She's had the fortune of starring in some of some of TV's biggest hits, like 24, E.R., NYPD Blue, and most recently, True Blood. And if that's not enough, she even got to play Theo Huxtable's girlfriend on a couple episodes of The Cosby Show. This week I had the pleasure of speaking to actress Tanya Wright, who's now in the spotlight as the writer, director, producer, and star of her debut feature film Butterfly Rising.
Butterfly Rising will be screening this week in Oxford, MS at the Oxford Film Festival, Feb. 9 – 12 @ The Malco Studio Theater, and at the Lyric Theater on Feb. 11, as part of the Oxford Music Festival. The book version of Butterfly Rising is also currently for sale on-line. Wright was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to tell me what Butterfly Rising is all about; how the project came to be; and how she ended up doing what she's doing with her life.
S&A: For our readers who haven't seen the film or read the novel, tell us what Butterfly Rising is all about and where the idea for the story originated.
Tanya Wright: About 8 years ago, my brother died, and things changed quickly for me. I think that there’s something about death that really makes you start thinking about life. And after his death, I started thinking about my own life, and what it was I was doing, and if I was doing all that I came here to do. And I realized that I was not. So I got in the business of writing and directing this film, Butterfly Rising.
It’s a story about two women who take a road trip to meet a mythical medicine man named Lazarus of the Butterflies. I wrote the part that I really wanted to play in this world, and in my life. I wrote it because I felt like “Well, I don’t want to ask people to cast me in something when I have the ability to create my own world, really.” And it’s what I did with Butterfly Rising. Butterfly Rising is a very contemporized take on the story of Mary and Martha, from the Bible. It is black woman and a white woman. They are metaphorical sisters; they are not literal sisters. And it is provocative. It makes provocative sexual statements. It makes provocative spiritual statements. It makes provocative statements about love, forgiveness, and trust. And it’s something I’m quite proud of. I actually made the movie, and then wrote the book after I made the movie, which I know is a little unusual. And right now, I’m working on the game version. So Butterfly Rising is the only trans-media project written, directed, produced, and starring an African-American woman on the film festival circuit right now. I’m very interested in a multi-dimensional screening experience, and that’s how I’m going to launch it when I launch it this summer. I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve for the release of this thing.
I’m also very heartened and excited about what Ava [Duvernay] has been able to create and do with AFFRM. I’m heartened and excited by a lot of filmmakers, like Terrance Nance, Matthew Cherry, and a lot of them that I met at Sundance this year.
S&A: How does a native New Yorker like yourself manage to write about the southern American experience with such detail and fervor?
TW: I don’t know. The only thing that I can think of is that I spent summers in Charleston, SC with my grandfather, and my sister. And those were delightful times for me, to go crabbing with him on his boats in the summer. That is my reference o the South, throughout my life. Other than that, I don’t what to say. You know, I wrote a television series called Biloxi, set in Biloxi, MS. There’s just something about the South that resonates really strong with me. I am a Bronx girl, born and bred. I’ve lived in two places in my life; New York and Los Angeles– that’s it. But for whatever reason, southern stories come out of me.
S&A: Why did you choose Columbus, MS as the shooting location for your film?
TW: My investor and executive producer lives in Columbus, MS. She and I were talking about doing a fleet of films, and the other films that we had, that I wrote, are bigger budget. This one, Butterfly Rising, was something that I could shoot quickly . . . and the setting was perfect. I don’t know if you know anything about Columbus, MS, but it is a place that is picturesque, and it’s just beautiful. And it made the perfect landscape for this movie that I felt that I could shoot real quick, while we were talking about the bigger ones. And so that’s what I did.
S&A: How did this all start for you? How did you end up in the entertainment industry?
TW: I’ve been an actor all my life. My first job ever . . . was Theo’s girlfriend on The Cosby Show. I was a pretty shy girl, and I sort of got roped into doing The Cosby Show. I was shy and The Cosby Show was the biggest show in the world, so it’s not something a shy person gravitates toward—or maybe they do. But that’s a recurring theme in my life, where the thing that I fear the most is the thing that I realize that I most gravitated towards. And I was always a writer; I was a writer before I was an actor. Acting jobs came; and another one came, and another one came, and another one came. And in life, I think, you go in the direction that the horse is riding. And I kept riding that horse. It’s a horse I continue to ride very happily. Hopefully, I’ll ride it into the sunset. But I’ve always been writing. So while I’ve been riding, I’ve been writing. And so I have amassed a stockpile of scripts; feature films, television series, web series, and in the case of Butterfly Rising, a book. So while I was on the set, I wrote, and read a lot of scripts as an actor. I read really great scripts. I read really bad scripts. I read really mediocre scripts. I’m fascinated by people, and what makes people tick, and what makes people do the things that they do. So I kind of naturally gravitated toward character-driven stories. So I started out as an actor, and I’m still an actor.
Butterfly Rising also features perfomances from actors Sean Blakemore (Blackout, General Hospital) and Adam Clark (Mississippi Damned), and McGhee Monteith.