From ‘The Artist’ to ‘Mad Men’: Get to know actress Adria Tennor
Adria Tennor has stories to tell. She established herself as an actress with shows like Mad Men and Mad Dogs, as well as the 2012 Best Picture Winner The Artist. Despite her notable success, Tennor grew tired of the limited acting work available to women, and began to write material of her own.
Adria Tennor wrote and starred in the one-woman show Strip Search, and penned the scripts for both of her directorial efforts, Cracked and Pie. She took home the CineStory fellowship for her first feature script, Never Been Born, and has also branched out into producing and publishing.
Tennor’s latest project, the YouTube series Fetish, has combined all of her talents. She collaborated with writer Kristen Tracy to conceive, produce, and star in Fetish, which follows an unassuming mother who works in fetish fulfillment.
Film Daily was fortunate enough to talk with Adria Tennor about her career, her creative process, and her desire to tell more stories about women.
Can you tell us a little bit about your history as an actress?
Yes! I earned my BFA in stage directing and acting at New York University and Playwrights Horizons Theater School before beginning my career as an actress.
My first professional acting job was playing a twelve-year old boy looking at porn with an amnesiac (Martin Donovan) in Tompkins Square park in Hal Hartley’s Amateur, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. I think I’m probably most known for my recurring roles on Mad Men and Greek as well as in the Academy Award winning film, The Artist.
Dissatisfied with the amount of work available to women, I began writing my own material, performing stand up early in my career and then spinning my act into a rave-reviewed one-woman show called Strip Search about being single in LA and finding pole dancing.
Then, I started producing and directing my own stuff and decided to also star in my second film, Pie, opposite fellow Mad Men alum Jessica Paré. It was a favorite on the festival circuit in 2018, garnering awards and laurels internationally. Last summer, I worked opposite Danny Aiello on his last feature, One Moment, a heartbreaking comedy about a single mother trying to harness her already hectic life while her aging father slips into dementia. I’m looking forward to its release in 2021.
What drew you to acting? What made you pursue it as a career?
Early in life, I discovered that I learned best when I was moved emotionally. To me, engaging someone’s heart is the most powerful way to communicate and relay ideas. It’s when we’re all the most open and vulnerable and human.
Your latest project is a web series on YouTube and IGTV called Fetish, could you describe the series for those unfamiliar with it?
Fetish is about a freshly divorced, down-and-out, single suburban mom, Paula Wheeler, who gets abducted by a literature-obsessed, S&M dog-masked fetishist. He dresses her in fur lingerie and makes her read to him aloud from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, then lets her go free, unscathed.
This traumatic event precipitates Paula’s quest to uncover the world of fetishism and more importantly fetish fulfillment for monetary gain (hers) so she can provide for herself and her beloved tween daughter, Maude. It’s like Weeds only with fetish fulfillment.
What made you interested in being part of Fetish when the idea was pitched to you?
Well, actually, it was an idea that my partner, Kristen Tracy, and I hatched together. I wanted to work with Kristen after I met her at a writing retreat. She’s extremely smart and talented and an accomplished YA author and poet – she won the Emily Dickinson First Book Award for her poetry manuscript Half Hazard. She’s also incredibly funny, and I love her dry, wry sense of humor.
I described the character of Paula to Kristen. I’ve played iterations of her throughout my career as a supporting character on other people’s shows, but Kristen and I wanted to create our own show and fully flesh out Paula as its protagonist. We wanted to tell a story by women about women for women with a bunch of women. So that’s what we did.
Was Fetish filmed during the pandemic? If so, what were some of the difficulties you encountered while filming?
Fetish was not filmed during the pandemic. We shot it all before the lockdown. In fact, the pandemic actually freed up some odd patches of time for some of the post production team and helped move our completion along.
We would have liked to shoot some cast promos, however, to publicize the show, but we couldn’t gather everyone together to do that safely because of the pandemic. Instead, we had the cast send us video footage that they shot of themselves and we edited that into fun TikTok videos supporting the show.
Why do you think Fetish is an important story?
Women’s roles have changed so much in this century. I think we’re still trying to figure out who we are and what we’re supposed to be…and then once we think we’ve got it all figured out, then life throws us a curve, like we lose our job or our husband leaves us, or our kid says something revelatory that makes us realize we’ve been doing it all wrong — or there’s a pandemic.
Paula, our main character, has tried so hard to do things right, to be a good wife and mother and friend and, but she’s failed, miserably. It’s probably because she’s been forcing herself to live someone else’s ideal. She’s spent so much time trying to figure out what everyone else wants that she’s completely ignored her own hopes and dreams. This seems to be a common theme for women in their 40s and 50s, at least the ones I talk to.
We’ve spent so much time trying to be everything to everyone and catch up, achieve everything, get it all done, and then we wake up one day and realize we’ve failed at pleasing everyone AND we’ve lost sight of pleasing ourselves. But here’s the important thing: It’s not too late. That’s what Fetish is about and that’s why it’s important.
Who or what would you say your current influences are when it comes to your acting style?
I always work to be authentic and true. The last few years have brought an onslaught of auditions that I am responsible for taping myself, and while I hear a lot of complaints about this from my peers, I love it. I learn so much about my craft from watching myself. I just sit there and ask myself, “Do I believe this?” That’s the key. That’s all that matters.
So, while these influences aren’t the newest, freshest most current names out there, I look to Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cate Blanchett, Viola Davis and Frances McDormand. I respect the truth in their work so much.
Can you walk us through your process when getting to know (or creating) a new character?
The first thing I do is read everything I’ve been given and derive everything I can from the script: who I am? How old am I? What’s my status? Where am I? What’s the temperature? What time is it? Everything that’s in the material. Then I start to fill in the rest with educated guesses and creative choices that support the story.
I look up every word I don’t know and I Google photos of everything in the script to give myself a picture to which I can connect. I draw correlations to my own life. I figure out what my relationship is to every person and thing in the scene and think of people and things in my own life that I feel hold similar meanings. This all gets kind of heady and cerebral so I like to let it kind of “cook” in my consciousness, then let it go and forget about it so I’m not thinking too much.
Then I just say the lines over and over again to learn them and memorize them. I like to do this at least one night before I’m going to do the scene(s). For some reason, sleeping on lines I’ve memorized makes all the difference. It makes them stick.
What’s your mission as an actor? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your projects.
My mission is to serve the writer and portray the story as truthfully as possible. I hope that viewers aren’t thinking about my performance when they’re watching. I want the audience to be lost in the story and feel like they’re watching real life.
What part of acting do you geek out about the most?
I love getting dressed and doing my hair and make-up for a role/audition and creating my “lewk” for the character!
Do you have any tips for people looking to start a career in acting?
Take class and know your craft. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do what you want to do. Don’t listen to the naysayers! It’s not easy. There are a lot of peaks and valleys. It’s important to have a good support system and that begins with your ability to support yourself – in every way – physically, financially, mentally and emotionally.
Do all the work you can to make yourself a fully functioning, healthy person. Understand that you are not your career or your success or your failures.
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
Life is Beautiful is my favorite film of all time. It’s the first and only film at which I cried and laughed simultaneously. It made me realize how fine the line between tragedy and comedy really is.
Are you able to tell us about any upcoming projects you have? What are they?
I mentioned One Moment, the film I star in opposite Danny Aiello, about a family dealing with their father’s slip into dementia. We shot it last summer on Long Island. I’m heartbroken that Danny will not be around to celebrate the finished film, but I hope audiences will respond to and embrace his work in this piece, because he’s amazing in the film. He was also a dream to work with.
I’m also writing a new solo show in tandem with a television pilot in the style of Fleabag. We’ll see how the vaccine progresses. I may be doing performances virtually!
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
I have been lucky enough to be mentored by some amazing people. When I was in high school, I did a mentorship with Toby Orenstein who owns a theater in my hometown where she directs about 3-5 shows a year. I asked her if I could watch her conduct rehearsals for the show she was directing at the time – Jesus Christ Superstar. She said yes. It was as simple as that. She was local, I asked, and she accepted.
The first day, someone in the cast had an audition and missed a few hours of rehearsal, so I stood in for them and learned the choreography. When that person showed up a few hours later, I taught them their part of the dance. I ended up doing this throughout the rehearsal process. It worked out well for everyone. I learned a lot and Toby was terrific. My recommendation is figure out what you want to learn, who you’d like to be when you grow up, contact that person and just ask if you can watch.
I hear a lot of stories about people who just show up over and over again where they want to actually be, and miraculously a place for them is created there.
I have a friend who produces television. They had one spot for a writers’ assistant on a pilot she was producing. They narrowed it down to two people and then chose one of them, but said to the other applicant that he could show up whenever he wanted to watch and learn and be in the writer’s room. She told me that guy showed up every day. When the show got picked up to series, and they needed another assistant, they, of course, hired the second guy.
If you could have somebody create a soundtrack for your life who would you have compose it?
Oooh! It would be a toss-up between ‘The Chicks’, Larkin Poe and Greg Dulli – maybe they could do a collab??? If I could be so lucky!
Are you involved in any acting communities?
I think by virtue of the fact that I’m an actor automatically involves me in the acting community. It’s a small world. I also make it my business to know who people are and be familiar with their work. I follow my peers and people I respect on social media and have developed a rapport with many of them.
I also find that a good acting class can be a great acting community. I love taking class with Larry Moss whenever I can and have built very solid relationships with many other actors in his classes.
What’s your five-year plan?
I am writing my next solo show right now. So, I plan to complete the script for that, rehearse it, do some workshops and then mount it in a theater in Los Angeles or New York. Hopefully, by the time it’s ready for the stage, theaters will be open again! At the same time, I will write the television pilot and bible and use the show as a pitching mechanism.
I also have two feature film scripts I’d like to shoot. I’d love to continue to work in other people’s stuff too. A lot of people have shown up for me on my indie projects. I want to foster other people’s work in that same way, whether it’s acting in something they’ve written and are producing or making pasta salad for the cast and crew for lunch. I want to help people tell their stories. So, hit me up!
What indie filmmakers should be on our radar?
Deirdre O’Connor made One Moment, the feature I’m in with Danny Aiello, so I’d say definitely watch out for her and the release of her first feature. Chaz Bottoms is an extraordinary animator whose work I love. Emily Hoffman, too, is a stop motion animator who makes really intimate films about complicated subjects – I love her work. Priscilla Gonzalez is a very talented documentarian.
I love Sontenish Myers’ work and also her gorgeous photography. Jason Gudasz made a film called Place that I absolutely love; I can’t wait to see more of his work. Also, I respect the heck out of Brea Grant who just wills her career as a filmmaker into existence, and thank goodness she does because we need her perspective.
And finally, an easy one, cats or dogs?
I like dogs!