabors. We just became friends. I like to say “Thank you” to everybody if I can. So if I get an email or an office address where I can say “Thank you” [I do]. And so I did, and he sent an email and said, “You were great. You’re so professional.” And we stayed in touch. And he actually was one of the consulting producers on my short film. He became a friend, and mentor, and someone that I bonded with, so he helped with Cracked.
BR: You own two restaurants, barbrix and Cooks County. What inspired you to add restaurateur to your resume?
AT: Nothing really inspired me, it just kind of happened. I’ve always waited tables, always been in the restaurant business. When I was out of acting school and didn’t have an acting job and probably wasn’t going to have one for awhile I had to figure out a way to make money. Waitressing is such a go-to job for actors. You can usually do it a night. It’s pretty flexible, and you make cash. That’s why actors do it. So I did it when I came to Los Angeles to continue to pursue my dream, my career. I got a job at a restaurant that was a landmark restaurant that really revolutionized food in L.A. The two chef/owners were lovely people and really supportive of their staff and their other endeavors. Over the years I have had these other waitressing jobs and I felt like the proprietors weren’t into the fact that I was pursuing this other dream. I worked at this French restaurant that was really interesting. It was a career for them, but I wasn’t doing it as a career, I was doing it to pay rent.
But these people were super supportive of me. I started to really get enthusiastic and more excited than I ever was about what I was doing. Strangely enough, when that happened, and I stopped really resenting that I had to do it as just another thing to pay the bills, I started feeling like, “This is really cool.” I wanted to do a good job and really represent the people that were so lovely to me. I started to get acting work from people I was waiting on, so that was amazing.
The other thing that happened is the man who was my boss left. He stopped being my boss and left to do something else, but I would still see him. There was kind of this weird, funny thing, like he misunderstood something I said, and he thought I was asking him out, so we ended up going out on a couple dates. He was general manager of another restaurant, and we ended up getting married. His dream was to open a bunch of restaurants, so I supported him in that dream. I stopped waitressing when we opened barbrix, and I was suddenly a proprietor and I was managing a staff. I was a little worried about that transition because I had never been anyone’s boss. I had never managed a restaurant before, but it just came so natural. It was just lovely, the way I figured it out. I don’t manage the kitchen staff. I couldn’t possibly do that. My husband could do that better than I could. But we really know service. I realized how much I really do know, so that’s how that happened. A lot of times I wish my acting career could be as amazing as my restaurant career. [Laughs.]
BR: What is some of the cuisine that is featured at the restaurants?
AT: barbrix is a wine bar. It’s interesting how the time period when you open really influences the style of the restaurant. We had the concept for that in 2006 and got the space, but we didn’t actually open until 2009. That was the peak of the economic downturn, so what we wanted to do was showcase—there’s so much wine that’s so amazing and delicious, that nobody knows about, that small producers, eclectic, global, Austrian, South African, Moroccan—we wanted to highlight these wines that were really manageable in cost. We wanted to show people—not show them in a snotty, condescending, we-know-more-than-you way—the features of these wines. So that was the focus of this restaurant, and to go along with that the food that complements wine is small plates. The idea of a casual meal. Sharing. Not a formal dinner. A neighborhood spot people could pop in at at any time. Not fancy. My husband wanted to open a place where he could wear what he wanted to wear and that other people could wear what they wanted to wear. The waiters, the clientele. Just a place that’s comfortable. The cuisine is, I would say, Rustic Californian with Mediterranean influence. Or chef, Don Dickman, is the owner of an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica called Rocca that’s very respected, so a lot of the menu has Italian. On Thursday nights we do “Pastapalooza” where we have five pastas that we tweet about and they are just offered that night. They are always different. It’s really exciting and fun.
BR: One of your first film roles [in Amateur]was as a boy! Tell me how you landed that role, and what was it like?
AT: It was such a great learning experience. I don’t know what it was, about this idea to me of playing a 12-year-old boy, but it made me feel that getting into that character, embodying that character, I felt kind of bad ass. For whatever reason that made me feel confident. I went to the audition, and the casting director called me back to meet with the director. So when I went to the callback, there was another actor there who was going to read the scene with me. Usually the actors that are there to read scenes with the other actors are just an actor there to help out with the process. I walked in and I had the piece memorized and really didn’t want to hold the paper because it’s cumbersome. I said to the other actor, “You can start when I do this,” I don’t know what it was. [Laughs.] The casting director says, “Is the lighting OK for you, Adria?” [Laughs.] I went and did the scene twice. He was like, “OK, thank you.” And I thought the director didn’t like me but the actor and I really connected, and I thought we did a good job. Well it turns out the actor was Martin Donovan, the star of the movie! So I ended up getting that part.
And the funny thing was, it took me a long time to get another part after that. I was just starting out. As soon as I got the part I thought, “Oh my God, I have to get another part.” I felt pressure. Now that I’ve got one, I have to get another one. It was a really big deal that role. When I walked into other auditions people wanted to talk to me about that, and it just made me nervous. Another thing about that part as my debut role was—When you’re first starting out your agents are trying to figure out who you are, what’s your type. When you’re first starting out you don’t have a list of characters. So after I booked this part, I immediately started getting other auditions for lesbians. And I thought this was supposed to be what I was playing because I got the role as a twelve-year-old boy, but nobody realized the reason I booked this part as a 12-year-old boy was not because I was so masculine. The director was trying to say how gamine and feminine little boys are. What ended up happening was a few years, or maybe just another year later, they were trying to find Diane Keaton’s daughter in The First Wives Club, and the character was a lesbian. I don’t know if she ended up after all the “milquetoasting” of that script, if she was still a lesbian in the final script, but I auditioned to play the lesbian of course, because that was my thing. And they didn’t think I was right, but there was another smaller role to play Diane Keaton’s younger self, and I got cast as that and I think that helped the world see me as a girl again.
BR: Your grandfather, Sam Tennor, was a song-plugger for Irving Berlin, and I understand your grandmother taught you many of these songs. What are some that you remember? And what is a song-plugger for those who don’t know?
AT: Before people had record players, and even when record players were invented, not everyone could afford one, so in order to sell the music they would have these song-pluggers who would go up and down a route. My grandfather’s route was the East Coast, so he would go up and down to these music stores. He would sit in the music store at the piano and play these songs to try to sell the sheet music. That’s how they would make money.
I was 4 when my grandfather passed. I didn’t know him well. My grandmother loved George M. Cohan. She also took me to see Annie when I was six, so that was big. We had the record to Annie and my sister and I would lip synch to that. All these classic artists: Eddie Cantor songs, Jimmy Durante songs. The other thing I really love is Sean Cassidy. He did a couple albums where he covered some other songs. My parents would go out on a Saturday night and my grandmother would babysit. We would watch The Lawrence Welk Show. When it was over we would put on chiffon nighties and poof wigs and she would direct us in reenacting the show. We didn’t always know the songs, so sometimes we would just do George M. Cohan songs. We would put on our little patent leather shoes that clicked like tap shoes, and we would do a dance in front of the fireplace. It was like a raised stage. So we would rehearse the show, and then in the morning at breakfast when my parents were home again, we would perform the big show.
BR: Have you done singing for any of your roles?
AT: I love singing and dancing. I did do some musicals in high school, but I was more involved with choreography. My parents didn’t encourage me to sing. They felt like my sister was a better singer. My mom always told me I was off key. I did take some singing lessons, but I never did a musical. I feel like it’s not my forte. I’d love to do it, but I don’t think I’m a great singer, and I think it’s because I don’t feel confident with it.
BR: You also do one-woman shows. What are some of the shows you have done?
AT: The one-woman shows I have done were all a bunch of little pieces that I performed with some other people. There’s Not a Lot of Coat Check Work in LA was a 10 or 15 minute piece I did with a few other actors who also did 10-15 minute pieces. But I took that piece I did and made it into Electro Magnetic Stripper, which was about a 35-40 minute piece that I then performed with one other actress who had a 40-minute piece, so we did that double bill. I then wrote my show which was StripSearch. I knew I always wanted to do a one-woman show. I started doing standup and I liked it. It was really a different circuit that I was really into. Doing standup, you’re with all these comics, it’s definitely its own scene. People would laugh at my jokes. They thought I was funny, but my comedy was more cerebral/storytelling rather than it was “ba-dum-chh” jokes. I was always encouraged when people would see it to write a one-woman show. So I was always writing and writing and performing. And There’s Not a Lot of Coat Check Work in LA was really about me working for this crazy woman. I was a personal assistant. So that’s really what that piece is about.
I started to take—I wanted to write a screenplay, I wanted to write a part for myself. I decided I wanted to write a story about a woman who was the daughter of a developmentally disabled woman. I had seen a documentary when I was young, and I wanted to explore what would happen to a young woman, coming of age, daughter of a developmentally disabled woman. When I did the research to write that, I discovered most women who are the offspring of these developmentally disabled parents are 99% of the time hookers or strippers in their adult life because they are never taught about their own sexuality. So my script became about a stripper. I didn’t mean for that to happen, but that’s the truth of it. So that’s the story I wrote. And then, in order to play that, I felt like I had to learn how to pole dance. One of my agents had heard about this class that Sheila Kelley was teaching in her backyard, a stripping class. She was part of this film called Dancing at the Blue Iguana and she had taught herself how to pole dance. So I figured out how to get into this pretty exclusive class that was in a back yard. She is a really accomplished actress and she is married to Richard Schiff who’s also a very accomplished actor. So I took this class, and I started to write about it in my one-woman show. It was amazing. That’s how the one-woman show worked out.
BR: What are some of the differences between theater and filmed work?
AT: I love doing theater. I really would love to do more theater. Because of my work as a restaurateur, the evenings, especially the weekend evenings, are pretty busy and devoted to that. I can take the time every once and awhile to do a play. I did a play last year which was super rewarding. The thing that’s so great about theater is that you start on the stage at the beginning of the night and you tell a whole story from beginning to end, in chronological order to an audience. And you’re pretty close to them. You’re in the same room with the people you’re telling the story to. Maybe you can’t see them. Maybe they’re a little far away, but there’s still this energy of having them in the room with you, so it’s pretty special, especially, the play that I did wasn’t really a comedy, but my one-woman show was definitely a comedy. There were also very, very personal things about myself. My husband says it’s very similar working in a restaurant and doing live theater because you get that immediate instant gratification. You say something and people laugh at it or they gasp at it. It’s right there. So that’s pretty amazing and special. When you serve people food, and a delicious meal, you’re right there with them, and they walk out and it’s very similar because you get instant gratification with both things.
Interview by Entertainment Writer & Film Critic, Bethany Rose
From 5 May 2014