I have been in awe of the multi-talented Tawny Newsome for awhile now. If you didn’t know, Newsome is a talented musician, actress, improv comic, and co-host of the podcast ‘Yo, Is this racist?’. Coming soon she’ll be heard as Ensign Mariner in the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks on CBS All Access and in an undisclosed role on season two of The Twilight Zone, also on CBS All Access. It was a thrill to get the opportunity to chat on the phone with Tawny Newsome about her engaging performance as Captain Angela Ali on Greg Daniels’ new Netflix show Space Force (opposite fellow Second City alum, and the show’s co-creator, Steve Carell).
The following is a condensed and edited version of our fun conversation.
Brief Take: Hi Tawny! How are you holding up in all of this?
Tawny Newsome: I’m doing well. It’s certainly weird but I can’t complain.
BT: You had mentioned in a previous interview that you do a lot of research to prepare for your roles. What sort of research did you do to prepare to play Captain Ali?
TN: So the first thing I did was call a friend who’s in the military, just to well one, catch up, but this person is in a very different branch and a different job, so there weren’t a lot of total similarities but just to get my head in the world it was good to talk to a person that I knew. I asked my Dad, who served in the army, what his time was like in the military, just because I’ve never served, I’ve never done anything close to serving in the military, so I just wanted the basics. And then we had a great military advisor on set who I loved just hanging out with in between scenes because he was an absolute wealth of knowledge that he joyously shared. It was fun to watch someone nerd out about something he was clearly so smart in. He taught me everything from how to stand, how to speak to generals and their rank, how certain people should address me, so we kind of vibed about that a lot. I was surprised to learn that there was any sort of flexibility in terms of whoever was the top general at the base you were stationed at, kind of set the tone for how strict or how lax some of the uniformed ranks might be. I just thought it was universal all over the military, but he said that if your four star general on your base has his hair a quarter of an inch longer than is normal, then everyone else on the base can relax about that as well. So that informed us a lot because General Naird is obviously so buttoned up and so strict, so that told me how Angela needed to be. And the last thing I did, I watched a lot of YouTube videos of take offs and landings of helicopter pilots, and that helped me just kind of know where to sit my hands.
BT: What you were saying about how the top general at the base sets the tone for the base in total can be said about sets as well and the first person on the call sheet setting the tone. In this case that person was Steve Carell, who you share a lot of scenes with, so what was it like collaborating with him? Did you bond over your shared Second City backgrounds?
TN: Yeah, it’s like working with the Second City king. I was at Second City reading his scripts, scripts that he wrote that we would perform when we were on the touring company, it’s called archival material at Second City. You perform stuff that the greats have written before you and then you’re finally entrusted to write your own stuff. First of all, he’s delightful. Every story you ever hear about Steve is that he’s the nicest man in the world, and it’s so true. He’s just so lovely and so funny and so professional and makes you feel so comfortable. I did have a small embarrassing moment where I was talking with a fellow Second City alum who was a co-star on the show, my friend Punam Patel, about this scene that we performed over and over at Second City and we were reminiscing like “oh my gosh, we performed this scene so many times”, it’s called Pictionary. And Steve walked in the room and I, just to include him in the conversation, I said “oh Steve, you must remember this scene called Pictionary, or was that after your time?”, and he just turned to me and said, “I wrote Pictionary”. And I think all the colour just fell out of my face. [laughs]
BT: You had said recently on Nicole Byer’s podcast that Greg Daniels was really open and collaborative about listening to your feedback regarding the look of your character and how you wanted her to wear her hair. Was it a very collaborative set all around?
TN: Oh yeah, it was very collaborative. We were welcomed to improvise, time permitting of course, and we were also invited into the Writers’ Room. Jimmy O. Yang and I got to come into the Writers’ Room twice I think and pitch ideas for our characters’ dynamic together. Jimmy pitched that maybe our characters would have a friendship because he was one of the only people I knew in the cast before we started. I knew Ben Schwartz a little bit but Jimmy and I have a friend in common and we’d hung out once or twice, so I think Jimmy was like “let’s have these characters interact more, even though they come from very different worlds, I think that would be interesting.” So we just went into the Writers’ Room and just talked about our experiences and how we might react in certain situations, and they just took all of our experiences and wove them into the story.
And then I think the first time I emailed Greg a question, he so generously opened the door to pitching him things, which was terrifying because he’s, you know, the creator of one of the greatest shows of all time, so how dare you pitch an idea to him, [laughs] but he was so into it.
BT: As an improv comic, musician, actress, artist, and podcaster, who have you collaborated with in the past that you’d love to work with again?
TN: Ooh, a lot of people! You know this is my first time working with Roy Wood Jr., he’s in a few episodes, and then I had him on my podcast after that, even though we’re all quarantined, he called in from New York and it was just like “oh man, this dude is a gem, like Steve. One of the funniest, down-to-Earth, nicest dudes.” He just makes you feel so warm. When someone of that generation and above you in the comedy world treats you like an equal and a peer, it’s just so affirming. I would love to get to work with Roy more. So if we get a season two, that would be great, or maybe he and I just do a buddy cop movie. [laughs]
BT: Have you heard anything about a season two happening?
TN: I have not. I think everything is so up in the air. I know we all want to do it. The whole cast, we have these little Zoom happy hours where we sit and have a glass of wine and chat and catch up. I think we’re all down to do it, I just don’t know if anyone knows when we can get back to work.
BT: I loved watching your interviews for Brockmire where you were paired with Richard Kind, you two were hilarious together. You mentioned in one of those interviews that you learned that Richard could just fall asleep anywhere at any time. Did you learn anything similarly surprising about the Space Force cast when you were filming?
TN: Richard is such a kook! [laughs] But yes, this is a great question and one that no one has asked me and I’ve been dying to share this tidbit, so thank you! First of all, John Malkovich has an impressive binder. It’s very well organized by scene, he’s got his little tabs, he’s got everything highlighted so he can be flipping through studying very easily. But I did not realize that he had highlighted in scented marker. He had this bouquet of scents going on in his binder, and so he’d have this corresponding purple tab with this grape smelling highlighted lines for that episode. It was very delightful to learn that he had these adorable scented markers.
BT: I think my favourite episode was where your character bonded with Diana Silvers’ character and you stood up for her. What was it like working with her?
TN: Oh I loved it too, thank you! We loved working together. I love that, I hope to do more stuff with her because I love working with an early twenties, late teen woman because, I don’t know, they haven’t been beaten down by life yet. So it’s kind of like having a fun kid sister who’s super smart. She’s also really into music. I feel like her parents were like mine and raised her on the greats, so we have good conversations about our record collections. And she makes me feel cool. You know when you hang out with a really cool twenty year-old? You’re just like “yeah! I can hang!”.
BT: What have you been listening to or reading or watching lately that you’ve really liked?
TN: I’ve gotten really heavy into spy shit. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because my life is all improv and frivolity and so now I’m like “well what’s the CIA doing?”. So I finished season eight of Homeland, which was one of my favourite shows of all time and I was sad to see it go. Once I finished that, my friend put me on the ‘Wind of Change’ podcast, have you heard of this?
BT: No. Tell me all about it!
TN: Oh my God! Go download it. It’s about how there’s a CIA rumour that the government wrote the Scorpions song ‘Wind of Change’. It’s wild! It’s eight episodes of just like hair metal and intrigue, and it’s totally up my alley. So yeah, a lot of spies these days.
Space Force is now streaming on Netflix