From Musicals To Psychological Thrillers: Why Queer Actor Jen Tullock Says Fiction Is Cheaper Than Therapy

Garrett Coffey

“I don’t care if it’s a tiny movie where I’m making no money or a giant show. Because the reason I do what I do, and love what I do, is about storytelling, and expressing those moments of human interaction that are both beautiful and agonizing.”

“I’m from Louisville,” actor Jen Tullock tells me, pronouncing the word so it sounds, to my Cleveland-born ears, like Lou-auh-voul. A spontaneous annunciation lesson breaks out.  Try as I might to say Louisville as a local would, I can’t quite drop the “s.” Because I’m not a trained actor like Tullock, I’m a hopeless cause. “I don’t believe you,” she says. “I have faith in you.”

It’s easy to imagine Tullock, a veteran character actor of screen and stage, whose career knows no genre or character bounds, coaching a nervous novice through their lines. Her conversational, easy-going manner is immediately at odds with the gritty realism and psychological intensity of the most recent entries on her professional resume. We talk about about a slew of projects Tullock currently has in the works, including the second season of HBO’s “Perry Mason” and the upcoming psychological thriller, “Severance,” Louisville’s queer culture, the genius of Donald O’Connor (“Make ‘Em Laugh” is one of the most thrilling six minutes of cinema history”), and the less dignified elements of Covid protocols on film sets (“There’s not a lot of ego you can juggle with someone standing in a hazmat suit shoving a medical-grade Q-tip up your nostril.”). 

As it turns out, levity may come in handy on a show like “Severance,” a workplace thriller directed by Ben Stiller, and featuring an A-list cast, including Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette, and Christopher Walken. The show is premised on a procedure that allows individuals to severe their personal and work lives, “an amped up version of accomplishing the work/life balance,” Tullock explains. She plays Devon, the sister of Mark (Adam Scott), who has undergone the severance procedure. “She’s having to deal with the fact that her brother is going through something so intense psychologically that he’s sought out this procedure in the first place,” she tells me.  The character, “is very close to my heart, because her primary gig when we meet her is really taking care of the men in her life. And we get to watch over the course of this season for the things that happen, or don’t happen, [and] how that begins to affect her, her own psyche and her own sense of autonomy.” 

But “Severance” isn’t all psychological trauma. The cast, she tells me, was “fantastic” to work with, and she and Scott were able to develop “a quick sibling rapport.” And while the show can be dark, “Devon has a sense of humor, and beyond that a shared sense of humor with Mark, [so] there’s pockets of levity she gets to provide.”

Jen Tullock and Adam Scott in Severance

“Severance” is just one of three major projects that Tullock has lined up for 2022. She’s also landed a recurring role as Anita St. Pierre, an ahead-of-her-time screenwriter in the second season of “Perry Mason,” HBO’s hard boiled reimagining of the popular detective series, set in 1930s Los Angeles. Anita is “unapologetic across the board about who she is,” and becomes entangled with series regular Della Street (played by Juliet Rylance). “They end up teaching each other quite a bit about where they are, and their lives,” she says. She’ll also appear in “Spirited,” a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” starring Ryan Reynolds, Will Ferrell, and Octavia Spencer, due out this year. 

Tullock’s decision to become an actress is rooted, fittingly enough, in the era of “Perry Mason” and in the spirit of “Spirited.” As a child growing up in conservative Kentucky, she and her family bonded over a shared love of classic Hollywood films – “musicals and big, grand theater, and broad comedy,” she says. “And so I kind of grew up doing what I do now.” 

As a child, she admired character actors like Donald O’Connor and Danny Kaye, whose classic musical, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” was part of the inspiration behind “Before You Know It,” the Sundance family dramedy which Tullock co-wrote and starred in along with Hannah Pearl Utt. Tullock and Utt (who also directed) play Jackie and Rachel Gurner, two sisters whose father (played by Mandy Patinkin) owns a struggling New York City community theater. It was a project 10 years in the making, which Tullock and Utt first began when they were both waitressing in New York City. When it debuted at Sundance in 2019, Tullock couldn’t help but be a little star-struck.

“When I was a kid, I remember seeing those Sundance photos in People Magazine,” she recalls, “and when we got to Park City for the year we premiered, we got to do one of those photoshoots. And the poor photographer was like, ‘Is she crying?’ because I got a little bit emotional at the beginning. Coming from small-town Kentucky, it was a pretty wide, wide chasm I had to leap over to get from A to B. It was really that moment where I was like, ‘Oh, this is real. This is happening.’”

Growing up queer in small-town Kentucky was “deeply complicated” for Tullock. Although she did grow up within a somewhat rigid system shaped by traditional Christian values, she also developed a love of the arts thanks to her grandparents, who took her to operas and ballets, and encouraged her to read Noel Coward plays. She also knew she was gay from a young age – at the age of seven, to be precise. While watching the film version of Roger and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” she would toddle over to the television and kiss the screen whenever star Shirley Jones appeared. “My mom would say, ‘Oh, you want to kiss Gordan MacRae?’,” she says, referring to the film’s male lead. “I said, ‘No, I want to kiss Shirley Jones!’” 

Although vocal about her feelings toward women as a child, she didn’t officially come out to her family until she was 19. It’s been, she describes, “a beautiful journey of growth and learning for everyone.” And although she now lives in L.A. she hasn’t left Louisville behind her: she’s currently writing a script that delves into the complexities of a queer experience of going home again. It’s a process that involves reckoning with past traumas, while recognizing how people have evolved from their past selves. She’s hopeful to turn the script into a film in the not-too-distant future, and to film in Louisville with local actors.

Tullock has also recently made a return to her first love, theater, workshopping a musical in collaboration with a friend, also from Louisville. She also found an outlet for her creativity during the pandemic by creating Eggshell: Fantasy & Fragility in America, a series of satirical vignettes where Tullock plays different characters, mostly suburban white women, who share perhaps a bit too much of themselves on social media, like Kaylee Lynn from Jeffersontown, Kentucky, who doesn’t quite know what to make of a pregnant lesbian she meets at the grocery store, or Margaret from New Haven, who accidentally books herself onto a lesbian cruise. “I was just interested specifically in what people do on social media, how they project and what they project,” Tullock says of the project. “But it was also just fun for me and – I’ve heard this from so many actors [and] writers that when all of the work was paused – I was losing my mind. So [Eggshell] was a tangible and containable thing into which I could funnel my creative energy.” She is now hoping to bring the project to a larger platform.

While work may have paused during the pandemic, for Tullock the pause was fortunately temporary. She began filming “Severance” in the pre-vaccine stage of the pandemic, which meant Zoom readings, rehearsing in masks and, of course, Q-tips shoved regularly up noses. But it also meant that she could continue to do what she loves, acting, in any genre, or through any medium. 

“For me, it’s just about the story, and the people,” she says. “I don’t care if it’s a tiny movie where I’m making no money or a giant show. Because the reason I do what I do, and love what I do, is about storytelling, and expressing those moments of human interaction that are both beautiful and agonizing.”

Of the characters she’d played, “I love them all,” Tullock says. Each presents “an opportunity for me to search for something in myself for which I’m not necessarily proud, because finding the vulnerability and the hubris in each character is what’s most fascinating to me.” 

She adds, “with each one, regardless of how broad the comedy is, or how dire the drama is, learning something about myself, and getting to do that within the safe confines of fiction? It’s cheaper than therapy, I’ll tell you that much right now.” 

You can catch Tullock in “Severance,” now available on Apple TV+.

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