By Veronika Daddona | Backstage
Tenaya Cleveland is very busy these days. You might have caught her last season on the CW’s Atlanta-shot “The Vampire Diaries,” playing a crunchy granola-style birthing coach to Candice Accola. This spring, you will see her on TBS’s “The Detour,” a hilarious new series helmed by comedy power couple Samantha Bee and Jason Jones.
“At first, I just wanted to do film and theater, but I’ve gotten to where I just want to do good work. The landscape changed, too,” says Cleveland, whose work runs the gamut from shows including “Six Feet Under” and “Drop Dead Diva” to Web series on Funny or Die. “When I started, TV was much more limited, and making a Web series wasn’t a thing. Now, it’s more about the material than the medium.”
As a child of two performer parents, Cleveland got her start in theater. Today, she not only sinks her teeth into on-screen roles; she is a staple in the Atlanta independent film scene. We asked the Berkeley, California native about the kinds of roles she enjoys, staying positive, and most importantly, how to deal with rejection.
What kind of roles do you enjoy playing?
Well-written leads! So much of a role is in the writing, so that’s number one. It’s fun to play characters that are a little nutty. Comedy and drama are both very natural for me, and I think they’re essential to each other, so even if I’m doing drama, I look for the comedy and vice versa. Roles where I get to express distinctly different facets—people who aren’t what they seem, are very dynamic, or move through a lot of thoughts and emotions quickly.
What should you do if you’re not booking those kinds of dream roles?
Create your own projects!
Do you think creating your projects helps actors with the rejection they inevitably face?
Yes, absolutely, because you’re not just sitting around. It definitely empowers you.
How do you remain positive?
It’s an evolution that never ends. I used to see stars talk about how everyone has insecurities and it helped me move through some of mine, just knowing that I wasn’t alone. But believe me, they still rear their ugly head. You realize at some point that we’re all human. I think that unless you’re a sociopath or psychopath or something like that, you deal with insecurities every day. Little ones, big ones, it’s part of our human programming.
In terms of rejection, I rarely think of it like that anymore. I can’t. I’d be a mess! I just do my best in the audition and then, for the most part, I let it go. If you ask me how “that audition” went last week, chances are I won’t remember which audition you mean. Now, there are exceptions. It’s always more difficult when I audition for friends, because it’s more challenging to not take it personally if they don’t cast me. But ultimately, whether it’s friends or strangers, I’ve come to believe that if it’s mine, I’ll get it. If someone else is right for it, they’ll get it. And I can’t worry about the “why,” because I’ve been on the other side of it, and I know there are a million reasons why. The role is only going to be played one person, and either someone else is it or I’m it. I think of it very clinically, and I’m genuinely happy for others when they book.
In Atlanta, where should actors be hanging out or networking?
The best networking events I’ve attended are film festivals. This is for anywhere, and particularly in Atlanta, where we have an established, Oscar-qualifying fest, run by a group that I’ve personally come to love. Great films, tons of filmmakers meandering around, creative conference events where you can learn and meet pros... hands down, anything related to the Atlanta Film Festival and Atlanta Film Society. The Georgia Production Partnership is great, too.
After all this time in the business, what prevents you from giving up?
A million years ago, I heard a quote from David Alan Grier: “Be talented enough to make it and stupid enough to keep trying.” I’m still not sure about the first part, but I know I’ve got the second part down! When I was around 20, I promised my grandma I’d check in with myself when I turned 25, and really see if I thought I had progressed enough to continue. Arguably, I hadn’t really, but I had seen some consistent progress, and something in my soul told me to keep going. Since then, every once and a while, I question all of it. I think that’s healthy. So far, my heart always says to stay the path. If it ever says to stop, I will.