Liesl Tommy
Photo by Lelund Durond Thompson

Liesl Tommy: “Let your instincts take over”

Short Profile

Name: Liesl Tommy
DOB: 1970
Place of birth: Cape Town, South Africa
Occupation: Stage director, film director

Liesl Tommy's first feature film, Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson, is out 2 December 2021.

Ms. Tommy, is self-expression a form of activism?

One hundred percent. I became a director because I felt like I didn't have enough agency in terms of telling stories that really felt relevant as an actor, because you have to wait on what comes to you. But as a director, you can initiate projects, and that's what I was looking for: things that felt like they were resonant to me, that they felt like they had meaning. The value of advocacy is something that really resonates for me.

You grew up in a family of activists, right?

Yeah, and I grew up in South Africa during apartheid, in a fascist state where people were very afraid all the time. It was a time of enormous political upheaval, where people were taking to the streets in protest. As a young person, that's really my earliest memories. And I think for me, always feeling like we were second class citizens because of our race… It made me want to feel free. I lived for such a long time with this feeling of oppression and suppression, I think I always wanted to feel free to be myself and to express myself. And there's something about the drama of theater, and the size of theater that I think that made me feel free.

“I call it a ‘lean forward vibe’ — that’s what I want. I don’t want people to feel like they can just sit back and watch. I want them to be fully engaged.”

Apparently as a theater director, you aren’t interested in realism very much at all — you’re actually seeking a larger than life feeling on stage.

I definitely have a strong point of view about acting styles! I really do like a kind of rawness. I want people who are watching to forget they're watching a play, and feel like they're watching real life. And even when it's most dramatic, or when it's most simple, they're so drawn in… I call it a “lean forward vibe,” — that's what I want. I don't want people to feel like they can just sit back and watch. I want them to be fully engaged.

I would imagine that movement and physicality is an important part of keeping an audience engaged and bringing a stage performance to life.

Sure, so with something like Eclipse, which is a play that I did on Broadway about the war in Liberia and its effects for women… We did a ton of work with the fight choreographers on the use of guns, on warcraft, on how you live and move and just function in the middle of a war when there's danger everywhere, and what that does to your body. I always start with rigorous research, and then a ton of physical preparation. It’s important to bring the physical life to the parts. Once you find your feet in a character, once you understand how your characters moves, it has a kind of a ripple effect through your body and through your vocal cords, and everything starts to come together.

What else contributes to that process?

Well, I love engaging with actors! And I'm not afraid to direct and I think probably most actors would say that I'm pretty tough, I'm pretty demanding because I know when they're holding back. I know when there's more to get out of them, so I can be kind of relentless that way. But it's always paid off. My job as a director is to see things in people about themselves that they didn't necessarily know was there, and bring them out. But at the same time, it's a tricky balance because it can't seem so much larger than life that it doesn't feel like human behavior, you know? You still want the audience to connect. I think on stage, I always say that people come to the theater to see free people, they come to see people saying and doing things that they would never dare to do in their lives.

It’s about the fantasy.

Right, people are living vicariously. So for me, it's just about making sure that you are imbuing these moments with as much drama and nuance as possible, so that people can give over to their imaginations.

“That is one of the magic parts of filmmaking: really getting into someone’s humanity in a way that you cannot with a stage production.”

You’ve just directed your first feature film. Did you find the process was different in this new medium?

When it comes to the my work with the actors, it's pretty consistent, it's pretty much the same. The one thing that’s different is the way you can play with the camera and its relationship with the actor. You can create so much more intimacy. So for example, working with Jennifer Hudson on the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect, I really wanted that intimacy. There are a lot of these moments where it's just Jennifer alone in a room, and you're just living with her, breathing with her, watching her figure things out. And that to me is one of the magic parts of filmmaking: really getting into someone's humanity in a way that you cannot with a stage production.

Is that kind of intimacy even possible with a stage production?

It's funny because I think that silences are great test of whether an audience is with you. You know that thing about hearing a pin drop? Everybody has stopped breathing because they're so engaged, so afraid of what's going to happen next, or they're so invested in it… That is a big thing. You have to create these moments where people stop breathing. In theater, that’s done with set design, performance, you can bring out lighting that feels very contained because you're guiding people's eyes. Those kinds of stagecrafting tools are just as important as the camera in a film. You are constantly deciding where people are looking, and that's how you can you know carve out dramatic moments to make sure people see it how you want them to.

Is there a balance you have to strike between honest storytelling and dramatic storytelling?

I mean, it's my job as an artist to trust my imagination, to trust my gut. I'm interested in the balance of extreme drama and epic storytelling alongside nuanced, delicate storytelling. With Respect, I had to think about this a lot, especially in terms of the music. I wanted everybody to sing live because I understand the intensity of live performance from my time in theater. I wanted that kind of emotional intensity that Aretha Franklin brings to her music to be all over this film… That's definitely an aesthetic that I brought with me, just a kind of rawness and a really big emotional intensity balanced by the storytelling: What are the actual events of her life? Which ones feel meaningful? All you can do is just saturate yourself with research, with information, and with the story — and then you have to let your imagination and your artistic instincts take over.