Tamara Bass, actor, writer, director

Tamara Bass & Meagan Good: breaking barriers for black women in film

‘What happens when unresolved trauma comes to the surface?’ This is one of the central questions that motivated the development and creation of If Not Now, When? (2019) a directorial debut from Tamara Bass and Meagan Good. In this episode of the Film Forums Podcast, actor, writer and producer Tamara Bass talks to fellow filmmaker, presenter Aiysha Jebali about breaking barriers for women of colour through powerful storytelling and resisting stereotypes.

A self-confessed introvert, Bass explains how acting has provided an outlet and mode of expression, the empowerment of setting up a production company, and the struggles of raising finance to make a movie focused on black female characters. That determination to tell this story her way has led to an authentic, well-crafted and beautifully produced movie about love, forgiveness and the incredible bond between women, regardless of colour.

FF: Hi there, welcome to Film Forums. My name is Aiysha Jebali and with me I have Tamara Bass. Would you like to introduce yourself?

TB: Hi, I’m Tamara Bass. I am a writer, co-director, producer, co-star of If Not Now, When? (2019).

Krazy Actress Productions with Meagan Good

FF: Do you want to tell us a little bit more about your production company, Krazy Actress Productions, that obviously produced the film?

TB: I have a production company with Meagan Good. We have been, wow, what is this now…23 years of friendship? Yeah, it’s crazy. Sometimes I look at her, or she’ll look at me, and I’m like, we’ve known each other since we had the word ‘teen’ in our age.

We started this company just because we wanted different stories to get out there. Both of us are actors and we would get these scripts or go into these auditions and it was the same thing over and over again. You know, as black women we were pigeon holed into this little bubble where you were either the best friend, or you had to be the funny girl, or you had to be the super hot video vixen type of girl to be the love interest. But as black women, we’re not this little monolithic group. We have so many facets and we live these full, rich lives that I wanted to represent, and she wanted to represent.

So, we decided to pair our two loves together and go for it. If Not Now, When? (2019) is our first feature and we did a web series a few years before that. So, this is the first time that we get to introduce our voice to the rest of the world. So it’s cool.

The importance of representation

FF: I find it really interesting, reading your bio on your website, about how, like you said, you kind of got tired of the same women of colour roles coming up and you wanted to create something that was different. Something that was more realistic and authentic as well, which I absolutely love. Because I think there are limited roles for women as it is, but women of colour, there’s even less. It’s actually really heart-breaking how few roles there are.

I’m also, I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m from an ethnic background as well, I’m North African. And I have the same thing. I’m always playing ethnicities that are not actually my own. And so, I can understand, to a degree, where you’re coming from in wanting to create something different. And I find it actually so inspiring. I really enjoyed reading that.

TB: Thank you. Yeah, it’s important to me. As black women, we have the same trials and tribulations that everybody else has but we also have the added thing of being a black woman, which society has shown we’re the least protected group on this planet.

As black women we were pigeon-holed into this little bubble…

You know, our children are forced to grow up before they’re ready. I have an 11-year-old, who is technically my niece, but she is my child, like my sister gave birth to her, but she’s mine. And she’s very tall, she’s starting to become developed and there’s this notion that she’s less innocent at 11 than her counterparts who are white or anyone else and it’s not fair. She’s still 11, she gets to be 11. So, I have this mission where, even the little boys in my life, I don’t call them little man. I don’t say this is my little man because no, he’s a boy, he gets to be a boy. Because at 12, society has deemed him a threat. No, I want to remind them that he is a boy, she is a girl.

So, I translate that too into my writing. As women, we go through the same things that everyone else goes through. Yet when you tell our stories, it’s either this – I call it trauma porn – where we’re overcoming something, we’re in the hood and we got to get out. Or it’s this unrealistic thing that we’re achieving, where it’s like, not everybody is rich, not everyone is extremely poor. There’s a lot of in the middle, and there are a lot of stories of in the middle.

And that’s what I tend to write, I don’t like to write presentational black stories, meaning I’m not presenting them to you as if this is the black story. I like to write representational of what my lived life is. I like to create things that show the dynamic of what my friend group is, or what discussion we sit around and talk about. We talk about love, we talk about infertility, we talk about all of those things, yet society says, ‘No, we don’t’. And I want to show that we do. So that’s what I set out to achieve in everything, every time I sit down in front of a computer.

Tamara Bass in If Not Now, When? (2020)
Tamara Bass in If Not Now, When? (2020)

As an actor, you can be anything

FF: So, what inspired you to get into acting in the first place? Because obviously, that was kind of the first step, right?

TB: It’s funny, I was thinking about this the other day. I was about six and I was watching The Cosby Show (1984-1992) with my grandmother. And my grandmother, my mom’s mom, she passed away when I was 14, but she was my rock. She was literally everything to my whole universe. Like if she stepped, I stepped. If she sneezed, I sneezed. It’s like she was my heart. And so, I was sitting on the floor, and I was watching The Cosby Show (1984-1992). And I turned to her and I was like, ‘Nana, I’m gonna do that’, and she says, ‘Okay, Andy girl, of course you are’. And from then on that’s all I ever wanted to do.

Growing up, if you asked me what I wanted to be, it was always an actress. And it was paired with something, like an actress and a child psychologist, or an actress and a lawyer. It was all those things, but it all came back to acting. So, I would find community programs to get into. And then when I got in my teenage years, I realised that being an actor meant that I get to pretend to be all those other things. I can be a lawyer, I can be a child psychologist, I can be all of those things.

It was the one thing in my life that was constant. It was a way for me to escape and become something else without losing me. And it was a way for me to just tap into every imagination that’s ever gone through my mind, I got to channel that, and I loved it. And because I do have a deep love of psychology, it allowed me to study people and become these different people. And when the director yelled ‘Cut!’ or if I’m doing a play and the scene was over, I still get to go back to being Tamara, but I get to explore these other dynamics.

FF: I could totally relate to that. Definitely. I was a painfully socially awkward child, but acting can completely change that, you just step into someone else’s shoes.

TB: Yeah, it’s crazy because I’m a natural introvert. And everyone thinks that, when they hear you say that, they automatically assume that means you’re quiet and you’re meek. And it’s not that at all. I’m just stimulated by internal things and external things can become overwhelming. And I think it’s because I’m an empath, I take everything in. I never needed to be the centre of attention, I actually hate having my picture taken. But I just loved the study of people and creating. And being an introvert, people tend to forget sometimes that you’re in the room because you’re not loud. So, those are like the perfect opportunities to study everyone around me.

And it’s funny because people that meet me on the street, they’re like, ‘You’re a little standoffish, you can be a little different’. But then when they see me with my friend group, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so loud. You’re so out there’. Because this is where I’m comfortable and these people know me. So, it’s always been an escape. And it’s always been a way for me to be like, maybe I can play being an extrovert because in real life being an extrovert is scary.

If Not Now, When? (2020) from Krazy Actress Productions
If Not Now, When? (2020) from Krazy Actress Productions

FF: I think you find that in a lot of introvert creatives, that we have that. You know, everyone has a breaking point as well, and I think it’s good to channel that somewhere before it builds up into somewhere that’s unhealthy. Martial Arts definitely helped me a great deal anyway, I’m sure that helps you as well.

TB: Oh my gosh, it helped so much. I mean, it would help everything stressful. About six years ago, I lost a niece suddenly and she was nine. There would be times when I would be in the gym punching a bag and tears would just start coming. Or I’d be with my partner and I would tell them ahead of time like, ‘This is what I’m going through, okay?’, because they could prepare to catch, they could prepare to hold the kicking shield. But it was a way to get all of the emotions out. I mean, I would be in class sobbing and they all knew and would just let me be. But by the time class was over, I would feel better. I would be like, ‘Okay, it’s out’. I’m not somewhere using alcohol to numb my pain. I’m not somewhere using drugs to numb my pain. I’m either in front of my computer writing or I’m kicking stuff in this gym. And it helped heal.

Channelling trauma into art

FF: I was actually watching a round table with Jim Carrey, he was part of it, there were quite a few amazing comedians. But he said something that this is reminding me of. He said that creatives, when something is done to us, when someone hurts us or we’re traumatised, instead of reacting, like in spite or where we want to destroy something else, we end up going the opposite way and we try and create something instead. I think that you can definitely see that in some of the amazing works that are done by so many.

But talking of these traumas and painful things, in your film, you’re dealing with a very serious issue of addiction and also the young girl growing up and having to deal with that. How did you come up with that character and how did you develop the story to centre around that particular issue?

TB: It was interesting. I knew that there had to be something inciting to bring them all back together. I had her addicted to something else originally and a note I was given was like, ‘What about opioids?’. And opioids are such a big thing, especially within upper middle class communities so I wanted to do something that tackled that. But I also wanted it to be a redemption story for both of them.

There’s this idea that when you have a child young, your life ends, and she’s actually the most successful of us all. She graduated college, she graduated grad school, she did all of these things with a child. And sometimes that particular person, they don’t know how to deal when the outside world starts to fall apart. And we see it when she’s a teenager, she doesn’t deal with her pregnancy, she tries to push it to the side, the same with this addiction. And I wanted to just show what that arc looks like for someone going through it. But also, what that arc looks like for those that have to deal with that going through it and particularly her daughter.

I’m a natural introvert. And everyone thinks that, when they hear you say that, they automatically assume that means you’re quiet and you’re meek. And it’s not that at all.

Luckily for me, I grew up with a teenage mom, and to the outside world my mom was handling it, everything was great. Every stereotype you could think about that was thrown at an unwed 18-year-old, my mother was the polar opposite. I have a younger brother, we’ve never been arrested, we both graduated…all of those things that society said we couldn’t do. But when you peel back the layers, there was a lot of stuff happening within our household because my mom was under so much pressure and because she had so many things trying to make a life for us, that things started to fall through the cracks until they finally exploded. And granted, it wasn’t addiction. My mom wasn’t addicted to anything. But there was still unresolved trauma.

And that’s what I wanted to play with. What happens when unresolved trauma comes to the surface? Hers happened to come through an addiction. Mine came through in a myriad of other ways. So, I wanted to explore that. And then, of course, that brings this friend group back together. And it was important to me that when they came back together, no one was judging. No one once said, ‘She’s a bad person because of this’. No one said that. Everyone’s like, ‘We got you. We’ll hold this down until you can hold it down’. And that is representative of my friend group. That’s a direct representative. We all go through things and with my true friends it’s like, ‘Okay, you don’t have to be strong right now. We got you, we can be strong for you, even if we’re dealing with all this other stuff over here’.

Financing an independent film: maintaining creative control

FF: So in terms of, a lot of our audience will be filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers, so I just wanted to ask you a couple of quick questions about how you approached budget. Because raising a budget is the biggest hurdle, I think, for most.

TB: Oh my gosh…we tried…oh my gosh! That is a hurdle. We tried for years. We tried the traditional way, we sent it to some studios, and everyone was like, ‘This is really well written but we’re not doing those types of movies, because it’s not a comedy’. And when we started trying to do the research, we haven’t had a drama about four women – Black women – since Waiting to Exhale (1995), and that was 20 something years ago.

It was like, okay, this is sad because TV is showing us that there’s an audience for different stories. You look at the success of Queen Sugar (2016-), you look at the success of Insecure (2016-), which I know is technically a comedy, but she’s doing different things. You look at the success of shows like Greenleaf (2016-2020), and see that people want to see different things.

So, we tried the studio system, that didn’t work. Then we tried Indiegogo, and we were able to raise some money and from that we got attention from different people. And there was one company that was onboard, and we were in a conference call and one of the women on the call, who is not Black, said, ‘Can you add some more sassy sister girl moments?’.

FF: What does that mean?

TB: And mind you, at the time, Meagan and I weren’t together, we were on the phone but we weren’t together. Immediately, my text message goes off. And she’s like, ‘Don’t respond. Don’t say anything. Just get through the call’. And I was heated. Because that’s what we were getting. You know, we had other people that were like, ‘Yeah, we would do it if you change the ending to be this’. So, we finally were like, we’re going to stick to our guns and if we don’t get it made, we’re just not going to get it made.

I was able to take that script and strip it, bring it back to what it was originally supposed to be.

Then we had this angel donor come in. And he was someone connected to Meagan’s sister’s husband, it was like this roundabout way. And we pitched it to him. First, we pitched it to his business manager and his manager was like, ‘I think he’s gonna be in on this. Let’s talk to him’. We pitched it to him, and he said, ‘You had me at Black women. Anything I can do to support you guys, I’m down. Let me know what you need’. And, I mean, it does not happen that way. I don’t want to pretend like it does. But he did. He wrote us a check. He said, ‘Go make a movie. Let me know how it turns out’.

So, we had complete creative control. We had no one to answer to except ourselves. And for your first time filmmaking experience, it just doesn’t happen. But we felt like, of course it was going to happen that way. It was God, it was ordained to happen that way because we stuck to our guns, we stuck to not compromising our integrity, not selling our souls to get it made. There are steps along the way that we could have done it but neither one of us would have been happy. This way, we made a movie ourselves. We got to sit across from each other and be like, ‘Do you like that? I like that. Cool’. It was us.

And yes, once it was done, we got input, we did a couple of screenings, we got feedback. But the actual creative process, the integrity of getting the paper to the screen was us. And it would not have happened had we not had that one special investor who said, ‘I believe in what you guys are doing’.

Tamara La Seon Bass as Patrice in INNW
Tamara La Seon Bass as Patrice in INNW

FF: I’m so glad that you got that independence, because I think it would have done the film a disservice if you’d fallen into those stereotypes. Because, although there are sassy Black women, there are also white sassy women, there are also sassy Latina, sassy Arabs. Some women are sassy, some of us are not. So why would it be a race thing? I find that so irritating. It’s like when people say that I could only be cast as a terrorist’s wife because I have an Arabic name. It’s like, Ah!

TB: No, like why can’t your husband be a doctor who saves people? It’s frustrating. I get it.

FF: But I’m really glad to hear that you didn’t cave into those things, to get the money, to get the film made. Because I think a lot of people would have, to be honest.

TB: Oh, definitely. They would have done. And we were trying to do, Meagan and I, were trying to do another movie years before. I had written this script and we weren’t directing, we had a different director. And when I wrote the script, I sent it to her and she was like, ‘Oh my god, I love this. This is exactly the type of character I want to play. She’s vulnerable…yada, yada, yada’. By the time we were set to shoot it, it was nothing like we signed up for. Even though I wrote it, it had been rewritten multiple times, it had been changed. And it was so far from what we wanted but we were gonna do it so that we could get this movie made. And luckily, not luckily, again, God, it all fell apart. And we were both like, ‘Oh my God, good, because I hated it’. And she was like, ‘I hated it, too’.

So, when it fell apart, I was able to take that script and strip it, bring it back to what it was originally supposed to be. And it’s still waiting to be made. But that was a lesson to us, a lesson to not sell ourselves short. Because who wants to go and do a project that you ultimately hate but then you have to pretend that everything is great. So no, thank you for recognizing that. It was important to us, like at the end of the day, our integrity was in place.

How to get distribution? Film Festivals

FF: The other question would be, have you done the film festival run at all? Have you done anything along those lines, or did you go straight to distribution?

TB: No, we did festivals first. We premiered at ABFF and then we did Urban World, we did one in Amsterdam, we did one in London. We definitely did the festival route. For us, the festival route was a great thing, because we got to see direct feedback from an audience that wasn’t our friends and family. And to see how people responded to the movie. And it wasn’t just Black audiences. It was white women and older white men and people of all ethnicities coming up to us, loving our movie and just the universal themes of it.

Which then gave us the confidence to actively seek out distribution, that gave us the confidence to present something to a company. And then the response to that was great. We had different offers and we just felt like we wanted to be at a place where they got us and they got what we were trying to do. And we ended up at Vertical and they’ve been amazing.

FF: So just finally to finish up, when is it being released? And how is it going to be released?

TB: It’s being released January 8th, and it’s a day and date. So, we have a theatrical run and it’s also going to be on VOD, iTunes, Amazon the same day. We’re not sure exactly what markets, depends on what markets are open because of Covid-19. But yes, it comes out January 8th and we’re super excited for the world to get to see this little film. We look at it like it’s The Little Engine That Could, and we’re hoping that the audiences love it as much as we loved making it.

Credits

Presenter: Aiysha Jebali
Transcriber & Editor: Keren Davies
Second Editor: Richard Williams
Artwork: Richard Williams