American actress, producer and recording artist, Tamela D’Amico takes us through her amazing career in the performing arts from an early age, all the way to her recent outlook-altering experience, the Cannes selected Indian film One Little Finger (2019) by Rupam Sarmah, an eye-opening film follows a neurologist (Tamela D’Amico) as she gives up everything to study music therapy in India. D’Amico’s character helps the differently-abled come together through music and alters their, and her own, perception of what it means to be “disabled”.
FF: Would you like to introduce yourself?
TD’A: Sure. My name is Tamela D’Amico and I am an actress, recording artist and filmmaker.
From ‘odd child’ to film school
FF: Fantastic. So, how did you get into acting?
TD’A: I sort of was an odd child. In the States, a lot of kids watch Sesame Street and cartoons when they’re just starting preschool. I didn’t. I’m the youngest of five kids, and there was a great gap between myself and my siblings – so I think my mom was holding on to me. I didn’t go to preschool, so instead I watched New York’s nostalgia network, which is sort of like Turner Classic Movies. I had grown a great love of movies from that, so I just had a natural propensity to get into acting. Then of course, high school, and then college, I went to film school and theater school. At the same time, I came out to California to pursue my career opportunities and schooling at the Strasberg Actor Studio (The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute). Then I just started working in the industry while I was going to school, that’s pretty much it. I just had a great love of it. My parents are very dream oriented. They said, ‘Reach for the stars’. So, when you’re raised with that sort of mentality, you don’t think it’s not possible.
FF: That’s actually amazing. Because most actors, obviously, when they say they want to be an actor, there’s usually somebody close to them that’s like, ‘Okay, well, what’s going to be your real job? You know, what’s your backup?’ So, I think it’s really good that you had that strong encouragement from a really early age. It sounds like you did a lot of a lot of training as well.
TD’A: I made the choice to sort of double major – you can only have one major but I took a minor in theatre – just because the film school was such an intense program. They only accept 16 students from all over the world per year. It was actually the greatest, most realistic experience of what Hollywood is. In Hollywood, you do a movie, you get thrown into a group of people from all over the world and have different modes of working and you have to adapt. The school pretty much set us up for a studio system, because again, we were students from all over the world of different ages, not everyone was the same age, and the state was our studio that funded the film. We were responsible to the state of Florida to actually create a product.
FF: Would that be the route that you would recommend, then, to young aspiring actors? To go and get some real solid training behind them?
TD’A: I believe that people are innately talented, and then there’s also craft. Some people can come up just through craft and do fine in a career, but beyond that, you have to have drive and action, and have such a passion and willingness to be completely vulnerable and naked and also broke at times. Because a career goes like this, no matter who you are. Anytime you’ve seen A-list actor and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m just looking at scripts right now’. Yeah, you’re looking for a job. It’s a freelance business. Everyone’s always looking for a job. There’s no guarantees for anyone, not even Julia Roberts. There’s no guarantees. If you have to question whether or not you need to be an actor or filmmaker or a creative person in general, don’t do it.
Film director turned social media influencer
FF: So, have you done anything behind the camera as well?
TD’A: Several things. We actually have a web series called Sex Ed: The Series. That was one of the first to really take off on YouTube. We have over 150 million views. The cast is just riddled with amazing people.
Joanna Cassidy, who people would know from Blade Runner, Matt Barr, who’s in a million TV shows, Angela Sarafyan from Westworld… I mean, it’s just like a who’s who of TV and when we were casting, we really lucked out in that we chose the right people – not knowing that their careers would explode. So that was something that actually turned out to be quite successful.
Beyond that I’ve done a number of short films, and I’m in pre-production for a few low budget indie features. One is an Asian rom-com that will go out next year. I actually got known as a film director in town because I had done this short film called [Volare], which is based on my father’s experience coming from Sicily. I had written this project a million times from the time I was 16 forward, and then I did a script for it and shot it at Paramount Studios. The whole time I was shooting, I was like, ‘Steven Spielberg is going to see this movie’. Eventually his team did, and I was asked to be on this show called On the Lot (2007) that was searching for the next best director. It was done by Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett, who does all of those reality TV game shows. That has afforded me so many open doors, you would not believe it!
So from there, I did a number of other shorts and web series, and then Sex Ed and in addition, I became a social media influencer and a content creator for brands, which this year was completely necessary because we’re all inside. How can you work as an actor or filmmaker just working from home? So, I am super grateful for having that social media fan base. People always ask like, ‘How did you become a social influencer or a content creator for brands?’ It happened by default; it wasn’t anything I sought out. I’ve always been a self promoter and a genuine networker in a real way.
Because I had been on this Disney Channel TV show, I had just gained fans, so my social media numbers blew up. In addition to my music, like I said, I’ve got like three arms to my career: recording artist, actress and filmmaker. I’m a jazz recording artist, so I already had those fans. Thanks to [On the Lot] fans, I also had a faction of filmmakers. The numbers on my social media were doing so well, brands started contacting me to do posts for them. I primarily lead in the eco-conscious brands to work with, like if somebody is fair trade or owned by a woman, or it’s good for the earth, I tend to lean that way. Or very known brands that I actually believe in, just to have integrity, because the moment the moment you lose integrity as a content creator, it’s over for you. All of my careers sort of forged together this year. It’s been such a blessing because I don’t know what I would have done in a pandemic working from home without that.
Disability in film: it’s a movement
FF: So do you want to tell us a little about One Little Finger (2019)? Tell us how that came about? How did you get that role?
TD’A: It’s such a weird, odd story. I had been offered a number of Indian films, not a large number, but two prior to this one. My reps were like, ‘No way. You’re not going there. We don’t understand the infrastructure. We don’t know these people’. The second one that I was offered actually went to Cannes, so I was like, ‘Oh, I should have done that’. I was sort of upset about it, and then cut to two years later, I’m at Lake Shrine, which is near Malibu with a friend and we were just being silly. It’s a gorgeous place that has Japanese gardens – people go there to meditate. I was like, ‘Let’s go down by the Swan Lake and meditate’. So, we did and I had this very serious meditation moment, and I had this flash of India. I turned to my friend, Jordan, I’m like, ‘Jordan, I think I’m going to go to India’. He opens one little eye and he’s like, ‘It’s already happening’. It was like a weird joke moment. Then two weeks later, I got this movie, I read the script, and it was so beautiful. I thought, ‘How can I not do this movie?’ I had my lawyers and my agents, we vetted everyone who had been to India, we had vetted the director who actually had known of me from the Grammy foundation. He’s a music artist as well. This film has amazing musicians on it. There’s Quincy Jones, Seidah Garrett, who actually is in the movie and she also wrote Man in the Mirror for Michael Jackson, and so many amazing people were attached to do this film.
Basically, I play a character named Raina, who’s an American neurologist who uproots her life in America to study her ideas about music therapy, and she brings her ideas to a disability institute there. I find myself teaching children and adults with disabilities, and by bringing them together through music and inspiration, she realizes there is ability in disability. Anyone can overcome their challenges, right? It was a remarkable experience for me, because as I was going through the process of filming and as my character was taking on this journey, I was taking on the same journey as a person. I’d never been to India before, everything I was experiencing was very real.
We opened in Festival De Cannes and it’s gone on to so many film festivals. It’s won all these laurels. It’s just super important because I think what’s depicted in the film are things that have not been seen. We have 80 people with disabilities who act in this movie, or are a part of the movie. Not all of them are actors. It’s just a remarkable experience. I think at any point someone in your life you can become disabled, even you. This past year, my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and now we have to think about things like ‘Where’s the ramp in this building for the wheelchair?’ So, in the film, you see actors actually go through their daily life of what that means, when somebody has cerebral palsy – what is their day like?
I think the message that we’re trying to promote is it’s not just a film, it’s a movement. There’s ability in disability and everyone should really learn about inclusion and people-first language; which states who a person is, not what they have. ‘So this is my sister. She’s the nurse. Oh, she also happens to have cerebral palsy’, you know, you don’t lead with, ‘she has cerebral palsy’. I think people will be affected by it. We’re hoping that eventually this will be taken to schools and be used as a learning tool as well.
FF: It sounds like an absolutely beautiful story. What an amazing character to play as well, absolutely amazing. Where exactly in India were you filming?
TD’A: Okay, so I was filming in Assam, which is basically where all the black tea in the world comes from, which was amazing. We got to shoot in the tea gardens.
FF: Were you up north? Is that North India?
TD’A: Yeah. It’s up north near the borders of Pakistan, and then we also filmed in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). The funny part was, the government was like, why are you going to Assam? They didn’t believe I was actually shooting there because it’s so close to the Pakistan border where we were going. They were like, ‘This sounds lofty, you know’. I didn’t have my passport secured until the day before my flight, it was nerve racking. When you’re there, you’re thrown into this National Geographic moment where I’m like, in someone’s mud home. I was like ‘This is a surreal experience. I’ll never have this experience again’. It was just sort of life-altering.
The culture shock of filming in India
FF: Did you experience any culture shock or anything like that? Did you assimilate quite easily?
TD’A: Like I said, we had vetted 20 different Americans who had gone to India, asking ‘What was your experience?’ Everyone said the same thing, ‘Don’t drink the water’. No one gave me practical knowledge. Where we were filming the water system is fairly new, and those people have never travelled to America before so there was no frame of reference. So, they would be like, ‘Okay, here is your bucket and your little pint thing’. I was like, ‘Am I supposed to wash my own clothes? What is this about?’ So, I just put it in the corner of the room. For two weeks I took cold showers because I didn’t understand how to turn on the hot water heater. I kept saying, ‘There’s no hot water here’. They were like, ‘No madam, there’s hot water’. But like I said, they had no frame of reference to tell me in a way for me to understand. In America, we’ve got hot water where you just turn the tap, you know? So, I had to learn all those things from an American woman’s blog, which I’m so grateful for, but it was after two weeks of searching. This one girl I found through her Twitter profile, she was like, ‘If you’re in India, these are the things you need to know that no one will tell you’. I was super grateful and after that everything was fine. Beyond that, yeah, the culture shock.
Everyone’s so lovely. I feel like India needs a publicist. Americans don’t know enough about India, I think they only know about the Indian people coming here. Then stereotypes happen and all that stuff, but what a loving and beautiful group of people I got to be surrounded with.
FF: They’re so hospitable…
TD’A: Yeah, that’s what I was gonna say. Someone would be passing by the home where we were, and they’d be like, ‘Please come in, have some tea’. We had tea like eight times a day, it was all warm and welcoming. Nobody was a stranger and we were just really surrounded by so much love and light.
What’s interesting is there’s a great disparity of wealth and poverty but it doesn’t matter where you fall in the socio-economic scale – they have such faith and such hope and such joy all the time that when I came home, I was like, ‘Wow, America’s got to really get it together’. The majority of America is on some sort of antidepressant and just don’t really realise how good we have it. It’s just so foreign to people. But I also want to clarify, I completely recognize that I had a unique world experience, because I went over there as an actor. I was treated like royalty. My experience is not going to be the average American’s experience. But the people are just lovely, and especially the people that I encountered.
Yes, of course, as with all countries, there are specific dangers that exist. There’s a lot of human trafficking. We went to Kolkata, and when we went to the Mother Teresa house I saw things that were just unimaginable to me that was happening in the city. That was literally like the last day before I left. Also, you start your journey and then you’re like, ‘India has a pink sun, it’s magical’, but then by the end, you’re like, ‘Oh, the sun looks pink because of the pollution, but it still is magical’.
What a fantastic experience. It’s likely that I will not have a filming experience like that again.
FF: Yeah, I totally understand that. So, you were saying that you’re getting full distribution for this film. You said it will be available everywhere.
TD’A: It’s OTT platform, which means `over the top streaming`, so that’s Amazon, Apple, VUDU, Google, like wherever you can rent a movie. I think it’s everything except for Netflix.
Advice for creators
FF: Just a last couple of words from you, what would be your advice to someone who’s coming into the creative world via writing, directing or acting, or music, because you do it all? What would you say to them, what would be your best piece of advice?
TD: Sort of what we were touching on before – if you don’t have a great passion or willingness to be 100% yourself, naked and vulnerable, maybe go into something else. But if you have that, you just have to do it. You just have to create any way that you can. Unabashedly.
When my music career started; I had a lot of people in my ear telling me to go different paths. I was like, ‘I hear you, I will do that, but my heart is in jazz. It may not be the most lucrative path, but that’s my heart’. I can see myself doing that until I die. You have to trust your gut a little bit, and also know what’s in you, and if that’s what’s bringing you joy, it’s the only thing that’s ever going to make you happy. So, you just have to push forward.
Obviously, people have survival jobs and things like that, but there’s a way of turning your survival jobs into – especially now, like I said, as being a content creator – something enjoyable. There’s a way to exist where you get the joy of both worlds.
Scottish Tunisian actress. Yes, that’s a thing. BAME. POC.