The only way Tonya Pinkins could get you to finally listen was by saying what she needed to say in a movie. And what she needed to say could only be communicated through one genre: Horror.
“I’m excited!” the Jelly's Last Jam Tony winner and star of Caroline, or Change, Fear the Walking Dead, and more says of this fall’s Red Pill, the movie she wrote, directed, produced and stars in. “I think of it as Get Out (The Vote). If you don’t, this is the world you’re going to be going to!”
In Red Pill, a group of liberal canvassers—including Pinkins as Cassandra, whose name should tell you everything you need to know about the multiple levels on which Pinkins is working here—travel to Virginia shortly before the 2020 election to help voter turnout. And as you can see in the trailer above, they are decidedly not welcome in that part of America, but being good, open-hearted liberals they ignore the warning signs and stay.
“Six months ago, it would be a sharper contrast [in reaction] between Black people and white people,” Pinkins says. “Black people will see the movie and know where it’s going right away. But now, as all the Karens keep coming up and out, there will be more white people on board from the start.”
Never someone to shy away from difficult conversations or decisions, Red Pill came to Pinkins in the aftermath of a conversation with a good friend, who reacted to a wave of gun violence in 2019 by denying there was anything but randomness at work. Pinkins knew better.
“I was like, ‘You think they’re random crazy people, but you don’t see the unified force. I’m in the subreddits. I’m aware of it all,’” she says. “And people are like, ‘Why do you want to fill your head with that nastiness?’ And it’s reality. I live in the world with them!”
Pinkins has always believed strongly in her power as an artist, and making a movie as a neophyte producer and director was no different. After being told by multiple people that she didn’t have the time or the budget to get a movie made in time for the 2020 election, someone suggested that if she put up her own money, there would be no one in her way. Done and done!
Casting the movie from her phone book (including Rubén Blades, Catherine Curtin, Kathryn Erbe, Luba Mason, and Adesola A. Osakalumi), Pinkins and crew shot the film over October 2019 to take advantage of Halloween decorations they could never have afforded outside of the season. But just as the trailer was released during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and videos of self-proclaimed non racists making life miserable for people of color, so too did the shoot and the post-production match up with real-world controversy, then around Blumhouse’s The Hunt. That movie—about 12 conservatives who find themselves kidnapped and dropped in unfamiliar surroundings, hunted by a group of liberal elites—created such an uproar in the media before it even hit theatres that Pinkins found people distancing themselves from her and Red Pill.
“The more people got scared of just the idea of it, I was like, ‘Oh this has got to be made!’” Pinkins says, laughing. Even one of her best friends, after reading the script, told Pinkins that her reaction was, “Maybe Tonya hates white people, and I don’t feel safe with her.”
But as a horror film aficionado (seriously, Pinkins has seen every major international horror film of the last half century, along with most of the minor ones), Pinkins knew exactly the kind of movie she was making. “It’s a horror movie!,” she says. “You meet a bunch of people and you know they’re going to die, and you want to see how the monster is going to do it!”
That clear-eyed summation of why horror is a genre that registers so strongly with people (and not for nothing is it particularly popular among women and gay men) may be why so many find Pinkins intimidating: She is physically incapable of suffering or of coddling fools. One of the most outspoken Broadway stars, Pinkins has made no secret of her reasons for leaving projects, or of her disappointment in the industry. For an actor to be so blunt is a rarity in an industry reliant on connections, but Pinkins knows firsthand that, with the right collaborator, talent will win out over disagreements.
“I’ve worked with George C Wolfe five times,” she says. “And George is very sensitive. He’s extraordinarily brilliant. And if you tell him something he doesn’t like, he might not speak to you for a long time. But if he respects your intellect and your artistry, if something comes up you’re right for—he’ll let that go. George has not spoken to me for years, but when something comes up I’m right for, he’s back. Knowing this brilliant person gets over it, that’s emboldened me to honor that sense of honesty about what I see as an artist.
“They always say about actors, ‘We do it for free,’” she continues. “And I think the corollary is, ‘You can’t pay me for my artistry.’ If it’s not something I love, there’s not enough money you can pay me to do it. I’m showing up because you have something my artist wants to do, but you can’t buy that.”
As for the future of the theatre in a post-COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter world, Pinkins points to the younger generation of Zoomers and TikTokers. “Young people right now, they have the ability to break the entire old guard. Period,” she says. “They can make anything they want and just get it to themselves. And they’re a huge enough audience that they could make something entirely new. Billie Eilish made songs in her bathroom, and then she got a Grammy!”
Red Pill will be released later this year.