There are working actors, there are busy actors and then, out there in her own category, there’s the remarkable Aisha Tyler. She’s the co-host of one daily show (The Talk), of a weekly show (Whose Line is It Anyway?) and of a podcast (Girl on Guy). She has a recurring role on one of the hottest shows on television (Criminal Minds). She’s authored two books. An avid gamer as well, she’s in constant demand to appear at conventions and conferences, even hosting the last five E3 conferences—she’s basically royalty at any Comic Con where she makes an appearance. And of course, to many of us she’ll always be the voice of Lana Kane on the brilliant animated show Archer.
What you might not know is that Tyler has directed six short features, and is now preparing to shoot her first feature. She’s launched a Kickstarter, with only a day (as of this publishing) left to support the thriller, entitled Axis. You can read the details at that page, but it’s a very unusual project: It takes place entirely in a car with one actor, and it will be filmed in its entirety, once per day, for nine days. Leave it to Tyler to think outside the box about how to create a certain frisson during filming.
Tyler joined us recently to discuss her short films, the upcoming feature, the new season of Archer and James Bond’s long-suffering testicles.
Paste Magazine: I’m not sure if you remember our triple-tag-team interview of you on the Paste stage at SXSW a couple of years ago.
Aisha Tyler: I do remember that!
Paste : And now look at you, all grown up and making your first feature film.
Paste: It’s really exciting. Well, let’s start by talking about your lifelong love of action movies—how long have you dreamed of making one?
Tyler: I mean, probably since I was a little kid, I think. One of the first movies my dad took me to see was the original Road Warrior. And I was kind of raised on the action movies of that era: The Terminator and Die Hard and of course all of the Star Wars movies. That’s always been my first love and it still is now. It’s not that I don’t like a nice artsy film—although I can’t stand romantic comedies, generally; they make me want to curl up under my bed and die—but I’ve always been a genre fan, whether that’s just my nature or being raised by a single dad on the back of a motorcycle and loving comic books as a kid and growing up on arcade games and then handheld and then computer gaming. It’s probably all of a piece.
It’s always been the genres that fascinated me. I think great action movies and great thrillers are transformative. I remember leaving the first Matrix movie feeling completely radicalized, completely changed. I think we all, from our ordinary lives, like to think about putting ourselves into these extraordinary situations and wonder how we’d respond. Maybe there’s a primal response to things blowing up—everyone likes to see that—but I think there’s this greater “ordinary person in extraordinary conditions” thing that we all relate really deeply to. I remember, in that first [Terminator] movie, relating really deeply to Linda Hamilton’s character. So it’s been a passion since I was a little kid.
Paste: And of course, you and I grew up in an era where action movies could be really well-done movies. Today, many of them are kind of sloppily put together.
Tyler: I think I both agree and disagree with that statement. I think insomuch as there are these big kitchen sink set piece assemblies that are still out there, there’s also been a revolution in that genre. I see the first Bourne movie as really kind of a fulcrum in changing the modern action film, where things are really gritty and really character-driven. Think about how the entire Bond franchise was completely radicalized by Bourne. They had to change what they were doing, because people didn’t buy that glib, shoot-a-guy-in-the-face-and-say-something-snarky-over-his-corpse kind of action anymore. The reboot of the Bond franchise was in direct response to how successful those Bourne movies were, how thoughtful they were, how smart they were. And [to] the filmmaking of Paul Greengrass, who I idolize.
Even in the war genre, something like Zero Dark Thirty, or The Hurt Locker: There is a separate line of filmmaking where people are making these really gritty, really character-driven, really emotionally valuable action films that I think are pretty amazing.
Paste: I’m on board with everything about the new Bond except the crying. I feel like you’d be with me on that, right? I don’t need to see James Bond shed a tear.
Tyler: [Laughs] I don’t know, I’m torn. Was it Casino Royale where he’s naked in a chair with his nuts hanging through the seat and his taint is getting smashed with like a spiked ball on a chain? I’d cry. I mean, I don’t have nuts, but I feel like that’d be an appropriate time to push out some tears. I’m just saying, I’m not a crying person, but that seems reasonable in that context. But if you look at that first Die Hard movie, which I think still holds up beautifully, what made that movie so interesting is how human John McClane was. You know what I mean? He was bloodied, he was broken, he was in pain.
It’s fun to watch someone be superhuman, but that’s when I think you become detached form the material. You want to know that when a guy jumps from a bridge into a moving boat, that he’s going to break his leg. Because that’s what human bodies do. Compare that to the new A-Team movie, where they’re falling out of a plane and firing a tank to keep themselves from plummeting into the ground and turning into a basket of pennies, which is what would actually happen if a tank fell out of a plane. You know what I mean? You don’t sit up at night thinking about that kind of movie, unless you’re wondering why you spent 14 dollars to see it. But the stuff that haunts you is—Bond is an alcoholic, he can’t maintain a relationship, he got hit in the nuts very many times with very heavy, blunt objects. Maybe he is going to cry once in awhile. Maybe that’s a valid response to only having one operating ball at this point.
Paste: OK, maybe you’re turning me around a little bit on this one.
Tyler: He’s mourning his missing nut! Any guy would cry over a missing nut. Like I said, I’m not a scientist, I’m just speculating here.
Paste: So how does all of the cat o’ nine tails, missing nut, tank firing and everything else we’ve been talking about figure into your short film, which I can only assume is pronounced [unintelligible butchering of the title Ar Scáth le Chéile].
Tyler: [Laughs] Adorable. [Pronounces the title correctly:] Ar Scáth le Chéile. We’ll work on your Gaelic.
It’s not a thriller, but it is a really character-driven film. In developing my own filmmaking aesthetic—without getting too heady here after what I thought was our very intellectual conversation about a guy with one ball—this is about two brothers who are separated when they’re very young. One of them ends up living a life of privilege, and one of them falls into poverty, and they come back together later in life, and their reunion is not a happy one. They each feel like one abandoned the other.
There’s a bit of physical violence, but mostly it’s emotional violence. And hopefully you care enough about these guys to understand why they’re angry with each other, but also to understand why they need each other. It’s just a nice story about the pain of isolation, which I think everyone feels, needing people around them but not really knowing how to reach out to them. And that’s also what Axis is about, on some level. I don’t know why all my films are about people who are miserable and alone; I probably need to stop working on films late at night on my computer with a bottle of bourbon. I should try to do more things during daylight.
Paste: I do have a theory that we filmmakers often make films about our deepest fears, so maybe that’s your Kryptonite.
Tyler: Yeah. Kind of revisiting the same thing. That might be it. And also, some of the realization of adulthood that no matter how much you surround yourself with family and friends, you are alone. How do you deal with that, how do you unpack that, how do you find peace with that? There are a lot of movies about how “Everybody needs somebody, you can’t make it alone!” All my movies are going to be about how no matter how tightly you cling to other people, you’re going to die lonely and alone in the darkness.
Paste: With a cat o’ nine tails.
Tyler: With a bruised ballsack. That’s how we’re all going down. Have I cheered you up?
Paste: Yeah, let’s all go get a drink.