I met Tina D'Elia a few years ago right before she was cast as a Social Worker in The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith. Tina is a professional actor in the SF Bay Area and owner of Tina D'Elia Consulting. She is a performance coach, acting/public speaking workshop leader, and does casting for tv/film. Tina is also a wonderful human being who cares a great deal for the underdogs of the world, which is clear by her work with the LGBT community; specifically on transgender issues. We sat down with Tina to discuss her current one woman show The Rita Hayworth of this Generation, her recent work on the Netflix series Sense8 and to catch up on her colorful life.
DG: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how it influences your work?
TD: My parents were poets. My mother is mixed-race Mexican and German and grew up in Cali Columbia and my father is Italian. We connected and celebrated together through the arts, so whether we were dancing around the house, playing musical instruments or writing, we were always doing something creative.
As a writer, the political satires of the Marx Brothers and Tom Lehrer had a great influence on me. I was also influenced by old Hollywood greats such as Katherine Hepburn and Rita Hayworth. Part of my fascination with Hayworth was my desire to learn more about my Latin roots. She was of Spanish heritage and possibly Romani as well. I studied Hayworth thoroughly and started writing my own versions of a queer Latina mixed-race protagonist that later became what is my solo show, The Rita Hayworth of this Generation.
DG: Can you tell me a little bit about what inspires you as an artist? What gets you motivated and out of bed?
TD: Gratitude, wanting to work hard, the desire to move my body and exercise, social justice/political activism, family and friends. So many things!
DG: You've been a powerful advocate/artist in the San Francisco LGBT community; specifically with the transgender community. Can you share with us how this came about? What are some common misunderstandings that people have about the transgender community?
TD: I am humbled that you feel this way. I have to speak up! It's about life, purpose and responsibility. Dr. Martin Luther King said, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Even something that may seem as small as reaching out to transgender and non-gender confirming artists to audition for roles in tv/film/theater for me is pivotal to change the landscape of cisgender* casting. (Cisgender is a word that applies to the vast majority of people, describing a person who is not transgender. If a doctor announces, “It’s a girl!” in the delivery room based on the child’s body and that baby grows up to identify as a woman, that person is cisgender. Similarly, a baby designated male in the delivery room who grows up to identify as a man is cisgender. This is the case for about 99% of the population, at least according to the best available statistics. - Time Magazine, Dec. 24, 2014)
I really feel some common misunderstandings is this disconnect between a cisgender person’s life that is so removed from a trans person’s life. Since this cisgender culture is already rooted in patriarchy and transphobia and being in a gender binary society, it takes a desire to learn, a true love of humanity, a desire to be curious and not spend time in what a mainstream media cultural feeds us.
If I’m in isolation and letting a cisgender binary culture dictate casting, then there is no progress, no movement. So I reach out to my friends and organizations. I talk to folks face to face and connect with other people. I go see trans folks perform, build connections and network. When I was younger in my 20’s, I knew I was disconnected to the trans communities as a cisgender queer person. When I moved to the Bay Area I started working at Community United Against Violence (CUAV) and proudly worked there for 10 years. I was excited that my life was changing, my communities were growing, and the relationships I was building with people were changing my life.
DG: I saw you recently in Sense8! For those who don't know, it's a new Netflix series from the Wachowskis, makers of the Matrix. It's about 8 strangers who are mentally and emotionally linked. One of the characters is transgender. You did an amazing job! Can you share with us a little bit about the show and your experience working on it and working with the Wachowskis?
TD: Thank you Tony. It was an honor to work on Sense8. I think Sense8 is a great TV series and is helping to change the landscape of having diverse central characters, actors, and story be at the center of the series. It was a pleasure and honor to work with The Wachowskis. The environment on set was comfortable, fun, and there was room as actors to be creative and improvise.
DG: You've created and performed a one-woman show- The Rita Hayworth of this Generation. Can you tell us about this project and the inspiration?
TD: So as I mentioned earlier I researched for other Old Hollywood role models and found that Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino on October 17, 1918. She was born of Spanish heritage on her father's side but was whitewashed to fit an anglo appearance in Hollywood. However, despite that, Hayworth lived being mixed heritage and wanted to be in charge of her career, so she formed her own film production company. She made choices to star in roles that were not just about dancing and singing and a girl "getting married". At a very young age, she was dancing. She worked hard and sacrificed for her family. I was influenced to write a solo show to exemplify the myth and distorted dreams that some artists have today believing that becoming a celebrity will be the answer to all of their problems. Rita Hayworth knew fame didn’t bring her happiness or love. My show tackles these issues.
DG: What has been the most challenging part of your journey as an artist? What has been the most rewarding?
TD: I think the most challenging part of the journey is to wearing many hats as an artistic director, a performer, and a writer. Having the time to do it all of it while working at the same time can be arduous.
The best part of the journey has been working in a community and supportive team. I love everyone I get to work with on Rita. And working with my friend and director Mary Guzman for 6 years on this show has been a true blessing and joy.
One of the best parts of this show is creating original music and songs. I challenged myself to write lyrics and worked with composers and a sound engineer as well. My father, Dr. John D’ Elia also wrote lyrics to songs and composed piano music for the show. He’s almost 80. He is irreplaceable. I’m so moved and grateful.
DG: Can you pass down some words wisdom in your journey as an activist/artist?
TD: I cannot underscore enough that if you have a story to tell and want to tell it, don’t stop, find a way to do so. Maybe your play becomes a film. Maybe your poem becomes a song. Maybe your dream becomes a painting. Find your love and pursue it.
DG: Any final thoughts?
TD: Yes! Hear speakers, read books written by trans folks, see films directed by trans folks, and starring trans folks. Go to the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival in November at the Roxy Cinema. Be curious and have the desire to have to connect outside of a cisgender bubble.
I will also be performing my one-woman show at The San Francisco Fringe Festival this September. Here is the link to the show on the SF Fringe website and how to get tickets in advance....