Pittsburgh Urban Media Sits Down with the Highly Accomplished Film, Stage and Television Actress Tamara Tunie – A Sister who makes it her business to always bring her “A” Game!
Ms. Tunie reveals how growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had a profound impact on her life and she appreciates being raised around hard working blue-collar people who had a strong work ethic. As a drama student at Carnegie Mellon University she also reveals how her experience on campus taught her some very important life and career lessons including the importance of setting high standards, being disciplined and fully committed while pursuing her dreams. Today, Ms. Tunie is truly living her passion and is more determined than ever to forge straight ahead as a positive force to be reckoned with as a film, stage and television actress, director and producer.
Tamara Renee Tunie (born March 14, 1959) is an American film, stage and television actress, director and producer. She is best known for her portrayal of attorney Jessica Griffin on the CBS soap opera As the World Turns, and medical examiner Melinda Warner on the NBC police drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. From 2000 to 2007 (and again briefly in 2009 & 2010), she appeared on both series simultaneously. Tunie has also appeared in film, most notably playing the key supporting role of Margaret Thomason in the 2012 film Flight.
(photo credit: RICHARD BLINKOFF)
Tunie was born in Mckeesport, Pa. and raised 10 minutes from Downtown Pittsburgh in the blue-collar, steel town of Homestead. Her school years were spent doing plays, singing in choirs, playing sports and making the grade. She graduated from Steel Valley High School with honors, and from there entered Carnegie-Mellon University’s Musical Theatre Program.
PUM Founder & Editor Robin Beckham sat down with Ms. Tunie at her alma mater Carnegie Mellon University at the Purnell Center for the Arts on April 19, 2012. Ms. Tunie shared her thoughts about her hometown Pittsburgh and how over the years she has enjoyed watching the cities magnificent transformation from an industrial town of steel to a city now offering high-tech innovation — including green technology, education and training, and research and development.
Today, Pittsburgh is once again at the forefront of innovation, and for Ms. Tunie who regularly visits the city; it sure feels good to come home.
Ms. Tunie opens up about life in the fast lane as a very successful and versatile actress who understands what it takes to have longevity in the entertainment industry. She is persistent, focused and prepared, and walks the talk when it comes to her career. Now, Ms. Tunie is proud to spread her wings as a producer and director where she is enjoying embarking on new challenges.
On the day of our interview, it was déjà vu for Ms. Tunie to come back to CMU’s campus where she honed her skills as an actress and learned some valuable lessons that helped her emerge as one of the most prominent actresses of our time.
PUM: Here we are on CMU’s campus, sitting in one of the theatres, what sort of memories do you have being back on campus and what does all this mean to you?
Tunie: I was talking to mom yesterday because I came over to campus to visit President Jared Cohen before he leaves office and it was a gorgeous hot almost summer day so all the kids were out on the cut, and at the frat houses you know having barbecues and there were a lot of large red cups and it just brought back so many memories—it made me want to weep, so overwhelming, I love this school, I treasure that I went here, it means a lot to me.
PUM: Looking back on you experience at CMU’s school of drama, how does that experience continue to influence you today in your life and in your work?
TUNIE: I often talk to young people in high school and in college wanting to become actors, I always share with them that my experience here at Carnegie Mellon school of drama set a standard of commitment and discipline that I don’t think you get in many places. I notice particularly in younger actors that they don’t have the appreciation for the sets or the costumes or the props, and because at CMU one of the things that we as actors had to do was to build the costumes and build the sets and build the props-I have a respect for those artists who do that and I respect their work and I treat their work just as sacred as my own that’s one thing that I carry with me. If ever I run into anyone that is from CMU whether it’s from the drama department or any other department her there is such a level of pride, unity and brotherhood it’s just an immediate connection and that is something that I really prize and treasure.
PUM: Back in the day when you were growing up in Homestead, there was the image of the steel mills, but now Pittsburgh has truly transformed itself as one of the most livable cities, what do you think about the city?
TUNIE: I think it's fantastic first of all, but let me just also add that growing up in Homestead which is the seat, the capital, was the capital pretty much out of the steel industry was the best childhood anybody could have you know and I really treasure my being able to grow up in a blue-collar town you know with people with very strong work ethics. Growing up in a diverse community, so you know I had black friends I had white friends I had Asian friends you know so it was ideal. When the steel industry left Pittsburgh was also around the time that I left Pittsburgh I moved to New York but I was very much aware of the devastation that it reeked upon the city and it was heartbreaking for me but at the same time or at least you know in the years that followed, I was very proud to see how Pittsburgh pretty much reinvented itself and was hailed as the number one city to live for many years and also certainly held as an example of how a can in fact resurge and rise like the phoenix from the ashes and be considered one of the best cities in the country.
PUM: Quite different from Harlem where you are living now?
TUNIE: it is different from Harlem, but then again not so much because again I live in a neighborhood that is very diverse you know I mean there are black people there are white people, Asian people - Hispanic people you know and I love that I love that mix. So, you know I feel Pittsburgh has just as much to offer at least culturally as New York City but just on a smaller scale. Pittsburgh's not lacking I don't think it anything you know except for me as an actor enough work for me to be able to support myself in Pittsburgh like I do in New York City.
There was a time in New York a few years ago when I was shooting a daytime drama shooting a primetime show and doing a Broadway piece all the same time and you can't do that anywhere else in the world than in New York City.
PUM: For over five decades your father, James W. Tunie Sr. operated the James W. Tunie Funeral Home in Homestead. Mr. Tunie had the reputation of helping those in need, especially families that couldn’t afford to pay for their funeral costs. Recently your father past, what is his legacy for you?
TUNIE: I mean my dad was extraordinary as well as my mom I mean I was blessed to be born into a family with such incredible parents and my father's commitment to his community is an example to all of us and yes he was there to help people and you know whatever his flaws because nobody's perfect as a professional funeral director he was there for his people and that's what he would always call them my people.
PUM: Was he proud of your accomplishments?
TUNIE: Oh yes, oh yes, he had big bragging rights.
PUM: You have been described as one of the hardest working women in the industry, what is your secret to your longevity?
TUNIE: Part of it is you know I don’t know how to say no, you know which I’m trying to teach myself. But also, I believe in working and no matter how small the project or how large the project if it appeals to me on some level whether it's you know I love the script, or it's a director that I want to work with actors that I want to work with or it’s a character that I'm really interested in exploring investigating those four things are what's important so even if it's just a reading for free you know I'll do it or if it's a big movie like I just did with Denzel Washington and I'll do that but I believe in work and I believe that all kinds of work in our industry is important to us as artists to continue to grow and thrive and become better actors.
PUM: Working with Denzel, Al Pacino, and some of the greatest actors in Hollywood, do you think you have accomplished your goals and dreams?
TUNIE: What I really set out to accomplish was to be able to support myself in a comfortable fashion doing the work that I love to do which is acting. So everything that has come above that has been gravy has been you know the icing on the cake has been the cherry on top. So I feel truly blessed in that I have been able to have a very successful career ad have worked with some very amazing actors and directors in my career and does it mean that I have arrived-I don’t know what that is, you know my definition of success is oftentimes very different than other peoples to grace the cover of a magazine, or to have the paparazzi chasing me around town that’s my ideal of a nightmare. I think I arrived when I booked the Lena Horne show on Broadway when I first landed in New York, I thought I had arrived then. I arrived with every wonderful job that I had the privilege to do.
PUM: Going behind the screen and directing? What about that experience?
TUNIE: That was one of those evolutionary kind of things, I never was one of those actors who said I really want to direct, never said I want to be a producer, it just kind of happened. I’m producing a new musical that I have taken on as my own baby it's called “Frog’s Kiss” and basically it's a fairytale for grown-ups and we just mounted it at Virginia State company in Norfolk Virginia to huge success and accolades on its way to Broadway.
PUM: Are you currently looking at some other roles, or always reading scripts?
TUNIE: I’m always reading scripts I have I'm in the process of closing the deal on an independent film that I really love the script it's about a dancer who has left her dance company she's married, she has a child but yet that passion to dance is still driving her and so she comes back and she wants to be part of the company and its the conflict between being a wife and a mom and still wanting to pursue your career and I think that's relevant for every woman. So I think I'm going to join the cast of that I'm not playing the dancer I'm playing I would be playing the woman who is the artistic director dance company, so she also understands the dilemma that this main character is having and she has sympathy for her but yet at the same time she has to do what’s best for her dance company it will be fun!
PUM: It seems like as a Black women in the industry very few get good roles, what are you experiencing now in terms of breaking down barriers are we where we need to be are we making changes as it relates to the industry?
TUNIE: I think not just in the entertainment industry but in every aspect of life I think as an African-Americans we continue to make strides breakdown barriers and you know a lot of work has been accomplished but there's still a lot to be done I mean the fact that you would even asked me that question just tells us that there's still work to be done.
PUM: Is terms of what you are proud of most as you look at your body of work, in retrospect what is the true shining example of what you are most proud of?
TUNIE: That would be on the stage, you know any I loved all the characters that I've played in television and film. But the roles that I've been able to do on the stage really I think allow me to really how what I do I played Cleopatra in Shake spheres “Anthony and Cleopatra” and I played Madame de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons and you know those kinds of roles where you they're just amazing iconic women characters who are very strong-willed and independent and yet at the same time sensitive and you don't get a lot of those offers in film and television so the theatre is actually what I'm most proud of.
PUM: Your husband Gregory Generet is a jazz vocalist, and I listened to his songs for the first time and I really thought his voice was beautiful…
TUNIE: His voice is fantastic and his voice is gorgeous he is actually overdue for another CD and so he's s working on that now but he is an incredible singer, you know I sing as well, but in our family he's the singer. He’s great because this is a new chapter in his life because he was a postproduction videotaped editor at CBS network for 20 years or more and he always loved singing he was passionate about singing but he never really pursued and then when we got together you know I encouraged him to do his music and all of my friends encouraged him to his music and all of his friends and so he had the support to really kind of step out there so he left CBS and is this doing the music solely and this is his new chapter and he is just taking it by storm. He’s being written up in magazines, he’s got a regular gig at a jazz club in New York called Smoke, on Broadway and 106th street --you can catch him every Thursday night, he’s the artist and residence there, every Thursday night and I’m very proud of him for having the courage to really step out and do that.
PUM: You have been married to Gregory since 1995 and I’ve read you guys really balance your relationship well by being individuals first in your relationship.
TUNIE: I just believe when people come together to marry and form a union that to disappear as individuals I think is disruptive I don't think it's good. I think that that it is important that each person remain an individual and continue to grow as an individual and that the marriage that they've formed together the partnership that they’ve formed together they’re able to nurture even better because they have grown as individuals and they're satisfied and happy as individuals. My husband and I have so much to talk about and so much to share…we really allow each other to be individuals and be who we are and appreciate and respect who we are as individuals.
PUM: Your message to people pursuing their goals and dreams, what is your message about overcoming obstacles?
TUNIE: Persistence, Persistence is the key, preparedness-- especially preparedness and being willing to recognize an opportunity though it may not be part of the plan that you had in place because you just never know where opportunity is going to come from…
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