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Tamara originally debuted as "Jessica Griffin" on CBS's soap opera "As The World Turns" in 1987. She played the role until 1995, and then returned in 1997. Tunie’s successful acting career has allowed her to perform in many mediums. On the big screen, she was featured in Snake Eyes, City Hall and The Devil’s Advocate. Other film credits include The Peacemaker, Rising Sun, Rescuing Desire, Rebound: The Legend of Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault, Spirit Lost, Bloodhounds of Broadway, Wall Street and Sweet Lorraine. Additionally, Tunie gave voice to the narrator in Kasi Lemmon’s Eve’s Bayou and appears in the director’s film, The Caveman’s Valentine, for which she received an Independent Spirits Award Best Supporting Actress nomination. On the small screen, Tunie has guest-starred on numerous television series, such as Sex and the City, New York Undercover, Chicago Hope, Prince Street, Law & Order, Swift Justice, Sea Quest DSV, as well as playing a recurring character on the short-lived series, Feds and Tribeca. For several seasons, she portrayed the wife of James McDaniel’s Lt. Fancy on the police drama, NYPD Blue, and she also plays the role of a medical examiner on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. On Broadway, she has shared the stage with the legendary Lena Horne in the musical, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, and starred in David Merrick’s revival of Oh, Kay! Tunie toured Europe with Bubblin’ Brown Sugar and portrayed Helen of Troy in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of Troilus and Cressida in Central Park. She also portrayed Maggie the Cat in the first all African-American production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at TheatreVirginia. Most recently, Tunie performed in the Dreamgirls 20th anniversary benefit concert as well as in Tartuffe at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival.
Tamara was born on March 14, 1959, in Pennsylvania. Born into a family of five children outside of Pittsburgh, PA, Tunie was raised in the funeral home where her father worked, a childhood that she insists was actually quite normal. She earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Carnegie-Mellon University, was discovered by an agent while doing summer stock and soon moved to New York City, which would become her beloved new hometown. ("My mother will say I was born in Pittsburgh, but I was a New Yorker from day one," she has said). More than 20 years after arriving in the Big Apple, Tunie has become a quintessential New York actress, appearing constantly in theater and as a guest or recurring character on just about every television series filmed there, including the role of Jessica. She played the strong, no-nonsense lawyer from 1987-95 and again from 1999 to the present, despite working steadily in prime-time, theater and film. She is also an accomplished singer. She and her second husband, Generet, a jazz vocalist/post-production videotape editor, live in Harlem.
More fun facts about Tamara Tunie
— Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for The Caveman's Valentine
— Played Maggie the Cat in the first all-African-American production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
— Is on the board of directors for Figure Skating in Harlem, a nonprofit arts and education organization that supports girls 6-16 in after-school programs.
HER MEMORABLE QUOTES:
"She seems a little one-dimensional to me at times because she is just so wise." — on Jessica, SOAP OPERA DIGEST, 5/29/90
"I find it sad that [an interracial relationship] is still an issue that has to be addressed, like teenage alcoholism or the incest storyline.... Wouldn't it be ideal to just deal with two people who love each other? When Duncan was involved with Shannon, it was never an issue that he was from Scotland and she was from South Philly." — SOAP OPERA WEEKLY, 10/15/91
"I love to go to L.A. to work, and I have many friends out there, but it doesn't feed me like New York. I've been here 20 years this month, and I still walk down the street and get a rush. Just standing on the block, I have the international community around me, and I love that. You don't get that anywhere else. It is the greatest city in the world." — DIGEST, 11/20/01
Tamara Tunie is the busiest actress in daytime
Enormously talented and passionate, Tamara Tunie has a character trait that distinguishes her from the competition: Perseverance. In fact, it is the use of that adjective in her professional life that makes her one of the most sought after actresses in the business. Who else would chose to star in not one, but two television series simultaneously sometimes commuting to both on the same day! Tamara currently stars as Medical Examiner, Dr. Melinda Warner on the NBC drama “Law and Order: SVU,” which airs on Tuesday nights and portrays the character of Jessica Griffin on the CBS daytime drama “As the World Turns.” Noticed for her depth and range, Tunie has garnered nominations from the NAACP Image Awards (twice) and the Soap Opera Digest Awards (twice).
In fact, she has portrayed some other memorable roles on television such as the recurring character of Alberta Green in season one of the hit series “24” which brought her to commute between New York and Los Angeles weekly to do all three series simultaneously. You can also catch her in re-runs of the original “Law and Order,” “Sex and the City,” and “NYPD Blue” among others.
Tunie has been able to parlay her success on daytime drama into film. She has worked with some of the most respected directors of the screen including Kasi Lemmons, Emily Baer, Brian De Palma, Mimi Leder, Harold Becker and Oliver Stone. She had the unique opportunity to have scenes with the legendary Al Pacino when she portrayed the possessed wife of a partner in his law firm, in the hit film “The Devil’s Advocate” and as his press secretary in “City Hall.” She also worked with famed director Kasi Lemmons and star, Samuel L. Jackson on both “Eve’s Bayou” and “Caveman’s Valentine.” Other film credits include “The Peacemaker” with George Clooney, “Rising Sun” with Sean Connery and “Wall Street” with Michael Douglas.
Tamara got her start in the theater and Broadway has beckoned a number of times. She has shared the stage with Lena Horne in the Broadway musical LENA HORNE: THE LADY AND HER MUSIC and starred in David Merrick’s revival of OH KAY!. Tamara has toured Europe with BUBBLIN’ BROWN SUGAR and portrayed Helen of Troy in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA in Central Park. In addition, Tunie portrayed Maggie the Cat in the first all African American production of Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at Theatre Virginia in Richmond and after September 11th, Tunie co-starred with some of the veterans of the theater such as Audra Mc Donald in the benefit concert of DREAMGIRLS.
Conversation With Tamara Tunie
"Just Telling the Truth"
When Tamara Tunie calls me from New York City, it's right after the big East Coast storm, and she says she's looking out the window at "about twenty feet of snow." She lives in Harlem. She tells me that, although she grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University's drama department, she moved to New York right after school, and she's never lived anywhere else. "I'm a New Yorker," she tells me, "My mother says, I was born a New Yorker, I just happened to be born in Pittsburgh."
She was able to shoot much of her most recent film, The Caveman's Valentine, in New York. She has worked with director Kasi Lemmons previously, as the unforgettable narrator for Eve's Bayou. Now, we talk about what it was like for her to play Sheila, the estranged wife of protagonist Romulus Ledbetter (Samuel L. Jackson), who is only seen in Caveman's Valentine as a shadow in a doorway, or as projection in his imagination.
Cynthia Fuchs: Was it tricky to play a character who is essentially another character's fantasy?
Tamara Tunie: The difficult part for me was that Sheila was so isolated. She would always appear in the scene, and everything would go into an extremely slow motion. To get that, Kasi [Lemmons, the director] would shoot everything around Sheila and then come back and come back to me. So it was disjointed for me, trying to be a part of the scene but yet not be a part of the scene. That was the challenge.
CF: How was it for you on the set? Do the actors have a lot of input?
TT: Kasi sent me the script long before we started shooting, and we started talking early about who Sheila is, who she is to Romulus, which is really what her role is in the film, because you don't see her except in his [mind]. So who she is to Romulus and who she really is are two different things. So I talked to Kasi about that, and just kind of jumped in. We also needed to have a sense of who she was in each scene, because in each scene, she serves a different purpose.
CF: And that must be different, since most roles are premised on the idea that a character "develops." How did you and Samuel Jackson work out the rhythm you have in the film?
TT: Sam and I have been friends for years, Sam and his wife Latonya and their daughter. We go way back. So we already had our own natural rhythm, and it was easy to step off from there to Rom and Sheila.
CF: You work a lot, in a variety of projects, from big films like The Devil's Advocate to TV and theater. How would you describe your experience on this film?
TT: It was interesting. You have a movie we were shooting for half of what it would really cost to fully realize the film. The budget we had was a lot of money, but in ratio to what it really needed, it was like shooting a low budget movie. So there wasn't enough money, there wasn't enough time. I do a lot of small, independent films, and it felt like working on one of those.
CF: You're also working regularly on TV [in a recurring role as the medical examiner on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit]. How do you find working on network TV?
TT: I do enjoy it. The thing that I like about network television is that there's a set schedule. They really have to make their days. The work moves along pretty quickly, though not as fast as soap operas, because I've done those too [As the World Turns], and that's the fastest shooting medium in the world. You don't have the luxury of time that you sometimes have when working on a film. And now, for me, I do a lot of TV in New York, so even if the show is new for me, there are crew members I know. So there's a level of comfort there, because I know the cameraman, the focus puller, the driver. There's a good film and television community in New York.
CF: How do you decide what roles you want to pursue?
TT: I look at a script, and if the character strikes some kind of truth in me, I can pursue that. The character can be many different kinds of people, but I need to be able to connect with that truth.
CF: You've had a wide range of "truths" in the characters you've played.
TT: That's right. [Laughs.] Even in Devil's Advocate, I totally knew who that woman was.
CF: What's your sense of the possibilities available for you?
TT: One reason I work so much is that I work in all media, so I can constantly keep the motor going. There are scripts that come my way that may not connect to, and if I don't, I don't try to force something on it. That's what I think good acting is, just telling the truth, in that moment or that scenario. I've been able to knock down some doors, because I have great people working with me, my agent and my manager. They're looking at roles as the characters, not necessarily the colors. So there've been many occasions when I've stepped into a role that was originally written for a Caucasian person or even a man, and been able to change minds. You just have to keep knocking on the doors.
CF: What is your sense of the concerns or themes of The Caveman's Valentine?
TT: I think it poses questions on so many different issues. You have this homeless man, and living in New York, I encounter many homeless people. It sheds light on his history, and you forget that they have a history, that they were somewhere before they ended up on the street. It also deals with family, a fractured family, and the relationship between the father and the daughter. It poses a question about art -- what is art? Is something sensational necessarily artistic, or is it just for sensationalism's sake. It's a very thought-provoking film.
CF: Can you say more about the way the film deals with this "fractured family" in a way that's not stereotypical or overly familiar?
TT: For me there's a certain level of tragedy, but it wasn't stereotypical to me at all, because despite this man's obvious mental illness, he's trying to maintain a relationship with his daughter. He reaches out to her. On one hand, he's a complete disappointment to his family, but at the same time, he's still struggling to be a man and to be respected in their eyes. As far as Sheila is concerned, I tried to look at why or how, whenever Romulus tries to connect with the daughter, Sheila is always around. It's like, when the phone rings, she recognizes his ring. Sheila, after all these years, still has a connection with this man. Even when she's saying, "He got a phone in that cave?" or trash-talking, it's almost like there in the same room, they have a repartee with each other. It was a family that's disconnected but somehow connected.
CF: That must have been an interesting way to think about making a character, as Sheila often appears literally at the edge f the frame, so you're conveying an emotion just with your arm or the slop of your shoulder.
TT: Right, what's the body language saying?
CF: How does the film fit, in your mind, into a culture that demands categories -- is it an art house film or something else?
TT: My sensibilities tend to go toward the art house film or the foreign films. But I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that film is fantastic. Though it's being marketed as an art house film, it's completely commercial and mainstream in the story it's telling. So I think it's dangerous to force a category on a film, because any film has the possibility to be anything. I know Caveman is being released as an art house film, but I think it's a commercial film. I think it's completely entertaining. But those decisions are made up front, and limit what a film might become.
Daytime Won't Stop Tamara Tunie From Hanging Her Star
No one will ever accuse Tamara Tunie Bouquett of wasting her potential. Unlike many actresses who believe their careers lie in the hands of Fate, this willowy actress has the guts and the confidence to shape her own career instead of having it structured for her. She is a direct, outspoken and practical woman who, upon graduation from Carnegie-Mellon University, took a dispassionate assessment of her abilities that has not proved unrealistic. "I was trained to do theater, and musicals and dance and sing, so I knew that if I wasn't dancing, I could sing, if I wasn't singing, I could act..." In summer stock, a New York agent heard her sing with the Civic Light Opera and signed her before she came back to Gotham. Her second job was singing backup in the Tony-winning Broadway smash Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, and she has had small roles in the films Sweet Caroline, Wall Street and Bloodhounds of Broadway. Even though As the World Turns has seen fit to keep her a supporting player, the actress has the presence and star quality to make it as a leading lady elsewhere--and she knows it.
Some might find her background ghoulish. The fourth of five children born to two morticians, Tamara was born and raised in Homestead, PA, a small town outside of Pittsburgh ("It was a steel town but the mill closed"), and lived above the basement mortuary where her father, James, worked and a first-floor funeral parlor where the deceased were waked. Despite the Gothic backdrop, it was a normal childhood, she insists. "I didn't feel odd at all because my parents never treated it as an oddity. Kids would go 'Wow, do you ever watch?' But pretty much the mortuary was off limits for us, so the only awareness we had was when there was the wake and we'd have to be quiet upstairs." She does admit to having second thoughts about the embalming apparatus in the basement when watching the movie The Haunting, a 1963 film starring Julie Harris (ex-Lilimae, Knots Landing) and Claire Bloom, where the doors breathe and the walls pound and Harris is driven mad by the spirit of her dead mother. "It was on at one o'clock in the morning and scared me to death. I went to bed and was just dozing off and then I heard this...you know, coming up the stairs. I was in a bunk bed, facing the wall and I heard this slow walking coming toward me and just started to turn, my sister reached out and touched me and said 'Toot'--uh oh, the nickname slipped--and I screamed bloody murder. I went through the roof. She had been out on a date and seen a scary movie and she wanted me to come sleep with her. It was pretty funny. That's when I was a little concerned about being in the funeral home."
For most of her life she has always been the model of elegance, intelligence and composure that viewers see in her role as resolute, self-assured attorney Jessica Griffin. "I was always kind of mature," she says evenly. "I was always a little ahead of my peers in my thinking and my attitude. As I got older, I was very comfortable with older people. Some of my best friends are in their fifties and sixties. One person told me I had an old soul and I think that's true."
Some of the polish came from watching her mother, Evelyn. "She was always a classy lady. She is very easygoing but aggressive at the same time. She tends to take control of a situation. She's always been an emcee for fashion shows and community projects, so I think she was my example as well," Tamara says.
On the day we met, Tamara was celebrating her twenty-ninth birthday and we took our deli lunch and birthday desserts to a bench in New York's Riverside Park. She had just come from a dance class and was wearing jeans and a turquoise knit sweater over a white turtleneck woven with multi-colored stars. Looking out through tortoiseshell sunglasses at the yachts bobbing in the Seventy-Ninth Street marina, the actress ate two almond tarts and talked about how her outspoken views on the short shrift given to blacks in daytime have affected her career there. She was one of the first to hear about her friend Debbi Morgan's (Chantal, Generations) controversial defection from All My Children. "I don't know why anybody would be hurt if they were looking at the show at all," she says of Agnes Nixon's reported reaction. "I don't understand anybody expecting a person not to look at the situation and call it as they see it. I mean, why pretend it's something other than what it is? I think it's great that Debbi's gone over to Generations. I wish her all the best. I think it's going to be really good for her."
As for the expansion of her own role, Bouquett won't say congratulations are in order--yet, despite her new romance with corporate climber Blake Stephens (Peter Francis James). "I think it still remains to be seen," she says. Recently re-signing with the show for two years, Tamara says projected storylines that delve into Jessica's troubled family life leave her feeling "hopeful" about the development of a character that, for all her sparkling intelligence and maturity, is a little too calm and collected for her taste. "She seems a little one-dimensional to me at times because she is just so wise," she says, and agrees with the observation that Jess compartmentalizes her life. "I think she deliberately separates business and personal life, even though it is kind of mix and match because she is friends with everyone who's a client, too. She still tries to keep it as clean, as black and white--no pun intended--as she can. I'm not sure why. For the most part, I like her, but there is room to show other sides of her." As for Jess's men, Tamara says succinctly, "She needs someone to just totally rock her world."
Viewer mail for her characterization has been positive and one professional woman wrote, Tamara says, that " 'Jessica was a wonderful role model for all women, black or white or yellow or red.' That makes me feel good because that makes me feel like I am contributing something."
Tamara does not socialize with current leading man James and did not hang out with Count Stovall, who played Jess's former flame, Roy Franklin, either, through she says they're both "very nice." Her closest friends on the show are Peter Boynton (Tonio), whom she met in 1982 when they were both doing industrials, and his wife Susan Marie Snyder (Julie). "She's a fabulous, fabulous, fabulous chick, the coolest lady I know," says Snyder. "And she loves Peter, Peter loves her, and I figured there had to be a reason why. She's the most sincere, together ambitious, centered person, not to mention beautiful. There's nothing phony about her. She's very strong and I really admire her." Boynton concurs. "Tamara is just about our best friend," he says. "I've known her about eight years. She's very focused. She chooses what she wants to do. I think sometimes any of us can lose perspective and let things bother us more than they should. Tamara's a good leveler. She doesn't let the soap become the barometer of whether her life is good."
She has help maintaining that level-headed perspective. Tamara's husband is promotions manager Greg Bouquett. He rocked her world from the get-go, but she wasn't in the mood to meet anyone when she met him. "Here I was free and single," she says blithely. "Free and single and loving it! Well, the slate wasn't quite clean...but I was quite fulfilled. I have always been of the opinion that a woman or a man does not need the opposite sex to be a total person. I had a family, with whom I'm very close, and my friends, who are terrific people, and I had work, which was going well. But my girlfriend in Atlanta, her name is Michelle, she's been my girlfriend from first grade, she tells me there's this guy she wants me to meet. So I laughed, I thought it was very amusing. I said, 'I don't think so.'" Michelle persuaded her reluctant girlfriend to judge a modeling contest at Greg's nightclub, called Uptown Atlanta, where she waited an awfully long time to meet the man she would be engaged to three months later. "I said, 'Is he coming? 'Cause if not, I can always go to sleep.'" When they did meet, Tamara had to admit to herself, "I was intrigued. He was very handsome, very intelligent and funny, and yet there was no pretense, no game-playing, no one being coy. We talked like we'd known each other for a while. The night before I left, we got breakfast at two o'clock in the morning. And then we went to Piedmont Park in the middle of the night by the lake and talked until the sun came up."
Tamara wears two rings that Greg has given her: a gold wedding band and another gold ring set with an emerald and a diamond for the couple's first anniversary. They were married in September 1988 and tried living in two separate cities, a difficult arrangement that became ridiculous "when the fares went up," she jokes. Greg sold his club and started his promotion company-Rising Star- while consulting with new club owners in Manhattan. Now, Tennessee-born Greg is settling in in New York and Tamara is putting together a cabaret act.
While soap opera work offers New York-based actors a security that is rare in the business, Tamara knows it can turn into a trap. "You do get kind of locked in the security of it," she says. "It depends on what you want to do. If you want a steady job that you know you can go to and pretty much do the same thing and have the house in the country and the apartment here and the car and trips, that's fine. That's enough for some people. I don't think it's enough for me. There is still a lot I need to do and want to do." And the small percentage of roles available to black actresses doesn't daunt her either. "What it does take is just a little extra effort and a little harder work and a bit more focus. I intend to have a family and continue with my career and hope that it blossoms in many directions and I think I can do that. I can have that happen. It can be very frustrating, but I come from good stock. My grandmother used to say, "If somebody gives you lemons, make lemonade.' That's what I try to do. I try to make lemonade."
Tamara Tunie - Covering All Bases
On a brisk but mild New York weekday, actress Tamara Tunie is in the midst of heading 3,000 miles away to the West Coast. As she prepares for her trip, life is good. A seasoned actress, Tunie's career spans across film, television and theater. Many will recognize her from her work in films like, "The Caveman's Valentine," "The Devil's Advocate" or portraying Lt. Fancy's wife on television's NYPD Blue, not to mention her ongoing role on the long-running daytime soap opera, As the World Turns. But it's not those roles that are making critics' mouths wag. It's her recurring role on NBC's hit drama, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU), where she portrays the calm and cool medical examiner. "It's great," she says with enthusiasm. Initially her role began with a single episode, but three seasons later, as Tunie puts it, the role turned "into a regular gig."
As one of hottest primetime series created by Dick Wolf, every Friday night on SVU, audiences can see Tunie in her coveted role as the M.E. uncovering the medical clues used by the detectives of the Special Victims Unit of the New York Police Department to help solve deadly crimes. "Dick Wolf is the emperor of New York City," says Tunie. Tunie credits Wolf for employing many actors - New York actors. Wolf's highly successful shows, Law & Order, Law &Order: SVU and Law & Order: Criminal Intent are triple threats and have added a new dynamic to television police dramas.
As an African-American actress with many roles from the big and small screen under her belt, finding strong roles can be a challenge. "I believe I can do anything," Tunie says. The actress says good scripts, an interesting role where the character "hooks her," and the director - especially if s/he is somebody she has a desire to work with are what influences her to accept a role.
Speaking by telephone, it's easy to hear why Tunie is in high demand to narrate films and numerous documentaries. It's her smooth melodic voice that told the tale in "Eve's Bayou." She recently narrated an independent film by a group of young filmmakers about the city's welfare-to-work program, workfare. Tunie says that after viewing a portion of the film, she knew she wanted to do it. "I practically did it for free, but I believed in this [film]."
But it sounds as if Tunie's toughest role is about to happen - that of a juggling act. She is off to Los Angeles to film several episodes of 24, Fox's new primetime series. Without giving too much away about her character, Tunie says, "I give the orders. I love giving orders!" she laughs. But while she pulls triple duty on both coasts - acting on Law & Order: SVU and As the World Turns in New York and 24 in Los Angeles, the talented actress accepts the challenge with ease. "I consider myself truly blessed. I consider myself really lucky, juggling three things at one time. I could complain about it, but it's a good position to be in."