There are working actors, there are busy actors and then, out there in her own category, there’s the remarkable Aisha Tyler. She’s the co-host of one daily show (The Talk), of a weekly show (Whose Line is It Anyway?) and of a podcast (Girl on Guy). She has a recurring role on one of the hottest shows on television (Criminal Minds). She’s authored two books. An avid gamer as well, she’s in constant demand to appear at conventions and conferences, even hosting the last five E3 conferences—she’s basically royalty at any Comic Con where she makes an appearance. And of course, to many of us she’ll always be the voice of Lana Kane on the brilliant animated show Archer.
What you might not know is that Tyler has directed six short features, and is now preparing to shoot her first feature. She’s launched a Kickstarter, with only a day (as of this publishing) left to support the thriller, entitled Axis. You can read the details at that page, but it’s a very unusual project: It takes place entirely in a car with one actor, and it will be filmed in its entirety, once per day, for nine days. Leave it to Tyler to think outside the box about how to create a certain frisson during filming.
Tyler joined us recently to discuss her short films, the upcoming feature, the new season of Archer and James Bond’s long-suffering testicles.
Paste Magazine: I’m not sure if you remember our triple-tag-team interview of you on the Paste stage at SXSW a couple of years ago.
Aisha Tyler: I do remember that!
Paste : And now look at you, all grown up and making your first feature film.
Paste: It’s really exciting. Well, let’s start by talking about your lifelong love of action movies—how long have you dreamed of making one?
Tyler: I mean, probably since I was a little kid, I think. One of the first movies my dad took me to see was the original Road Warrior. And I was kind of raised on the action movies of that era: The Terminator and Die Hard and of course all of the Star Wars movies. That’s always been my first love and it still is now. It’s not that I don’t like a nice artsy film—although I can’t stand romantic comedies, generally; they make me want to curl up under my bed and die—but I’ve always been a genre fan, whether that’s just my nature or being raised by a single dad on the back of a motorcycle and loving comic books as a kid and growing up on arcade games and then handheld and then computer gaming. It’s probably all of a piece.
It’s always been the genres that fascinated me. I think great action movies and great thrillers are transformative. I remember leaving the first Matrix movie feeling completely radicalized, completely changed. I think we all, from our ordinary lives, like to think about putting ourselves into these extraordinary situations and wonder how we’d respond. Maybe there’s a primal response to things blowing up—everyone likes to see that—but I think there’s this greater “ordinary person in extraordinary conditions” thing that we all relate really deeply to. I remember, in that first [Terminator] movie, relating really deeply to Linda Hamilton’s character. So it’s been a passion since I was a little kid.
Paste: And of course, you and I grew up in an era where action movies could be really well-done movies. Today, many of them are kind of sloppily put together.
Tyler: I think I both agree and disagree with that statement. I think insomuch as there are these big kitchen sink set piece assemblies that are still out there, there’s also been a revolution in that genre. I see the first Bourne movie as really kind of a fulcrum in changing the modern action film, where things are really gritty and really character-driven. Think about how the entire Bond franchise was completely radicalized by Bourne. They had to change what they were doing, because people didn’t buy that glib, shoot-a-guy-in-the-face-and-say-something-snarky-over-his-corpse kind of action anymore. The reboot of the Bond franchise was in direct response to how successful those Bourne movies were, how thoughtful they were, how smart they were. And [to] the filmmaking of Paul Greengrass, who I idolize.
Even in the war genre, something like Zero Dark Thirty, or The Hurt Locker: There is a separate line of filmmaking where people are making these really gritty, really character-driven, really emotionally valuable action films that I think are pretty amazing.
Paste: I’m on board with everything about the new Bond except the crying. I feel like you’d be with me on that, right? I don’t need to see James Bond shed a tear.
Tyler: [Laughs] I don’t know, I’m torn. Was it Casino Royale where he’s naked in a chair with his nuts hanging through the seat and his taint is getting smashed with like a spiked ball on a chain? I’d cry. I mean, I don’t have nuts, but I feel like that’d be an appropriate time to push out some tears. I’m just saying, I’m not a crying person, but that seems reasonable in that context. But if you look at that first Die Hard movie, which I think still holds up beautifully, what made that movie so interesting is how human John McClane was. You know what I mean? He was bloodied, he was broken, he was in pain.
It’s fun to watch someone be superhuman, but that’s when I think you become detached form the material. You want to know that when a guy jumps from a bridge into a moving boat, that he’s going to break his leg. Because that’s what human bodies do. Compare that to the new A-Team movie, where they’re falling out of a plane and firing a tank to keep themselves from plummeting into the ground and turning into a basket of pennies, which is what would actually happen if a tank fell out of a plane. You know what I mean? You don’t sit up at night thinking about that kind of movie, unless you’re wondering why you spent 14 dollars to see it. But the stuff that haunts you is—Bond is an alcoholic, he can’t maintain a relationship, he got hit in the nuts very many times with very heavy, blunt objects. Maybe he is going to cry once in awhile. Maybe that’s a valid response to only having one operating ball at this point.
Paste: OK, maybe you’re turning me around a little bit on this one.
Tyler: He’s mourning his missing nut! Any guy would cry over a missing nut. Like I said, I’m not a scientist, I’m just speculating here.
Paste: So how does all of the cat o’ nine tails, missing nut, tank firing and everything else we’ve been talking about figure into your short film, which I can only assume is pronounced [unintelligible butchering of the title Ar Scáth le Chéile].
Tyler: [Laughs] Adorable. [Pronounces the title correctly:] Ar Scáth le Chéile. We’ll work on your Gaelic.
It’s not a thriller, but it is a really character-driven film. In developing my own filmmaking aesthetic—without getting too heady here after what I thought was our very intellectual conversation about a guy with one ball—this is about two brothers who are separated when they’re very young. One of them ends up living a life of privilege, and one of them falls into poverty, and they come back together later in life, and their reunion is not a happy one. They each feel like one abandoned the other.
There’s a bit of physical violence, but mostly it’s emotional violence. And hopefully you care enough about these guys to understand why they’re angry with each other, but also to understand why they need each other. It’s just a nice story about the pain of isolation, which I think everyone feels, needing people around them but not really knowing how to reach out to them. And that’s also what Axis is about, on some level. I don’t know why all my films are about people who are miserable and alone; I probably need to stop working on films late at night on my computer with a bottle of bourbon. I should try to do more things during daylight.
Paste: I do have a theory that we filmmakers often make films about our deepest fears, so maybe that’s your Kryptonite.
Tyler: Yeah. Kind of revisiting the same thing. That might be it. And also, some of the realization of adulthood that no matter how much you surround yourself with family and friends, you are alone. How do you deal with that, how do you unpack that, how do you find peace with that? There are a lot of movies about how “Everybody needs somebody, you can’t make it alone!” All my movies are going to be about how no matter how tightly you cling to other people, you’re going to die lonely and alone in the darkness.
Paste: With a cat o’ nine tails.
Tyler: With a bruised ballsack. That’s how we’re all going down. Have I cheered you up?
Paste: Yeah, let’s all go get a drink.
Paste: So with The Shadow of our Togetherness, which I’ll now call by its English name—
Tyler: Much easier to say, yes.
Paste: It’s one of six shorter features that you’ve done. How will what you’ve learned from those six carry forward into what is going to be a very unusual process in shooting Axis?
Tyler: That’s a really good question, actually. There are two skillsets, two approaches that I feel I’ve developed over the last few years that I’m really excited about applying to this film. The first is being able to work quickly. That comes from two places. I’m used to working in television, and my friends who work in film will say, “We had such a busy day today, we shot three and a half pages.” And I’ll say “We did SEVENTEEN pages on my TV show today. We make an hour in six days, and it took you sixty days to make 45 minutes. That’s the difference between television and film—it’s just a more effective approach.
I think also making all these shorts, which were all made very quickly, but also under duress. In a short film, you never have enough time, you never have enough money, you never have enough crew…typically you don’t even have permits for your location. You just become really creative and really aggressive about how you capture your images and how you approach your day. Not in a negative way—I don’t think we ever worked in a state of panic—you just know what lands and what doesn’t, what adds value and what doesn’t. And you plan and you prep like crazy.
So in thinking about a feature film, it’s given me a lot of confidence in the fact that I will get the film done in the time I’ve allotted. Some people have told me, “I don’t know how that’s going to work.” Well, I know exactly how it’s going to work. I mean, with some of my shorts, it was just me and a camera, and nobody else, no crew at all. I think that’s actually a great way to learn filmmaking. Not only because if there are mistakes, there’s no one to blame but yourself, but also because you can kind of get in there, be guerilla and understand later, when you have a crew around you, what they all do and how to ask for what you want.
Also, that gives you a lot of respect for your team, because you realize how hard they all work. You don’t want to be the guy that comes in wearing jodhpurs and a waistcoat and yelling at everybody through a megaphone about the light. You want to understand every level of the craft, and how challenging it is to get it right. It’s been nice to do it that way. I know what it entails, because I’ve done it myself.
Paste: I think you’re going to find that that confidence you have, borne of experience, is going to be one of your biggest assets in shooting this feature. There is nothing like looking up at your team leader and thinking, “OK, she’s got this.”
Tyler: Right, right, right. And you don’t want to come in like an asshole. But you do want to come in and say, “OK, I’ve prepped this, I know what I want, and I also brought you guys on because I trust your ability, I trust your approach, I know you know what you’re doing. And I try to go in knowing exactly what I want, but I also want to create space in the day where you can come to me with other ideas. You might have a great idea that I never thought of. And I take all comers, because film can be nothing but a collaborative effort. You know what I mean? There’s just no way for it not to be. Hopefully you hire talented people that are good at what they do, and then you give them enough rom to say, “Can we try this out?” But hopefully your team is also greater than the sum of its parts, and a lot of that does come from the top down.
Paste: A lot of this film rests on the shoulders of your lead actor. Tell me about what gives you the confidence that he can pull off this role.
Tyler: That’s a really good question. Even before the short we did, I had seen him in his previous film that he wrote and produced and starred in. He turned in a beautiful performance, and I knew that he was going to be great under pressure. This is a movie that he was literally on camera and then running into the kitchen to cook food for his crew. Not to beat up on my own profession, but I think a lot of actors can be very precious. “I’m going to go have green juice until you need me, Mr. DeMille.”
I just knew this guy would not crack under pressure because I knew how hard he’d worked. The best way to describe him would be like the Irish Edward Burns—making a movie under very difficult circumstances and making just a gargantuan lift on his own. He has incredible charisma. And I went to him and said, “You’re going to have to learn this whole movie, top to bottom, two months before we shoot, learning it like a play because that’s how we’re going to shoot it. And I also need someone who’s not going to be a prima donna.”
I have that confidence in him, and that comes from knowing him, knowing his work and then actually working with him. And he was a producer on our short, so he was on camera and then he was running off and arranging for crew members, getting permits in place, getting up at four in the morning to make sure people got paid. You need a hustler in that role, you know? You need someone who cares about the project as much as you do, and is as invested in the success of the film as you are.
And I think with some directors—Quentin Tarantino is like this, and Steven Soderbergh is like this—you find people that you love, and you work with them over and over again because you trust what they can do. So you find people whose work you like, and who you like being around, which I think is important because you know how it is on the set. That’s like your family. So yes, I have a lot of confidence in him.
Paste: Got time for an Archer question?
Tyler: Sure, go for it!
Paste: So I love how in Seasons Five and Six, not that the show was stale by any means, but those seasons took the show in completely new directions and kind of opened up the sense of possibility in the show. Will that continue in Season Seven?
Tyler: It’s a big turn. I don’t want to spoil anything, but we’ve got a new setting, an entirely new environment. But the exciting thing is that we’re back, at least on some level, to the tradecraft that got us where we are. We get to engage in some field work. First we were in space, then we were inside some guy’s body, then we were dealing cocaine… Now we’re back to at least a bit of espionage, which I think is really cool. And this season so far, people have been responding really well to it.
This is going to be a great season. There’s a nice serialization to this season, and a nice through arc that’s going to be very funny. Amazing guest stars—Keegan-Michael Key, Patton Oswalt. I recorded some of these episodes last summer, and so when people ask me what’s going to happen, I sometimes have to say, “Not making excuses, but I honestly do not remember.” It’s fresh to me right now!
This is my favorite Jon Benjamin story, and it’s how I’m feeling this season. I think it was Season Four and we’re at Comic Con, and we’re screening the first episode of the season for the audience. It’s thousands of Archer fans. You can barely hear the lines, people are laughing so hard. That’s so fun for us, because, you know, most of the time you’re just watching the show in your living room. And we’re all sitting in the front row, getting ready to do our panel, and Jon leans over me and says, “Man, our show is really good.” And I said, “Jon, have you not watched it?” And he said, “Not really.”
Tyler: But that’s how I feel about this season. I’m like, “Oh, I forgot—our show is really good!”
Paste: Well, I am on record as saying I think it’s the best show on television. And I’m not usually an animation guy.
Tyler: Oh, thank you! Well, you know, what’s great about it is that it’s kind of reality stretched almost to the breaking point. But it could almost work as a live action show. You know what I mean? But what animation earns us is the ability to occasionally shoot each other in various body parts. Gives us a little more heightened surrealism.