Adria Tennor is primarily known for her star turn on AMC’s Mad Men. She has appeared in films The Artist and You Don’t Mess With the Zohan and keeps busy with her own hysterical one-woman show, TV work, and her restaurants, Barbrix and Cooks County. She owns Barbrix with her husband Claudio Blotta and Cooks County with her husband and partners Daniel Mattern and Roxana Jullapat.
When I caught up with Tennor, she discussed her role of Lolly in the award winning film Fort McCoy starring Eric Stoltz and Kate Connor, recently released in August. Along with commenting on the film, Tennor added her candid feelings about her time with Playwrights Horizons Theatre School and her take on writing, directing and acting, including whom she’d like to be similar to “when she grows up.”
Tell us about Fort McCoy which is based on a true story of a family in Wisconsin who lived near a POW camp during W.W. II. How does the character you portray fit in with the events? Does she illustrate any themes that you find important?
Fort McCoy shows us life on a U.S. army base during WWII through the eyes of a young American girl living next to a POW camp. My character, Lolly, works on the base as a switchboard operator and befriends Ruby Stirn (Kate Connor) and shows her the (literal) “ropes.” It’s a small tight-knit community so Ruby and Lolly become friends which means I get to pop up all over the place – which I loved. And I end up falling for Ruby’s brother so if there’s a sequel…!
Is there anything in particular about the role/character/film shoot in general that the readers might find interesting, different, entertaining?
We shot on location in Wisconsin on the actual Fort McCoy grounds. That was pretty thrilling to think that the story we were telling actually happened there almost 70 years ago. I could have also listened to Kate for hours (Kate who wrote the screenplay, co-directed and produced the film is the great-grandniece of Ruby Stirn, the character Kate portrays). She would tell little anecdotes that hadn’t made it into the film (perhaps these will make it into the television series!) about her grandmother and family. In general, I loved being away, someplace I’d never been, learning about this place and these people. These are all the reasons I want to make movies, to learn and travel.
Were you familiar with Fort McCoy beforehand? What did you learn that was surprising as you read the script and found out about the events that occurred there?
I had not heard of Fort McCoy. Everything I know I learned from Kate and her family. I was very surprised to learn that the Americans captured German and Japanese soldiers and brought them to Wisconsin to POW camps, AND that Americans stationed on the base lived within a hands reach of these prisoners. Just a really different time.
What was it like working with the other actors and the director? Had you worked with them before? Did you get to see them work?
Kate and I met on Mad Men and became friends. We both shared an aspiration to write and produce our own stuff, which we both have now done. She shared her script with me and I fell in love with it. I told her I wanted to be there to help her make it, whether it was acting or PA-ing. I was going to Wisconsin to support her.
I knew Kate’s husband Andy Hirsch a little bit, too, but other than that, everyone else was a new acquaintance. They were all wonderful – gracious, kind, happy to be there and happy to be working on something they cared about.
How long was the shoot? What locations were used?
I believe our time in Wisconsin was 17 days – don’t quote me on that – then there were some pickups done on a soundstage in LA.
You and I share the same Alma Mater, NYU, but we were in different programs. How did Tisch prepare you for a career in the entertainment industry? Did it? Would you consider theater/comedy (besides your one-woman shows) or do you prefer film? Why?
I loved my time at NYU and even more than Tisch, I appreciated my time at Playwrights Horizons Theatre School which was commissioned by NYU to teach a portion of their undergrads. I was placed at Playwrights Horizons because I had shown an interest and aptitude in stage direction – I directed a couple plays in high school through a mentorship program, so I continued to pursue that aspect of theatre at PHTS – which was a subsidiary of the Off Broadway theatre of the same name. This gave us incredible access to emerging playwrights and directors and theatre producers who taught the classes there.
As a directing student I was required to take all the classes the acting students took PLUS the required directing, dramaturgy and stage management classes. This made for about 36 hours a week of class time, and then I still had homework and work study. But besides being overmaxed, I loved it. I especially loved getting to take all the acting classes. That’s what I really wanted to do, but when I auditioned to get into the school, the NYU monitor had asked me to stop in the middle of my monologue (I was pretty horrible!) and asked me to talk about my directing. So, that is actually how I got into the program.
I’ve done as much theater as possible in my career. I did a play a couple years ago that got terrific reviews called Sarah’s War based on the Rachel Corrie story.
I love being onstage, but it’s hard for me to juggle because the other side of my life is our restaurants which claims most of my evening and weekend time. That’s convenient for auditioning for film and TV, but it makes doing theatre a little more challenging. And, like anything, there is stiff competition – there are actresses, like my pals Jules Wilcox for instance and Kirsten Kollender, who have really put in the time and built their theatre resumés so now when I go up against them or any number of other theatre actors who’ve paid their dues, it’s a little tough for me!
I loved my training at Playwrights. I do feel the Tisch School fell short – I hate to say that. I felt that they did not do a good job of integrating their arts programs so that actors could be interfacing with directors who could be interfacing with cinematographers, etc. I came away from that program knowing a great group of actors with whom I studied for four years, but had never really met anyone with whom I could collaborate in my career as far as producers, directors and filmmakers. All our classes were separate with no overlap.
And I love comedy and spent several years doing standup both in New York and LA. In fact, that is what spawned my one-woman show. My standup evolved, as it does for many comedians, into a story I wanted to tell in addition to just telling jokes.
What is some of the best work you’ve done? Was it in Mad Men? TV? Or your one-woman shows? Why?
I’m very proud of both those credits. Mad Men is a show I really love and respect so to be a part of that was a dream come true. I’m also really proud of my ability and wherewithal to create and perform my own material. But it’s hard to play favorites!
I got to play a really fun character on Greek, Professor Clarissa, who was funny at her own expense, and I’m proud of that too. The writer/producers kept telling me how lucky they were to have found an actress that didn’t mind looking silly. I guess a lot of women don’t want to go to that place. I loved it.
But I do feel like my best work is yet to come. It’s so hard to get work in this business, and there are so many ridiculously talented people who are saying one or two lines on TV episodics because they’re not names that the networks can sell. I’m really looking forward to the time in my career where I’m really given the chance to fulfill my potential. I believe the closest I’ve come to this is the very challenging scene I had with January Jones on Mad Men.
You wear many hats, as per your website. Which do you prefer to wear? Why?
I love acting, but I also really love producing and collaborating in general. My ideal career would be acting in a film I helped to produce and maybe even wrote. And I really like directing. That is something I would not want to combine with acting. If I’m in something, I want someone else directing and vice versa. I respect other actors who can do both at once, but I just don’t think I could trust myself to see things from both sides. Jennifer Westfeldt is my hero. Maybe someday I can grow up to be like her!
And I love the restaurants. I’m very social and I love connecting with people in this way. Its nice to have this other vocation outside the industry. It gives me a good balance and grounding.
I saw your video on “Super Thin Super Models” and appreciated your humor greatly. I have written about such issues on my blog. (I used to weigh 110 pounds more so the schizoid personality between the fat rebel and the scrawny hag is one I’m familiar with.) We need comedic social commentary to help straighten out the warped values of our culture. To what extent do your one-woman shows use such comedy?
I got a lot of flack for that video because people thought it was wrong to joke about something so serious, especially since I, myself, am a thin woman. But to me, comedy has got to be risky. And then everyone has to realize and understand the humor. The seriousness is the underlying message. It’s like condemning Book of Mormon for making fun of AIDS rather than celebrate the fact that it draws millions of people to take a look at this issue.
The reason comedy is so important is because it is such a universal, accessible and powerful way to communicate about these taboo subjects. A lot of people (especially young people) don’t/won’t watch the news or a documentary, but they will go see something that makes them laugh. That makes it a powerful platform for communicating about serious, important problems and issues. This was such an invaluable talent of Robin Williams and why his loss his so, so boundless. (And please do not misinterpret that I am comparing myself and my work to either Mr. Williams or the creators of Book of Mormon!)
My solo show also looks at the issues of femininity and the way we view sexuality and how these social norms and mores affect woman and how they view themselves and even how it affects their romantic relationships or even their ability to have a healthy one. There’s a lot of self-deprecating humor in my show to which I found hundreds of women AND men related.
What projects are you considering for the future? (writing, acting, directing)?
I am finishing post-production on a short I wrote, produced and directed (but did not act in!) called Cracked. We just finished our submission to Sundance and are looking at other festivals to showcase the project, which stars Marguerite Moreau, Kerrie Keane, Talyan Wright and Stanley Miller.
I’m also polishing a feature I wrote about a woman estranged from her developmentally disabled mother, called Rose, which I am bringing out in the next month to producers and prospective investors. It’s an edgy indie drama with some stellar roles for women which I hope will attract some name talent that will then in turn attract investors. We will see.
I’m also looking forward to the season premiere of MTVs Faking It! Can’t give too much away, but I will be making a guest star appearance on that. I’m also looking forward to D-Train coming out – I’m co-starring with Jack Black, Kathryn Hahn, James Marsden and Mike White.
Adria Tennor, it is a pleasure to have gotten to know you.
If you are in L.A. look for Adria’s one-woman shows and if you can keep up with this busy woman, check her out on TV, her upcoming project Cracked and of course, NOLA-set D-Train with Jack Black.