Katerina Tannenbaum on Portraying a Drug-Addicted Teen Mother
The AJ and the Queen actress is a natural-born storyteller.
The AJ and the Queen actress is a natural-born storyteller.
Styling: Lauren Bensky
Text: Dylan Kelly
Text: Abraham Martinez
Creating space in the entertainment realm for stories that deserve to be told, Katerina Tannenbaum’s star is certainly one to watch. The multi-faceted model, dancer, and actress has dedicated a lifetime to perfecting her performing crafts, and now, playing the role of Brianna in Netflix’s AJ and the Queen, Tannenbaum is utilizing her storytelling abilities to shed light on societal and personal struggles that need a public forum. Working alongside the legendary RuPaul in the Michael Patrick King-directed television series, the starlet actress’s talent was tested as she inhabited the mind of a drug-addicted teen mother, a psyche so far from anything she has ever experienced in her own life. Mastering the role in the presence of the series’ incredibly supportive cast, Tannenbaum learned a multitude of vital lessons throughout the show’s filming, both on-screen and off, while simultaneously sharing a necessary perspective as part of her mission in the limelight to tell stories that haven't been told before.
V had the opportunity to speak with the budding star on the trials and successes of her life as an actress. Below, read what Katerina Tannenbaum had to share with us on her childhood acting aspirations and her experiences on the set of AJ and the Queen.
V: So tell me a little bit about you. Tell me how you first came into contact with acting.
KATERINA TANNENBAUM: Well, my Mom put me in community theater classes in Portland, Oregon (where I grew up) when I was 4 years old. I immediately took to it and performed throughout my childhood. I did that alongside studying dance for years. I fell so in love with performing and the story goes that I announced to my parents that I was moving to NYC to become an actress when I was about seven.
V: How did they take that?
KT: Honestly, I'm one of seven. I have five brothers and one sister. So at that point, they were supportive of just about anything. I ended up in Seattle for a year and went to theater school. And then when I was 18, I moved to New York and I went to theater school for a year at Stella Adler. I left school and ended up tumbling through modeling and eventually into signing with an agent and starting to work in the acting realm.
V: Did you find that dancing and modeling informed your acting style and your approach to performing?
KT: Yes, absolutely. With acting, you have to be very aware of your physicality. So much of my physical awareness comes from my dance background. Our bodies are constant indicators of what is happening internally, dance was a major lesson in being able to express that.
V: From your first role to now, how would you describe that trajectory?
KT: Well, when I first got signed, it was only just a couple of years ago and I got some guest stars and then I ended up on a series for a couple of seasons as a guest star. In the middle of the second season of that show, I booked AJ and the Queen and its been back to back since then. This year has been very exciting, I shot AJ in LA for six months and when I returned home to New York I started auditioning again which led to Betty, a new HBO series I am on, we shot that through the summer. Directly after that, I started shooting a film called Love-40, my first time leading a film which was a great learning experience. This year has been a wonderful snowball of work, I am very thankful.
V: Specifically with AJ and the queen, how did you first get in contact with the project?
KT: AJ was the very last audition of a really crazy week. I called my agency and let them know that I didn’t know if I could pull it off, I didn’t have it memorized and my brain was fried. They told me the creators were Michael Patrick King and RuPaul and that this wasn’t a project I would want to pass on. Thankfully the audition got pushed back, so that gave me two extra hours to work on it. When I went in for that initial audition I was a bit unhinged and I think that helped any amount of nerves or judgment fly out the window. It helped that I had an immediate connection to the character, right off the bat I empathized with her. I got a callback with Michael Patrick King shortly after and that led to the final test in LA on the Warner Brothers lot. When I left the final audition I had the *very* rare feeling of knowing that role was mine.
V: So once you got the role, what was your first day on set like?
KT: The first day on set was intense. I was stepping onto the iconic Warner brothers lot with the knowledge that my first scene was a crying scene in a jail cell. I was nervous and had spent the morning prepping and getting into the space I needed to be in order to cry. It could have gone any which way but Michael Patrick King was directing that episode and he works with such an open heart and such kindness that I felt held from the very start.
V: Did you study any other characters when preparing to play this role?
KT: Well coming into this I knew that there were a lot of stereotypes I could lean into, “addict”, “young mother”, “bad mother”. I wanted to make a point to not create a character based off of those things but to develop a real person with a heart and a life outside of the conditions she was dealing with. I read some books following stories of addicts and tried to absorb as much information as I could in that realm.
V: Totally. And throughout filming, did you see your character have a palpable change?
KT: When you first meet her, you basically just see a caricature. She's fucked up. She's in her version of drag, hiding behind her presented “identity”. Then as the show progresses you see a hurt, small, scared but resilient person fighting their way out. Using the tools she has to rail against circumstances that we all deal with; capitalism, loneliness, what our bodies mean in this world. All while figuring out what it means to be a mother. It’s complex. It's a love song to motherhood and growing up.
V: Tell me about the dynamic with your costars. How was the dynamic on set? How would you characterize your relationship with each with everyone?
KT: The dynamic on set was great, I feel lucky to be in such a diverse cast. As far as shooting goes, everyone is in their different universes, which means during a lot of the shooting process we were all separate. But when we all were together it was very familial. Such a kind, open and hilarious group of people. I got to come to set sometimes when I wasn't working to watch the drag performances, which was iconic. Me and Izzy would FaceTime when we were apart. She's such a sweetie. Her family was there every day. Her parents are remarkable. And Michael Patrick King, the creator, was everything. He had such a clear vision for this. And he's a perfectionist in the best way, because if you didn't get the scene, then he would allow you the time and space to get it because he wants to get it right. Most importantly, everything he does, he does it with heart.
V: How do you think this role has affected your future as an actress?
KT: I mean, working with people within the industry that are as monumental as Michael Patrick King and RuPaul, of course, helps in so many ways. Not only because everyone knows them, but they're actually just so talented. You get to see how people work, and in that way, it's been amazing. My goal over the next couple of years as an actor is to do more films. I love movies and am drawn to stories that change the way I think, that opens me up to worlds otherwise unknown or closed off. Within this comedic show, I got to do only drama, which is really interesting and up my alley. I want to keep diving into stories that are subversive and interesting and… a period piece, please ;)
I believe being a young woman in the industry now is so exciting because we have more and more opportunities to be a part of telling stories that desperately need to be told.
V: Is there anything that Ru taught you while filming the show?
KT: It was so funny because upon first meeting, Ru was practicing one of his dance numbers, and he was in full street clothes other than his eight-inch heels. And I remember seeing him and being like, wait, this is someone that I've seen my whole life and here he is, glorious as ever. That was the first time I met him. And in the end, I remember standing outside on the Warner Brothers lot late at night. It was the last day of my shooting. I thanked him for our time on the show and he told me that we are family, we do our work with love and if we can do that, we have done it successfully. He is such an open and kind human being.
V: With your platform, your talent, and your personality, what are you hoping to inspire in the world?
KT: It kind of ties into what I was saying before, I want to pick my projects thoughtfully because I think that with every project that gives voice to a story that you've never heard before, there is an allowance for someone somewhere to watch it and develop a perspective that they maybe hadn’t considered before. Playing Brianna opened the door for me to explore the reasons behind drug addiction, behind abandoning a child. Nothing is so black and white. The struggles people go through inform every choice they make, and finding space to explore empathy instead of judgment is powerful.
And while that might not seem like a grand gesture of inspiration, these “micro” changes are capable of powerful change. Bernie 2020!