The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Tamala Jones (‘Castle’)

When “Castle” first premiered on ABC in March 2009, there was a running joke amongst TV critics about whether or not it would prove to be yet another addition to Nathan Fillion’s growing list of one-and-done series, but now that we’re into the sixth season of novelist Richard Castle’s crimesolving collaboration with the NYPD, it’s hard to believe anyone ever thought it wouldn’t last. Recently, Bullz-Eye was presented with the opportunity to chat with Tamala Jones, better known to viewers as medical examiner Lanie Parish, so we naturally took advantage of it, asking about her experiences on the series, finding out how she got into acting in the first place, and, yes, even getting a few teases about what we can expect to see in upcoming episodes.


Bullz-Eye: I’m glad we were finally able to make this happen, since you got called to the set early on the day we were originally supposed to talk.

Tamala Jones: Yes! It’s been crazy! But it’s for a good reason: that Lanie-centric episode that everybody’s been asking for, that happened last week.

BE: That is a good reason to be busy.

TJ: Yeah! [Laughs.]

BE: I guess the big question, then, is what took so long.

TJ: What took so long…um… [Starts to laugh.] I don’t know. You know, I honestly… Andrew (W. Marlowe) is like a mad scientist, and there’s a method to his madness. He’s been talking about doing the Lanie-centric episode, and I think what he was trying to do – which I really appreciate – was to find something beyond just the Esposito and Lanie relationship that also kind of included it, too. And he executed that very well.

BE: So it lived up to the long wait, then?

TJ: Yes! [Laughs.] It definitely did!

BE: Well, now that you’ve started out by teasing everyone with what’s on the horizon, let’s jump back to the beginning: how did you find your way onto “Castle” in the first place? Was it a standard audition, or did they reach out to you specifically?

TJ: It was a standard audition. We actually… My team actually reached out to the casting lady, Donna Rosenstein. It was right after the writer’s strike, there was nothing going on, and if you weren’t already previously on a show, you were out looking for one. And she was casting for “Castle,” and I was, like, “Just ask her if I can come in,” because the role was not written for an African-American actress. And she checked, and they said, “Yes, we’ll see her.” It was literally three lines – Lanie was a guest star, possibly recurring – and as soon as I walked out of there, 15 minutes later they were, like, “You got it!” I was screaming, jumping up and down. You’d’ve thought I’d won the lottery. [Laughs.]


So we shot the pilot in New York, and once the pilot got picked up…well, of course, I was out testing for other pilots, and once we heard it got picked up, we let ABC know, “Well, she’s got a test today. Is she still going to be recurring? Because we have to let them know.” And they were, like, “Tell her not to go in for the test. We’re going to make her a series regular here.” And I was just… [Shrieks.] “Really? Well, that was the easiest series-regular job I’ve ever gotten!” [Laughs.] So there’s where the story begins!

BE: Given that it wasn’t necessarily written for an African-American actress to begin with, how much had to be tailored to you once you came onboard? Presumably they hadn’t developed her but so much at that point.

TJ: Yeah, there wasn’t that much transition involved. Andrew had his little ninjas secretly coming to visit the set once we started shooting the series, and…they’re watching you. [Laughs.] They act like they’re there watching the scene and giving you notes, but they’re really watching you and discovering who you are, adding a little bit of you into the character from what they see. Like, us joking around on set, there’ll be some moments or some facial expressions, and the next week I’m seeing Lanie doing that. So he kind of kept his characters in mind, as far as who he wanted his characters to be, but he used a little bit of who we are to add a little spice to the characters.

BE: Do you remember that first bit of spice that made you go, “Hey, wait a minute, this is a little too much like me to be a coincidence”?

TJ: [Laughs.] Um…yeah! It was the episode where they had Lanie up in the cherry picker, and there was a body up in the tree, and Esposito says something like, “I wish you had a skirt on.” Or maybe he said “dress.” But I said something about tree branches poking me in my butt and “when I come down there, I’m gonna smack you!” And that “I’m gonna smack you,” I would always tell Jon (Huertas), “Okay, I’m gonna smack you right now. You really deserve a smack.” So the “smack you” think, that was definitely me.

BE: I’m sure she started out more or less as a paint-by-the-numbers character at first, but how quickly did you see Lanie begin to evolve into something more?

TJ: I felt that Lanie started to grow a lot… [Hesitates.[ I mean, the first season, I was very active, and then the second season, it was just all about getting down that medical jargon and being comfortable with it, so they were growing me every season. So by the third season, I had grown up. I was no longer a baby. [Laughs.] I was no longer in high school. It was, like, “Okay, you’re no longer in high school. You’re in college now. Get it together!” So it was all about… They gave me enough time to get comfortable with the medical jargon, and the more I got comfortable, they more they gave me to do. So it’s been great.


BE: I’m curious about the experience of doing the episode “The Blue Butterfly.”

TJ: Oh, that’s my favorite episode!

BE: I suspected it might be, if only because it was a little outside the box.

TJ: It was so outside the box! [Laughs.] And I love period pieces. It felt like we all got into a time machine and went back to the 1940s. The days that we shot that episode, we were there. We were in the 1940s. We were those characters. I mean, we walked around and…none of us are really method actors, but we were that day! We were so in the moment. The dresses that Luke (Reichle) picked out for all of the girls, the way that the guys looked, Seamus (Dever) with his Irish accent… All day long, we were there!

And that’s when I discovered I could sing a little bit, you know? Andrew… What I love about Andrew is that the amount of pressure he puts on you is just enough to get you to discover who you are and what you’re capable of. And when he asked me if I could sing, I was, like, “A little bit.” He said, “Well, sing a lot more, ‘cause you’re gonna be singing in this episode.” [Laughs.] I’m, like, “Okayyyyyyy…” But he encouraged me to learn something new about myself, and I love it. I love “The Blue Butterfly.” I love the way it was written. I thought Terence (Paul Winter) did an excellent job of writing that. And Rob Bowman’s dad directed it! That was a treat, because that was like working with a Hollywood legend. Chuck Bowman…oh, my God he was amazing.

BE: Along those lines, you’ve worked with plenty of impressive guest stars on the show. Do any in particular stand out?

TJ: They’ve all been wonderful, but Jennifer Beals…I mean, “Flashdance”? Oh, my God. I was, like, “Really?!?” That movie I used to watch over and over and over again. She was amazing to work with. So sweet, such a professional, and so honest. She has been… I mean, I’ve had a lot of favorites, but of course she’s my favorite. And she was very sweet and kind, but…I think it would’ve gotten on my nerves, too, but they gave us the rule: we were not to mention “Flashdance” or buckets of water dumping onstage. [Laughs.] But she’s still my favorite.

BE: A few weeks ago, I did an interview with Jonathan Frakes

TJ: [Sighs.] Oh, man. I tell you, we’ve had some of the best guest stars ever!

BE: He said his on-camera appearance as Castle’s biggest fan was basically just an on-the-fly suggestion from Andrew.

TJ: Oh, was it? Well, you would’ve thought he knew all along he was going to be playing the part, because he was excellent. [Laughs.] He was!

BE: When “Castle” kicked off, Nathan Fillion had done a few series of his own and had a few recurring roles on other series, but his biggest accomplishment – at least from a cult standpoint, anyway – was probably “Firefly.” How familiar were you with him when you guys started working together?

TJ: I had no idea who Nathan was. [Laughs.] I mean, I knew he had been on “Desperate Housewives” a few times, but that was pretty much it. But it’s so funny, because now that I’ve been working with him, I’ve just seen everything that he’s done. I was watching an episode of “The Outer Limits”…and it was Nathan’s episode! It’s, like, you’re working with all these guys, and then you start seeing all the work that they’ve done, and it’s been right before your eyes. They didn’t just get here. They’ve been here.

And “Firefly,” I knew nothing about that until our first time that we went to Comic-Con. These people were going crazy! [Laughs.] You would’ve thought that Nathan was the King of Pop! He was just being mauled by people! We had to have security! I’m, like, “What is going on!” They were, like, “‘Firefly.’” And I’m, like, “What’s a ‘Firefly’? I mean, I know what a firefly is, but what’s this thing?” And they had to explain to me. I had to go back and do my research! And he was, like… [Dismissively.] “It was a short-lived show, and now that it’s gone, it’s fairly popular. And that’s what people know me from.” And everybody was talking about “Firefly” and rainbows, and I’m just going, “Oh, my God…” So Nathan, from that point on, was deemed the King of Comic-Con.

BE: I can still remember how hard I laughed when he wore his “Firefly” attire on the show…or his “space cowboy” costume, as he called it.

TJ: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s him: the space cowboy!

BE: Well, I generally like to ask people about the very first role on their filmography, but in your case, I can’t tell for sure what it was. Was it one of your sitcom appearances (she turned up on “The Wayans Brothers,” “The Parent ‘Hood,” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in 1995), or was it “How to Make an American Quilt”?

TJ: It was “How to Make an American Quilt.” That was it. And after that, I started getting little appearances on sitcoms and stuff like that. But I was Maya Angelou’s great grandmother in a flashback. I’m a bonnet. [Laughs.] But I was so excited to get that role, and then to meet Winona Ryder, who I’d been watching forever, and Alfre Woodard. All of those actresses were just so kind to me. It was one day of work on the set, and I just wanted to do the best job I could do, and the director was just, like, “Okay, Tamara! Pamela? Tamamara?” He couldn’t pronounce my name! But I’m, like, “Yep, I’m right here!” And whatever he needed, I tried to do it perfectly. And when he told me I’d done a great job at work, I was, like, “I love this business! I could do it forever! I just need more to do!” So, yeah, that was the best time ever.

BE: So how did you get into the business in the first place? What made you decide to pursue a career in acting?

TJ: My mother…well, I would say my entire family…I used to get on their nerves, dressing up like different characters and bursting into their rooms and doing these characters. [Laughs.] Especially on a Friday, when I knew there was no school the next day, I would go get some of my brother’s clothes sometimes, paint a mustache on with eyeliner and put a hat on and sag my pants and go in to my mom and be, like, “Yo, yo, yo, baby, let me get your phone number! What’s your name?” And she would be, like, “If you don’t get out of here…!” Or I’d go in and talk like Jasmine Guy from “A Different World.” [Puts on a Whitley impression.] “Oh, my God, FREDDIE!” It was that, it was Bart Simpson… It was whatever I thought was funny.

So I went in there and I would do all these different voices and characters, and it got to the point where they were, like, “This girl…has got to get out of the house.” [Laughs.] So they put me in acting workshops and all kinds of different classes, and I went to Lee Strasberg and…whatever they could get me into, I was there. And there was a talent scout there one time, and she was, like, “I want to work with you. I want to send you out on a couple of auditions and see what happens, ’cause I think you got it.” And she did. First audition was an IBM commercial, and I booked it. And from when I was 14 up until now, I’ve been in the business.

BE: And you’ve kept busy, based on your filmography.

TJ: Yes! If I’m not on a set… The longest I can go is a month…and that’s too long for me! [Laughs.]


BE: Well, to wrap things up by bringing it back to “Castle,” my wife – who’s a massive fan of the show – knew that I was going to be talking to you, and she observed that she feels like the show has gotten more fun in the past few seasons. Not that it wasn’t always good, but it seems like there’s been a concerted effort to instill the episodes with more of a sense of fun.

TJ: Yes, they have. Because, you know, we were dark at first. But it was about being a crime show at first. And just like I had to learn my way with the medical jargon, I feel like everybody else had to learn their way with their characters, and Andrew had to learn his way how to incorporate all of this and make a great show. And he did with the dark stuff, and then he lightened it up, and I think the response when it got lightened up… The ratings went up, and everybody went, “Oh, my God, that was the best episode ever!” [Laughs.] And, you know, he just kept it. He kept a nice balance between the darkness and the lightness of the show…and it has gotten more fun!

BE: So what can you tease about what’s coming up, aside from your spotlight episode?

TJ: Well, that is coming up…but there’s an episode coming up where there’s babies concerned. We had to work with some babies. I can’t tell you too much about that, but it is a cute episode. Oh, my God. And, of course, we have some more incredible guest stars coming on. And there’s the return of the Triple X Killer…in a sense. We thought he died, but something lived on…and I’ll just say that.

BE: Nice tease.

TJ: [Laughs.] You’re welcome!

Post-Script: If you’d like to read a bit more about Ms. Jones’ past acting endeavors, head over to AntennaFree.TV and check out my Pilot Error feature on her 2007’s cop-drama pilot, “Protect and Serve.” It wasn’t picked up, but it wasn’t for lack of a solid cast, as you’ll soon discover.