This semester, Liesl Tommy, an award-winning South African director, and former actress, became the Fordham Theatre program’s 10th Denzel Washington Endowed Chair. Tommy was the first African American woman to receive a best directing Tony nomination for the 2016 Broadway production of Eclipsed, which told the story of five Liberian women and their survival during the country’s second civil war. The show also earned her a Lucille Lortel award. She later made the leap from stage to small screen; in 2019, she was the guest director for episodes of The Walking Dead and Jessica Jones. Now she’s directing Respect, a much-anticipated biopic about Aretha Franklin starring Jennifer Hudson that is set to be released in August.
On Dec. 2, Tommy joined the theater faculty for a virtual town hall on Zoom, where she responded to questions about her acting class at Fordham, her first experience working on a major motion picture, and the ghosts that find their way into all of her projects. Clint Ramos, head of design and production, moderated the discussion. The following is an edited excerpt.
Clint Ramos: How has your experience [at Fordham]been so far?
Liesl Tommy: The students that I have been working with have brought me joy every single session. They embody the things that I value the most in artists, which is curiosity and passion. It feels like that rush that one gets from rehearsal, of being in collaboration, of being with inquiring minds.
CR: What were the important [lessons]that you really wanted for them to get?
LT: The lesson plan that I had set for myself for the semester pivoted quickly in the face of what I was receiving from the students, in the face of their needs. My class is Creating a Character, and I pivoted from a pure acting class to something that was more spiritual. What I focused on was them as artists. Who are they, what are their voices, what are their dreams for themselves? And how do we make concrete practice manifest those things, in this time of turmoil?
CR: You’ve had so much success in directing. Is there any part of you that wants to go back to acting?
LT: No. I think that once you turn the corner [and spend]too many years away from it, your body changes and your performance muscles shift. I was an extremely disciplined actor because I had come from a dance background. I was one of those people who if I didn’t have literally three hours of physical activity a day, I didn’t feel like myself.
Once I switched to directing, the gaze shifted away from me, and I felt like my energy shifted from my body into my head. My workouts became much more about stress relief than being in top physical shape. I still work on monologues sometimes as a self-soothing activity, just to keep the connection between language and thought alive. When I’m talking to actors about that, about communicating thought, I just feel like I could never forget the thing that I’m asking them to do.
CR: When you’re talking about developing a practice for an actor in your class, is there anyone that you’ve said, ‘This works for a person who has trouble with this,’ and ‘This works for a person who has trouble with that’?
LT: There is a physical and a vocal practice that actors should be doing daily so that no matter what happens in that audition, that rehearsal room, or what happens as they’re walking down the street, they have connected with their pure self and their instrument.
The most important practice is one that allows you to know where your own power lies when people and forces are trying to take it away from you. I speak especially as a television director, when you’re walking into environments that are not always yours, that you didn’t create. Especially as a woman of color, you never know how welcome you are going to be in these environments.
CR: Do you think that informed your methodology in casting? You’ve been ahead of the curve in terms of really pushing for what we now call “nontraditional casting.”
LT: The phrase “nontraditional casting” isn’t useful for me because I grew up in South Africa, where people of color were in the majority. There was a huge Indian population, there was the indigenous population, and then also the African population. I just grew up saturated with every kind of person, eating every kind of food, and listening to every kind of music, and all of it synthesizing into a community.
I never really looked at it as nontraditional casting, I just looked at it as casting. But I never did what people call color-blind casting. When I cast outside of the dominant culture’s aesthetic, it was always with a political point of view that I was using to unpack ideas in the play.
CR: What was it like leaping from theater to a major-studio-backed motion picture?
LT: I’d always wanted to direct a film, and after Eclipsed we started kind of prepping for that. I was able to do a lot of very different kinds of television in a quick space of time with the eye on film eventually. Then, insanely, the Aretha Franklin biopic happened, and I chased it very hard. I had a very clear vision for it. The thing that I learned in television was that when in doubt, focus on storytelling. And I knew how to block, I knew how to compose, and I knew how to talk to actors. In my experience, even the stars, if you’re giving them something that will make them better, will not challenge you. They are so smart, and something magical happens. And then you’re on your way.
CR: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned throughout your career?
LT: Know what you love and then do that. There are certain things I just love and I put it on stage or on film all the time. As an artist, I accept that there are certain themes that in this lifetime I am meant to explore in my work, and I don’t fight it. I always put a ghost in everything that I am in charge of, and every single time it opens up something new in myself and my humanity.
CR: Yeah, what is that ghost thing?
LT: I don’t know, I just feel like we’re always learning about grief and we’re all haunted. I just feel like no one talks about it, but I feel like it’s one of the unifiers. Everybody eats, everybody drinks, everybody breathes air, everybody is haunted by grief.
CR: Anything that you can say to us that may have helped you buoy you forward?
LT: So much of our work is about muscling through. That’s good because we’re able to make magic happen with very little resources in the theater. But it also means that we put our minds and bodies through a lot.
I have realized that caring for my nervous system is what’s going to give me longevity in the business. I used to think it was money, I used to think it was maybe having a position of authority, being an artistic director or whatever. But it’s not that. So, the thing that I would say to everybody is, just make sure that you’re taking care of your nervous system and don’t close down to your community during this time. For us, that flow of energy is really survival.