Tony winner Tonya Pinkins is headlining Red Pill, a horror film which she wrote, directed and produced. The political thriller, which is focused on the forthcoming presidential election, is set to be released this fall.
“I wrote my own personal Get Out,” Pinkins explained in a statement, referencing Jordan Peele’s acclaimed 2017 horror film that starred Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams. In addition to Pinkins, the cast of Red Pill includes Girl From the North Country‘s Luba Mason, Kathryn Erbe, Rubén Blades, Catherine Curtain, Colby Minifie, Jake O’Flaherty and Adesola Osakalumi.
Pinkins won a 1992 Tony Award for her performance in Jelly’s Last Jam. She also received nominations for Caroline, or Change and Play On!. Her additional Broadway credits include Holler If You Hear Me, A Time To Kill, The Wild Party, Radio Golf, Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Merrily We Roll Along.
RED PILL is a political thriller focusing on the upcoming presidential election. The film production first began in 2019, but the themes of “the weaponization of Whiteness and White supremacy” seem made for this political moment in 2020.
As a writer/director Pinkins finds the importance of giving the space for the voice of Black women in the entertainment industry. Pinkins explains how the film was inspired by Get Out and Midsommar, both paid homage to in Red Pill.
Here, actress, director, and writer Tonya Pinkins (TP) discusses her new film Red Pill, her experience in the entertainment industry and her thoughts on the Black Lives Matter Movement with Picture This Post (PTP).
(PTP) Please tell our readers about your personal and professional background.
(TP) I grew up in Chicago. No one in my family is in the arts. I had a mentor/molester who pushed me into a career in the arts. My mother struggled with mental illness and had a hard time keeping a job, so when I began working as an actor, I accepted any job I was given because a job was a gift. It took me a long time to learn that I could say no to a job.
My first love was always writing. I had an experience in fourth grade that was traumatic and stopped me from writing for a long time. I’ve always been trying to get back to writing.
Directing was the bridge to return to my love of storytelling. I also found that I was now being offered roles that were as one of the props that eat. For example, I was Madam Secretary on Madam Secretary and I wasn’t even a recurring character. I had very few lines and was in the background mostly.
I have too much creativity to spend the rest of my life doing that. Although it pays better than McDonald’s or Uber.
Can you talk about your experience as a Black woman in the entertainment industry?
I would say that the story that tells the difference between how I, as a Black actor, was treated differently is that when I was on All My Children. The White actors Susan Lucci, Cameron Mathison were doing other tv/films outside of the soap.
Let me backtrack, when I was on As the World Turns with Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, and Steven Weber, the producer made me turn down numerous Cosby’s, Law and Orders, and Miami Vices and I was working less than four days a month. When I got to All My Children, they tried to do the same thing but all the other producers for Jelly’s Last Jam and some tv/film arranged their schedules so they only used me on my days off. So finally, ABC required that for any job I did outside of the soap, including a $1200 theater showcase, I had to return $10,000.00 of salary. I know they weren’t doing that to Lucci and Cameron.
Caroline or Change and Martha in Fear the Walking Dead were the most fulfilling roles I have had in theater and television respectively. After each of them, I had little desire to do anything less. Both roles challenged me to express the fullness of my potential. Once I expanded into that, trying to stuff myself into a smaller container just wasn’t a viable option.
Could you give our readers an insight into your work process for the film?
I often feel I am a channel. I am downloading a message. Red Pill began with a visit to a friend’s country house. I told her that her house was where a horror movie would happen. I started to make a story about a malevolent space because my friend said I could shoot in her house. Then we had a conversation about politics and in a typical progressive fashion, she was dismissive of the other side. And after our talk about how she felt the conservatives were so stupid and unorganized etc. I found myself saying ‘It appears that way because you don’t see their Hitler who has a vision for a thousand-year reign.” I find progressives to be quite delusional. Progressives have a lot of theory and talk and education and insufficient and ineffective action. Thus, one of the tag lines for RED PILL is a riff on The Help “You is kind, you is smart, you is important. You is Dead”
When I went home all these metaphors about Red v Blue kept popping into my head like Rock-em Sock-em Robots. I started with a deck. I knew it had to be visual. And then I pitched the log line to various people for a few weeks. Once I had a log line that several people hummed to, I wrote the script. This was August 2019.
(Editor’s note: a deck is a presentation/storyboard to present the premise of the film. In a way, a more visual and concise version of a script. A log line is a hook. It serves as a quick summary of a film that catches people’s attention).
Red Pill becomes more prescient every day. It reminds me of Jerzy Skolimowski’s film Moonlighting which was released simultaneously to Poland declaring martial law. I also realized that had we released pre-pandemic the film could be light fantasy. In the present moment, it is about the clear and present danger and I have changed some of the scores to reflect the urgency the story now has in light of current events.
I was reading Steven King’s essays and he talks a lot about how horror allows you to say things you cannot say in polite company. And then Yuval Harari talks about how the “lie” has been a unifying force for society and communities forever. So, when I wanted to make Red Pill, I thought I could wrap what I think in a dystopian future and say everything I wanted to say and entertain cause it’s only a movie.
But now the world has caught up with my storytelling and the movie can stand as a historical current and dystopian future. The challenge of the genre for Red Pill is that so much of what I wrote in 2019 that was the “lie” or fiction part of the story has either come true or seems so highly probable that I almost feel like I need to write a feel-good movie instead of a horror because we are living a horror. And we are specifically living the horror of my film.
It’s so close to home now that some folks will find it personally terrifying, some will dismiss it, some will laugh at the irony of it. Kamala Harris’ nomination will hopefully shed light on the factual trope of folks ignoring the Black woman. “Black women know the truth, live the truth, we the truth.”
What is the meaning behind the title Red Pill?
Red Pill means something different depending on the community you come from. In the film, a character says that a red pill is someone who infiltrates a group and destroys it from the inside out. That is a common far-right strategy. There is also the red pill competing, conquering, controlling men and the red pill, docile, submissive, silent women.
But from the Matrix perspective, you take the red pill to wake up to reality no matter how harsh. It is easy for me to tackle racism. It’s the water in my fishbowl. What is challenging for some who have read or seen Red Pill is that it holds a mirror up to White people and progressives and they don’t like what they see. It makes them want to attack me personally or attack the storytelling. Red Pill is a reflection of how I see America. White people are not accustomed to being others or seeing themselves through anyone else’s eyes. Hollywood doesn’t green light stories where white people are “otherized.” My film may be the first time many White people see themselves through the eyes of a Black woman. I realized that when I go into predominantly White rooms, I don’t listen to the words coming out of folk’s mouths. I have learned that White people say what is expected so I am looking at facial gestures and body language. Red Pill has that eye.
I believe Black people will sit down, figure Red Pill out pretty quickly and go along for the horrifying ironic laugh ride. Some White people will reject and hate it outright in the same way some hated Caroline or Change because they did not want to go on that ride. But if White people can be open and think of Red Pill as an excursion into an exotic and unknown world: the honest point of view of Black women, they can have an exhilarating experience.
There is a lot of practical magic in Red Pill. It is my greatest desire that it is a key that unlocks our humanity and turns off the irrational attachment to the caste system which harms us all.
Is there a reason why you chose to focus on the theme of the “weaponization of Whiteness and White Supremacy” for the film?
I focused on these issues because they have been the greatest obstacles to my life and most BIPOC people. This movie is a mirror of the American culture BIPOC people live and see every day and that White people have the privilege of being oblivious. If it weren’t for all the videos, White people would still deny the Karens and Kens and killing going on every day.
I heard an interview from someone who said slaves were family. White people treat their animals better than they treated their slaves. White people have been denied the truth of their history. But they say ignorance of the law is no excuse and ignorance of history is not one either.
The invention of Whiteness is killing White people. As Byron Katie says, “argue with reality and you lose but only 100% of the time.” White superiority and non-White inferiority fly in the face of the reality of exceptionalism in all communities. If the folks clinging to Whiteness let it go, they will be open to an abundance of riches that have been filtered through the narrow thimble of “whiteness.”
What changes do you hope to see as a result of the Black Lives Matter Movement?
Kimberly Latrice Jones said “Black people want equality. We don’t want revenge” and Hannah Nicole Jones said, “Black people fight for everybody.” So, when Black people get equality and equity, we will work for everyone in the world to have equity and equality.
The entertainment business is about capitalism. Capitalism elevates property over people. Capitalism could sell anything it chooses to sell false degrading images of Blacks, Latinos, and Indigenous people to perpetuate the false narrative of White exceptionalism and superiority.
The film industry perpetuated racism from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation which created myths of violence by Blacks on Whites – which were factually false. The film industry can fund films and storytellers that tell a real, truthful, uplifting story about the contributions every culture has made to the world. The film industry can market and sell stories that uplift all the people of the world and which model ways of working together as a global community which is the only way the species will survive the apocalypse of global warming.
As an actress and director, what do you feel is your personal role in the Black Lives Matter Movement?
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore said, “We only have one thing to change, and that is everything.” The non-hierarchical structure of The Movement for Black Lives which is the umbrella for hundreds of other organizations makes it much harder for the police or FBI or CIA to kill off the leaders. Yet, six Ferguson protesters died under mysterious circumstances. There was the lynching of the Palmdale organizer, Robert Fuller, and the murder of the Florida organizer, Oluwatoyin Salau. And please don’t say Salau was killed by a Black man as if Black people cannot betray their own. William O’Neal served Fred Hampton up for a Chicago Police assassination.
I support BLM financially and with my voice. It is the movement of the new world. My time is past. The young people get to build their world.
Tony award-winning actress and author Tonya Pinkins has written, directed and produced her first feature film, Red Pill. A political thriller, the film was designed as a scary wake-up call that shines a bright light on American politics.
The television, film and Broadway star decided to step behind the camera and use her voice as an artist and storyteller to paint a vivid picture of the grave repercussions that the current political climate in America has on the country’s people.
The film features the work of a talented cast and crew, including eight-time Grammy award-winning Latin music star Rubén Blades (Fear the Walking Dead), Catherine Curtain (Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, Homeland), Kathryn Erbe (Law & Order: Criminal Intent), Tonya Pinkins (Fear The Walking Dead, Madame Secretary), Colby Minifie (The Boys, Fear the Walking Dead), Luba Mason (Person of Interest, NYPD Blue), Jake O’Flaherty (Criminal Minds, Shameless) and Adesola Osakalumi (Sex & The City 2, Ice).
Red Pill is currently in post-production and is set for release this autumn.
As a plot, it’s about a group of progressives – that would be our blue in America – going to canvas the weekend of the 2020 election and confronting the red opposition that is determined to stop them in their mission.
I made this story because I’ve been watching my country become a dictatorship for a very long time. And I think when you live in New York City, where they just think they run the world, there’s a kind of delusion that people have and so the movie for me is about the disconnect between liberals, the blue, and their believes about themselves as opposed to the people who are the conservatives, the red, who are very committed, very organized, very structured, who know what they want and take action.
Even in the way I wrote it, the red pill women don’t ever speak until the final scene. Whereas the blue people, they’re just always talking, they’ve got theories and they’ve got ideas and then when the violence begins, they don’t know what to do! [laughs] Which is how I see my country right now. Essentially, civil war began in Portland. Our president had US military attack US citizens. It’s already happened and nothing has been done.
At the time that I wrote it, some people thought, ‘Oh, gosh, you’re so far out, Tonya!’ And now we’re kind of there. And so, in a way, there’s this part of me that feels like, ‘I’m making a movie, but we’re living it.’ When I wrote it, I felt that it was coming and I thought, ‘Well, this can be the wakeup call, but it’s too late for a wakeup call.’
Was the film inspired by the recent developments in American politics or has this story been at the back of your mind for a while now?
It’s been at the back of my mind since before Obama was elected. Just watching how America’s leaning very far to the right politically. The majority of people in our country want health care for everybody and fair wages, but the people in power don’t want that. And the people who don’t want that have the most money and there’s been a lot of ‘red pilling’ – which my movie is about – of even what we would have thought of as our organizations that uphold equality, like the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). They were very strongly for this thing called Citizens United, which made money speech. See, I can’t support the ACLU when someone clearly from the other side got into the ACLU and dominated to push that agenda through.
I think that that’s happened in more and more places and I really just feel like I need to get out of the country. So it’s like, ‘Get your movie out. Get out of the country.’ [laughs]
You play the role of Cassandra. Is she the main character in the film? What can you tell us about her?
I think of the film more as an ensemble film.
It’s funny because I was directing and I needed to be over there. I was trying to get my other performances. Cassandra does not have a lot of coverage. She gets like one solo scene really. But Cassandra is the character who keeps saying to her friends, ‘This place is spooky. Let’s go home. Let’s get out of here, it doesn’t feel good.’ And nobody listens and then it’s too late.
Did you write the character specifically for yourself?
I did write her for myself. I’m a Cassandra – I’m always that person who’s warning people and they don’t take things seriously.
Have you always wanted to direct?
I’ve dabbled directing theatre a lot and then I spent the last three years shadowing as a director in television. I made a couple of short films over the years and I’ve loved it every time I did it. But it takes so many people. You need a village to make a film. And after three years of shadowing as a director and having relationships with showrunners, producers and execs, I didn’t feel like I was any closer to getting the opportunity.
First of all, it’s a privilege to get to shadow. You have to know somebody or get in a program to get even the opportunity so that in and of itself is a big hurdle that a lot of people can’t do. I had the relationships that I had with the directors and showrunners because I’d worked for them as an actor. But even at the end of that, you’re taking a month off your life where you fly yourself to wherever the show is, you’re putting yourself up. Yes, you get to eat on the set but that’s a month when you can’t work on anything else. You’re like being an intern and taking time out of being a self-supporting person in order to get this opportunity.
Having spent about four months over three years doing that, I was like, ‘WOW, I can’t afford to keep doing this and it doesn’t feel like anybody’s going to hire me.’ So I was like, ‘I better just hire myself.’
After having been involved in so many aspects of creating this film, are you considering leaning more towards writing and directing going forward or do you still feel more comfortable in front of the camera and on stage?
I don’t think I ever need to get in front of the camera or on stage again. I love it on this side. I love being the person who creates opportunities for other people. I’m very happy telling stories. I have a bunch more horror movies I want to make because that’s my favourite genre.
You’re working with Matthias Gohl on the soundtrack. Can you tell us a bit about the direction you gave him for the music?
He’s going to record a string quartet in Iceland. He’s insisting on that, which is very expensive.
I love strings. I loved what [composer] Arthur Simonini did for ‘Portrait of a Woman on Fire’. I went and listened to some other of his music, particularly this French documentary he did, ‘Le monde sous les bombes, de Guernica à Hiroshima’. I loved that entire documentary score. When we temp-tracked the movie, we used this classical music with a lot of strings.
I like counterpoint. If it’s a scary moment, I like the music to kind of be funny. And I like to give you a big laugh before some really tragic thing is going to happen.
If used properly, art can be a powerful weapon and you’re obviously doing your bit with your new film. But how can we, the people on the other side of the screen, help make a difference?
Great question. I was talking to a friend this morning. We were talking about just what was going on politically. The Guardian wrote an article that Trump is consulting with this guy [John] Yoo, this attorney who drafted the document that gave Bush all of these powers. And he’s known for saying, ‘What do you want to do? We’ll figure out how to make the law do it’. And I started feeling like, ‘Why am I making a movie? A revolution is going to happen.’ And my friend said, ‘Yeah, but artists have always have been at the forefront of every movement. And if we don’t keep making art, then aren’t we letting them win?’
You know, whenever the fascists take over, they kill all the artists because we are so powerful. There’s this sculptor named Egon Weiner and I’m told that he said, ‘The only appropriate response to abuse is creativity.’ So I think that we have to keep creating work that both warns of what may come but also posits what is possible, what can be, better worlds, as well as showing what the possibility of the dystopian world is.
In making this movie, I definitely wanted people to get scared. But not just through the adrenaline of a horror movie but feel like, ‘Is that possible?! I don’t want that to be possible! Let’s do something!’ And trying to put it in an entertaining genre because the working class love horror. And the working class has the power to get out and vote and control what happens in this election. So painting a picture of what might be your worst nightmare. I wanted to have people go, ‘Whoa!’ OK, wake up! [laughs]
Have the recent protests in the US have made any real impact on the current situation in the US?
The uprisings have continued. The mainstream media isn’t covering them, but they are ongoing. That’s why what happened in Portland happened. Because people have been in the streets for fifty-four days. People have been occupying the mayor’s office here in New York. If there were no uprisings that were ongoing, Trump wouldn’t feel that he had to send federal agents into the cities. It has not subsided. It’s just not getting the coverage anymore.
How have you been keeping yourself busy during the pandemic?
I think that for a lot of people, the pandemic has been a windfall and a gift. It has not been that for the essential workers, for the health care workers, for the grocery store people, for the delivery people. And so this divide is really showing me that we never really had a democracy here. For people who had jobs and lost them, there was this amount of money that they received every week and that was lovely because a lot of people were like, ‘Great! This is more money than I was doing.’ That’s about to end in a week. But all those essential workers and health care workers didn’t get that. And they’ve been risking their lives and they don’t have sick pay and health care and the hospitals don’t have room for them.
I’m a hermit and I like being alone. I have not suffered during the pandemic. Most of my suffering is just sitting up worrying and watching people being brutalized in the streets. And feeling like, ‘I’m an old woman. What can I do?’ But I really care about the fact that this country is just proving every day that it doesn’t care about any of us. It isn’t about black or white or female or trans. It just doesn’t care about humanity. Property is more important than people. And that’s got to change, whatever it takes. It took a pandemic for people to go, ‘Oh, they really don’t care about me. Revolution – we got to have it.’
A lot of artists are struggling during the pandemic because they miss the spotlight, the stage and the applause. What advice would you give them?
I just feel like creativity can be in a lot of different ways. I studied with William Esper as an adult and he would say about actors that, ‘It takes seven years to become an actor. Most people start out wanting attention. And then after you’ve gotten over that, then you can become a real actor.’
I think perhaps this is a time to go inward and figure what it is you really want. Is it attention that you want or do you want to have impact where people are changed by the work that you did, where you’ve touched them in a way that they have to think about their life differently?
Her film ‘Red Pill,’ which she thinks of as a Black woman’s ‘Get Out,’ views the nation’s ills through the lens of horror.
Last summer, after a string of mass shootings, Tonya Pinkins holed up in her friend’s home to write the horror film Red Pill. “I wrote a script and shared it with some friends, and it was very disturbing to many people who read it,” Pinkins recalls with a laugh. “And that let me know that it was definitely the thing I needed to do.”
The film—which Pinkins produced, wrote, directed, and starred in, and is intended for release before the election in November—follows a group of liberals who travel to Virginia to get out the vote ahead of the 2020 presidential election, and they quickly learn that they are not welcome in the Old Dominion. It’s Halloween and things turn, well, downright scary at their rental house.
With the film, Pinkins confronts thorny political conversations she’s had with friends, and explores the delusions many progressives have about race in America. “I want to wake them up, you know, stir them into something,” she says. And what better way to activate a crowd en masse than with a horror film?
Jordan Peele’s much-lauded Get Out and Ari Aster’s Midsommar were among the inspirations for Pinkins’s script. “Get Out just made me so happy,” says Pinkins, noting that Black and white audiences experienced the film differently. “Red Pill is like the Black woman’s Get Out—this is how I see the world.”
The Tony-winning actor, known for her roles in Broadway’s Caroline, Or Change and Jelly’s Last Jam, doesn’t feel that she has had the opportunity to fully share her perspective on the world as a performer.
“I learned that I should have been doing this a long time ago,” she says of driving her own projects. “The epiphany for me as a person was that I never wanted to be a ‘leader.’ I always thought I could never be a leader because I’m always learning something new—and I don’t want to lead people astray.” But as she settled into the director’s chair, she became her own hype woman: “You better trust that you’re not gonna lead them astray, so get to it!” One of the most rewarding aspects of leading the film, she says, was bringing together a team of collaborators, which included cast members Rubén Blades, Kathryn Erbe, Luba Mason, and Adesola Osakalumi.
The film was shot in just 10 days last fall, a whirlwind experience Pinkins says felt “miraculous.” But then the world changed, and the March 2020 release date was postponed due to COVID-19. (The release date is still TBA.) The already scary film has taken on new resonance in light of the pandemic and the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement.
“The biggest surprise for me was learning when your world changes as you’re telling a story, your story changes too,” she says. Pinkins has been reviewing the film in post-production and making changes accordingly. Among the last-ditch changes for the film is an overhaul of its score, which is currently being re-recorded in Iceland by a string quartet under the direction of composer Teese Gohl.
“We’re rescoring it, because a lot of what was in the movie was not as de rigueur,” Pinkins explains. “This piece is far more urgent and scary because of what is in the news everyday—things that were whimsical and light and are now so intense.”
Red Pill could be interpreted as a response to the election of 2016, or a prescient reflection on the revolving door of horrors that the year 2020 has been spinning out. “More than anything, it is about the history of America and the ways we don’t want to look at who we really are,” explains Pinkins.
Though the hope is that the film will be released digitally before the November election, Pinkins is pushing for it to appear at drive-in theatres, because “there’s nothing like watching a horror film at a drive-in.”
In addition to putting the final touches on Red Pill, Pinkins is using this time of social distancing to create, write, and learn. In June, she appeared as part of an online reading of Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession on Stars in the House to benefit the Actors Fund, and last month, her play Till Hell Freezes Over was presented as part of an online festival by the Planet Connections Festivity.
With the Brecht estate’s blessing, she and playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins are working on a new version of Mother Courage. “I have some personal feelings as a mother about Mother Courage and the way she has been depicted by the male translators of Brecht,” concedes Pinkins, who bowed out of a 2016 production at Classic Stage Company. “Branden is fluent in German…my interpretation of Mother Courage is borne up by what Brecht actually wrote in the German. And so we’re going to try to bring my version, a mother’s version of Mother Courage, to the theatre.”
While the first few months of quarantine were admittedly filled with “sloth days” and TV binges, Pinkins is now feeling activated. She’s hitting her daily 10,000-step goal, perfecting her London broil recipe, and she’s learning about magic with books about the Kabbalah, Aleister Crowley, Tarot, and astrology.
“It’s a whole new world for me,” she says. “For whatever reason, none of those things ever crossed my life before. I’ve always believed that we are co-creating the universe.”
In addition to tending to her growing reading list—there are no less than 10 books on her bedside table at any given time, she says—she’s been penning essays and even working on a novel of her own.
In this time of pause and learning, Pinkins believes that Red Pill delivers a message that’s needed. “If anything, this pandemic has shown me that for as many of us as they are, that’s how many worlds are existing on top of each other,” she says, noting the absurd battle between maskers and anti-maskers. “I hope that I’ve made a story that captures that.”
2020 gifted us the perfect storm to herald the winds of societal change. First, a global pandemic, which was an emergency until it was discovered to be killing primarily Black people. Second, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, hunted down like a deer by the McMichaels in Georgia. Then on the same day we see Canadian Amy Cooper weaponize whiteness against Harvard Grad Christian Cooper. The straw that broke the camel’s back was watching Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin casually snuff out the life of George Floyd.
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