‘Red Pill’: A Conversation with Tonya Pinkins on Her Upcoming Political Thriller
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.
For more information, visit: https://redpillmovie2020.com/
What is Red Pill about?
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?