An Interview with Adria Tennor
Updated: Aug 1
Adria Tennor is an actor, writer and director known for Mad Men, The Artist, Mad Dogs, and One Moment. Alongside Kristen Tracy she is also the creator of the short-format series Fetish. I spoke with Adria about landing her first role, working with Hal Hartley, her work as a director, and her preferred acting methods.
Did you always want to pursue a career in acting?
Since I was six, I really wanted to do this. My Grandma took me to see Annie at The Fisher Theatre in Detroit, which is where I grew up. I wanted my Mum to take me downtown and I wanted to go audition and leave home and be an actress. She thought I’d grow up a bit, but I didn’t. I think my Mum is a bit sorry that she didn’t give me more of a head start, but she was probably good not to do that.
Where did you train?
I took acting in high school. I moved to Maryland and the high school there had a directing program, in addition to the acting and drama classes. Then I moved to another part of Maryland and they didn’t have a directing class, so I created one. They had an internship program. There was a woman in the town where I lived who had a dinner theatre, so I interned with her and directed a couple of plays at high school.
I applied to the drama program at NYU. I had to do a monologue, but in the first third they stopped me and said ‘why don’t you talk to me about your directing?’ So, I told them that I really liked Ibsen as we had just read Hedda Gabler in English class. They really lit up when I said that. I really think that’s why I got to go to NYU, which is such an amazing program. In order to be in the directing track you had to take all the classes that actors had to take in addition to the directing. That’s really what I wanted to do.
Your first role was in Amateur? How did you land the role?
That was my first paid theatrical role. I’d done a few commercials. In Amateur I played a boy. I got a commercial agent right away and that commercial agent was at an agency that also did commercial, film and television. He introduced me to those two agents who wanted to work with me and I got that from going to an audition. I was auditioning for about a year, which I think is how long it takes. Because I was auditioning for a 12-year-old boy I really felt totally different doing that. Being a boy made me feel more badass.
I went to the original audition and got a call back. It was with a very reputable casting company, Billy Hopkins. At the time Billy Hopkins was working with Suzanne Smith and Kerry Barden who have since gone on to be their own prolific entities as casting directors. I read for Kerry and the call back was with Suzanne Smith. Hal and Martin Dononvan were there (the lead in the movie). I didn’t know who he was at the time and I also hadn’t watched any of Hal’s movies. I felt really free and I think that’s why I got the part. I don’t think Hal liked me all that much, but we did the scene and it was awesome. I thought if nothing else at least that reader guy (Martin Donovan) knows I’m a good actress.
What was the process like working with Hal Hartley?
Well, it was only one scene. He’s a real actor’s director. One of his teachers was also a teacher of mine and I think he saw that on my resume and connected that. He really liked to try different ways and hear it different ways. He was very non-result orientated. He really wanted to see how I did it. It was a weird scene because I’m a woman playing a 12-year-old boy. The reason he wanted that is because we were looking at a porn magazine. Martin Donovan plays a guy who makes pornography and his girlfriend pushes him out the window because he’s such a jerk. Hal was conscious of the fact that if his feminist friends watched this film and there were two guys talking about naked women, then he’d get shit for that. He felt if he had female presence in the role that would be interesting. That’s why he wanted a woman to play the part.
You played Young Annie in The First Wives Club. Could you tell me more about this experience?
This was really the beginning of my career when I got cast in that role. The things I was getting called in for were these very masculine lesbians because I had just played this boy, which I was not right for. There was a part in the book where Diane Keaton’s daughter is a lesbian. That was the part originally got called in for. Of course, I wasn’t really right for that. There was another role to play Diane Keaton as her younger self, so that was a no brainer. That’s how I got that part. I was really excited because I thought I was going to get to meet all those cool women, but I didn’t meet them as they weren’t on set that day. They had the premiere in LA and I was in New York. I have since met Diane Keaton and Stockard Channing. I don’t think they really wanted to meet us either. If someone were playing me in my 20s that would bum me out.
Do you often get typecast in similar roles?
In way it’s good to be typecast because it helps people cast you and see what you are good at. I loved my school and training, but there’s a lot of things I wish they had told us. What I started to do was write my own stuff because I wasn’t working as much as I wanted to. So, I was writing my own things and if someone ever asks me what I’d tell a young actor, I’d say write your own things. Then they will be able to create what I know I can do and show that to people. You can figure out a way to make it not limiting. J.P. Manoux I use as an example. He plays a kooky, nerdy character, but he works all the time because he has really perfected that niche and that’s really good because when people need that they think of him. So, in a way it’s really good to figure out what your archetype is and really lean into it.
How have the roles you’ve been offered changed since you first started out?
They’ve gotten bigger and better. I’d really like to play a badass, tough woman that doesn’t take any shit. I don’t think people see me that way. I really want to establish that I can be Lady Macbeth and tough.
That makes for a great character if people perceive you one way and you hit them with the opposite…
I think people want to see that and they like that. I think that’s cool.
You’ve worked across the board as a director, actor and producer. Do you prefer working behind the camera?
I really love being an actor, but I actually really just love storytelling. If someone told me that I wasn’t going to work as an actor again, but as a writer, director or producer, then I’d be okay. I know that would never happen, but I just want to be involved in the storytelling and creating.
Has your experience as an actor helped shape your work as a director?
It is so important. I also started teaching acting. A long-time girlfriend of mine, Sarah, went on to grow a business as an acting teacher and it’s gotten so big for her. This year she started working on a show called This Is Us and was on-set a lot and needed somebody to cover the classes, so I started doing that. It’s just invaluable because I feel like a lot of directors really know about camera, angles, placement and lenses, but they don’t know how to talk to actors. It seems that way especially in television. I think that my experience as an actor and then as a director, has helped me understand how to work as an actor with a director. I can now take some dumb direction I’ve been given and translate it into a useful mechanism for me to take the note. I’m teaching this to my students. I’d say 75% of the time the director doesn’t really know how to explain what they want. It’s going to be up to the actors because that’s what we have to do.
It’s always interesting when actors become directors as they have a much different approach…
You know who I think are really good directors, is casting directors. I think they really understand that bridge between what a director wants and what an actor wants. They are really good at communicating that. I’ve seen casting directors direct in really impressive ways.
There should be an Oscar category for best casting director!
Why do we not have that? It’s such a big part of the piece. Directors say that all the time that 99% of directing is casting the right actor. I’d sign that petition. I love it when actors get up there and thank the casting person because that’s the reason they are there.
Is there a particular acting method you follow, or teach?
I follow a lot of them and I’ve studied lots of different kinds of methods. There’s Stanislavski, Larry Moss etc. I really love this book by Michael Shurtleff called Audition. He was this prolific casting director and the book is about breaking down a character and breaking down a scene. Also, Meisner technique is something I studied quite a bit as well. All of those things are in my toolbox and I teach that. I also tell students that it’s really important to understand these different methods because along the way you are going to work with all these different actors who will have their own ways of working. It’s really important and helpful to understand what they are doing and what their process is. It’s also really important that they understand yours. I think every actor should really look at the Meisner technique.
Is it challenging on set when actors have very different approaches?
I’ve not had trouble with that myself. I have worked on things where it felt like it was difficult and somebody was making it hard for me and the director and everyone, but that’s the way it goes. My solution for that is to be the solution and not the problem and to come prepared so nothing can rattle me. I ask a lot of questions if I can before. If not, I just make up the answers for myself. If there is somebody I think is potentially difficult, I literally meditate about having a protective bubble around me and that really works for me. I’ve seen it happen where there is a difficult person and they just bounce away off the bubble. I mentally create that.
Is there anything you are current reading/watching?
I’m currently listening to Ester Perel’s Mating in Captivity. I’ve always been interested in self-improvement. I’m interested in being the best person and Larry Moss says this: ‘It takes being a really healthy person to be a good actor.’ I also finished watching The Drop Out. Amanda Seyfried is a friend of mine. Her husband is also a dear friend to me. I think she is so talented and I respect her work a lot.