Tatyana Ali is running late for our interview.
We’re supposed to meet at the Traffik offices on one of the back streets in downtown LA, where Tatyana is going to shoot her spread for Switch Magazine. This is fine by me since it gives me a chance to work out my nerves and go over my questions and rearrange them one more time. It’s hard to know what to ask first when you’re dealing with an artist who acts, sings, graduated from Harvard, and has a major role in an upcoming movie, but when Tatyana walks into the room, with an easy laugh and a Cheshire Cat grin, there’s no room for equivocation and I just ask the obvious.
Have trouble finding the place?
Yes. I was wandering around downtown…I thought, maybe I’ll just go to the museum. Thursday’s free. (laughs)
Let’s talk about Glory Road. Tell us a little about this movie.
It’s a true story about the first predominantly black team to win the NCAA championship. Josh Lucas stars in it; he plays Coach Don Haskins. Derek Luke plays Bobby Joe Hill and I play Tina Hill. She was actually a real person, which is kind’a cool. Um, Tina Malachi—they weren’t married yet.
When can we plan to see this in theaters?
I heard spring. (laughs) I’m really bad about release dates.
Getting back to the real life Tina Hill: when she commented on you playing her, she reportedly said that “you’re not hard on the eyes and had Bobby Joe been alive today that he would have loved it.” What do you think about that?
Oh my goodness! That’s really nice. (blushes) That’s really cool.
Now when you were shooting in New Orleans, I read there was a hurricane.
Oh, we had to evacuate the city. We were on a bus for like ten hours going from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, which is really only an hour drive. And we had so much fun. It was like being in summer camp again. It was great.
Theme of the film is racially important. Did that affect your acceptance of this role?
Absolutely. It’s a Jerry Bruckheimer film. It’s an amazing cast. I was very blessed to be asked to be a part of it, so subject not even having to do with it, I wanted to do it. But…I went to school…I mean, I took time off to go to college…and my major was government and Afro-American studies, so it was right up my alley. Two years after school…the event…I knew it was really important. What was also cool was that we did the last month of shooting in El Paso, where it actually took place, and we were at the college campus. Everyone there knew. Coach Haskins has all sorts of things named after him all over town. You understood the sense of history. I remember when they shot the final game, the actual game where they won the championship, and watching all the extras rush onto the court—in full costume. I mean we were in costume down to our undergarments. Even nail polish and makeup. And you just got goose bumps. People waving their confederate flags and booing. It was amazing.
It sounds amazing. You mentioned college. Do you miss it?
Do I miss it? Let me tell you something, I still have nightmares about it! I wake up in the middle of the night…oh my God, I have a paper due! (laughs) All my friends from school live in New York and I miss them. And I loved…I loved school. I wanted to go to school because I had been in entertainment for so long; I wanted to socialize with people my age. I wanted to explore other fields and see what else was out there, but after sitting at my computer and being in the library…you know that bug kind of…I graduated early because I wanted to get back out and do what I like to do.
Do you follow college basketball?
No, I don’t. (laughs)
So you have no loyalties?
No, I don’t. (laughs) I went to Harvard! If I had gone to another school then maybe I would have loyalties. Not that our basketball team is terrible, but it’s not number one on the list.
Fair enough. Let’s switch gears. What do you prefer to act in: television or film?
Right now I prefer film. I like being totally immersed in a world for a few months and living some place for a while…and I think this is because of music too, having been on tour with a group of people…I like the intensity of it. And then…it’s done. And also, I’m learning. When I visit other TV sets, I know what’s happening, I know the dynamics. I know how to put a show together. But I’m still learning how to put a film together. That’s why I enjoy it. At the moment.
Touching on what you said about music: when you were a freshman in college, your single, “Daydreaming,” went gold. When can we expect your next album?
I’m almost done with it. I started recording it a year ago. I was really scared—even with my first album, I was really hesitant about doing it because at that time JLo hadn’t come out yet and an actor turned singer seemed so corny. But while I was at school, people would stop me and be like “Are you coming out with a new album? I really liked the first one.” And I was like, “Really? I wanted to.” And I was writing while I was in school. I love music. So I started about a year ago. We’re almost done.
I know you hate release dates, but do you have any idea when it’ll be out?
No, because we’re doing it independently. This time I kind’a just wanted to work with one person or one group of people and just develop a relationship and a sound and kind of a vibe for the whole album. I thought a record company might ghntwky… (hides her face bashfully)
I thought a record company might get in the way. I’d much rather create something and then have record companies do what I think they’re really good at, which is marketing, distributing…that kind of stuff. My acting? I play characters, but my music is myself. It’s very hard to package yourself. Or at least for me. So if the music is there, then that’s the story. I think that’s the most important thing and all the other stuff is gravy.
I don’t know how much you want to give away, but the last album was characterized by many as a blend of R&B and pop. What can we expect in the new album?
A blend of R&B and pop. (laughs) From a more mature perspective. I’m writing everything. I just want it to be more fun.
Now I know these are two different monsters, but if you had to choose between acting and singing, which would it be?
Why do I have to choose? Sure, I love to record. I love being in the studio…but no. I love to sing for people. I’m making an album so I can perform my songs, you know? Shoot, I don’t know…why do I have to choose?
Alright, let me rephrase it: Oscar or Grammy?
See, you know what’s weird about that question?
Is that in music, you don’t need an award. I mean in acting you don’t need an award, either, but in film you do your work and then it’s sent out to people in theaters all over the place and you have no idea how people feel about what you’re doing. Okay, so maybe if you need to know you’re doing well, you get an Oscar and you know, well, I’m entertaining people. But music, you know if you’re entertaining people because they either get up and dance with you or they don’t. (pause) How could Radiohead not have won a Grammy?
I don’t know.
Has Bjork won a Grammy?
I don’t think so.
See that’s nuts to me! You know what I’m saying? So, what are awards anyway? (raspberry)
Are you saying then that you don’t need an award to justify your success?
I guess not.
I don’t want to put words in your mouth.
No, I don’t. Not that I would thumb my nose at one or like, not show up. All I need is to keep doing what I like to do. To me, people coming up to me in a store and asking if I’m making a new album…to me, that’s success. That’s awesome. I’m like, “You want one? I’ll make one just for you.”