Talking Complete Sentences? and Off-Screen Diversity with Chandra Thomas

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During a time when diversity in media, and race relations in the country are weighing heavily on many minds—and rightfully so—it’s always exciting when something comes along, and takes a different approach to a familiar conversation. Chandra Thomas (Labor Day, The Good Wife), is the lead actor, as well as one of the writers and producers of the romantic comedy short Complete Sentences?, directed by Monica Palmieri. Alongside award-winning actor Pun Bandhu, Thomas plays Kara, a woman faced with an impossibly difficult decision about pursuing a relationship with a man who is … well … very different from her.

With many years of New York theatre under her belt, Thomas is well-equipped to perform, but this short, sweet plot about love and baseball also has us excited for the stories she’ll start telling from behind the camera. Paste caught up with Thomas to talk about her journey to Complete Sentences?, the changing tides for women of color in entertainment, and, naturally, Shonda Rhimes.

Paste Magazine: I know it’s been quite a long road to Complete Sentences?. How would you describe the journey, from Columbia University to New York theater, to film & TV? Have there been many surprises?
Chandra Thomas: At the risk of sounding too cerebral, this question reminds me of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” And, at the risk of sounding cliché, I feel incredibly blessed to be on a journey that is unfolding as it’s supposed to. Each step, beginning with my days in grad school at Columbia and working in film and television as well as on stages in New York and around the world, genuinely feels like it’s preparing me for each of the next steps. Right now, I am so surprised and inspired by the trend of actors who are also content creators—actor/writer/producers like Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Rashida Jones, Louis C.K., Issa Rae, Lena Dunham, Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair, and many others are forging so many creative and engaging models of what being an actor and content creator looks like.

Paste: Your short has a very New York, very cool twist in the plot. How involved were you in the story as a writer/producer? Did you and Monica Palmieri have a specific goal in mind?
Thomas: It’s really cool that you picked up on just how “New York” this story is at its core. I actually had two other short projects, both dramas, that were in my pipeline before Complete Sentences? but I rearranged the order because I wanted to work with a team to create a comedy, to bring a little more laughter to the world. From that point, I wrote the script pretty quickly; it was very inspired by my own experience as a huge baseball fan, which often comes as a surprise to people. With the script in process, I also hopped into creative producer mode to get it made.

I met Monica through a mutual filmmaker friend we had both worked with, both as actors in his web series. Monica’s work as a director, an actor and a producer is just great. Along the way of getting the short from script to screen, we had different ideas, and overlapping ideas, ideas that leapfrogged each other. What was fantastic through the entire process is just how both Monica and I were really dedicated to making sure we told the most interesting version of the story on the page. We also had the goal of working with an amazingly talented team. We definitely accomplished this, from our producers to our director of photography to our editor, sound operator, and across all of the team members who made Complete Sentences? happen. We even got to work with a fabulous music team who wrote and recorded an original song expressly for our film.

Paste: Your partner in the short, Eddie, had me at “mimosas.” Like, in that moment, I just fell in love with him—although it turns out he has a major flaw. What was it like working with Pun Bandhu on this?
Thomas: (laughs) I love that he won you over at “mimosas.” Pun really rocked the role. He is both an amazing actor and longtime friend. When I was making the shortlist of actors to bring in for the role he was at the top of that list—I was over the moon when he agreed to come in and audition. The last time we worked together was a few years ago on this very offbeat, socially biting play. Let’s just say, blackface and whiteface makeup was involved. So, we both look back on the photos from that production and enjoy reminiscing about it (laughs). He came in and knocked the audition out of the park. I was so thrilled when Monica and the other producers all championed to offer him the role. Pun is also a producer with credits that include Broadway productions. As an actor in Complete Sentences?, he brought that “jump-in” spirit to the project, and totally rolled with each step during production. There are so many highlights from the process, and playing opposite Pun is definitely one of them.

Paste: I’m a Shonda Rhimes superfan, and without giving too much away, I’ll say that the story made me think of some of Rhimes’ work—where an interracial romance is sort of peripheral to the characters, even if it’s on the audience’s mind. Is it important to you that your work sends a specific message about race & diversity?
Thomas: Okay, we may have to battle about who is the bigger Shonda Rhimes superfan! Second, if I, in any way, shape, or form, make you think of Rhimes’ work, that’s absolutely incredible. But, to your question—I do believe that my work, and specifically looking at Complete Sentences?—has a specific message about ethnicity and diversity. I’m of the school where every piece of content is delivering some sort of message about ethnicity and diversity, so it becomes a matter of how to shape and share any particular message. The parallel to Rhimes’ approach of presenting interracial couples just living their day-to-day lives is so spot on. Iso wanted the audience to experience the shift that often happens when we assume that when seeing characters of color the story must be “about what it is to be people of color,” and to also experience seeing “real people” in “real circumstances,” as that ultimately shares the universality of differences and similarities.

This statement was incredibly important to make, not only on the screen, but off as well—our entire crew consists of professionals of color. Further, our entire team of producers are women. Our incredible director, Emmy® Award-winning editor, and our fantastic director of photography are also women—these are all key filmmaker positions to crafting the voice of a film or TV series, and positions in which women are underrepresented, which has been noted in report after report. So I would hope that our offscreen diversity sends a similar message.

Paste: Earlier this year, you made our list of 10 Black Actresses to Watch in 2014. I still remember seeing you in 365 Days/365 Plays all those years ago. Do you feel a shift in work for actors of color? If so, how would you describe that shift?
Thomas: Yes—it was an honor to be named to that amazing list! There has undoubtedly been a shift in the work for actors of color. For example, a recent article pointed to how the more ethnically diverse new shows of the current television season are doing “better business,” in terms of ratings and economics. Additionally, people often point to the “breakout,” the exceptional exception. From that perspective, we are seeing more positive shifts for actors of color on TV and in film.

But there is still so much more that needs to shift to truly reflect the diverse tapestry not only of this country, but the world. For example, there are still narrow corridors of the kinds of roles that actors of color are offered, or even seen for. We rarely see female actors of  Asian descent playing romantic leads. Or characters played by Native actors in positions of power in the contemporary era. Or millennial Latina characters navigating the next steps of their lives. i’m reminded of a recent conversation with a friend who is a very recognizable actor of African descent with a résumé as long as Montana is wide who pointed out the trend of women actors of African descent with natural hair often being overlooked as love interests on TV shows and how that then informs choices that actors make.

Paste: Towards the end of the short when the baseball issue is coming up, things get a little physical. I’m curious to know about how you handle scenes like this. How would you say the corporeal elements of acting vary from comedy to drama, and/or from stage to screen?
Thomas: I get so excited seeing fun, physical comedy in film and television, and I knew early on that we could have a good time that would translate for the audience in that part of the film. For me, acting comes from a core of truth and being present in the circumstances of the character.

That said, different genres make different demands of the actor. This was something that echoed as we were casting for the role of Eddie. We saw some great actors who came into the audition room or submitted tape, but it was consistently clear whether the actor had a sense of the tempo, rhythm and the grounded style this comedy needed, while also fully committing to the more emotional extremes and passions of the character. But the consistent thread across genre—is coming from a place of truth.

Paste: You strike me as someone who always has projects in the works. What do you have coming up that we should know about? I heard whisperings of a TV pilot, and then there’s Sweet Lorraine with Tatum O’Neal, right?
Thomas: I definitely, always have a bunch of stuff in the works! There are some projects that I’ve worked on that are complete, or in post production, like Sweet Lorraine, and a few other films. Others are at various levels of development, including several film projects, a web series, a few plays and others that I can’t speak about just yet.

Paste: I’m looking forward to all of it. Thanks so much for this!
Thomas: Thank you!

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.