When basic cable and satellite television stalwart WGN America unleashed the Peter Mattei-created Outsiders in January of 2016, few knew what to expect from the Appalachian-based action drama. Described as a hybrid of Justified and Sons Of Anarchy, the series focuses on the often tenuous interactions between sprawling group of 'mountain folk' known as the Farrell clan and the residents of the fictional town of Blackburg, Kentucky. Living a spartan existence, the Farrells are extremely paranoid of outsiders as the mountain the family controls is coveted by a major mining firm for the coal beneath it. Recently, acclaimed actress, playwright and former GLAAD Award nominee Tina Alexis Allen (Cover Girl, The Onion News Network, Secrets Of A Holy Father) was kind enough to speak with us regarding, among many other things, her portrayal of the grief-stricken Shurn.
Todd: What can you tell us about the audition process for your role as Shurn? What were they were looking for?
Tina Alexis Allen: “They sent an iconic black and white photograph of an Appalachian woman by the famous photographer Sophia Lang. They described her very specifically. ...In episode one, they actually explained that when we meet my character Shurn, she's just lost her son. It's a very big and dramatic event. That's pretty much what the audition was, episode seven. I filmed my audition on my iPhone. It was difficult, ya know? They had started filming in Pittsburgh, so it went out quickly. ...I turned it all in and went to Pittsburgh for the call backs.”
Todd: Was it difficult for you to adapt your style to such a non-verbal role? It's almost as if she is mute at times.
Tina Alexis Allen: “It's really about instinct. It's not about thinking. In fact, I don't think Shurn has language as a weapon. The people of this sophisticated society that we live in sometimes use language as a weapon and they certainly use it as a survival technique. She can't find words, ya know? It's all about the physical life for her. It's animalistic in the best sense. ...It's all coming from the gut and not the brain. That was a big adjustment for me.”
Todd: As far as makeup and wardrobe are concerned, how do they prep you for the role? Is there a lot involved?
Tina Alexis Allen: “They don't do too much to me other than put a lot of dirt on my skin. Hair and makeup is all about putting the tattoos on. They grease down our hair as well and obviously, I'm wearing a bandanna a lot. I think it's an internal commitment to living a hard life. I think that you can act some of that by really owning the emotional life and physical life of what it is to live hard as in the sense of the elements. A way to carry your body and a way to hold your face. After all, Shurn has just lost her son. There's a lot of pain in this first season.”
Todd: When watching the show, everyone seems to be uncomfortably hot. Is that a 'consequence' of wardrobes?
Tina Alexis Allen: “Yes. My first day on set, David Morse and I both were given these big suede coats. It was about ninety-five degrees and we were kind of dying all day. Thank God for wardrobe standing nearby. Once they would call cut, it was lie 'Get this stuff off of us so we don't pass out.' The clothes are really wonderful. Sarah Beers is the costume designer and she has done an amazing job. It's of course, wardrobe that would have to be made. Obviously, some of it's from animals like suede and leather. And there's probably some things that look like the guys took them from a dumpster on one of their runs. But mostly it's suede, leather and our boots.”
Todd: With Outsiders having been 'officially' renewed for a second season, what can viewers expect for Shurn?
Tina Alexis Allen: “I have no idea. I'm very curious, though. There's so many different directions, of course, that they could take her. They could have gone either way since Shurn and Big Foster are constantly in conflict. At least Shurn feels as if she's in conflict with him. That's David Morse's character. I'm not too sure, but I'm eager to know that something is going to be starting. ...You never know how audiences are going to respond. I had a feeling when I came on board in season one that it was going to touch a nerve in a good way with the viewer. I felt like there's a lot of conversation going on right now about people being disenfranchised or at least feeling that way. People are feeling like outsiders, like the extremes of our culture, ya know? I feel like the mountain and the townspeople are at the zeitgeist of that conversation. I wasn't that surprised it was renewed. WGN had their best ratings ever with Outsiders. That was a positive thing. You'll just have to wait to see what happens. They announced fairly early that we were coming back. That was a huge sigh of relief for all of us collectively.”
Todd: At this point in the series, how do you view Shurn? Do you view her as a nurturing mother figure or do you feel she is a total and complete bad ass? Personally, it still feels as if she's still finding out who she really is.
Tina Alexis Allen: “That's a interesting question. It's a tightrope. I think those two qualities do exist. I think Shurn is absolutely a mother first, but we met her at a crisis point and that crisis has brought her this animal instinct. It's an animal response to not having the words to express her loss. But it does translates to her being a bad ass. ...I can only imagine what it must be like to lose a child. It seems like the most horrific thing that could ever happen to a human being. I know people react very differently. Some might go into serious depression, some want revenge and some want to blame someone. A lot of times, when people lose a child, the parents can go at each other, trying to find answers within each other. In this case, Shurn being a bad ass is really about a need to make sense of this. She's holding the head of the clan, Big Foster, accountable because he's the one who initiated the run that caused the death of her son. I think the writers have given me a little bit of both and I like that because people are complicated. I think that we can all be really loving, but we can also let the animal in all of us come out. If we were provoked enough, we're all animals. ...A mountain lion is how I would describe her.”
Todd: How did you approach making the transition from college basketball star to starring in a television show?
Tina Alexis Allen: “Actually, there was a big debt between those two paths. I went from a life of basketball where I went to college on a basketball scholarship, tried out for the Olympics and actually played in the U.S. Youth Games. It had been my life since I was a little kid. Then, I went to graduate school, got an MBA and was really thinking about taking the business route. That's where I was headed. I always had a thing for fashion. It's always been a passion of mine, so I went to New York and got into the fashion world. I was an executive for different fashion designers, running their companies. I had a bit of an epiphany when I was almost thirty I kind of gave myself permission to see what else there might be out there that I would want to do. Just because I had, frankly, a lot of success, there was a bit of a cushion. I thought 'Well, I like what I'm doing but what else is there?' ...It was weird because acting just kind of just fell out of the sky. I took my first acting class with famed acting coach Susan Batson and here I am. It was kind of a crazy. ...It was like 'Let's see where this can take me.”
Todd: Did you find any parallels between the dedication it took for you to play basketball and become an actor?
Tina Alexis Allen: “Completely. That's so right on the nose, actually. Most people don't get to walk around in all of what we feel, ya know? We put masks on everyday so we can walk around and have a public persona and survive our dysfunctions. ...I've been doing that a long time in terms of like a discipline of sports and a certain kind of way of being. Then, of course, the business world is also a very specific thing. It leaves an impression, but it's still business. I think was what was given to me by Susan, ya know? The total permission to express everything that was inside me. It was a lot of fun. I was like 'Oh my God. This is amazing. I want to do this like everyday.' I get to express and let go of all these raw feelings that have been kept down here all these years. That's what she gave me. She's so much about the truth. In fact, her book is called Truth and is the sort primary method she teaches to every actor she works with. If it's not all truth, it's shit. You'd better be honest, ya know?”
Todd: It seems as if each member of the Ferrell family is forced to be brutally honest due to their crude lifestyle.
Tina Alexis Allen: “Exactly. They don't have any cover. There's no cover and that's really refreshing. Not to go political, but let me go political. What has a lot of people's attention right now in this political season is there are some people out there who are just saying it like it is. It may be raw, it may be whatever you want to call it, but there's an attraction to that. I think that's the attraction, in some ways, to these characters. I think fans like them because they're living life right from the guts and right from the heart. It's actually a very fun role to play.”
Todd: What was your main motivation behind Secrets Of The Holy Father? It's a rather ambitious undertaking...
Tina Alexis Allen: “Secrets Of The Holy Father was the solo show that I wrote and performed Off Broadway at the Cherry Lane in New York City. I brought it out and was still continuing to develop it when literary agent Joel Gotler, who does a lot of book-to-screen work like The Wolf Of Wall Street and also reps Michael Connolly (Blood Work, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Poet) and Stephen King came to the show. He loved the story. I played my father and I told my father's story as him. ...He loved the story and he said 'You've got to write a book', so I wrote the memoir Secrets Of The Holy Father and sold it. It really came out of me doing the solo show and then someone in the know saying 'This should be a book.' I have always felt that I was going to write a book about my childhood and about my family. I'm the youngest of thirteen children. My father had a very complicated and fascinating life. I shared a lot of secrets with him, which I can't share now because Harper Collins won't let me. That's the exploration of the book. All his secrets and my life with him in the middle of a huge Catholic family.”
Todd: Thirteen children? As an only child, I can't even begin to imagine what that must have been like for you...
Tina Alexis Allen: “It's funny because when I say I'm the youngest of thirteen, people always ask me 'Are you Catholic or Mormon?' My parents wanted fifteen kids. They actually had that conversation. Can you believe that? They both really wanted a very big family. My mother came from a family of eight and my father actually had a small family, but he grew up with his grandmother which led to him growing up with a big family because she had twelve kids. In a way, both of my parents grew up with a lot of people around. We're all very close. We love each other, support each other and have a lot of fun together. There's always a lot of opinions and chaos in a house that's that big, but I think that it gave me some of my funnier qualities and my overall drive. ...My father was a very driven man who obviously had to be a very hard worker to support all these kids.”
Todd: Did Secrets Of The Holy Father help you understand the truth about your dad and better understand him?
Tina Alexis Allen: “They say the truth will set you free and that's much more than a cliché. I think that when you can hold your parents as human beings, it really changes things for you. You stop needing them to just be parents, ya know? It gave me a wonderful opportunity to really see my dad as a human being and accept him, love him and see and explore, ya know? I tried to walk in his shoes. What that must have been like, ya know? What was it like to be living in that time in those circumstances and situations? It really gets to me, if anything.”
Todd: How did you ultimately decide on what name you would use in a professional setting? Was that difficult?
Tina Alexis Allen: “Actually, my given name is Christine, but my big sisters started calling me Tina when I was just a little tot, so I've always gone by Tina. The rest is a family name. My great aunt was a silent screen actress named Winifred Allen. ...No one in my family, to the best of my knowledge, had ever acted or was ever in the entertainment industry. In fact, I didn't even know my great aunt was an actress until I literally became an actress myself. My mother said 'You know, you had a great aunt that was an actress'. I have a really cool picture of her with (popular silent film actress) Theda Bara. ...It's a cool picture. So that's where the Allen comes from.”
Todd: You played a transgender prostitute in the independent film Phantom Pain (2011). How did you research the role? Despite being a 'confirmed' tomboy, was it still difficult for you to fully embrace certain portions of it?
Tina Alexis Allen: “It was very different and very challenging. I did a lot of research and a lot of preparation. I worked with Susan on both of those roles, actually. It was really about finding the base, ya know? ...Most of the movie had a feminine perspective in a sense, but this character felt that he was a she and wanted to be a she and wanted to live as a she. ...The work of the actor is 'I have to be a man first', so the first step was really about what would it be like. That's the opposite of me so, let me go explore that. The first and biggest challenge was the research and the diving in all the way down to inner life. What would it be like to be a man and how is it different? One of the things that I find helpful about Susan is that she's somebody who is very simple and will tell you what the character is and how they are different from you. Acting works because you don't have to work on the parts that are you because that's you, ya know? You're only going to bring that. For me, it was about focusing on seeing if I can pass as a man. I walked around New York City at different points literally trying to pass as a man to see if I could pull this off. ...That was the beginning of the first layer of the character.”
Todd: Was it awkward for you to 'walk around' New York, albeit anonymously, and pretend you're truly a man?
Tina Alexis Allen: “It was very weird at first. It was weird and awkward. In the beginning, I felt like I was acting. Susan always emphasizes that word 'acting' is not a good thing. She says it's sort of the bad version of pretending. It felt very awkward and uncomfortable and, at the beginning, kind of silly, really. I was like 'I can't do this. This is impossible', ya know? Then, as it did it enough, a few things started to happen. I remember going to an ATM that was inside the bank. I put my card in and it let me in because the bank was closed. There was a homeless man wanting money who was standing there opening the door for people once they put their card in. When I put the card in, he opened the door and he said something to the effect of 'Here you go, sir.' I though to myself 'Okay, this is starting to work.' Situations like that give me hope that I should just keep going.”
Todd: Do you consider your career as an actress a journey? Is some of that journey losing yourself in new roles?
Tina Alexis Allen: “I think so. My journey as an actor is at the heart of it all. My journey of discovering the truth within myself. Coming to terms with whatever my life has been and my childhood. All of that. It plays a very big part in my work. I also write. I have a book coming out with Harper Collins the beginning of next year. That's also more of the same exploration of the truth without any judgment. That's a big part of me and I think it's a big part of Shurn. ...It's funny you use that word because I would say that in terms of what I love to do more than anything is to actually disappear into the character. I feel that the more you disappear, the more you actually experience someone else, ya know? Sharing things about my dad and playing Shurn is certainly an example of that. For me, transformation is the goal of acting. That's the pinnacle of what I think acting is for me, personally. ...When I can get lost in a character and not be recognized, I feel like I am in the right territory.”
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