If you’ve seen the posters for the new Netflix original film Tallulah, you’ve noticed the shadowy image of a lusty woman with a cigarette in her hands and curlers in her hair. What you might not realize is that caricature is based on Emmy Winner Tammy Blanchard in one of the most unexpected roles in her long and varied career. Co-starring opposite Ellen Page and Allison Janney, Blanchard plays the third point in a triangle encompassing the life of a little girl…her mother. Page plays the title character of Tallulah, an aimless young woman living in her band who stumbles into a babysitting job for Blanchard’s Carolyn…and is so concerned for the child’s welfare, she decides to kidnap her. Blanchard’s sultry, boozy performance as a mother on the verge of a breakdown seems miles away from the working mom in New Jersey I spoke with…and is in stark contrast from a lot of her roles. Blanchard (who got her start on the soap Guiding Light) won an Emmy for her second on-screen performance, as Young Judy Garland in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Since then she’s been a familiar face on-screen, including appearing in a multitude of projects like Rabbit Hole, Moneyball, Blue Jasmine, Into the Woods and this year’s sleeper hit The Invitation, and on Broadway in the revivals of Gypsy (opposite Bernadette Peters) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (opposite Daniel Radcliffe), both of which earned her Tony nominations. We spoke about her remarkable performance in Tallulah and her impressive career.
I spoke with Sian (Heder, the writer-director of Tallulah) who mentioned that in changing the premise of the film from short format to feature-length, she wanted to make your character into someone audiences could eventually find compassion for. But it takes a long time to get to that point in the film, and she is pretty hard to connect with, at least during the first half. Did you find it difficult to have compassion for her?
I think this type of character’s the most difficult to play, but if you are able to pull it off, they can be the most beneficial for the audience watching. When we first meet her, she’s completely desperate and just kind of a mess. And you do find yourself asking, “Why did she even have this child.” But I had mercy for her because there’s a scene with Margo (Allison Janney’s character), where she tells her, “My family told me to marry my husband because I couldn’t do any better.” And when you look at some women today who are beautiful but could be described as trophy wives, you can just imagine that they’ve never really been supported or encouraged by their families. They have simply been looked at as beautiful but dumb, and unable to support themselves. And I think that’s the case with Carolyn. She fell into that place in life where she only had her sexuality and depends on men, and then she had a baby because she thought it would help her marriage and get her husband to treat her the way he treated her when she was shiny and new. And that didn’t work and she’s still desperately reaching out, but now she has a baby she sees as a burden. I really have to give credit to Sian for writing a part which gives the character such a beautiful arc and sense of vulnerability. I find audiences do have a sense of true compassion for her by the end.
Did you and Sian discuss playing her as outwardly desperate almost in a manic state, rather than showing that animosity towards the baby as anger, to stress the fact for the audience that her carelessness is rooted in something to do with her mental state and not cruelty?
I think she’s definitely manic. She’s just at a place in her life where she feels like she’s completely hit rock bottom and has no friends in the world, so she is feeling isolated. She even says that she’s never alone with the kid, she depends on nannies. So for her to take her daughter into the city without a nanny, and essentially run away from her husband, shows how completely desperate she feels. I remember thinking it seemed so sad that the only thing she’s desperate for is attention from a man. But it’s the only thing she’s ever truly been able to rely on in life and the only thing that gives her comfort and a sense of security. She’s almost like a child, but now she’s forced to raise a child. I think of Carolyn almost like a Marilyn Monroe, she’s the vulnerable woman. If people can’t feel for someone who is that lost, they aren’t really looking into their story. When we were in Utah at the Sundance Festival for the première, she was very severe looking and came right up to me and said, “I’ll never judge another mother again because of what you did.”
Wow, that must have been so gratifying to hear.
It makes it all worth it to hear that you’ve changed someone’s perspective or challenged them to be more merciful or compassionate. When it comes down to it, that’s why we tell stories and make films. That’s why I do this job.
When you premiered the film at Sundance did you hear from audiences that had a strong reaction to the character?
The funniest thing about it is, I had no idea that I was funny. I thought the film was very serious and I took the role very seriously. And during casting, Sian and the casting director and producers didn’t laugh. They might have smiled a couple of times, but they didn’t laugh at what I did. The scenes were very intense to film. But then at Sundance, people seemed to be laughing at everything I said! I was just like, “that’s funny?” That seems to happen to me a lot, I just don’t know when I’m being funny. Even when I did The Invitation that happened. People seemed to be laughing at all my scenes. And I took it so seriously. Did you laugh?
At the beginning, I did. I think almost out of discomfort at seeing someone who is so clearly out of her element. And knowing that Ellen’s character’s there and immediately takes notice of the little girl and starts watching after her, because you aren’t. If we thought we were watching a scene of your daughter in danger, I don’t think audiences would laugh.
People say watching my character’s very uncomfortable, so that might be why they laugh. I also have the curlers in the hair and I’m wearing my bra and bustier. And then we had a naked baby running around and Ellen’s dry wit.
When you play a character like Carolyn in this movie, or your part in The Invitation, do you find you make big changes with your voice and way you walk to play up their sexiness?
Absolutely. When you know you’re looking for something sexual, your body just naturally changes. Women naturally glide around the room, rather than stomping around the way I do at home. My voice gets a little boozy and you start to flip your hair a little more. It’s just a natural, physical thing that happens when you’re thinking about sex, you naturally start moving more sexually and seductively. It’s not at all like me, I’m not that way at all in my real life. Except when I’m flirting, which rarely happens.
Being a mother in your own life, were you able to use any of your life experiences to inform the character of Carolyn?
There are times when people have to remind me that I’m a great mother and I certainly hold onto my own imperfections. But even I know I’m not even a quarter as bad as this mother. But to be able to identify with even 5% of what she’s feeling, is enough to understand everything about the character. So I took some of that doubt I have, the times when I’m not sure if I’m doing the right thing for Ava or that my choices are hurting her. I’ve felt guilt and doubt and shame as a mother all the time, but that’s the case for every mother. We always have this underlying worry that we aren’t doing the right things or doing enough for them. So that little piece of myself as a mother, I was able to transfer into Carolyn in a big broad way.
When the part came up, was this something you auditioned for or was it offered to you?
It was a standard audition. I went in to read for Sian and Heather Rae, the producer, and then got the call back, and a couple of weeks later got the part.
At this point in your career are you pretty vigorous about telling your agent and managers what you’re looking for or what you want to be up for?
I’ve been in the business for close to 20 years, so the casting directors have seen me go in for just about everything. And they know I’m a great actress and I’ve always been given the opportunity to show a lot of range. I have lived in Jersey my whole life, and audition in New York a lot, so I get called in for just about every thing that’s cast out of New York. The range of roles that I get called in for is pretty impressive. I’ve been asked to audition for the geek, the sexy one, the mom, the funny one, everything. So the casting directors know me, it comes down to directors and producers taking a chance on me, and I have to credit Sian because she hadn’t seen me play a part like this before. But now that Tallulah and The Invitation are out there, I have those types available to me too. I’ve been lucky, because I’ve had the chance to play so many different roles, and actors just need the chance to showcase what they can do.
Have you always been resistant to going to the West Coast to pursue your career?
Oh yeah. People have tried to get me to go to the West Coast for ages to become a big star. Basically since I won the Emmy for Judy, they told me I had to go. But I just kept saying no. I have a big family, I have my mother and my brothers, and never wanted to leave them. And they all live in New Jersey. For me, I thought “do I want to spend my time reaching for fame and fortune in Hollywood, or do I want to build a career and family here.” It’s taken me a little longer probably, but I choose this life and when I lay my head down at night, I can say I wouldn’t have chosen any differently. I’m just lucky to be able to say that because I’m only 9 miles outside the city. A girl from some small town in the middle of the country can’t do that, so the choice she’d have to make is much harder, because she might need to make a big move to pursue her dreams. I didn’t. But they all told me I had to move to the west coast to be in movies and TV, and I just quoted Frank Sinatra and told them “I’m going to do it My Way, it’ll take longer but it will be worth it in the end.”
Being close to New York also allows you to do theater. I actually saw you in Gypsy, and I know you also starred in How to Succeed in Business. Are you looking for a chance to get back on the stage?
I love all three mediums, TV, film, and theater, it really comes down to the character. But the stage can be addictive. Every seven years I just start to crave being back on stage and singing with a spotlight on me. To have audiences reacting every night is such a joy. And the schedule’s pretty great because I can be home with my daughter all day and then go to work at night. Broadway’s just amazing. Film is great because I’m usually focused on the project for a month or two and then head back home. I haven’t done as much TV as I’d like. I’d be open to doing a series if the right one came up. I’ve done pilots, but none that went to series.
Speaking of TV, the film will be premiering on Netflix and only playing in a few theaters, so most audiences will be watching the movie more the way they watch TV. How do you feel the film will play on that platform?
Today everyone’s watching movies at home, because the cost of going to movies can be so monumental. I took my daughter to a theater to see Finding Dory and it cost me about $35 just to have a movie experience together. Sitting at home and watching it on Netflix allows a movie like this to reach a broader audience. I think it’s a blessing that it’s landed at Netflix because the movie has the potential to reach so many people it wouldn’t in limited release.