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Personal connections: Get to know actor/director Adria Tennor

Adria Tennor may be a burgeoning star to some, but to many in the industry she is a leading light with her roles in Mad Men, Greek, and Mad Dogs. After linking up with Kristin Tracy to release her short-format series Fetish during the height of the pandemic, it’s anyone’s guess what Tennor has up her sleeve next. 

Luckily we got a few moments with the actress and director to find out for ourselves, and boy were we in for a surprise! 

Tell us about your history as an actor. How did you start your journey?

When I was six years old my Grandma took me to see Annie at the Fisher Theater in Detroit. I loved it. That was it. I’ve wanted to be an actress ever since. Cut to my audition for NYU. The auditor made me stop in the middle of my monologue, I assume because it was terrible. Luckily, I had directed a couple plays in high school. She made me sit down and tell her about my directing and what playwrights I liked. 

I had just read Hedda Gabler in my AP English class and loved it, so I told her I liked Ibsen. She looked up at me as if seeing me for the first time and uttered an “Oh!” She made a note in my application file with a big star. I’m pretty sure that’s why I got in. Thank you, Ibsen.

Who were your biggest acting influences growing up?

Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis. Their respect for their craft is staggering. They set the bar so high. I wanted to be just like them.

You star in the upcoming dramedy One Moment. What drew you to the project?

Deirdre O’Connor’s script is a beautiful blend of comedy and tragedy. I love that I get to be funny while also telling a moving, emotional story at the same time. I also love to support a fellow female filmmaker in sharing her story. Danny Aiello was a pretty big draw, too! That’s all the things….

One Moment is the last film appearance from the late Danny Aiello. What was it like working alongside him?

Danny was a prince. He loved acting and performing. He was also incredibly warm, kind and respectful of everyone in the cast and crew. 

I was really touched by his reverence for Deirdre, our writer/director. He was obviously a very seasoned actor, but he had no ego about his past success and stature. He came to set every day with humility and a yearning to please Deirdre and tell her story the way she envisioned it and in the very best way he could. 

He also loved his fans and was incredibly sweet to the starstruck locals. I really can’t gush about him enough. He was a gift and a treasure. I’m really grateful I got to work with him, and I miss him a lot.

Does personal connection factor into the kinds of characters you like to play?

In all honesty, I really just love to act so I pretty much fall in love with every role I get to play and create my own personal connections. So personal connection is definitely a factor, but it’s one I create for myself every single time.

Do you have any routines or tricks to help yourself get into character?

There’s a book called Audition by the late Michael Shurtleff that I refer to on a daily basis. I also reference Larry Moss’s book The Intent to Live pretty regularly. I go through all the guideposts in both books and answer key questions for myself about each scene and person I’m playing. Then after I do all that cerebral work, I let it all go, trust that I know it and act with my gut.

What is the biggest thing you want audiences to take away from One Moment?

Hmmm, well I really feel like that’s more of a question for our writer/director Deirdre O’Connor since it’s her film and her story, but I will humbly offer that I think the theme of the piece is that caring for an aging parent is incredibly humbling, mostly thankless, often devastating, sometimes side splitting and virtually impossible to do to anyone’s satisfaction, especially your own, and certainly not to the rest of your family’s. 

So, it’s best to let go of idealized perfectionism and just do your best and enjoy life’s moments with your loved ones. The other thing I’d like everyone to take away is that Adria is awesome, and I want to see her in more stuff!

Do you feel your experience as an actor has made you a better director?

100%! In fact, my experience as an actor has made me a better director which has in turn made me a better actor because now, I can translate a non-actor director’s direction into something I can actually act in! Does that make sense? I think I need a white board for this answer! 

Do you encourage improvisation on the set, or do you prefer to stick to the script?

I have a lot of thoughts about this, some of them conflicting…. Firstly, I feel it is my job as an actor to take whatever is on the page and make it work, as is, 100%. I’m a writer too, and I spend hours writing and rewriting and crafting each sentence, each line. It’s all very deliberate and specific – not random. 

I choose the words very carefully. So, when I get someone else’s words to say, I figure out a way to make those words real and genuine coming out of my mouth. Now, if someone else wants to improv the scene as part of their process, I’ll play – I want to do whatever works – especially if the director is asking for that! Bring it! 

If it’s my piece, my writing, my script and an actor who wants to improv, I’ll definitely give them that opportunity, especially if there’s time. But I will definitely want to shoot it the way I wrote it as well. And if it’s a comedy, the words and their rhythm are key so I will definitely fight for the scripted version to be the priority of our shots.

Are there any actors or filmmakers you’d like to work with in the future?

 I love to work, and I love creative people – actors and directors – so I usually end up pretty in love with whomever I get to work with but here’s a pretty dreamy wish list.

 I’d really love to work with Debra Granik, Dee Rees, Lesli Linka Glatter, Mimi Leder, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Mark Duplass, Ridley Scott, Frances McDormand, Viola Davis, Jennifer Lawrence, Kathy Bates, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., and Emma Thompson…..ok there are too many to name!

You’ve acted in huge TV shows like Mad Men and Mad Dogs. How does working on a show differ from a feature film?

With a TV show, especially an established one in its second season or more, you have the bonus of being acquainted with the world and the characters and the tone of the piece because it’s aired. 

You also have the extra added bonus of seeing how the world is receiving the piece. It’s like getting to have an aerial, helicopter view of the territory where you’re about to land. You don’t get that with a feature, unless maybe you’re working on a sequel in a franchise. 

What has been your greatest professional achievement?

While I’m very proud of the roles I’ve played in celebrated projects like Mad Men and The Artist, I’m the proudest of the work I’ve created myself – particularly my solo show StripSearch and my film, Pie. I love acting and I love writing, but when the two come together and I get to act on words I wrote and witness the response, I really can’t think of anything better.

What about a professional setback? What did you learn?

I just went through a really difficult life crisis that definitely affected my ability to excel in my career. A big part of this vocation is carrying yourself into a room of highly accomplished and discerning strangers and convincing them that you’re the most bad ass, so that they hire you over all the other bad asses available. That was really difficult for me to pull off while my world was falling apart. 

However, the life crisis made me a better actor and artist, so I guess I have that silver lining. I learned to let go of people, places and things that aren’t completely positive and supportive. I also learned I don’t need a lot of friends, just a handful of really good ones and a honed instinct to know the difference.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

I’m developing a new solo show in tandem with a serialized novella and limited series. I can’t really say too much more than that, but I hope I’ll be invited back here when I can!

What advice do you have for aspiring actors?

Study. Take class. Spend time with and get to know other actors who are working at bettering their craft. Do not wait for the phone to ring or for the people with whom you want to work to find you. They most likely won’t. Find yourself. Pick yourself. Cast yourself. Create your own work. Also, know that being an actor is not a selfish career choice. Don’t let anyone tell you that. Storytelling and moving people emotionally are the most powerful way to connect and communicate ideas. So, if that’s what you want to do, follow your heart. It’s your compass.

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What other roles would you like to see Adra take on? Let us know in the comments!

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