Dietland star Tamara Tunie talks body image, feminism, and more


Dietland’s Tamara Tunie sits down with Culturess to discuss the show’s finale, its messages of body acceptance, and her upcoming work.

Tamara Tunie is a chameleon, an actress whose performances on film, television, and stage are diverse, intoxicating, and enthralling. Best known to fans of the long-running police procedural Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Tunie has transitioned to playing a new character: the enigmatic Julia Smith on AMC’s Dietland. With Dietland‘s first season coming to a close, Tunie took time to talk to Culturess about the series, the #MeToo movement, and a unique career that’s seen her star opposite several legends.

Culturess: It’s been amazing to see people discuss and analyze Dietland in just its first season. What’s the experience been like for you?

Tamara Tunie: It’s thrilling to hear you say that people are analyzing and deconstructing it. That’s certainly something I hoped was happening. When I read the script I thought it was amazing, and funny, and dark and suspenseful, but incredibly topical and relevant. Shooting it has been fantastic; it’s been a dream. The cast is extraordinary and the creative team [is] fantastic. [Showrunner] Marti Noxon is an incredible leader, and it’s a joy to work with her. Being on a project that’s very pro-woman and feministic in its point of view is just incredible.

The show has become a beacon for looking at body image in new and unique ways. Has that been something you’ve noticed?

For me, personally, i just feel like it’s right on-time. Our lead, Joy Nash, is an obese woman, and it just reflects real life. Women come in many shapes and sizes and I appreciate the pushback against body shaming and the pushback against what is considered beautiful and perfect. I enjoy the fact that we’re celebrating women in all shapes and sizes in the show.

Dietland is a show primarily created, written, directed, and starring women. What’s that been like to experience?

It’s amazing! I’ve never worked on a show that was woman-led and woman-driven. It’s refreshing because it almost feels like there’s a shorthand, [that] as women we understand [and] can  communicate. As a woman you don’t have to explain a certain point of view [because there are women on-set]. It’s been so relaxed, and easy, and wonderful.

Certainly there are men who work on our show, and they’ve been so gung-ho and excited about this show. It’s been really inspiring. I feel it establishes and sets a precedent that a women-driven, women-led, and predominately female show can be successful. There may be some people who may not get it or like it, but there are people willing to go on the ride and the overall response has been so inspiring.

Can you give an example of this shorthand?

For example, when Julia did her big reveal and we had to shoot it. It went without saying the kind of environment that I needed on the set in order to perform that scene. It was automatically a closed set; the first assistant director was very sensitive about who was around [and] who was in the room. I didn’t have to request it. In other situations where it was the reverse, I would have to say, “Listen, could we have a closed set for this?”

How do you find the show fits in with all the talk about media representation, #MeToo, and #TimesUp?

It’s been interesting because this book was written in 2015 and when Marti Noxon seized on it, it was a couple years before the events of last fall. It’s interesting because I feel like things have been percolating just below the surface and the eruption happened only last fall. It’s divine that our show was greenlit before all of this came forward and yet our show is so on-point.

Do you find there’s a different atmosphere being a female-driven series like Dietland compared to a pretty male-dominated set like SVU?

I think it is a different atmosphere because it is a different kind of television show. It’s apples to oranges. SVU has particularly dealt with sexual assault and child abuse so people [on-set] were sensitive to it. On SVU the sensitivity was just as present as it is on Dietland.

Have you noticed whether the fandom for this series is different from your previous work?

I’m not on social media as much as I probably should be, but I will say there have been many people who have approached me and said they love the show. What I find is that it’s really wonderful that my fans follow me from show to show. I so appreciate that. People come up to me and talk about Blue Bloods, and I wasn’t even a regular, but my presence was noted. Fortunately, my fans are following me wherever I go, and I’m gathering new fans.

What can fans expect from the Dietland finale [which aired last night]?

It’s just so good! I just watched it yesterday in preparation for [the episode] because I’m gonna do Unapologetic with Aisha Tyler after the show. So I screened the final episode and when you’re shooting these things you read the script, but you really focus on what you need to do so you kinda forget. When I watched it I was literally on the edge of my seat. It really peels back another layer of the onion and you really understand what’s going on with Jennifer and the women. There’s a major great cliffhanger, too, at the end.

What are some of the challenges for you, as a performer, working on something intricate like a television series versus a film?

It’s interesting because doing a series can be more taxing than a film depending on the length, the role, how much of the series you’re carrying, and the schedule. A film you might shoot a month [or] six weeks, but a series can go anywhere from 10-24 episodes. It’s different in every medium, and in the theater that’s a whole different kind of schedule. It’s like adjusting to being in a different city or a different country. “Okay, this is what I need to do in order to do the film; what’s the TV schedule requiring?”  It all has its own requirements.

Now that Dietland’s over you’re doing a BBC series called Black Earth Rising. Can you talk about that?

A little bit, because we haven’t started press yet. I know it’ll be released by Netflix in the fall. Black Earth Rising is a political thriller that takes place in London, Paris, and Rwanda. It’s a really great story. Hugo Blick [the director] is an amazing storyteller and I think it’s gonna be riveting.

You have such a great classic Hollywood aesthetic in all your characters. Are there actors or characters you call back to when approaching a character?

Not so much in film and television, though there are many actors I’ve admired over the years. My first Broadway show was with the legendary Lena Horne and working with her, watching her perform eight shows a week — and she never missed a performance — for 2 1/2 years. I learned such an incredible work ethic from Lena that I carry with me to this day. She was extraordinary and inspiring, and she’s someone I continue to live up to.

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Dietland just wrapped its first season.