Tina Alexis Allen has built a small role into a powerhouse.
When Tina Alexis Allen makes her first appearance in Season One of Outsiders she is keening.
The wail that emerges from her is animal, pure pain: Her character, Shurn, just found out her son was killed in a hit-and-run. The whole thing is extremely physical: She lunges, picks up the first weapon she can find, a hatchet and charges at the man she thinks is responsible for putting her son in harm’s way.
The moment isn’t drawn out for long, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the screen you watch it on is the biggest or the smallest: What Allen radiates, you feel, right up under your breastbone. It sticks with you.
And you feel it even though Shurn lives a life truly different from what any WGN America viewer has experienced. Shurn is a member of the Farrell clan, a huge tightknit group of, yes, outsiders living on Shay’s Mountain, very much off-the-grid in Pennsylvania. They’re a tough lot, having weathered 200 winters on the mountain, not only without but in direct opposition to any kind of modern accoutrements.
Her arc was supposed to be a four-or five-episode one but producers kept Allen on until the season finale, exploring the depression that hit Shurn hard. In Season 2, Shurn is back and she’s a voice of the resistance on the mountain – a particularly interesting role to play, given that in a way, she is resisting within an already-resistant world.
When you watch, it seems like Allen, who is 5’6”, is a lot taller than that on screen, even when she faces off with 6’4” David Morse, who plays Big Foster, the Bren’In or leader of the clan.
Allen, who is the youngest of a family of 13, had never planned on acting: her childhood love was basketball and she was good enough to play in college, where she got an MBA and later worked in the fashion industry before switching gears to acting.
“I had no idea that was what I was going to do until I left my job. I was nearly 30 and realized I had a lot of stuff but I wasn’t very happy,” she explained. “I left the job, quit cold turkey, then gave myself some time and permission to answer the question, what would you do if you could do anything?
"And I don’t know where it came from, but acting came into my head. It still baffles me a little bit. But what I do know is there was a lot of time spent on the physical and on the mental and it was time to shift gears and spend time on the emotional.”
Her multifacetedness (not to mention what must be a killer work ethic) seems to benefit her, as she continues to play basketball for fun, and is co-founder of Gina Raphaela No More Violence Jewelry, a mission-based line which refurbishes used bullets, a symbol of violence, into beautiful, wearable symbols of peace.
The line is available at Barneys with a portion of the proceeds going to non-profits that benefit non-violence. She also has a book coming out, a childhood memoir about her and her father, Secrets of a Holy Father, in Winter 2018 from Harper Collins/Dey Street.
Right now, Allen can be seen on Outsiders Tuesdays on WGN America, and you can also find her live-tweeting the show (handle: @TinaAlexisAllen) and posting teaser-ish images on her Instagram. She has fun with it, sometimes even staying in character, but don’t ask her for spoilers.
“Sometimes people ask what’s going to happen or if someone is going to be killed but I can’t tell them that or they’ll kill me!”
We caught up with Allen on this role and her approach to playing someone who lives off-the-grid.
So this role and the show explore something really unusual. How did you find out about the role and what made you want to be on this show?
I played an Appalachian person in an off-Broadway play based on the Sago Mine Disaster [of 2006], when a group of miners were trapped. So I had explored Appalachian people and the world.
I think it was a year before the casting [of Outsiders] or maybe two years, but I had seen somewhere that Peter Tolan was doing a show called Titans about an Appalachian family. I got very excited and forwarded the story to my agent and said, “Hey, I don’t know when or what but I want to be on this show, please keep an eye out.”
So, probably about a year and a half later I got a call from my agent [about the role of Shurn]. I was thrilled but I didn’t put it together because they called it Outsiders. They were filming and this and that, but I didn’t know the players until I got into it a bit. Then, I had to audition fast because my character Shurn comes on in episode 7 in season 1 and they were already filming in Pittsburgh.
They [needed an audition by the next day]. I literally filmed it on my iPhone and sent it off. Crazy but true.
Did you actually jump a table and grab a hatchet in your audition?
You saw the episode. I didn’t actually jump on any tables but I think I found the absolute bottom of that moment (when Shurn learns her son is dead). For whatever reason, that was just something I felt was such an important and interesting thing that thank God I’ve never experienced.
But with imagination and loss which we all understand, I just thought how is this person who doesn’t have really any communication skills is going to react to learning her son had been killed. So, on my audition tape, I didn’t jump but I did everything else I could without jumping off the screen.
It’s interesting because when we meet you, you show no fear really standing up to the big guy in charge (David Morse, who plays Big Foster).
That really was the most exciting and interesting thing about that episode too, as it feels like the first time someone in the family and the clan has stood up to Big Foster/David Morse, who is the person in charge, we call him the Bren’in, the leader of that clan. We love to hate him – he’s one of those guys – and so the fact that 5’6” of me had to stand up to 6’4” of him was really exciting.
What I thought was she doesn’t have any fear but more importantly, she has nothing to lose in this moment and that’s why I find her so fascinating to play. She’s really operating out of a place of having already lost the most important thing ever. She comes at it like, “Am I going to live/am I going to die/I don’t really care. Things are going to be right now if I’m going to stay here with these people if I’m really going to live.”
Which in Season One is something I consider, if it’s worth it to live, because the loss is so intense. But, yeah, it was a great moment to be able to play opposite David Morse, who is one of the finest actors working and is so good at conflict. If you’re going to do conflict, David Morse is the one you want to do it with.
So, besides getting to tap into that emotional hardship and conflict, what else drew you to this world?
The other intriguing thing that really drew me to Outsiders is that these characters really live off the grid. They live without any technology, without the things that you or I are so accustomed to. [The things] we probably feel we couldn’t live without, they couldn’t live with. We (the Outsiders Farrell family) wouldn’t know what to do with cell phones or refrigerators.
In fact, in one episode, the coal company in the town below is offering us condos if we’ll get off the mountain because we’re sitting on a billion dollars of coal, and we’re like, “What’s a condo?” As Shurn, I live off the land, I don’t read, I don’t write. The land is my god, if you will. Playing all that and getting immersed in that world is thrilling.
How do you research something like this, or do you? Do you just count on the writers to create this world that’s inside but outside our world?
I think for me the preparation is really finding this woman and obviously much has to be imagination as I’ve never lived off the grid. [You] find the animal in you, if you will. Because that sort of survival-based, animalistic quality is in everyone. Where in me does that animal live? I really feel like Shurn is a lion, more of a tiger, really. She’s definitely feral and is reactive.
When you don’t know how to communicate, you use other things, it’s very visceral. I can’t exactly get my words together to tell Big Foster how I feel, so I just attack with a hatchet.
When Shurn faces circumstances in the story, I always try to think about what someone who can’t speak would do and start there. Even though she can speak, I can’t lead with what would I, Tina, do because I’m a communicator – I like to communicate and speak, I’m educated, I’m a writer. My tendency is to lead from that, too.
But in terms of acting work, the job is really about what would the action be if you didn’t have any other skills that you have.
It’s a rare role, since so often what we see are more civilized people maybe becoming undone. But here you’re playing someone who’s never felt the trappings of civilization.
It’s very timely, too. We are in a story, a world, that bumps up against corporate business, that us-versus-them kind of outlook. There are a lot of people now feeling or who have felt disenfranchised. Our show has a lot of division and you can see both sides of it. I say, I may not be a person who hunts but if Shurn didn’t have a gun she’d die because she couldn’t eat.
You have to suspend judgement of these people.
I have to suspend the judgement on that, and on the fact that I get no makeup, too. It’s interesting when I’m playing a real character like Shurn, it doesn’t really bother me. In the makeup trailer, they put dirt on me and wrap my head in a bandana and put dirt under my fingernails.
You’re almost getting undone instead of done up.
As Shurn, I wouldn’t be thinking about my hair, I’d be thinking about maybe taking a little bath in a creek; I have work to do and chores to do. It’s a really cool thing to play, especially as a woman.
It sounds a bit liberating, especially given how much attention is paid to female actors’ appearances, or the expectation that parts all be glamourous.
I could probably take a more glamorous role and do both at the same time, as long as the show films at the time Outsiders is not. It’s not like people will recognize me. That’s my dream, to also get that Shonda Rhimes role, where I could do the attractive doctor, lawyer, badass judge.
When I was headed to get my car at the Season 2 premiere party I was talking to some people in the elevator, and when they found out I was Shurn, they all screamed. They had no idea it was me. I love that chance to disappear.
What I’ve noticed is you get a lot of people talking about the show as it’s airing on Twitter, and the fans seem to continually be surprised by this show. As someone who is on it, does that happen to you or do you know what’s coming down the pike?
We get a little bit of a sense but not too much in advance of what’s going on. I read the script in its entirety when I get it but I try not to linger too much on the stuff that doesn’t pertain to me, particularly in the world of the town because I don’t know the town and have never been to the town. I don’t know who the Sheriff is or the characters in the world. So I don’t fill my head with things that wouldn’t line up with Shurn.
Finally, what do you hope is next for Shurn?
I love playing the voice of protest. I’m the hashtag resist gal and the outspoken one. But after everything that happens to her, is she able to embrace a relationship? We met her on the worst day of her life. I would love to play the other part of that story, to see who she is behind the closed doors.