The actress Tamara Austin is possibly best known for playing the role of Nora in The Walking Dead. She can also be seen in Reprisal, The Vampire Diaries, David Makes Man and Banshee and movies including Christmas at Graceland. I recently had the immense pleasure of speaking with Tamara about her life and career. Everything from her childhood growing up outside the US to acting, from costuming on The Walking Dead to auditions and much more.
Read on to find out lots more about Tamara Austin, actress:
DB: I wanted to ask you about your name, Tamara, because the pronunciation varies.
TA: My parents pronounce it Tuh mair-ah. The story behind that is they came across the name and really liked it. My mum’s Puerto Rican; Tamara means “palm tree;” it reminded her of home. I’ve had it said incorrectly all my life, especially on set, so I say to them, “Just call me Austin.”
DB: Your childhood wasn’t the ordinary American childhood was it?
TA: No! I was born in Misawa, Japan. My parents both served in the USAF. They were both in Japan, and that’s where they met, fell in love, had me, and then got married. My parents still had different assignments where my dad had to go to Korea, and my mum and I went to Maryland. Once they married, they decided they would stay with Dad’s assignment to England, so we could all be together.
Although I don’t have many memories of England, since I was so young, my parents loved it, and I definitely plan to go back to experience the history and culture there. Once the base in Upper Heyford closed, my father got reassigned to Germany, where my brother was born.
Germany’s where my love of acting grew. I struggled in school with a learning disability. I had difficulty understanding and processing as quickly as others. I really struggled.
DB: What years would that have been?
TA: We were in Germany from ‘94-’99. It was there that I saw my first play, while on a school field trip, and it was “The Wizard of Oz”. I had never seen it before, and although it was in German, it was the first time ever I could understand what was going on. It was a really magical experience.
I became fascinated with the actors and how they did this. We went multiple times to various plays at that theatre, and I remember laughing on cue, which was an experience I had never had before. I coach other actors, and something I always tell them is: if the craft is good in multiple different cultures without them understanding your words, you know you’ve done your job.
After that, we then moved to Okinawa, an island off mainland Japan.
Unfortunately, growing up overseas, we did not have an acting programme, so I was not able to take Theatre classes, but I was still involved with the Arts and through choir.
I used to do a Japanese traditional style of dancing, and we would travel across Okinawa to perform and also did Taiko drumming, which was a lot of fun. I can honestly say that I would not be the person I am today had it not been for the military and those blessings of opportunity and experience. I think that makes me the artist that I am because of my understanding of different cultures and thought processes, as well as respecting the opinions of others.
I lived overseas for the first 13 years of my life and then moved to San Antonio, Texas. I was still in a military base school, so the structure was only slightly different. Texas was the first time that I was able to get to a theatre class, finally, in 8th grade, and participated in “The Christmas Carol.” I felt very much at home, and I knew from then that was what I wanted to do with my life.
Then, I moved to Long Fort Walton Beach, Florida. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I went to my first American public school, which was vastly different. My parents went to scout out schools, but their biggest concern was not only a good school for us but also one that had a very good theatre programme. I am very, very grateful for that because it was one of the best decisions that my parents made.
It was an enriching experience. Afterward, I graduated from high school and went to the University of Tampa. I’ve lived here for 10 years.
DB: Does that feel funny when you are so used to being quite itinerant as a child?
TA: It’s weird. It never really felt like settling because I’ve been so used to moving, but it has been such a blessing in the industry. I still get to move around whenever there is a new project. I’ve stayed in Florida to save before relocating.
DB: What is your “survival” job?
TA: I work in the fastener industry – “fasteners” is just another fancy name for screws. I answer the phone. I’m essentially my boss’ Personal Assistant. My job has been really understanding of my career. I’m so grateful that they’ve allowed me to leave for projects and support me in my dreams and aspirations.
DB: In the US, most auditions are by self-tape but here in the U.K. self-taping is much less common.
TA: That’s interesting because the majority of the work from my resumé is booked from direct self-tape – commercials and call-backs are always live auditions. For me, the majority of the work comes out of Atlanta. I miss live [auditions]. It’s [like] a muscle, you have to continue to practice if you haven’t been live in a while.
DB: What was your first ever professional role?
TA: My first professional job was actually a play. I’m a fan of theatre; it’s my first love, and I will always go back to that.
My senior year of college, I was able to do the South-Eastern Theatre Conference, where I received an opportunity through the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre Company near Asheville, North Carolina the summer after graduation. I took it because I was going to be an original character for a brand new play. I wanted to be involved with that process since both the director and the writer were involved with the development; I enjoy the challenge of how it is seen differently from a director’s and a writer’s perspective.
DB: What was your first TV job?
My first was Vampire Diaries. I realise, of course, now that I’m older that experience was very different from a typical first kind of job because I worked for five weeks on that – two episodes. This is a rare occurrence since I was only SAG eligible at that point.
I did the movie Dolphin Tale 2 first, that got me my Screen Actors Guild eligibility. That was also a great experience since I worked with Charles Martin Smith, a director who was also an actor.
DB: It does give them a unique perspective if they are also an actor.
TA: Absolutely! I love working with directors who are also actors because we typically speak the same language. Every director has been an amazing gain of growth. When I worked on The Vampire Diaries, I had to learn how to adjust to different languages of directing. I had to learn that just because there may be a commentary on you, it does not reflect on you, the artist; I learned that it was the technical that they were focusing on, the overall picture.
That first Vampire Diaries director was an editor by background, and the way he would talk to me was in very different terminology. By the time I felt confident, I shot the second episode, and I realised… it was a totally different director! [Laughs] I didn’t know that they changed directors every episode! Another lesson learned! [Laughs]
DB: Was he very different from the first director?
TA: He was, but only because I was not confident in myself during my time working with the first director only because I was still learning everything. I was feeling insecure about my choices since I had received many notes, and we did multiple takes. Then finally on the last day of filming the first episode, I stopped feeling sorry for myself, and decided, “I don’t care what people think! I’m here because I was chosen to be due to their confidence in me” that shift of mindset was when everything changed. It was my first scene where they filmed the other actors’ coverage first and then did mine and, where I realised that we were all figuring this out together. Insecurity can play a big part in the way you work, even more so off than on camera. That’s why I am so grateful for the Vampire Diaries experience because it was life-changing: I grew not only as an artist but also as a person.
The second director walked in, and I was like, “I’m okay. I got this now,” and did my stuff.
DB: You were also in an episode of one of my all-time favourite shows, Banshee.
TA: It’s so crazy, Davina, because it seemed like all of my favourite shows were lining up. Banshee was me and my mum’s show, we loved Banshee!
I worked with Ulrich Thomsen! When I met him… I kind of had a bit of a star-struck moment. I told him that I loved The Celebration, and he asked me a question and I was like…completely speechless, it was really embarrassing [laughs]. To meet him in person and to engage with him was phenomenal. Rus Blackwell, who played Gordon Hopewell, he’s actually from my area in Florida, so it was nice to meet him too. We went to lunch with the actor, Gino Segers [Chayton Littlestone]… to hear him speak, what a voice… he doesn’t even try. It was really amazing, only a day, but wonderful to work on that.
DB: You’ve also been in several episodes of The Walking Dead.
TA: Another show I love. I actually started watching it in 2013 and I was determined to make it onto The Walking Dead.
I had done 5 or 6 auditions through the local casting director, Lisa Mae Fincannon, but I never gave up.
I’m very grateful for the show. It was very surreal, watching that show for so long and then to be on set and look around and think, “Oh my gosh, I’m actually here, in Alexandria!” It’s mind-blowing!
DB: What were the conditions when you were filming?
TA: Hot, so incredibly hot! The very first day I was with Danai, and we’re in black – I’m wearing black jeans, black boots, black long-sleeve, a black poncho – and it is a hot July, in Atlanta, not a cloud in sight. They took very good care of us, whenever we weren’t shooting there was a house we would go into, with air conditioning. One of the houses that you see the characters living in, was also the holding area. Craft services were in the back of one of the houses where we could grab water, fruit, juices, smoothies, or some very guilty pleasure snacks.
It was even more surreal because I did episode 4 of season 9, and then the six-year time jump happened, and I was like, “Oh, there’s a windmill!” [Laughs]
DB: Quite an achievement from the set building side.
TA: The artistic department is phenomenal in what they do, those are real houses! They actually bought a section of the town of Alexandria and then closed it off with the barricades they showcase in the show.
DB: You just mentioned your costume in that show, and I wanted to touch on the idea of costume generally. How much does costume help you capture a character?
TA: I’m very big on objects that come in contact with the body. I can create a character, internally, but when I put that costume on, or a piece of jewellery, or, for Nora, those glasses, my whole body changes.It’s a huge part. When I learned I was Nora and I was doing my fitting for the very first time, I tried on different outfits I was feeling more authoritative, and, in a way, it kind of fostered being more regal, so it was interesting later on to see my character as a councillor. My hair being a certain way – I always part my hair, but my hair in that show is not parted; it’s completely Afro – adds that roughness. Costuming takes it to a whole other level once I’m on set, and I pretty much don’t leave the council room. There’s a running joke on set that I’m the cleanest person there because you never see me in a fight, you never see me with a walker, you never see any blood on me!
DB: Do you have a good look at yourself in a long mirror once you’re ready to go out as Nora?
TA: Oh yes. That’s an opportunity to see and prep, to make sure I feel “right.” When I put on those combat boots though… I always felt like… even when I was doing theatre and at college, my teacher taught me this and it stayed with me: rehearse in the shoes your character would wear, because it’s going to completely change your body posture and the way the character is. When I put on that last bit of costume, those boots, it just adds more of that ruggedness to it Nora’s character.
DB: It’s also the sheer scale of the costumes they have to make for shows like The Walking Dead.
TA: I remember one time, I think for my very first fitting, I was walking up trying to find the costume department. They had a huge tarp and, I kid you not, there must have been about 300 pairs of shoes all dirtied up and laid out. Apparently, that’s where all the background artists’ costumes are based.
I have still not seen a walker! [Both laugh] I have heard it’s quite terrifying, in person. They basically separate us from the walkers, to help bring that sense of realism and shock.
DB: I would like to move onto Reprisal, if I may, which is a phenomenal show.
TA: That show, man! I was filming Reprisal around the same time as The Walking Dead, so I was going back and forth. The panhandle of Florida is so interesting with hidden talent. Abigail Spencer, went to high school at a neighbouring high school to the one I went to; we talked about that. She’s one of the humblest people I have ever had the pleasure of working with, an incredible artist, very respectful.
The intro scene in Reprisal, they wanted to get everything really specific – the watering of the plant, the sharpening of the pencil – to really give the gravitas.
DB: It was brilliant!
TA: Thank you so much! I have officially become a fan of vintage, vintage clothing and everything. Even when we shot in the trailer for the landscaping the art department found all these artefacts: original cheque book, the slider to mark the cheques, even finding the pencil sharpener; I haven’t seen that pencil sharpener since I was in Germany.
DB: I loved the blouse you had on, a brown one with circles on. That’s so retro, I was thinking, “I think I might have had one like that.”
TA: That was the first time I ever learned about a “pussy bow.” I tried on a lot of costume pieces, but we plumped for that one. The artistic team is amazing at what they do. I took pictures, so I could research online to try and find these pieces. I love the cinematography, the greens and the blues being used, the lighting, everything.
DB: What have been your best, and worst experiences as an actor?
TA: I think the worst was the point that I mentioned with Vampire Diaries, but that came down to my own insecurity, being very green and learning. At the time it was awful, but I think any time a person goes through a change it’s also a metaphor for this period to grow and to be better than you were prior to this. Just like I think the coronavirus is going to be. I think all of us will be more amazing people coming out of this challenge because we have learned so much during this time.
I have enjoyed every single experience I have ever been on; it’s been an incredible journey, but something that I will always cherish is a project I worked on recently. Tarell Alvin McCraney was responsible for David Makes Man – he also was responsible for writing Moonlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. I booked a role to play the mother of a child who had passed from a drug overdose. I studied this character, did my research, watched documentaries of mothers of children who had passed from drug overdoses, studied different forms of methamphetamine, different people writing about their experiences, but it never “clicked.”
I always felt that something was missing, that I didn’t feel fully into the character – and I was now less than 24 hours away from performing.
Something I had been dreading in the back of my mind for days was… I wanted to call my aunt. Back in 1999, she lost her firstborn child, he died from a car accident from his friend who was driving intoxicated. Even though it was about 20 years ago, I just did not feel comfortable, because it’s still something that’s very hard on my family: when he died he had twin girls, and they were only 1-year-old; he was actually on the way to the hospital to see his sister who was also having twins. So now every birthday my cousins have, it also serves as a reminder of the uncle, father, son, brother, cousin, and friend we lost.
My aunt just kept coming to mind and, finally, I just bit the bullet and called her. I went in my trailer; I had 20 minutes before we did the scene. I said, “Hi, I can’t really talk that long, and I can’t exactly say what it is we’re doing. If you’re comfortable talking about it, what was your experience when Ken died?” She said, “No, you’re fine. When he passed, I’m a Christian woman but honey… nothing mattered. Everything was done. I went to the funeral; I don’t even remember most of it. I was completely lost and something that struck me was: he made me a mother.” She said she went weak at the knees, just lost it, couldn’t believe it was real, and it was only something that a parent who’s lost a child could understand.
I thanked her, hung up, and just let that sink in, then I went out, and we did one take, and I just lost it! The music was there [“Motherless Child”], the choreography, and I felt everything, my mind was so focused in that moment. There was even a time when I literally heard her words, I felt weak at the knees and was thinking things in the mind of the character, “He was too young. This wasn’t supposed to happen.” It was so difficult to do that over, and over, and over again and Phylicia Rashad is up on a balcony, watching me this whole time, this Queen! When David’s mother comes over, I just want to hug her. What was so beautiful about that, is that we shot that time numerous times for close-ups, aerials, angles, yet every single time we performed that scene it always came out differently, like doing live theatre – it was the most remarkable experience I have ever had.
DB: You must have been quite exhausted after that filming session.
TA: I was fine on set, but when I got back to the hotel, I came in, sat on the bed and just laid for about an hour-and-a-half, I was so physically and mentally exhausted.
DB: If you had any advice for someone who was considering acting as a career, what would that be?
TA: Always, always stay encouraged. My acting teacher told me this, “Any day that you do not work on your craft, you are three days behind making it.” There’s always a moment where you can be fine-tuning – musicians always practise their instrument regularly – for the actor our instrument is our internal being, there is always something that can be worked on with our mental or physical state. The richest place is the graveyard, all these dreams that end up there never coming to fruition, so always use each day wisely. This is the perfect time to learn who you are. We used to do activities in elementary school where they ask “Who do you want to be, who are you, how do you feel?” Unfortunately we rarely do that today, and I think that’s why mental health is such an important issue because we don’t ask ourselves these questions often enough.
The second piece of advice for an aspiring artist in this industry is that there are going to be some people in your life that are discouraging. I listen a lot to Les Brown (an amazing motivational speaker) who told this story one time in his “It’s Possible” speech, about the Chinese Bamboo Tree.
Link for “It’s Possible” with a start time of 39:33 for the story of the Chinese Bamboo Tree:
“The Chinese Bamboo Tree takes five years to grow, and when they go through a process of growing it, they have to water and fertilise the ground where it is everyday and it doesn’t break through the ground until the fifth year. When it breaks through the ground, within five weeks, it grows ninety feet tall. Now the question is, does it grow ninety feet tall in five weeks or five years? The answer is obvious, it grows ninety feet tall in five years because at any time that person stopped watering and nurturing and fertilising that dream, that bamboo tree would’ve died in the ground. I can see people coming talking to a guy, out there watering and fertilising the ground that’s not showing anything. ‘Hey, whatcha doing? You been out here a long time man and the conversation in the neighbourhood is, you growing a Chinese Bamboo Tree, is that right?’ ‘Yeah, that’s right…’, ‘Well uh, even Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder can see nothing’s showing!’ That’s how people are going to do you.” I remind artists that if you can nurture what you’re doing and have faith in what you’re doing, it will come to fruition and everybody will see what you’re doing.
I’m very blessed to have a family that’s very supportive of me and my dreams and aspirations. I do have friends in my life who had the same aspirations, but they don’t get that support. They get very discouraged about where they are in life, questioning what they’re doing – that’s a dream killer that goes right to the graveyard. It’s important to have good, positive people around you to encourage you, but you also have to encourage yourself.
The other most important thing about other artists in this industry is: I always believed, especially when I was younger, that “This is it!” The reality of the world is that you have to have a Plan B, but that Plan B does not have to necessarily discourage or be less than what you want to do from your passion. You should have something that is also lucrative, something that can be encouraging and inspiring because acting goes up and down. There are times… all of 2017… I didn’t work once. I booked a series regular, on a new show, in August 2017, but it didn’t work out, and I hit a pretty low point. Then I had to work on myself. I had to really let that go, and once I was able to let that go, then I began working consistently.
DB: And that’s never lost, is it? You never go, “Oh well that was a waste of time.”
TA: That’s why I like auditioning because I also look at it as an opportunity to play because, at that moment, that character is mine. If I book it, that’s the icing on the cake, but at the end of the day, my job is to create a character.
DB: When you aren’t working, what hobbies and interests do you have?
TA: I like to read. Right now I have books by my bed and a bookshelf with a whole lot more. I keep a bunch of books with me focusing on different things. Whether it’s spiritual, financial, or just a story, I enjoy learning something new and expanding my mind. The book I’ve been reading right now, every night, is Chicken Soup for the Soul, which has been around since the ‘90s; it is a collection of different stories from real people. I like to turn to this book, also, for character inspiration.
DB: What is your bucket list of shows you’d love to be on?
TA: Surprisingly, I’ve been on a majority of them now. The Walking Dead was a big goal, at this time off the top of my head This is Us, and Handmaid’s Tale. I rarely get time to watch TV because I’m always studying for something else, and when I do watch TV it’s prep for an audition, so this downtime has actually been useful to catch up. I actually just watched Unorthodox on Netflix.
DB: Gosh, how good was that?
TA: So good! Phenomenal work, and I’m just studying the actors and how they worked. Brilliant! I can’t believe it’s only 4 episodes.
DB: Touching briefly upon music, what’s your earliest musical memory?
TA: My earliest… in Germany I had a neighbour who practised the piano, and since our walls were attached, I always heard her play the piano – I could hear it through the wall because our walls were attached, I always heard her play “Für Elise”.
To this day, I do like to still listen to some classical music because it brings me back to my childhood in Germany. There’s this amazing African American violinist, Damien Escobar, from New York, and he has this song called “Fuse.” What I love is that he combines the violin and a little bit of hip-hop and R&B, and I discovered other artists through him.
DB: Can you remember what the first single or album was that you ever bought?
TA: Absolutely. The very first video/song that I ever heard was Spice Girls, “If You Want To Be My Lover”. I bought the album not long after that, and as a matter of fact, I just passed down my Spice Girls Barbie Collection to my niece [Laughs].
I love old school music, but I also like to discover different artists on the rise. Great music and affordable concert tickets (laughs).
DB: Is that what you tend to do if you’re going to go to a concert?
TA: Yes, the most recent concert I went to was Charlie Wilson, so old school, but he can put on one heck of a show! Oh my gosh, amazing!
DB: If you’re at a party and music is on, do you get up and dance or do you have to be dragged up?
TA: I’m always one of the first ones! (Laughs) I’m like a totally different person once the music comes on! I’ve always thought if there’s a red carpet event and it’s all formal I would go all out, because I can go a little crazy.
DB: Do you ever sing karaoke?
TA: No. My best friend, who I travelled with all over the world, never fails to remind me how we did karaoke. She always begs me, “We should do that again! Do you remember on my 13th birthday?” and I’m like, “It’s going to let that stay, a memory…” I’m actually pretty self-conscious about singing, I need some more training in that.
DB: Imagine this is your last meal on planet Earth, what would you choose to eat and what would your preferred drink be?
TA: Everybody who knows me knows that I love eggs; it’s like a weird obsession. It can be in any form: fry it, (I’m like Bubba from Forrest Gump) boil it, stir it… As for a drink, probably an acai smoothie, very healthy, but then I’d follow up with a very bad dessert of strawberry ice cream. I love strawberries, how some people are for chocolate, I’m for strawberry. After leaving Germany, where we used to have the Kinder chocolate, American chocolate is a joke, but try to explain that to an American, they’re like, ‘What kind of woman are you?’
DB: What could you not live without?
TA: I think my state of mind. Nothing really material because I travel so much – granted, I’m a woman, I pack a lot! (Both laugh) But 75% of the suitcase is hair product because natural hair is a lot of work. My peace of mind and my faith, it’s what’s been getting me through this time, knowing that I’m not alone in this. At the very end of the day, none of us are going to live forever, we’re all going to leave this world. I can’t take anything with me, but my spiritual self, and that’s something that’s very important to me and my relationship with my maker.
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
TA: My perfect day is waking up from getting a lot of sleep. Waking up from a full night’s rest, with skin glowing – not a new pimple in sight, and listening to motivation talks while meditating and working out. Then have a wonderful breakfast, curling up to a good book or converse with close friends of mine that I connect with on a spiritual level, discovering things together. I would then spend the majority of the day exploring a new location or doing a new activity. I can end with a nice movie and then my last hour reading a book and praying. My perfect day begins and ends in gratitude.
I would like to extend my thanks to Tamara for giving me the opportunity to have such a great, fun and thoughtful conversation with her.
[Edited by: Grace Rainbow]
Find Tamara on:
Link to 7 Insights from this interview with Tamara Austin: