From “Perry Mason” to “Severance,” Jen Tullock explores the various shades of “American loneliness”

In her glamorous, scene-stealing role as the love interest for Della Street on the new season of “Perry Mason,” Jen Tullock is playing the part she was born to play.

Growing up in a conservative Christian household, Tullock was raised on classic Hollywood movies.

“My parents were very strict about not watching contemporary media,” the “Severance” star told me on “Salon Talks.”

It shows. As successful but closeted screenwriter Anita St. Pierre, she brings an effortless Barbara Stanwyck elegance to a storyline that is tinged not only with melodrama but also exuberant romance.

“As a gay woman, of course, I’m always craving more queer stories,” Tullock said. “But I think sometimes those stories can tip into a bit of trauma porn.”

This is first and foremost “a love story.” During our conversation, the busy actor, writer and director shared a hint of what lies ahead in the next season of “Severance,” as well as the importance of “aspirational” queer stories. Watch “Salon Talks” with Jen Tullock here, or read our interview below.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You join the cast of “Perry Mason this season in a really intriguing role. Your character comes in with one of the best entrances I’ve seen on television in a long time — and one of the best outfits I’ve seen on television possibly ever — talk to me about your character.

Her name is Anita St. Pierre. Now, I can finally talk about this because we needed to keep it under wraps. She was loosely inspired by Anita Loos, pun intended, who was one of the only successful female screenwriters in the studio system in the ’30s. She wrote “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.” When [showrunners] Jack [Amiel] and Michael [Begler] came to me with this, they were like, “She’s an amalgamation of the very small handful of women that made it through the studio system at that time, but it’s really based on her.” I got to read her memoir, which is called “A Girl Like I,” and she was amazing.

She was just a fast-talking, chain-smoking, married I think 82 times, roughly, and was a bada*s. We wanted to explore that side of what it was like to be in the industry in 1933, and more importantly, what it was like to be queer in 1933. As anyone who’s seen the show will know, they addressed it beautifully in Season 1, with Juliet [Rylance’s] character Della. Anita comes in this season and shakes things up a little bit for her.

In a Hollywood Reporter interview, you called your character and the arc “aspirational queer stories.” This storyline is so beautiful, it’s so romantic, it’s so cinematic. What is an aspirational queer story to you?

“The team that shot this show is nothing short of a magician level.”

The team that shot this show is nothing short of a magician level. By that I meant, when we’re telling stories of any marginalized voice, or on-the-fringe voice, it’s as important to be responsible in how we frame that trauma as it is to accurately represent what it was to experience that trauma. As a gay woman, for me, of course I’m always craving more queer stories. I want to see myself and my fam represented, but I think sometimes those stories can tip into a bit of trauma porn. With this, it was really important to us that we were showing the danger, threat, humiliation, and the anxiety of being totally closeted in 1933, but without exploiting the queer part of the story.

At the end of the day, the story between Della and Anita is just a love story. We were like, “How do we strike the balance between edifying their love when framing their love, while also not skirting over the fact that they were constantly hiding?” Juliet and I talked a lot about just entering and exiting public spaces together, what that looked like, and the micro behaviors that would inspire, of looking over your shoulder and just having your head on a swivel in a way that I’m so lucky, as a queer woman today, I don’t have to do, at least as often. Sometimes I go down to the American South, where I’m from, and you better believe in a gas station or two, I’ve been down there with people I’ve dated, and I’m like, “This is a little spicy.”

What from your own life did you bring to this character?

So much. I love all of the characters I’ve had the privilege of playing. I love Devon so much on “Severance.” She’s so close to me. In that character, for example, the easiest in was the love between a brother and sister because I’m incredibly close with my brother. For this, obviously, it was a louder connection in that I haven’t played that many queer characters before. It was such a privilege to be able to pull from that part of my life. 

My therapist very smartly said in the beginning of this process, I said, “Oh, it’s going to be great. It’ll be easy.” She said, “You know what it’s like to be gay, but you don’t know what it’s like to be gay in 1933.” It did make me think, maybe I had taken for granted how easily it might be referenced, that part of my life, and it’s not. It’s true, I don’t have to hide as much as Anita has to hide. I think the ethos of that experience was easy to pull from, but the actual practical details of what we were just talking about, looking over your shoulder, and the coded language, the queer coding at that time . . . There’s a great documentary whose name now I can’t remember, but it was made in the ’90s, and it was really ahead of its time. It was all about queer coding in Hollywood.

Do you mean “The Celluloid Closet“?

Thank you. Yes, one of the most famous documentaries on queer cinema of all time. “The Celluloid Closet.” I watched that, and it was emotional. There were times on set, I’ll be honest, Juliet and I would look at each other between takes, and be like, “This is intense.” I did feel a responsibility going into it. I was like, “This is the story of my foreparents, my queer foremothers.” I stand on their shoulders, so any opportunity I think to step into any of those stories, to me, feels like a really big responsibility.

You grew up watching classic movies from the ’30s. I can see hat tips to films from the ’30s all throughout “Perry Mason.” I can see the handprints of John Ford and other films in it. Were you basing that character on certain icons from that era? 

I greatly appreciate that. The math of finding the balance between, as one of our producers rightly said early on, “We want to make sure people don’t sound like they’re coming out of a gramophone.” I grew up on those films. I grew up on Mae West films, and Greta Garbo films, and early Bette Davis, so I came in wanting to be like, “I’ve got a nickel, and a good bed, and I’m ready to love.” I have no idea what that means, but that’s what I wanted to say. We had to find the musicality of era-specific speech and behavior, without it feeling like an affectation. I am proud of where we landed with that.

To answer your question more pointedly, yes, I grew up on, from the ’30s, a lot of Mae West, Laurel and Hardy from the ’20s. Moving into the ’40s, I loved Danny Kaye and Donald O’Connor. Really, that whole 30-year period of the classic studio system. “Singing In the Rain” was a movie I watched, I’m going to say 40 times annually. Even though that was made in the ’50s, it was about an era that was just before this one, so it did feel close to my heart in that way, too. It was meta in that regard because I grew up on films about that time that were made from that time, and now, I’m telling a story that was actually situated in that time retrospectively. 

“I’m a better actor when it’s not something I’ve written because I can disappear more efficiently.”

There was a day where we were shooting in a boxing armory. It was incredible. There were 150 background actors, and we had these incredible stunt people doing the boxing, and you had cigarette girls going around. There was a bit where we enter, and I asked the director, “Can I just improvise a little bit with the guys because I feel like this is a place Anita has gone to?” She said, “I don’t know about improvising in the ’30s, and I said, “Madame, hold my earrings. Please, this is the only skill I have. Please let me do it,” and they did, and they were nice about it.

In a strange way, it felt like I was spending time with my family. My parents were very strict about not watching contemporary media because they were quite conservative, but thought that watching films from the ’30s and ’40s was better, even though it was just all coded. I was like, “OK, we’re talking about misogyny, blatant racism and people that are just guzzling hooch and chain smoking.”

Substance abuse. Maybe a little domestic abuse just thrown in for fun.

Yeah, thrown in. Bing Crosby, just for good measure. 

You’re a creator. You have your Eggshell project, you have all of these things that you do that you are at the helm of, you wrote a film. What’s it like then when you give yourself over to other directors and writers?

It’s great. The thing I’ve learned the last couple of years about myself is, I’m better when I bifurcate them. I’ve become a better writer when I’m not writing for myself because that’s an inherently subjective experience. I have found, when I’m writing for other people, not for something that’s meant to be in my voice, I’m more objective, I’m more critical, and I think I’m more imaginative, and vice versa. I hope I’m a better actor when it’s not something I’ve written because I can disappear more efficiently. Historically, when I’ve acted in things I’ve also written, it’s impossible not to be pivoting between the two, and I think sometimes that can water down both a little bit. Some people can do it seamlessly, and I have mad respect for that. I cannot. I’m at heart an actor, and love it so much that I’m always really happy to just be speaking someone else’s words.

Maybe in more nebulous ways I pull from it. They were very collaborative on “Perry Mason,” which I was really grateful for. The creators and the writers allowed us to play with the language a little bit, which was a surprise to me. Oftentimes in period pieces, they can be rigid about the language being biblical. The scripts were so beautiful from Michael Begler and Jack Amiel. It was just a blast to begin with. I’m not sure I answered your question at all, but I did talk for quite a long time.

That’s good enough. The one word that I’m just going to jump on — you said bifurcated.

I did, oops.

What a beautiful segue for me to go straight into “Severance.” You’ve been working as a professional in Chicago, New York and LA for a long time.

You had your own film at Sundance, but “Severance” is the thing that has been a big game changer for you. Tell me how that came about, especially as someone who doesn’t come from the Hollywood/New York world.

It meant everything. I have to give gratitude where it is due. Sundance really changed my life. My friend Hannah Pearl Utt, with whom I wrote the films you’re talking about, and she directed our feature, we were able to go to the lab through the labs program. As such, were really nurtured by the entire institute for several years, and still to this day. I was at the SAG Awards, and I saw Michelle Satter, who is the mother of those programs. I was like, “Michelle, I have to tell you, thank you. You really changed my life.” She was like, “OK, you’re very close to my face, but you’re welcome.” 

That I think narrowed my idea of what I wanted to do, and “Severance” certainly blasted the door open. I’m forever in debt to Ben Stiller, and to Apple, because I think they could have given this role to someone people had heard of and didn’t and took a chance on me. It was good for my soul, and good for my career, but it has changed everything. It’s given me more access — which is all I’ve ever wanted, just access to make more things — and given me the role of a lifetime. 

“They could have given this role to someone people had heard of and didn’t and took a chance on me.”

I love Devon so much, and the writing on that show is unparalleled. Dan Erickson is, I think, a once in a generation world builder, and Ben and Aoife McArdle, who also directed on our first season, were just virtuosic. Getting to step in as a newbie, not a youngie, but a newbie . . . I had been working, and making stranger things on the fringe that not a lot of people saw, but to step into the ring as it were, with people like Patricia Arquette and John Turturro, Christopher Walken, blew my bangs back. For the first month or so, I was like, “Get it together, Tullock.”

It did change everything. I feel like I’ve been on a crash course about working at this level, and what it means to be on sets of this kind. It’s very different from the indie world that I came from. I’m learning a ton, and having a great time.

Watching “Severance,” and then seeing you on “Perry Mason,” I see this through line of stories about that bifurcation, people who are living with their feet in two different worlds and have to conceal themselves. Is that something you’re seeking when you’re looking at roles, particularly as a queer person? Is it just maybe this is the story that all of us are interested in right now because we’re all struggling with it in one way or another?

Well said. I think finding the entry point for any type of loneliness is what’s interesting to me. For any person who has had to hide, or had to repress, I think the latter is what’s happening more so in the world of “Severance,” and the former is more so in the world of “Perry Mason,” that creates an inevitable loneliness, because you are alone in that experience. When people have asked me what I think “Severance” is about, the sound bite is, “It’s about the work/life balance.” But, I’ve always said I think it’s about American loneliness, and ennui, and what it means to be in so much pain that you have to cut off half of your consciousness.

In Anita’s case, she is also having to do that, because half of her life is completely concealed. We talk a lot in the queer community about queer erasure, and what it means to have a huge part of your life erased. We’re in a moment now, at least in America, where that conversation, thankfully, is starting to change. 

“It’s given me more access — which is all I’ve ever wanted, just access to make more things — and given me the role of a lifetime.”

Even when I came out in the early aughts, it felt so different. I went to a liberal university, and was still told by the school counselor that he could not give me advice as a Christian, because I was gay. I remember hearing that and thinking, “This is not great for me.”I didn’t have the language around why, I just knew that I was other, and because I was other I was less than, and because I was less than, I needed to be quiet. That bit was certainly easy to plug into Anita. 

I do think, coming out of the height of the pandemic, and being in a moment in our country where things are so acrimonious, and we’re having to confront the history of all of our bigotry, it is a time where maybe we should be talking more about where our pain comes from, and how we create it and perpetuate it. I think “Severance” does that beautifully looking into the future, where “Perry” is doing that beautifully looking into the past.

You’ve got the new season of “Severance” coming up at some point. Can you tell me anything about it?

I can tell you that some answers will arrive to some questions. We joke about it now, when we do press together, but we all just look at each other when people say, “Can you tell us anything?” I really can’t, but I’m thrilled about this season. I think the new stories that we’re exploring are really exciting, and the way that we pick up some of the storylines from Season 1, and the way we get to see them dovetail is really exciting.

What else have you got working on? You’re doing a million things.

I am. If I don’t stay busy, my head will pop off and roll across the floor like a bowling ball. As I mentioned, I have a therapist. I am working on a play that I wrote with my friend Frank Winters, that’s loosely based on some things from my life, that I will hopefully be producing here in New York this next year. I’m the only person in it, so there is a bit more pressure. I’m really proud of it, and it’s very personal, and actually touches on a lot of the themes we’ve been talking about.

I’m working on a television show of my own that I’m writing with some colleagues. I am making a couple of films this summer that I’m really excited about. One I can talk about, I’m making a film with my friend Blake Barris and my friend Darren Criss, which is about soap opera fans, and specifically, soap opera fan conventions, and how they are a pretty accurate tableau of American loneliness, and how sometimes disconnected we are from one another. I’m very excited about that. I do that this summer. Other than that, I’m working on a book of essays that I have no idea if they’re any good, probably not yet. I was going to say, I’m learning to make pasta, but that’s not true.

I’m going to stop you. You have proven yourself, Jen.

Thank you.

That’s enough.

I’m learning Swedish. Very slowly.

Just setting a really low bar for yourself. Now you’ve made the rest of us, except maybe Beyonc, feel like real slackers.

I appreciate that. Instead of just, “Girl, you need to take a nap.”

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