Erica Tazel, formerly known for her breakout role as Rachel in the FX drama "Justified," has once again graced the screens portraying the emotionally dynamic character, Matilda, in "Roots."
Still recovering from her life on camera as Matilda, Tazel shared with us what it was like coming face to face with award-winning actress Olivia Cole, who played the role in 1977. She also dishes on her thoughts surrounding the saturation of transatlantic slave era films and the importance of the project in the midst of other productions set in this particular historical timeframe.
With a B.A in Theatre from Spelman and an M.F.A. from NYU’s Graduate Acting Program, this Texas native is sure to bring a superb performance on nights three and four of the much-anticipated remake of "Roots" which is airing on three networks this week.
NBCBLK Contributor Sabrina Campbell caught up with the rising star to discuss the critics and what’s next for her.
What did it take to prepare for the role of Matilda? Did you have much interaction with Olivia Cole, the original Matilda?
She was there Monday night [Roots Premiere] and I thought I was going to pass out when I met her. I am still pinching myself that we were able to meet and actually speak about our individual experience playing Matilda.
I didn’t get to speak with her prior to. I don’t know if that would’ve been a choice that I would have made prior to filming. Just because I wanted to create something that was uniquely mine and respect that which was hers. I didn’t even re-watch the series before I began to work. I just worked basically from the script that we were given.
The Whitney Plantation, which is the only museum we have in the country from the point of view of the enslaved person, was a great resource. If you’re ever in New Orleans, please make that trip and give yourself that gift. They had a lovely book in their bookstore which was basically slave narratives from North Carolina. They had very specific books from different regions so I grabbed that one because that’s where our family was in the story and I began each day with a narrative from someone in their dialect, in their position, from their point of view. That certainly helped to get me into the mind frame of who I would be playing in this story.
I watched the premiere and even as a viewer it took a while for me to shake off the feeling that it leaves you with. So as an actress in the show, how do you recover from playing in this role?
I feel like I’m still recovering and I certainly didn’t go through the things that Malachi Kirby goes through as Kunta. But it's May, I ended in November and I feel like I’m just beginning to feel like myself again. That recovery is day by day.
There are certainly roles that you give a lot to and that take a lot from you. And this was one that I wanted to lay my life down for, because why not? The people whose shoulders we stand on to even be able to tell this story gave their lives for us. So it’s been months of refilling and being quiet and praying and reading and reconnecting with family and friends and community. You just take care of yourself and be patient. I’m getting there, I’m almost there. I would say I’m about 97 percent.
Olivia Cole, agrees on the remake, however, it seems that not everyone supports the remake. What are your thoughts on this?
When it was first being discussed, there was some apprehension. I know I had some personally, like can you remake that story? Can you make it better? Particularly from an actor’s point of view with the actors that were in the original.
What I will say about it, I can’t imagine anything being more timely. In addition to the stories that are coming after us. [Like] "Birth of a Nation" that will be released later this year. That this conversation about our history and our history as a people is not something that we should never not discuss. "Roots" is just a chapter in a much bigger chapter of slavery in this country and what I particularly love and appreciate about this one is it’s about a family who manages to stay together through very inhumane conditions. Through dehumanization, through separation, who ultimately accomplish and realizes the dream of freedom together.
You touched on the different shows that are coming surrounding the era of slavery. There have been some to say that we should start focusing on the impacts that Africans made across the globe prior to the transatlantic slave trade. What is your opinion on why this type of information doesn’t seem to make it mainstream?
There are certainly roles that you give a lot to and that take a lot from you. And this was one that I wanted to lay my life down for.
That’s a phenomenal question and that’s something we can talk about for hours. I think back on when Shaka Zulu hit the airways. And that effect of seeing that warrior king on primetime. It shook some people and it shook some people on the other side, it didn’t shake us, black folks. We were proud of that.
So it does beg the question why isn’t there more of a focus on that. But what the positive is on something like "Roots" and seeing how Africa is depicted in part one, hopefully that will inspire us and remind us as a people that our history doesn’t start with slavery. That we weren’t born into that, our ancestors were not born into that.
And the research doesn’t only start with who we are in this country. But that we will take the initiative to go past that. And in terms of what’s being greenlit out here, what stories are being told, it goes back to the age-old conversation that its time for us to produce our own stories and to put those stories in the hands of the decedents of those people.
There are some challenges to that obviously in terms of what gets distributed, what gets funded. But with all of the outlets we have now available for us to tell stories. Certainly after the success of "Birth of a Nation" and the journey that Nate Parker had fulfilling his dream of telling that particular story. I think it’s only the beginning of more stories like that and more initiative taking and sacrificing of personal time and resources to get those stories out there.
We saw you play a role in "Justified" and now "Roots." So what’s next for you?
I have a live action project that is coming out over the summer and I can’t say what it is just yet. I haven’t been released to speak freely about that. But I am looking forward to that because that woman is completely different from Rachel who I played in "Justified" and very very different from Matilda in "Roots." So that’ll be a different side of myself that even surprised me in the working on that. Right now, I’m just reading a lot.
"Roots" is a very hard project to follow in terms of the opportunity it gives you in terms of depth of character and dimensionality. Which is always a challenge with the scripts that people sometimes send to you to see if you’re interested in. And coming fresh off of something like that you just want to continue that momentum.
What would you tell your 12-year-old self?
I would tell her that the fearlessness that she has now, it’s going to come in contact with a very interesting world. And to do everything she can to not let go of that fearlessness. Not to forfeit it for anything.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Going back to that question about people disagreeing on the remake. I would say give it a chance, watch it and see if that changes or at least opens up a portal in the heart and the brain to this new reimagining and therefore to going back and exploring our roots on the continent of Africa.