'Axis' Director Aisha Tyler Is Proving Hollywood Doesn't Know Its Audience
Talking to the 'Archer' and 'Criminal Minds' star about Hollywood, her directorial debut, and voicing the immortal Lana Kane.
Aisha Tyler recording voiceover for Archer. Photo by Ben Mark Holzberg, courtesy of FXX
If it were up to Hollywood, Aisha Tyler would forever be typecast as the witty black woman sidekick in every rom-com. It’s a pattern we’ve seen far too often, one that's propelled by narrow concepts about black women; black actresses aren’t bankable, black women don’t listen to talk radio, black women don’t watch genre TV and film. These stereotypes are all "boring," to Tyler, the 47-year-old star of Archer and Criminal Minds and an award-winning multi-hyphenate (actress, voiceover artist, comedienne, director, author, podcaster, and talk show host). She recently added 'feature filmmaker' to her staggering resume, and not with any old film, either. With Axis, shot over the course of a staggering seven days, Tyler dove into the director's seat of an intense thriller that takes place entirely inside of a car. Eat dust, Hollywood.
As early as her 1996 appearance as a reporter on Nash Bridges, Tyler has spent her career obliterating stereotypes. She’s voiced video game characters, starred on genre TV series including 24 and Ghost Whisperer, and hosted not one but several TV shows including Whose Line is it Anyway? She’s the bestselling author of the painfully hilarious memoir, Self-Inflicted Wounds. She helmed the irreverent and wildly popular Girl on Guy podcast for well over 200 episodes. And, oh yeah, in 2003 she was the first black actor to land a major role on Friends, playing the paleontologist who catches the eye of Joey and Ross.
Recently, Tyler took time out of her extremely busy schedule to talk to VICE about her first feature film, navigating an archaic Hollywood system, and immortalizing Archer's Lana Kane.
VICE: What drew you to make Axis?
Aisha Tyler: I had already made a film with the screenwriter and lead actor, a short film in Ireland in 2014. He had been working on this script for awhile and shared it with me. I thought it was a great first feature with an interesting set of problems to try to solve.
How challenging was it to shoot entirely inside the car in only seven days?
The main challenge was, how do you make a movie with one character on screen? How do you capture that not only narratively but visually? How do you capture people’s attention and keep it for 90 minutes? If you can’t leave the car, how do we put the audience in the car with this guy in a way that feels compelling? I believe we were able to do that. It feels claustrophobic at times, but that really adds to the tension.
It also seems like the main character is an antihero, which could make the audience a bit conflicted.
Well, he’s just human. He’s a hero, but the problems he’s trying to work out are problems that he created for himself. He’s a pretty boy and he’s had a lot of success in his career. With that success has come a lot of self-destructive behavior, and I think a lot of people can relate to that. Everybody wakes up trying to be a better version of themselves, and we all know that’s not as easy as it sounds.
You circumvented the traditional Hollywood process and opted to crowdfund the film. What made you go that route?
I knew that taking this movie along the traditional routes would have taken a long time. Typically, when we take it to studios they’re like, “Can we get a name?” They’d change part of the story and would be like, “Can we add this?” I just wanted to make the movie that I wanted to make. I also didn’t have time. I was on four series when I shot the movie in 2016 and I only had about a week off. So, I didn’t just need to make it in a week, I needed to make it in that exact week. The studios are just not that nimble. When you crowdfund a movie, you know right away whether you’re going to make your film or not. We started a campaign, and by the end of its first week, we made about half of the money we needed, and I was able to start shooting right away.
Tracy Oliver, the writer of Girls Trip, said in an interview that she brought a horror film to Hollywood executives and was told that black women don’t care about horror movies. What would you say to a comment like that?
Well, one: that’s ridiculous. Hollywood continues to be proven wrong about these old preconceptions about which audiences care about what. Like, "Women can’t carry action movies," which was disproved by Wonder Woman. Or "People won’t see movies with primarily black casts," and that completely exploded with Black Panther. The whole “black people don’t care about horror” just got broken by Get Out. I mean, this town is just upended by antique and moderately racist ideas about what people do and what people like, which is perpetuated by people across the board. It’s time for that to change.
Is it getting any better?
I think it is changing. I just find it boring when people say, “Oh, black people won’t see horror.” I just glaze over it, because I was told my whole life that black people don’t ski. Black people don’t swim. Black people don’t like punk rock. That was all stuff that I was interested in, and I think I pursued interests that were somehow outside the conventional definition of what a black woman does—not always because they were interesting to me, but to prove a point. I hated when people inside and outside the black community told me what was black and what wasn’t. it’s important to me as a filmmaker to break those rules as well. Axis is a thriller about an Irish expatriate drug addict in Los Angeles. It’s probably not the movie that would have been picked for a black female filmmaker, but we’re constantly telling women that they can do lady movies and black people that they can do black movies. No one told Steven Spielberg that he couldn’t make The Color Purple. I think it’s time to stop seeing black people as a) a monolith and b) narrowly defined by experiences and conditions. We’ve already decided that black people only want to look at Madea movies? It’s beyond close-minded. It just bores the shit out of me.
Speaking of defying stereotypes about black women, you made Lana Kane from Archer an icon. She’s like the Pam Grier of animated characters. How much of yourself do you bring to Lana? And what have you learned about yourself playing her?
In some ways she’s like me. She’s the most confident of everyone there. She’s a little bit anal and uptight, with some obsessive compulsiveness, which are qualities that we both share. There are some verbal ticks that are infused with mine. Adam said that her signature “YUP” was a “YUP” that he heard me say. In the Dreamland season, I got to sing, which is something I wouldn’t say I did professionally, but my mom is a jazz singer. I was in one of those a cappella groups in college. I also ended up doing stand-up comedy that season as well. She’s so much fun to play. This remains to this day one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done.
You touched on this at New York Comic Con last fall, but since Archer has been renewed for a tenth season, what would you like to see Lana accomplish by the end of the series?
Now that the show has moved to these wild parabolas from the original dynamic, I can’t say that I have any goals for her. She’s already self-actualized. She had a kid. At the end of season five, Archer made these great personal sacrifices. He let himself drown to save her life. So, all these things she could have needed or wanted from him, she already got. I don’t envision a traditional happy ending for her where she gets married. I don’t think she’s interested in that. For me, she’s already had it all.
She's been the architect of her own life, despite it being contrary to tradition.
She’s fully actualized. She doesn’t apologize for it. Originally, I thought she would end up running the spy agency, but the spy agency is no more. I wouldn’t wish a long-term relationship with Archer on anyone. He’s not capable of doing it, and she’s smart enough to know that. She’s not going to spend her life with that guy.
Archer is in a long-term relationship with himself, and it’s monogamous.
And that is the best he will be ever able to do for anyone.
Since you’re focused on filmmaking right now, what would you consider to be your dream project or cast?
Well, one of my dream projects I can’t really talk about right now. But I will say this: You mentioned Tracy Oliver at the top of our conversation, and I too just finished a horror script that I am planning on directing.
That’s so exciting!
We totally just went full circle in this conversation.
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
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