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Sometimes it's difficult to credit the stories you hear: credit the things you know to be true. Sitting across from Tina Andrews it's difficult to imagine that this intelligent, educated and accomplished woman has experienced the lash of racism or had to bear the brunt of misfortune that has nothing to do with her abilities or disabilities. Things that had to do, instead, with the color of her skin. And it's a beautiful color: a sort of pale mahogany, espresso with a dash of golden cream. She's beautiful, as well. An actress before she picked up the pen professionally, Andrews' hair is like spun black silk, a distinctive 'do that leaves you with the impression of a dark lioness. Andrews' movements leave that impression, as well. She embodies raw energy elegantly contained in a tiny package. Barely scraping the five foot mark, Andrews' height was one of her deficits as an actress. "If I were five-five," she shakes her head and that mane waves deliciously, punctuating her words, "look out if I were five-five!" The other deficit, of course, was color.
Early in her career, her height didn't hold her back. In 1983, Andrews was cast as Valerie Grant on Days of Our Lives. The Days storyline presented Valerie as a nurse who was studying to be a doctor. According to Andrews, over the course of two years, the character became so popular that the "powers-that-be decided to make our story more mainstream by introducing my character to the son of the lead white female character on the show. There was such wonderful chemistry between Valerie and David Banning, played by actor Richard Guthrie, that the writers slowly developed an interracial relationship between the two."
In Sally Hemings An American Scandal: The Struggle to Tell the Controversial True Story, Andrews, by way of introduction, tells us that as the relationship between Valerie Grant and David Banning heated up, her fan mail bottomed out, going from "100 per cent positive" to largely negative and hostile. Valerie Grant's character was shipped off to Stockholm and Andrews was canned going, in a rush, from being a salaried actress with a steady job to the very large ranks of the unemployed. "It had one of those license plates: Tina A." And as it was being repossessed, Andrews "watched the Tina A. car drive away."
With her house, her Mercedes and her savings gone and work difficult to come by, Andrews called her "dear, sweet father to bemoan the issue." Daddy had only so much sympathy, but some pretty good advice. "You could be part of the solution instead of complaining about the problem," he told her. "You could be writing empowering roles for black women."
And, to both of their credits, that's just what she did.
Almost two decades later, Andrews is one of the most in-demand African American writers in Hollywood. She wrote and co-produced the award-winning CBS miniseries, Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, she also co-wrote and co-produced the November 2000 CBS miniseries Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, based on the Donald Spoto book. She is currently working on The O.Z. "an updated hip hop version of the Wizard of Oz" and a CBS miniseries on Coretta Scott King. And, now there's a book, Andrews' first, detailing the difficulties Andrews had in getting Sally Hemings: An American Scandal made: an arduous process that took nearly 16 years and placed the writer herself in the middle of a controversy around the veracity of her material: one of the United States' most beloved historical figures and the loving longterm relationship he shared with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.
Tina Andrews lives in Malibu, California with her husband, the documentary filmmaker, Stephen Gaines as well as "three wonderful dogs, a cat and 30 koi fish." She is presently at work on a sequel to Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, entitled Daughters of the Declaration.
Linda Richards: I know that the Sally Hemings project was important for you personally. What drove you?
Tina Andrews: It was the first time I really found myself fighting to maintain the integrity of the words because a lot of time had been spent on those words. I didn't want them to turn it into a Thomas Jefferson movie. We've got 438 biographies on Thomas Jefferson. First of all, we know everywhere he was because he told us where he was the whole time. He kept meticulous notes. Sally Hemings we don't know as much about.
One of the reasons I thought it was important to write this book was because [viewers] weren't quite sure whose vision they saw when they saw the Sally Hemings project because there were many scenes I could not salvage from misinterpretation. There were scenes that I could not salvage. I was a producer and it was -- and is -- very important that I continue to produce the projects that I write because I write a very specific way and there's language and there's tone and intent that I then don't want misinterpreted by anyone, frankly.
I don't want to have to necessarily go through an experience like this again, although I'm monumentally proud of the miniseries. Monumentally, because once we moved the director off the piece, then Craig [Anderson, the executive producer] and I were able to get into the editing room and reedit. But if it wasn't shot in the first place, then there's nothing for you to go to: there's nothing for you to cut from. So, unfortunately, we were stuck sometimes, with having to leave scenes set up the way they were.
The miniseries did very well, didn't it?
Oh my God! We did 20 share in the middle of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? [Going in] CBS's biggest concern [was]: Tina, please do not leave people over their head with a history lesson! Because, you know, certain audiences will go to a history book or will go to the history channel or they'll go to PBS, but you have to make it entertaining. In fact, those were their primary marching orders, they said: It's not CBS university. [Laughs] It's CBS entertainment.
With as much fighting as I had to do, I was proud of the piece. But I did have to apologize for certain scenes. There were scenes that I couldn't salvage from misinterpretation and so I had to go on talk radio and speak to newspapers all across the country. I did not want to find myself apologizing for that which went on the air, but the natural interpretation would be that the network made me change things. And this was one time that I really wanted America to know that it wasn't the network. It wasn't the studio. It was all within our own ranks that people felt things should be different.
You've chosen to do the book in a really interesting way because you've included things that are, in some ways, really disparate pieces. Because we've got a bit of your story...
Because it took 16 years to get the movie [made].
So your story becomes a part. And then the sort of "making of" and then the script.
You know, initially I was going to do a script book. [Maybe with] the author's notes -- about two pages in the front -- and then they talk to the producer and that's a couple of pages and then the script: sold for $10.95 and life goes on. And my Frankie Lymon script had been published and that was all very nice and I thought: OK, fine. We'll publish the script. But it occurred to me in the making of the movie that entirely too much was going on behind the scenes for a simple script book. First of all, people who are reading a script book will not know what draft it is, how much blood... I mean, I had felt like I had the IV in my veins and the blood was on the page. [Laughs] People thought it was an overnight rip from the headlines because, you know, the DNA comes out on a Saturday night, Monday morning I got phone calls from every major network.
How did they get a DNA sample from Thomas Jefferson, anyway?
First and foremost, when I won the [Writer's Guild of America] award, I said: I want to thank the Democratic party for the timing of the DNA and I want to thank Mr. Clinton for the scandal in the White House at the time, because it made it very palatable to do this original Presidential scandal. [Laughs]
They had been doing DNA testing on the remains of the male line descendants of Thomas Jefferson. Nobody is going to exhume Mr. Jefferson. One of the last images in the book is a picture of the grave of Sally Hemings' grandson, William. William, we know where he's buried. They wanted to dig up his remains and test them. And the Hemings descendants finally said: No. No more digging up our side of the coin. If you don't dig up T.J. we're not going to give you permission to dig up William Hemings. The family members have got to agree. And so that racial element comes into play, because there are the white Jeffersons who do not want to allow the Hemings to be buried at Monticello, if they choose to, as linear descendants.
That's the big fight!
But, Tina: it's 2001!
That's why I said I've got to write the book; because it's a soap opera. [Laughs] And I was on a soap opera once. This was the best soap opera going. That's why the epilogue [of my book] is my favorite chapter, because it took place last year after the miniseries had aired. I had gone back to Monticello for the meeting where, once again, the Hemings and the Jeffersons -- like the Hatfields and the McCoys -- met to try to resolve this: are they or aren't they? And will they or won't they be buried at Monticello? Now, granted they don't want to be buried on the ol' plantation, but they want to have the right of choice and in that they are correct.
What was interesting about it was, we met last year at the burial of one of the Jefferson descendants. And I was struck by the fact that we had been invited by Lucian [K. Truscott IV] who is one of the white Jefferson descendants. We had all been invited there to attend the burial of his father and this was the first time I was actually inside the graveyard [at Monticello]. You know, we all get to stand there and look at the big gold letters "T.J." and it's always padlocked, so you don't get a chance to be inside the graveyard. But last year, because we were invited, that Sunday morning we were all standing there at 9:30 and I was struck by the fact that, in the crowd, were black, brown, beige, white, yellow faces: all belonging to one American family. I felt that this was the way it really and truly should be. It would come full circle if they stopped and acknowledged that this family is [Thomas Jefferson's] second family.
And yet, standing a ways away were white Jeffersons who couldn't stand the fact that the sons and daughters of former slaves were standing in that grave site. And I started to write that chapter then, when I got back to the hotel, because it was the Martin Luther King quote which is in here: That I hope one day that the sons and daughters of former slaves and the sons and daughters of former slaveholders will come together at the table of brotherhood. And here we were at the grave site of the man who said all men are created equal who in fact had these two families. I was so struck by that.
Four hours later, at the meeting, one of the white descendants stands up and says: I do not care. These Hemings are bastards, they are likened to the bastard children of Edward VII. Yes, they are his children, but they will never be king, so they can never be buried in the royal burial plot. I have it on tape and the exact quote is in the book. So much for progress.
But what's that about? Because look at the amount of time that has passed? It would just be the coolest thing.
It would be! And here's the other thing, because I had to really think about Thomas Jefferson, because I had to give voice to him. And give him language and life. And we had the cutest Jefferson: let's face it, Sam Neill! And I'll be honest, this was where I got a little Hollywood, but if I'm going to sell this story and make people really believe it... there's a reason Hollywood casts a certain way. You want to see people that you don't mind looking at for four hours.
[Laughs] That's a good point.
And Jefferson was tall and had a head full of gorgeous red hair. He was rich, he was a plantation owner and he's kind of famous. [Laughs] This was a guy who had been governor and secretary of state, had been vice president of the United States and he's going for President. He is a man who was published, he had books and he wrote great documents which are housed in the Library of Congress. He was a complete Renaissance man. He never wanted to refer to his slaves as slaves, they were servants and he considered them his extended family. And here he falls in love with a woman who, because she was his wife's half-sister, looked like the wife who was dead. He was not an adulterer. This issue of whites and blacks intermingling isn't a new thing. So because I had been kicked off of a soap opera for having an interracial relationship -- and at the time I was on the soap opera I was in an interracial relationship -- I knew this playing field very well. People can't help who they find themselves attracted to.
I must admit that, in the earliest part of the book, there were things that didn't really ring true for me with regard to race particularly when you said that "stories about interracial relationships frighten us." I don't feel that way and I don't know anyone that feels that way. Am I naive? Or maybe just because I'm Canadian. I look around my own city and it almost seems as though interracial relationships are the norm.
Yes! Everywhere in the world except in America. When my husband and I go to France, for instance, we are an anomaly. Because we're around the same complexion and we walk around and it is so obvious that we are American. Because when we got to Italy or France or Germany we see whites and blacks mixed. You know, Africans and whites; Jamaicans and whites. We see very, very brown-skinned women and they're rolling these very light-skinned babies down the street. [Laughs] We see mixed couples everywhere we go. Rarely, in fact, do we see two black people together. Be they two Africans or two African Americans or two people like my husband and I who have the same complexion: people who are discernibly of the brown-skinned peoples. It means nothing over there.
Carmen Ejogo, who I thought made such a fabulous Sally Hemings, is Scottish and Nigerian. A just amazing mixture: a wonderful melting pot and people just absolutely don't care. She identifies herself as being British.
That initial stuff didn't strike a chord with me, then I read further and encountered what you'd experienced on the soap opera and it made more sense.
And then when you get further into the book, you realize that I spoke at the University of Richmond last April and the Ku Klux Klan showed up livid over my interpretation of the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings story. The Klan showed up. That's why I ended the book "Can't we all just get along?"
We're not done with all of that, and we seem to be more accepting of it when it's a white guy and a black woman or if the person that's black is wealthy, then it's like it's OK because the money is the great equalizer. It's very bizarre about race in America. And I hit a nerve in depicting this relationship... oh, I can't tell you! They picketed in Philadelphia....
They picketed? They picketed what?
They were in front of the CBS affiliate picketing the presentation of this story on CBS. I had to write the book. The book had to be about the complete experience: the 16 years -- while I went broke -- trying to make the movie. And suddenly the DNA comes out and people thought it was an overnight success ripped from the headlines and I'm saying: Excuse me? No. I spent a lot of my money. My daddy's money.
I spoke to the descendants -- 35 to 38 descendants -- of the relationship. And there's a photo in the book showing that when I decided to have the screening in Ohio where most of the descendants are, 800 descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings showed up. We didn't have enough room for them.
I saw the picture. Those are the descendants not just of Thomas Jefferson, but of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings?
Now, a lot of those people are white.
That's what I'm saying. Remember: of the five children they had that grew into adulthood, three of them remained in the black community. You've got to remember that all of those children were very, very light-skinned.
Well yes, they would be, wouldn't they?
She was a quadroon and so, under the racial classification of the time, the children would be considered octoroon. So they were very, very light-skinned.
Of the three that remained in the black community, one of them kept marrying back white. The two that remained in the black community married other blacks so the skin starting browning up. So if you look at the three families, there are similarities even today. They all got Jefferson's nose: everybody got Jefferson's nose. The Eston Hemings family, there are 14 of them and they know where they all are. So there are 14 of them and they are white. Madison Hemings' descendants are all brown-skinned: not dark-skinned, but brown-skinned. And the Thomas Woodson -- their firstborn child -- that whole family line ranges in color from very, very, very dark to very, very, very light. So that's what I wanted to show, we couldn't get the depth that I wanted for the photo, but they were every complexion under the moon.
It's easy to see that in the photo. From one side to the other, it's all of the shades.
Yes. And I also have a photo taken when I was in the graveyard last year, where I'm sitting on Jefferson's grave and there again it shows a range, racially. I feel ... that family really reflects America for me. Because we are a melting pot. I feel that there is no true American other than Native American, so all of the rest of us these days are a homogenization of a number of influences and races. None of us is pure anything. In fact, I make that point in the book. If any of us were to trace our ancestry back five generations, we are all going to discover that we are mixed with Native American, African American or immigrant European, because the only people that were here were Native American.
I was in Roots as an actress. And all of us, when Roots first came out, started trying to find out who we were descended from. Well my father traced his ancestry back four generations and then stopped and I picked up the mantle after he passed away [while] doing the Sally Hemings piece. I found out that in my family, on my father's side of the family, there was a similar story. My great-great grandmother fell in love with her white employer and they had a child. When he died he left my great-great-grandmother the house and left his children from the white wife, who had died, the money.
This was when?
About 1902. Now, my grandmother -- my dad's mom -- had the house until she passed away in 1963. We went down [when] I was four years old, maybe five years old -- I was very, very young -- and she had a trunk at the end of her bed. She was dying, though of course I didn't realize it at the time. [We went to see her] in Birmingham [Alabama] in 1963. It was the most volatile year in the history of the civil rights movement and it was the first year that I became aware that my being a little black girl was going to be, perhaps, healthwise a detriment to me. [Laughs].
You grew up in Chicago, didn't you?
Yes, in Chicago, in a moneyed section of the black community called Pill Hill, so I was born and raised upper middle-class. So I was -- quote unquote -- considered born to privilege. But when we would drive to the South and have bottles thrown at the car and the N-word constantly yelled at you and told to say "Yes Ma'am" and "No Ma'am" because we don't want to find you lynched and hanging from a tree...
Was there still segregation?
Oh my God, yes! We were in George Wallace's state in Bull Connor's city in 1963. We're talking Martin Luther King and boycotts, this was that period in our history that it was uncomfortable if you were a Northern black to be traveling to the South with your Northern ideologies.
My grandmother was dying and there was a footlocker at the end of her bed and I remember my daddy saying: Don't tax her. What they were doing was getting the business straight, he and my Uncle James. About what to do with the house and the disposition of the property [and so on] because grandma was dying.
I asked grandma if I could open up the trunk, because to me it was like a treasure chest and in fact it was. In opening it up, inside she too had a lilac dress and a scrapbook of clippings and old crinkly photos and she told me how she met my grandfather. And then she was going back over the story of how she came to be. Now I'm paying very little attention to this because I was a child, but what fascinated me were the clothes in the trunk and the history of the stuff that was in the trunk and costume jewelry and that kind of thing. And the fact that I was sitting at the foot of my grandmother as she's handing this oral history down to me. I incorporated that into the Sally Hemings story, because in talking to the descendants they too had been handed down an oral history.
When I first started researching this story they didn't all know each other, but they were handing me the exact same oral histories. It was a wonderful feeling but, also, it made me think: This has to be a true story because how many people are being told by their mother -- grandmother, great-grandmother -- how they came to be and it's the same story?
And the same family legends.
The exact same family legends. We all have that same background. In my case, it was a love story. In somebody else's case who is a certain complexion, perhaps it was rape or abuse: a slavemaster just taking the women because he could. And that was the case nine times out of ten. But in that one unique situation, a lot of us can tell a story about affection ... and how that person suffered tremendous guilt for, say, being a wealthy Southern plantation owner and how, in order to run the land, they had to own slaves because it was the custom of the day or for whatever other various and sundry reasons that they did not free their slaves. Some of us have stories, within the community, that were about affection between those two communities and that's what [the Sally Hemings story] is about.
In so many ways I think that by the time the [American] Civil War happened, the system of slavery was ready to collapse on itself anyway. It must have been getting increasingly difficult for slaveholders to tell themselves that what they were doing was right. On the other hand, the whole plantation system -- the slaveholder's whole way of life -- depended on slavery. But more and more people were examining that system and its rightness, or rather, wrongness.
My problem with Mr. Jefferson is [that] he knew it then. And so, when people ask me: What do you think of him, because you had to write him and so you had to in some way try to get under his skin? I had huge problems with him in that he continued to be a slaveowner. He always had this conflict -- it was a conflict between his head and his heart -- he knew what was right to do and what he should have done. But he was a man of his time and didn't do it.
I'll give him the fact that the Southern constituents were not going to allow for the dismantling of slavery. When Mr. Jefferson was first putting together the Declaration of Independence in which he had the paragraph outlined and ready to go and they all said -- including Mr. Franklin: You're going to lose on this one. Trust me, that paragraph will end up on the editing room floor. [Laughs] And it did. So I give him that. He had delegates that said: Let's fight that battle later. Let's get independent first and deal with the slave issue later. But once he became President -- once he saw his own mentor free his slaves and acknowledge his mulatto son and leave [him] property. When he could see that dear friends of his were not slaveowners and that their plantations still functioned.
And some people were freeing their children.
Absolutely. But on your own personal plantation -- of which he had 5000 acres just at Monticello alone, had he given one acre [to each of his slaves] so what? [He would have] lost 235 acres. They would have then had their own piece of land and in order to have that land they would have continued to work his land. The guy goes broke at the end of his life and I feel he would never have gone broke had he done the right thing earlier on. But he didn't. On top of which, he is in a relationship with a black woman and can clearly see just, from her family alone, that educating a human being and giving a human being equal access allows them to be fully functioning members of society. That was the plan that he had in action at Monticello so I don't understand, frankly, why he continued to be a slaveholder. I fault him for that.
It was hypocritical.
Completely. So I, as an African American woman, had to have that opinion voiced by somebody in the movie. And so it had to be Sally Hemings because that question had to be put forth by somebody. Logically, you can't have any of his other slaves do it because he could just say: Off with their heads! [Laughs] How dare you come up to me and actually ask me why I'm not freeing you? How dare you! It had to be somebody he respected, cared about and was not about to sell or maim or abuse. So she challenged him. For those who say: Your Sally Hemings was very strong and she was very opinionated and she seems to voice the opinions of Tina Andrews. Well, yeah. [Laughs] Because every single piece of history that we had on Sally Hemings was in the movie and is in the book.
Have you thought of novelizing the story?
Really? You haven't even thought of it?
This story is known. I'll tell you what I am thinking about doing. Actually, I'm not thinking about doing it, I just haven't found the time to do it. I'm going to be doing a sequel to the Sally Hemings story for CBS and that will chronicle the last nine years of [Sally's] life and what happened to the five kids: the two that ran away and passed for white who we lost to history and the three that ran off to Ohio and remained in the black community [who gave us] the history we have of Sally Hemings.
That's a very good sequel because it doesn't have to have to the weight of sequel on it. It's a whole new story.
That's right. It is a whole new story. Jefferson would be dead, so he will not be the force that drives the train, but [Sally] would be. Then I'd get a chance to see her pass down this oral history to her grandchildren. And it's just as easy for me to do a novel and then present it to the network as it is for me to do a four hour script. So that's what I'm in the process of doing.
Were there any surprises in your Sally Hemings research? Anything completely unexpected?
Other than the fact that I just didn't feel like he acted in a conscionable way to free his slaves. That surprised me. Because you read his documents -- you read his writing -- and you just love the guy and what he tried to do. I mean, this is a guy that cultivated 47 varieties of peas. Peas! Jefferson: how many different kinds of peas are required for your table? He was a vegetarian. He grew flowers. He was a scientist. He drew all of the time. He played the violin. This was a great character to write about. But he had huge character flaws. And then there was a side of me that said: Tina, if you were writing Bill Clinton's life story, this is another guy that you would just love. He plays the saxophone, he embraces all communities, he's very enlightened. He also has huge character flaws. Benjamin Franklin once said that with every great man of vision and wisdom comes a darker side to his nature that may, in fact, color and inform his greatness. And I believe that to be true.
That's a great line.
Yes. And I didn't want to lose that line, so I had to give it to Tom Paine in the movie, because it is a great line. And Jefferson replaced Benjamin Franklin as ambassador [to France]. They were only in town for two or three months together, so unfortunately, I didn't have Mr. Franklin to use as the character of conscience for Jefferson: that character came in the guise of Tom Paine. But that's the line and I believe that to be true. Also, any great character that you're going to dramatize needs to be flawed in order for him to be interesting and in order for him to be human.
And in order for him to evolve.
[Laughs] Unfortunately, Mr. Jefferson didn't. And therein lies the conflict.
But he had all those offspring, and they could evolve. [Laughs]
Well, he and his white wife had six children. Four died. So he only had the two girls. So ... that's why it's not T.J., it's his brother and that's how we ended up getting the DNA.
So there are no direct male descendants.
No. There are no Jeffersons.
And how many [children] did he have with Sally Hemings?
Seven. Two died, so five lived to adulthood. Of the five, Harriet and Beverly passed into white society and never looked back. They changed their names and we lost them. Since the miniseries, I got a phone call from a professor at a university. He contacted me to say: I'm descended from Harriet.
Yes. However, his story was disturbing in many ways because it says that Sally didn't die when history says she did, so I need to really fully explore his story. But I was fascinated with the fact that we lost Harriet to history and yet she stayed in touch with her brother, Madison, and we know that from his memoirs. But even he lost contact with her around the time of the Civil War. So history felt that she passed away: she would have stayed in touch with one of her relatives.
Do you have a timeframe that you're working with for the Sally Hemings sequel?
If I can get on the other side of the writing assignments that I have now as a result of the success of Sally Hemings, I would want to do this for next year.
Yes. [And then] I would love to be able to have the sequel come out in February 2004.
Your dad sounds like he was a fabulous guy. I loved reading about when you called him for money post-Days of Our Lives and you said: There aren't enough roles for black actresses. What am I going to do? And he said: Well, you're a writer. Get off your duff and write some. And you did.
Yes. This is no joke. Do you know that when my father died -- I didn't put this in the book -- but when he died my mother and I found an account at the credit union at his job under his name and my name and that's how he was sending me money. My mother had put her foot down years [before] and said: If you send her another dime, after we have spent all this money to send her to NYU [Laughs], she's going to sit up and not work when she's capable of working a real job.
And then there was Uncle Lionel... that story cracked me up. Uncle Lionel offering to help build you a dance school if you'd only go back home.
"The Tina Andrews School of Dance and Drama." I have to be successful! I have to. Because there's the image of this school waiting for me back in Chicago on the south side. And I see all these little neighborhood kids in tutus and me with a red stick, going: One, two, three; one, two, three. [Laughs] I could not believe that was a suggestion. I made sure my mother was present when I won the Writer's Guild of America award for outstanding achievement in long form television a few weeks ago. That was Sunday night. And the Saturday night before, the NAACP Image Award for outstanding miniseries, TV movie or special, also for Sally Hemings. And I thanked her, but I said to her: I am so glad I did not listen to you. [Laughs]
So what dad did was open up this separate account so he wouldn't have to go to their joint account. And when he passed, of course, the money in that account was left to me. At the time that he passed, unfortunately I had yet to become successful as a writer. So this was: In the event that you're still broke and starving.
And you were!
I thought it was charming when you wrote that you complained to him that there were no roles for black actresses and he said, basically: Quit your whining and go write some! And you did.
Yes. I did. He gave me a laundry list of people that I could write about. He said: there is no end to the stories you can tell, just out of our community that we don't get to see. We have no heroes and no heroines that we get a chance to see because they're not being written. You can't expect them to write them; they've got their stories they can tell. I sent you to NYU to write, somehow you ended up acting, go back to the thing that you do. Write about stories out of our experience.
And he was just throwing stuff out: this name and that name and the next and then he gets to Sally Hemings -- although he said: That slave woman that Thomas Jefferson was with -- and I stopped him there: What slave woman? And that's when he went on to tell me about the fact that his cousin in Illinois lived across the street from one of the descendants. I'd been hearing that story, but when you're a kid, you don't want to know from history. You're getting it in school, you don't want to come home and get another history lesson about some kid that Thomas Jefferson sired: it's just not of interest to you. You're paying very little attention.
Now I'm interested, because now I know who Thomas Jefferson is [and] I know how telling these stories has impacted my life: it affected my employment. I was thrown off the air and I lost that house. Those things that I had garnered as an actress -- because I was a good actress and because I was finding meaningful employment as a black actress -- those things... suddenly you're hocking stuff and then you're selling stuff and then the stuff is being taken from you. I watched my first Mercedes drive down the street. [Laughs] My name was on the back of it, by the way. It had one of those license plates: Tina A. I watched the Tina A. car drive away.
Literally everything that I felt was important to me -- materialistically -- from my having been an actress ends up in a storage bin on Western Avenue in Hollywood. And the most important big ticket items were all foreclosed upon or repossessed. So all I ended up with was a legal pad and pen and my imagination. And that's when I say: Thank God for Alex Haley because he became my second mentor. Whom I discovered only used a legal pad and a pen in order to construct his stories. I did not have to impress him by owning a computer and all of the things I felt that I needed because I was going to work for Alex Haley. I could have been who I was -- broke and emotionally devastated -- Tina Andrews: former actress -- who now had this marvelous opportunity to work with Alex Haley because he had read the play as a result of my father making me get off my butt.
What did you do with Mr. Haley?
Alex Haley read my first draft of Frankie Lymon and he read The Mistress of Monticello, which was the precursor to this miniseries: it was the play about Jefferson and Hemings. And he called me. I was working -- as per my mom -- at a real job. Answering phones for a law firm. And it's one of the great stories that I tell in the book and it's one of the great stories I tell when I lecture young people about sticking to their dreams, because you don't know where your opportunities may come from.
I was sitting in the graveyard in Westwood, California one afternoon. The law firm was located in the building across the alley from the Westwood Memorial Cemetery, which is where Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood are buried. And I'm sitting there writing because, first of all, it doesn't look like a graveyard because there are no headstones, there are only little plaques on the ground. So it looks like a park. And, obviously, it was quiet. And they have benches around and trees. I would steal the legal pads from the law office [Laughs] and go downstairs and spend the hour for lunch working in longhand.
Now, I believe we're here on the planet for a reason and that things happen to you for a reason and I'm sitting in the graveyard this day angry because I said: God, why have you put me on the planet with all of these talents? You have given me the ability to dance. You have given me the ability to sing: I've been on Broadway. Then you give me the ability to act and I've been on television and in motion pictures. And you've given me the ability to write. I'm doing none of that. I'm picking up the phone, which any trained monkey could do. And you've given me a college education and I'm not someplace being a scientist. I'm trying to understand why I'm here in this graveyard questioning why I'm here. Why did you light my candle and then you put a bushel basket over it?
So that was what was going on in my head. I left at five minutes to one -- just before my hour was up -- and go back upstairs to begin my afternoon session of answering the phones. I thought: Oh, I've got five minutes. I'll call my answering service, praying that the phone was even still on. I called my number at the house and after I'd waded through four messages going something like: You might as well tear up your Visa card because it's no longer good [Laughs]. And: Please come pick up the dry-cleaning that's been here 45 days, we're going to sell it. All the equivalent of: You owe us money. Why aren't you paying us? The fourth message was: I hope this is the right number for Tina Andrews and if this is the same Tina Andrews that was in Roots, this is Alex Haley and he left a number. It was a long distance number. And I'm thinking: What cruel bastard called to do this to me? [Laughs]
But I called that number on the law firm's dime [Laughs]. And I said: Alex Haley, please. Who shall I say is calling? Tina Andrews? One moment please. And this familiar voice comes on the line: Tina! How are you? It's Alex. [And I was like] Mr. Haley?
The entire time I was working a real job, I was sending out scripts to anybody who would read them. I would send a script to a producer I had done a job for as an actress, I would to send it to agencies, I was throwing the script over the fence of Jon Voight's house when I found out where it was. While I was working at the law firm I was using their Xerox machine and their postal [meter]. I was doing what it took to try to get established. And here on the other end of the phone is a guy who those two scripts got to, because I'd sent it to whoever, whoever, whoever agent and because my name is on the script, blah-blah-blah productions and at such and such address -- my apartment -- Mr. Haley called that number and got me.
Basically he said: I'm doing a PBS project called Great Men of Color and I've been looking for a writer and I have read two very different writing samples of yours. And I thought this can't be the same girl who was in Roots. And I'm calling because, if you're interested, I would love to fly you down here to my farm and let's brainstorm through the potential candidates for a series about people out of history that people are not aware of.
And, of course, you said: My responsibilities are here in the law firm in Los Angeles, right?
[Laughs] So I said: OK. First of all, there was the word: Brainstorm. This was Alex Haley. Thirty-two book selling, Pulitzer Prize winning, 16 Emmy nominations Alex Haley. And he wanted to brainstorm with me. I'm answering phones for a law firm. [Laughs] So I said: Fine. And when we hung up the phone, I went into my boss' office and I quit that day. I had no idea whether I'd be paid, how much money there'd be involved. I didn't know or care. I just knew that this opportunity was going to position me to do what it was I wanted to do. And so the answer to that question, and that is what I tell people when I lecture -- to the concern: Why, God, did you light the candle and then put a bushel basket over it? It is because the strength of your desire should be so strong that you burn through it. And that is what ultimately happened. My candle did not go out. I burned through the bushel basket.
I flew down to work with Mr. Haley [in Tennessee] where he had his 165-acre farm. He had eight houses [and I stayed in one of them] and we sat side by side hashing out what was going to be the first installment for this PBS project. Unfortunately the project didn't happen because he died the following February. He died in the middle of it, so it didn't happen.
By then the fact that I was working with Alex Haley naturally gave me a certain cachet and the William Morris agency signed me. Columbia Pictures then gave me an assignment to write a movie for them and my career has not looked back from that moment.
And, in the end, you did exactly what daddy told you, because you've written a lot of roles for black actresses.
That's exactly right. I have those two wonderful men on each shoulder to guide me in a number of ways. Alex wanted me to write meaningful material and to not be afraid of the truth, because sometimes the truth is painful for other people. Sometimes the truth is even painful for us. But to work through that pain as a writer: pain always, ultimately, is cathartic for everyone involved. And he was particularly interested in me continuing my work on the Sally Hemings story because that too is about genealogy and he was always very fascinated with that.
The other thing I want to do in all facets of my creativity is to introduce the public to different kinds of black people, because I think it's about access: I think that we become afraid of each other because we don't know each other. What I was doing with Valerie on the soap opera was bringing this intelligent, upscale black nurse into the homes of America on a daily basis.
So if people can see that we're all the same...
We're all the same. Why do we then start to distrust each other? Where you're taught to distrust or the experiences that you have had have made you distrust. And, largely, I feel that everybody is inherently good, until I meet the person that I don't get along with. So, for me, because I was interacting with whites early in life, as a dancer and dealing with creative types. Creative people don't care about things like that. The first thing someone will do if you can sing well, they'll come up to you and say: You're a wonderful singer! And it's not: Oh, you're a wonderful singer for a black person. They don't do that. It really is about the art, so you're automatically accepted and appreciated when you're good at whatever it is that you do. That was my father constantly saying: You have to be the best. There's no sloughing off because you are here on the backs of your ancestors who made it easy for you to become whatever you want to be. So you need to become something meaningful: that was daddy's whole thing. It is harder to do a story like this where you know you're going to get beaten up at the end of the day, by your own, by society at large, by critics.
Part of that, I guess, was the picketing in Philadelphia. What was that about? And that was before anyone saw it?
That's right. It was just: How dare they do this whitewashed interpretation of this story between a slavemaster and a slave and depict it as a love story?
You were an actress. Did you ever think about being a part of the Sally Hemings project in that way?
No. The other thing my dad said was: If you expect to be taken seriously as a writer do not write parts for you to perform in. People will think they're vanity productions. They will never take you seriously.
Your husband is a filmmaker?
Yes. He's a documentary filmmaker. He's saved me from myself because I'm a workaholic. [Laughs] And if left to my own devices that's all I'd ever do. [We've been together] almost 16 years. I have no children, because I can't. So I think of that as one of the big sacrifices I have made to show business in that when I could have, I didn't see after myself properly and ended up in a position where I now can't. But what I have are three wonderful dogs, a cat, and 30 koi fish.
And did you replace that Mercedes?
Oh yeah. In fact, one of the goals that I had -- part of the five year plan starting in 1992 -- was ... to be able to have all of those things back again, in spades. And that's happened. I have a better house. [Laughs] A better Mercedes. A better piano: all those things that were important to me then. The difference is that I don't use these things to define who I am. That I had to learn through hardship: that you are not your things. Because if any of it is ever taken away again, as long as I have my imagination and a legal pad and a pen I feel that I will do all right. | April 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.