Casting Frontier had a great discussion with actress Tamela D’Amico, known for her role in One Little Finger. Read more to learn about how she was cast as ‘Raina’, her journey with all things entertainment and her advice on creating your own opportunities as actors.
In “One Little Finger,” you play Raina, an American neurologist researching music therapy in India. How did you hear about this role? Why do you think you were awarded the role?
The way this film came to me was with a little bit of magic, I think. I had been asked to do two other films in India in the past, and my reps were against me doing either of them because they didn’t know the infrastructure in India and they had no way of protecting me, if I went over there alone. So, prior to taking this role in “One Little Finger,” I was actually led to be afraid to go to India because of all the fears they put in my head. Then, one of those films that I did not take, ended up getting into Cannes. I was bummed. Later on, I was at Lake Shrine hanging out in the Japanese gardens with my friend who is a very spiritual person. We decided to go to the side of the lake where a swan was in the water to meditate. Why not? We were in the perfect location. We settled in cross-legged position, and I closed my eyes, and as instantly as I did, I saw a flash of India. It was the strangest thing. I opened one eye and turned to my friend and said, “I think I want to go to India.” He opened one of his eyes and said, “It’s already happening.” We were sort of kidding, but two weeks later, the director of “One Little Finger” contacted me through Facebook messenger and offered me the role. He said he had sent it to my reps who had turned it down and he figured I must have not been notified about it at all. He was right. No one told me. (Not cool, by the way.) I read the script and I was moved by the story and I knew it was something I was meant to do. As to why director Rupam Sarmah chose me specifically, I have no idea, except that he works on feeling/vibe, too. He knew of me from the Grammy Foundation because we are also both musicians, but I did not know him personally, prior to this project. I will have to ask him now. You have me intrigued! He was persistent in reaching me, and I am glad he did. And guess what? We premiered at the Cannes Film Festival! Legendary multi-Grammy winner Quincy Jones has music in the film, as well as so many other amazing and notable artists. Quincy was on my vision board, prior to this project. Maybe I manifested all of this. Who knows? All in all, this is a lesson to all actors. If I wasn’t so involved with my own career, networking and knowing what is going on in the business or staying religiously on top of my social media accounts, I would have missed this opportunity.
What’s so special about “One Little Finger”?
This film employs more than 80 people with disabilities, and shows what it actually is like to live life with a disability. They are the true heroes of this entire production. There is no movie magic here. Actors with disabilities portraying characters with disabilities. In life, anyone can become disabled at any moment, even you. Disability rights are not to be looked on with charity, this is a human rights issue. The film sends a message that has become a movement, and is now a foundation. There is “ability in disability,” and everyone deserves a chance at their dreams. I hear a lot of producers and casting people talking about inclusion, but so few are actually incorporating it into their projects without being mandated to. We still have a way to go, but at least we are on an upward swing. Also, People-First language should be a standard. When you speak in this way, you put the person you are speaking about or addressing before their diagnosis, therefore describing what a person “has” rather than asserting what a person “is.” This is an Indian and U.S. co-production. You will see the sights of India in a new way, and come out the other side having been moved by stories based on real-life events. We have been all over the world with this film, and it touches people’s hearts. There hasn’t been a Q&A where I didn’t end up crying, because of how it makes viewers feel. In the audiences that stay after the film screenings, I have been met by parents of children with disabilities who were so thankful to see something similar to their lives up on the screen. And within those audiences, they also found community to talk about their struggles and joys. It wasn’t just that we had championed a story for the disabled, but rather that we opened a needed discourse for something that is rarely discussed or depicted on screen. For that, I am absolutely proud to be a part of this film.
Pre-COVID-19, you went to premiere/red carpet events for “One Little Finger.” Who paid for your travel and accommodations for the events? Are premieres built into your contract, or do they ask you separately if you’re available and want to attend?
We were able to have our U.S. premiere and attended many film festivals all over the world, but we missed the May premiere in Mumbai, India, due to the travel lockdown because of COVID-19. My travel and accommodations, when not local, are covered by the film. The main premieres were built into my contract and the other events are suggested and welcomed.
You have your hands dipped in all things entertainment, including being a music recording artist. What music genres are you drawn to?
They say that you don’t choose to sing jazz, rather it chooses you. I feel that to be true for myself. I have been hired to sing other styles of music, and happily do when asked. I started my career in pop and techno dance music, but ultimately knew that I didn’t want to be singing songs that wouldn’t stand the test of time. So, for my actual music career, jazz has my heart. In general, people with passion, for whatever their occupation, inspire me. I adore learning about other people’s lives and how they made it through. I’m a big fan of biographies. We learn from each other’s wins and mistakes all throughout history. When I meet someone new I always ask, “What’s your story?” I listen to them, and then I tell their story that they just told me back to them, like they are watching their own documentary. It’s always interesting because they often learn something new about themselves that they didn’t even realize. Jazz is a lot like that. An artist can be giving you a song that you may know, but it is the interpretation of it that lets you see it in a new light. Jazz is filled with discovery and I am a creature of change. I always credit Judy Garland as being the first huge musical inspiration for me. As a young child, instead of watching kids’ programs like “Sesame Street,” I watched “The Wizard of Oz” and New York’s Nostalgia Network, which was like a PBS station that aired old episodes of “The Judy Garland Show” and “I Love Lucy.” Judy radiated passion and knew when to be still and when to be manic, and all with seemingly great ease because she existed from a center of truth. I took all this in at a tender age and knew that I wanted to be a part of the world that I saw on the screen past, present and future. After Judy Garland, I of course found the music collection of my grandparents, parents and older siblings that ranged from Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone all the way to Doo-Wop music of the 50s, then to The Beatles, to operas starring Pavarotti, then Janis Joplin and funk/disco from the 70s, all the way to 80s bands such as Journey, to Prince and Michael Jackson. From the late 90s till now, my “favorites” playlist changes often, and I find that people are shocked that a jazz singer likes rap, as if all I must listen to is jazz and the American Songbook. I literally appreciate mostly all types of music and love to dance to anything. Because I always had a natural propensity for performing and working in all forms of media, I was often compared to Barbra Streisand in high school. So, I researched her path and took notes. She did everything, and did it well and I wanted to utilize all of my talents in the same way. I may be an old soul for loving jazz, but currently I appreciate what Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, Sia, Lizzo and Cardi B are doing. I’m the product of an environment in love with pop music. In short, there is no singular person who influenced my style. My style is my own, and I am always in discovery of other artists and appreciate new sounds.
How do you merge music with acting and filmmaking?
When I first came out to LA, my father insisted that I have my own company to run all of the different arms of my career. I am so grateful for his advice. I started La Strega Entertainment in 2006 and closed it to form Bellona Entertainment LLC out of necessity to funnel all of my social media business, as well as film/music projects. All of my music, films and content creations have been produced under my own banner. Even though I opened my company as a means to produce vehicles for myself, I have made many other artist’s dreams come true by producing for and collaborating with them on their projects. Merging music with acting and filmmaking is super easy in this day and age of content creation and branding. One has to be able to do it all in order to survive, especially this pandemic year. In many ways, I am a one-stop shop, and that is why brands like working with me. My most recent branding collab for Hoover can showcase what I mean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rchcBG-odnw
You were born on Long Island, New York and currently reside in LA. What made you want to move to the West Coast? Are the opportunities for you better in California than in New York? Why?
I saw a two-part episode of “I Love Lucy” where they all took a trip to California when I was a kid. That is literally what made me want to move to Los Angeles. Then, of course I went to college and I was afforded a number of opportunities in Los Angeles to work with people I had dreamed of as an intern, so I took off West. I have actually been bi-coastal between New York and Los Angeles for most of my career. After spending time flying back and forth to India to film “One Little Finger,” I came back to the States and just stayed put in Los Angeles for a bit. You can take the girl out of New York but you can’t take the New York out of the girl. I love both New York and LA for very different reasons. My drive and my passion is all New York, but my lifestyle is Los Angeles. I do go back to New York in a heartbeat, mainly for work, when the opportunity presents itself. The industry keeps changing, and I am actually a local hire in a few states. We do what we have to do to work. Having a production company, I find it easier to be in the center of the entertainment business in LA, however. But you know, everything is a plane ride away. If I was willing to go to India, you can bet I will hop on a plane anywhere to work on a project I believe in.
You’re known for your role on Disney’s “Best Friends Whenever” and Amazon’s “Englishman in L.A.” (for which you were awarded Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Web Series by LA WEB FEST). What was it like breaking into a Disney role?
My New York agent had left the business and ushered his company to a partner in Los Angeles. She didn’t know me at all, but submitted me for the role in “Best Friends Whenever” because she heard that I could do comedy. It was the first audition I had with her. I got the audition and as always, I researched everyone involved in the show before I went in. I highly recommend all actors to do this. IMDb is a fantastic resource. I learned that comedy legend Nora Dunn was playing the older version of my character. I love and know her work and think she is hilarious. She has a dry way of speaking, and I knew that I should probably incorporate a bit of Nora into my performance, since I was playing the younger version of her. The character had a specific look. So, I invested in her. I went shopping and chose what I thought a female scientist in the 90s would wear. There were a lot of actors playing kissy face with the casting staff in the lobby when I arrived, and I just don’t do that sort of stuff. I always keep to myself so I don’t break my concentration, but I noticed another actor looking at my outfit in a particular way. I knew that I had nailed the clothes and I was ready to perform the physicality of the role in them, which there was a lot of in the script. I went into the audition and just the casting director was there. He read with me. He was warm and funny, and he gave me a note to go a bit darker on my choices. Disney had decided to amp up their villains to match the demo audience over at Nickelodeon, who is a competitor for them with YA content. I took the note and he was like “Great!” That was literally it. I had nothing to go on, but I left there setting a goal for myself that if I got a callback the next time I left there, the role would be mine. I got to my car and no sooner did I start the engine, my agent called and said I had a callback with producers. A few days later, I went into the callback, calm, cool, and collected, and then turned on a dime when it was time to become my character. She was severe. The casting director’s phone rang in the middle of my audition and I reprimanded him in character and they loved it. I felt I did well, but I left there again with a “Great!” Not long after, I got word that not only did I book the job, but that it would now be a recurring role. Disney fans are far and wide and loyal. My social media exploded after this show. And I got to check “playing a Disney villain” off my bucket list.
We hear that Disney contracts are rock solid. Did you have an attorney review the contract before signing? Did you ask for anything in the contract to be changed or added?
I have been fortunate to always have had great lawyers. The contract came in and my lawyer has always redlined all of my contracts to read that I get a copy of my footage whether a production is finished or not, but definitely upon release. This is especially important if you are working in indie films where it takes much longer for productions to release. So, beside that, we pretty much went with what Disney’s offer was, which was great, but later I did have to call SAG to track down my foreign residuals. I had no idea that the show was all over the world. A teen fan in Italy had tweeted me, and that is what clued me in. I noticed that I wasn’t getting paid for foreign, and we had to call to clear that up and collect monies. So you can look over something a million times, but still miss something. Actors should definitely have a great lawyer on their team.
You’re in the unions SAG-AFTRA, AEA and NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, also known as Recording Academy). What do the unions do for you? What were the jobs that tipped you over the edge to join the unions? Would you be allowed to work if you decided NOT to join the unions?
I joined SAG after working on a Garry Marshall film. I didn’t do the three voucher thing that most actors come into the business seeking. It sort of just happened. I was so proud to have my SAG card and become a part of a league of professional artists. Later on, I had to give up my SAG card status to be on a Spielberg reality show (I believe they have cleared this loophole now with reality TV, but you used to have to be non-union). The producers of that show told me not to worry about SAG because I had my own production company, and that on my next production I could just Taft/Hartley myself back in to the union. It didn’t exactly work that way, but I did get myself back into SAG. The Screen Actors Guild has afforded me protection on set when I needed it most. I literally was kidnapped by a “friend of the production” on a set in Philadelphia who said he was driving me to the next location. He stole a crew badge and everything and got me in his car and then drove me away from the set to his friend’s house to show off that he had an “actress” from the film in his car. It was a scary ordeal, as we were shooting in a creepy part of town. SAG showed up and shut down the whole operation until I was safe and sound back on set. A crazy story to say the least, but I was impressed at how quickly they responded and I was unharmed. So for me, being a part of the union has literally saved my life. Beyond that, there are many artist perks and discounts that come from being in the union, but that is less important to me.
Anything else you want to say?
So much. Create your own opportunities. Do not wait. Be prepared and willing to give all of yourself as an artist, come hell or high water, and keep creating. Vulnerability is a positive thing. This is a business at the end of the day, and if you want longevity, you have to understand how it works. Take a job behind the scenes, work for a manager or lawyer. Learn about contracts. Trust no one. Question everything presented to you. Don’t simply accept the answers. Go on your own journeys. Listen to your gut first, then your heart. Step into worlds that you are frightened of and that you know little about so you can broaden your horizons. Every opportunity should be looked into. In this business we call “show,” you have to be as soft as silk to enter it, and as tough as nails to stay. My wise Italian grandmother, who is no longer with us, would say, “If you’re bashful, you lose. Don’t ever be afraid to go and get what you want in this life.” Go and get it!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Written by Ilana Rapp
Ilana Rapp is a media-savvy Generation Xer with instinctive wit, quick humor and a taste for deep human emotions. As a former (child) actress with Broadway, film and television credits, she is adept at, well, lots of things. She blogged on The Huffington Post and writes entertainment pieces for Casting Networks, Casting Frontier, NYCastings, Mupo Entertainment and New Jersey Stage. She is a huge fan of the television show “V.” Ask her why her favorite number is 22. Follow Ilana on Twitter @IlanaSpeaks22