In Henry Jaglom’s latest film, The M Word, Moxie (Tanna Frederick) plays an actress who’s appearing on a financially troubled children’s TV show. When the network’s new boss (Michael Imperioli) arrives to start slashing the station’s budget, Moxie becomes the leader of a group of women who are protesting the corporate demands. She gets support from her outspoken mother (Frances Fisher) and aunts (Mary Crosby and Eliza Roberts), all of whom are going through the menopause, and she decides to devote her energies towards getting her own documentary off the ground about the taboo “M word.”
This is the latest entry in Jaglom’s “women’s” series of films which adopt a semi-documentary style that enables his mostly female casts to talk directly into the camera about topics that are important to them. This look at how menopause affects women differently follows Eating (1990), Babyfever (1994) and Going Shopping (2005) but some would argue that every film Jaglom makes is part of this series — he loves casting large numbers of women in his films, including the women with whom he is involved romantically. This is the fifth Henry Jaglom film starring red-haired actress Tanna Frederick. She has also starred in several stage plays written by Jaglom but has recently branched out to work with other directors. Tanna had a very successful run in an L.A. production of The Rainmaker last year and will soon be seen in the film Garner, Iowa, the first film produced by Project Cornlight, an organization she founded to bring movie work to her native Iowa.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Tanna Frederick in the beautiful Santa Monica home she shares with Jaglom and their dog Garbo.
Danny Miller: Speaking of “M” words, how do feel about “muse?” Does it bother you that people often refer to you in this way?
Tanna Frederick: Oh no, I think it’s cool. Henry calls me his muse, too, it’s not just journalists and critics! He says I make him more interested in making films these days so I’m happy about that. Obviously, that’s kind of been his thing — every movie he’s done has had a girlfriend or an ex-girlfriend in it. Of course, I love working with him so I don’t mind filling that niche.
Did you come straight to L.A. from Iowa or did you have a stint in New York first?
No, I came straight here. A lot of people said I should go to New York, that I didn’t have the right look for the movies, that I’d never make it — you know, all the the stuff you hear when you’re an actress! They thought I was crazy to move here, especially since I didn’t know anyone or have any idea how the movie industry worked. I was totally green.
Yikes! I’m glad you weren’t snatched off the Greyhound bus by predators.
Seriously! In retrospect, I think my parents were frickin’ psycho to let me come here on my own. I had just graduated from college with a degree in poli-sci/international relations. That was going to be my “fall back” career if I didn’t make it as an actress.
But you also studied theater in college?
Yes. I had wanted to go straight into acting from high school. I actually had an offer to live in New York with Uta Hagen, of all people. My uncle’s husband was close to her daughter and they offered to let me come there and live with them, can you imagine? But my parents said, “Nope, you’re going to college!” I’m sure they were right but trust me, I was a big ball of pissed-off in college. It turned out great, though, because I did a lot of theater. And because of the great writing program at the University of Iowa, we did all original stuff — very bizarre plays that were rewritten every day so it was great training for making movies.
How soon after arriving in L.A. did you meet Henry?
About four years later — four years of hell! It was a scary, depressing time but I’m glad I went through it. I did a few student films and shorts and got some offers to make some really lewd films that I turned down. I went through a bunch of agents — I don’t have a normal look so I booked like one commercial out of a million!
And did I hear that you eventually wrote Henry a letter out of the blue?
Yeah! I knew this guy who had a small part in one of Henry’s films and he kept saying how amazing it was to work with him. At that time, I was shoving my head shot in casting agents’ mailboxes all over town and trying desperately to get a job. I said, “What do I have to do to meet this guy?” My friend said I should write him a letter. I remember I had just gotten off the late shift at Maggiano’s in the Grove. I went home and watched the opening credits of Déjà Vu and stopped and wrote Henry a three-page single-spaced latter about how brilliant I thought it was. I hand-delivered the letter the next day and he called me back right away! I was freaking out because he has such an intense personality and was asking me all these questions about all the comments from my letter that I had just pulled out of my ass. I didn’t know what I was talking about, I just made all that shit up!
And he never caught on?
No. I ended up producing a play of his, a theatrical version of A Safe Place, his first film that he did in 1971 with Tuesday Weld, Jack Nicholson and Orson Welles. It was a huge flop when it came out but now it’s in the Criterion Collection. It’s so beautiful. Henry had helped edit Easy Rider and then Burt Schneider gave him a million dollars to do A Safe Place back then which was crazy. Henry was just a kid and already into his “I’ll make the fucking movie how I want to make it” mode. He told Tuesday Weld and Jack Nicholson to just throw away all the dialogue he had written if they wanted to. That’s one thing that’s so interesting about Henry — he’s a brilliant writer but he’s never really trusted himself with dialogue. I totally respect how much he trusts the actors and gives them that freedom, but at the same time, having done several plays with him over the years, I’ve been on him to keep people on track with the dialogue because he has a very distinct rhythm in his playwrighting voice.
So when you finally did your first play with him, he was pretty loose about the dialogue?
Oh my God, no. Not with me! We did the play version of Hollywood Dreams for eight months and it was like guerilla warfare. Henry would come backstage between Acts 1 and 2 and pull me into the bathroom to scream at me about how my performance was off.
Yeah! The rest of the actors were in tears. He was correcting my “uhs” and “ands” — it was crazy. I was like, “But in your movies, nobody says what they’re supposed to!” And he’d say, “Tanna, you were supposed to say, “Go through the door,” not “go through that door.” He was a real stickler — like Jekyll and Hyde!
And then Hollywood Dreams became the first film you worked on with him?
Yes, and that was great. I had prepared so long with Henry, I knew just what he wanted. When he was editing Going Shopping, I was in there with him every single day. I learned so much about him. For example, when he yells, “Cut,” you should never look at him because he often uses what an actor does after that moment. He always keeps the camera rolling which is very smart. He’ll catch the silence or sadness or emotion that’s way more powerful than anything the person is saying.
I would imagine that being with Henry Jaglom must be like a master class in classic film.
Totally. You just soak it all up.
Did you grow up watching old movies?
To some extent. My dad opened a video store in Mason City with his brother and that became my haven. I’d just sit in there all day and watch movies. I wasn’t allowed to see anything rated PG-13, but I watched everything else that I could. To be honest, it wasn’t all classic stuff. I watched a lot of lame kids’ movies, too, like The Gnome-Mobile.
What? I love that movie!
You do not!
Of course I do!
[Tanna and I spontaneously burst into a rousing version of the Sherman Brothers’ theme song from that movie.]
In the Gnome-Mobile, the Gnome-Mobile
Hunting for Gnomes in the Gnome-Mobile
Sooner or later we feel that we’ll
Find where they are in the Gnome-Mobile.
I know Henry had a very close relationship with Orson Welles in the latter part of Welles’ life and that he appeared in several of Henry’s films. I loved that book he published last year, My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles.
Isn’t it great? They’re like two little bitches saying stupid shit about everybody in Hollywood! Who wouldn’t want to read that? Henry can be really bitchy but Orson was an even bigger bitch than him — and I say that very lovingly!
It’s interesting that both were filmmakers who were able, to some degree, to keep Hollywood at arm’s length and make the kind of films they wanted to.
Yeah, they definitely did what they wanted. Henry and Orson both respected each other immensely, it was a really beautiful friendship. They had very similar personalities. Two hustlers and yet they were both brilliant artists. Some people who have reviewed the book said that Henry trashed Orson. They just don’t get it at all.
Henry’s career also reminds me of Woody Allen’s in terms of having the luxury of making about one film a year no matter how the previous one was reviewed or performed at the box office.
It’s true. What’s astonishing to me about people like Woody and Henry is that that they can have so much hubris and narcissism but at the same time be so open and cater to their actors. They both really love actors.
Do they know each other?
Well, I think they might have a little silent feud going on. Henry keeps getting called the “West Coast Woody Allen” which doesn’t help.
It’s nice to see so many of the Henry Jaglom “stock company” back in The M Word. I love the cast.
They were fantastic. I loved having Frances Fisher playing my mother who’s going through menopause. And Gregory Harrison as her husband who she thinks is cheating on her.
I guess I’m stuck in a time warp because I can’t handle the fact that either Frances or Gregory is old enough to play your parental figure!
Oh, please — Gregory is still on fire! It’s completely sick what that man does to women!
He’s still got it, eh? I remember when he starred as the male stripper in that movie about 30 years ago. Women went nuts!
I think he has it more now than he’s ever had. Every woman on the set of our movie had the picture of him in his Zorro undies from that movie as the screensaver on their phone! Imagine all these women going through menopause lusting after Gregory Harrison! And, of course, we also had Michael Imperioli from The Sopranos who was so fucking awesome. I’m the one who finds all the male actors for Henry’s movies. I remember saying to him, “Hey, how about Corey Feldman for the part of Benny?” and Henry said, “What has Corey done?” I was like, “Babe! He’s super famous and did all these great movies as a kid!” So we did a reading with him and Henry cast him on the spot. There were so many great actors in this cast including Mary Crosby and Eliza Roberts as my aunts.
I think it’s so funny that Henry is so focused on the women in his films that it’s up to you to cast the guys.
I know! We’re such a weird match because he’s so feminine and I’m so masculine. But it works!
I love Frances Fisher, too, and I did notice how perfect she is physically to play your mother.
Except that she’s two million times better looking than me.
Frances Fisher is one of the sexiest women I’ve ever met. There are a lot of really hot, sexy women in this movie talking about the ups and downs of this subject that has been pretty taboo up until now. For some reason we’re still in the Stone Age when it comes to menopause. Some women are still embarrassed about it but some get a very liberated feeling from it. It’s all about renewal and rebirth.
The thing I’ve always noticed about Henry Jaglom is that he seems to bring out the extremes in people. He’s someone whose films you either get or you don’t.
Totally, there’s no middle ground — people either love him or hate him! And that goes for my work, too, since I’ve mostly worked with him.
Does that bother you? Do you read all of your reviews?
I used to. Then one day Peter Bogdanovich said, “What the hell are you doing?” I asked him, “But don’t you want to know what people are saying about you?” And he said, “HELL no!” And he’s right. I’m actually really sensitive and I used to Google everything about me, but I don’t anymore since I’ll only remember the negative stuff. I remember my idol, Bette Davis, once said “It’s none of your business what other people think of you!” And that’s really true. We can’t control it.
I was watching Eating again recently and the scene that always kills me in that film is when Frances Bergen sings that song.
Do you know the story behind that?
I don’t think so — just the one her character tells in the film.
Oh my God, it’s so great. Frances was this amazing singer in the 40s but after she married Edgar Bergen she had to stop. She had this one gig left to do in Hollywood and her husband told her that if she went on stage again, he was going to move out.
Whoa! So Edgar Bergen was just very old school — his wife couldn’t have her own career?
Yeah. I think that’s what happened with Kathryn Crosby, Mary’s mom, too. Bing didn’t want her to work — it was a very different time. So what happened on Eating was that Henry asked Frances right there on the spot to sing the song she was going to sing that night so many years earlier. She wasn’t supposed to sing in the movie but he got her to do it and it was just perfect. I think everyone had tears in their eyes that day.
The M Word is currently playing in select cities and is available on demand.