Interview: Erica Tazel on Playing Matilda in ‘Roots,’ Balancing Stage & Screen Work and Her Bright Future
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Film , Television

Interview: Erica Tazel on Playing Matilda in ‘Roots,’ Balancing Stage & Screen Work and Her Bright Future

Erica Tazel. CR: Nate Taylor
Erica Tazel. CR: Nate Taylor

The recent remake of “Roots” drew a wide range of talent from the African diaspora to portray the family and descendants of Kunta Kinte, the young man stolen from the modern-day Guinea coast to be enslaved in late 18th century America, and through whom audiences first see the utter brutality of the triangular slave trade. Amongst the notable international cast is an actress television audiences were already quite familiar with, and with whom we are now clamoring even more for: Erica Tazel.

I was overjoyed to chat with Tazel about her overall acting career, including how she got the role of Matilda, wife to co-protagonist Chicken George, but a character who is so much more than just that. We spoke about life on the “Roots” set and how well her role of Rachel Brooks on six years of FX’s “Justified” prepared her for her bright future.

Curtis Caesar John: Erica, first off, we really enjoyed you in the “Roots” remake. Personally, when I caught notice of the cast, you were one of the actors I looked most forward to seeing in this! Please share with our readers how you came to be cast in the miniseries. Was it an audition process or were you approached directly?

Erica Tazel: I went through an intensive audition process in basically the traditional way in which roles are dropped. I had a pre-existing relationship with the casting director Victoria Thomas. And so yeah, I got a call to come in and read the first set of pages , and then there was a call back, and then I read for another character. Then it got quiet for about a month as they were trying figure out to assemble the 400 person cast, specifically, who would be married to that person, and who would be the mother or father to that person, and the brother and sister to that person.

And they were very gracious to me during the process to let me know I was still a part of the conversation and that they were very interested in using me. A third character came up as a possibility and I presented that as well.  A few more weeks passed and the call finally came in for [me to play] the part of Matilda and, more or less, 36 hours after that phone call I was on a plane for New Orleans.

EricaTazel-ROOTS Matilda

CCJ: Wait, you got the role and only had 36 hours to prepare and arrive on set? I guess it’s not quick, then very quick!

Erica: Yeah! I got to a point where I didn’t think it would work out for me and I began thinking, “I probably have to let this go,” then the call came in yeah, I had to leave for about three months and had 36 hours to prepare for that.

CCJ: And when you say that, you mean you had to start shooting shortly after you arrived on the New Orleans set?

Erica: I landed and was in a costume fitting pretty much right after I checked into the hotel. Yeah, it was sweet…we got right to it. You know, obviously, costume-wise, they had to build so much of the stuff. Ruth Carter, our costume designer, was able to borrow and pull, but a lot of what you saw had to be constructed so they needed time to do all of that. And they should definitely be commended for the costuming…it was amazing and beautiful.

CCJ: Yes indeed. I was at the Tribeca Film Festival preview of “Roots” and saw you praise Ruth Carter and her work during the Q&A. She obviously deserves to be constantly and continuously applauded.

Erica: She is amazing.

CCJ: What was it about Matilda that you enjoyed playing?

Erica: I enjoyed the aspect of her that she’s in extraordinary circumstances that would be difficult for any human being to deal with day-to-day…I enjoyed the center of her faith that kept her strong, that kept her grounded, that kept her focused, that kept that family together – especially being the mother to so many boys during that time [laughs]. I enjoyed the deep, deep love that she shared with her husband, and being allowed to show that part of that story during that time period, in the face of such challenging circumstances that there were loving relationships that were able to somehow be developed and fostered…and kept together.  And in our case, a love that was able to survive a 20 year separation. That was a joy to play.

That’s something that’s often lost amongst the brutality.

In spite of all that, this marriage and family were, for the most part were able to stick together. To be the matriarch of that family within that particular generation was a great honor and pleasure to play.

CCJ: I just want to skip ahead a bit since you’re mentioning matriarchs. I have to ask you about working with Anika Noni Rose who played your mother-in-law Kizzy (Kunta Kinte’s only child) and how it was to work with her, especially under such grueling circumstances.

Erica: It was a great process to work with all the actors that I was given the opportunity to play with. She and I obviously had spent a lot of time together on set. I would have loved for Matilda and Kizzy to have more actual conversations together. In some earlier drafts you were actually given the opportunity to see the evolution of that relationship. But it was wonderful to have another actress on that set with so many men. I love the men, but y’know, to have someone to go back to the hotel with or have lunch with on an off day, or to go to a museum with…it was wonderful.

Erica Tazel cr-[1]
Erica Tazel. CR: Nate Taylor
 It was great having her there and to talk about things at the end of the day story-wise about what worked, and what we could improve the next day. We spent a lot of time off-camera trying to discover things we could play about being a mother and mother-in-law that were not on the page that we could bring to the screen in hopes that those nuances and subtleties may be seen by someone in the editing room. Yeah, it was a great pleasure to work with here and with Rege as well.

I got to work with a lot of actors who crossed my path…I was lucky with the number of people I got to work with – really, really young people, to the most seasoned of people in the business and in the world.

CCJ: Let’s talk Rege-Jean Page who played your husband Chicken George. You had great on- screen chemistry with each other. Can you tell me more about working with him?

Erica: We actually hate each other [big laugh!]. No really, Rege is a lot of fun. It was cool being a part of that experience. It was a huge opportunity for all of us but this was his American debut, and it’s one of the biggest roles he’s had and camera, and he had very big shoes for him to fill. He’s the person I spent the most time with between nights three and four [of the miniseries] and he’s very smart, charming, very hard working. We’re both stubborn in our own ways so that came up a couple of times. But the working relationship was very collaborative and inspiring, and by the end of night three we were definitely holding each other up, especially with all the Civil War stuff.

He’s a great human being. I’m really excited having seen all the work come together…and maybe we’ll have another opportunity to play in the future, but we certainly had a good time as Matilda and George.

CCJ: While always a strong character, Matilda’s a lot more fleshed out now than in the original miniseries.

Erica: That’s what people were telling me. I’ve been away from the original for a minute and I didn’t go back to it before we started shooting, and someone just said the same to me the other night, but I don’t fully remember that. It’s my plan to revisit our series and original maybe like around October, or something…go back to all of it see that. You’re the second person I’ve heard that from.

CCJ: Yeah, even your relationship with your father in the series, and even the close love that Matilda and Chicken George had, was substantially different and powerful. And I don’t say that to disparage Olivia Cole, whose acting I love, or her performance…but you were given a lot more to do. So what else were you able to bring the role?

Erica: The difference between Matilda in this version compared to the other women in the cast – Binta, Belle, and Kizzy – is we see things happen to them. We see their children taken away, we see their bodies violated, and we even see after-hours moments with the children and the husbands in the cabin. And we don’t get that much with Matilda.





My job came with imagining what those moments were for me…how did I feel when I had to chose which three children were sold away, how did I feel when I go the news that George wasn’t coming home…what did I do, which one of my children was I with, what did I feel every single one of those nights for 20 years that George was not going to come through that cabin? What was that? I as an actor had to fully create that in my imagination so that when I spoke about him, or when I saw him for the first time, or even when he came back from the war…all that had to be living and breathing with me so that the audience can see it since they didn’t get to experience that with us.

We didn’t even get to say goodbye, but there had to be some sort of goodbye in both characters that they had to create. That’s a different kind of work, that’s private work, but based upon what you’re saying and the feedback I’ve been getting, which has been lovely, is that all of that came through – as far as the connection between Matilda and George, the deep love. Even though Olivia Cole’s performance was not fresh in my mind, I remember being moved by what she was given and she was very specific in that way, very still, very strong, and obviously we have to honor her because she did something that awarded her the opportunity to accept the Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress [in a Miniseries/Movie] at that time.

And I did get the chance to speak with her at the NY premiere in May, and hearing her stories about Matilda mirrored my own experiences, which was really great.

CCJ: I had wondered if you got a chance to meet Olivia Cole…

Erica: When they told us we’d premiere this year as opposed to next for the 40th anniversary, one of the immediate things I wanted to do was meet her – even if it was by phone or by letter. By the night of the premiere that hadn’t happened, so I intended to introduce myself to LeVar Burton as we hadn’t gotten an opportunity to meet, and ask him, even though I was a stranger, that I need a huge favor from him to connect me with Olivia Cole. Well, right after the screening, the person I attended the premiere with found me and said you have to come with me right now! I didn’t know what that was about – and I was presented to Olivia Cole. I almost passed out.

Olivia Cole (right) with Louis Gossett Jr. at the 1977 Primetime Emmy Awards

She started talking to me about Matilda and it occurred to me that she didn’t know I played Matilda. She’s telling me all the stories and when she paused, I told her I was Matilda too. And she said, “You’re Matilda?” and she grabbed my face, I grabbed hers, we kissed held faces and I spoke to her for another 20 minutes. That was the party for me…I could have gone home after that.

CCJ: You’re making me emotional just thinking about that…

Erica: Oh yeah, it was fantastic.

CCJ: I know you have quite the acting pedigree. What can you tell me about yourself as an actor, as a woman, that people don’t really know?

Erica: Well, I think on [the west] coast I’m more associated with my work on TV, but what most people don’t know is that I started in the theatre in New York – off-Broadway and in regional theatre. I think what most people don’t know is that I didn’t have these aspirations as a young person. In fact, when I left high school, a performing arts school as a theatre major, I entered Spelman College as a pre-med biology major with the intention of being an OB-GYN or physical therapist.

At the heart of my work I still consider myself a theatre kid, even though I took myself out of my comfort zone to come here to L.A. to try to crack the TV and film nut. It’s been a huge sacrifice but it’s not a decision I regret. There have been times I thought it was crazy since New York was so good to me. But yeah, I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m still trying to enter those ranks of actors that can move between the mediums freely – be a stage actress but do very well in front of the cameras. They’re very different.

But yeah, classically trained actor that was going to be an OB-GYN.  I guess that makes me both math and science geek [chuckles]. There you have it!

CCJ: There are huge fans “Justified”and of your role as Rachel Brooks who’d be pissed if I didn’t ask you about the show. What did six years of doing”Justified” do for you as an actress?

Erica: It gave me an opportunity to be on a set that was supportive, that was collaborative, and everyone was respected. It gave me the opportunity to work for a network that was also supportive of actors. The creators and showrunners were so supportive as well. It also gave me the opportunity to hear daily what smart and good writing is.

And I couldn’t have asked for a better and stronger leading man in Timothy Olyphant. He gave me the opportunity to witness someone in a wonderful position be intelligent and smart and charming and about the work specifically and not about ego. He taught me that a leading man, or woman in my case, really needs their cast, and to support that cast and crew.

I think we all knew in the doing of that how lucky we all were…we often acknowledge that. I’m grateful for that. Since I left there I’ve been on sets several times when I realize – we had it so good! But it was a good jumping off point for a first pilot [of mine] and television series of the possibility of what it could be: Going to work should be fun given proper leadership and great support between the cast and crew. Y’know, the days can be long days, but they should and can be fun, which was my experience working on “Justified.”

Erica Tazel in Justified. CR: Frank Ockenfels III / FX
Erica Tazel in Justified. CR: Frank Ockenfels III / FX

CCJ: So what’s next for Erica Tazel?

Erica: I hope what’s next for me is the continuing evolution of the conversation of the person and actor that is Erica Tazel. Playing Matilda has reinvigorated that conversation because playing a US Deputy Marshall in “Justified” was very different than playing a Matilda from age 17 to 54.

What I hope is next is that casting directors, producers, even other actors will say – “Who is that person?” and “What else is part of that range? How much deeper can she go – psychologically, physically, and emotionally?”   And hopefully the phone will start ringing with some more interesting, layered, and complex stories. That’s any actors hope – especially female actors – that you get that one opportunity that shifts the projects you’re sent and considered for.

So there is a lot of reading going on of scripts, and we’ll see what’s the next challenging role that will add to this conversation that Matilda has given me the opportunity to present. It’s a tough one to follow.

In addition to writing about film, television, and media, Curtis Caesar John is a film exhibitor and advocate, born and raised in Brooklyn, NYC. Follow him on Twitter @MediaManCurt

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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