The cast of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has been fighting crime for 17 seasons on NBC, and Tamara Tunie, who plays medical examiner Dr. Melinda Warren, has been a part of that for almost the entire time. But TV isn’t her only medium: the Carnegie Mellon-educated Tunie won a Tony award in 2007 for her role in Spring Awakening, and this month she’s embarking on a national tour with her cabaret show, kicking off this week at the Broadway supper club Feinstein’s/54 Below.
Here, the aptly named Tunie discusses her musical moonlighting with DuJour.
Before we get into your current jobs, can you tell me a bit about your unique upbringing?
I grew up in a funeral home. Both my parents were morticians. My dad was a mortician when I was born, and after me and my siblings got into school, my mom went to mortuary school to be certified so that she could help my father with the business. So, we grew up above the funeral home and for us it was normal.
How did you initially get your start with SVU?
Being a New York actor, you kind of do a lot of the work that’s in New York. Dick Wolf had several shows in New York that he had created and executive produced. So, when they reached out to me for this role I was working and I couldn’t get to the audition. So, I said to my agent, “Come on! I’ve done all the shows. So, they know me.” Fortunately, the executive producer at the time, Ted Kotcheffhe, was a fan of my work and particularly my performance in The Devil’s Advocate. And they offered me the job. I didn’t have to audition for it. It was supposed to be one episode, possibly recurring. And it evolved into 16 years of Dr. Warren.
What episode is the most memorable to you?
One of my favorites was called “Blast” and there was a young girl who was kidnapped. From the nosebleed in the van, I knew that she was pre-Leukemia and she needed to get to the hospital and it turned into a whole hostage situation at the bank. I got to use a gun and save the perpetrator from suicide by police by shooting him in the leg. That was a great episode.
I heard that you always watch the work that you do. Why?
I find it valuable to learn from. When I went to drama school, it was strictly theater training—and musical theater for me because that’s what my major was. We weren’t taught how to act for the camera, so I basically had to learn on the job and I’m still learning.
And how did you start singing?
I was fortunate enough to work with Lena Horne when she was doing her Broadway show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. It was my first Broadway show. I had just landed in New York, so it was thrilling. And she was just such an amazing performer and I would just watch her from the wings. The show was all her for about three hours pretty much. We had little background vocals to do at the beginning and the end of the show. And she gave 200% every single performance and went on no matter how she was feeling. And it was just an incredible lesson in professionalism and commitment and fortitude and what it takes to be successful in the business and to give the audience everything that you have.
How did you come up with the idea of creating your show around Pittsburgh-based artists?
I’ve been in New York most of my adult life, but I am a Pittsburgher through and through. My family is still there, so I get back and visit a lot. What I’m really proud of is how many incredible performers that have come out of Pittsburgh. So, when I started to do the show it was kind of like a light bulb moment. I started thinking; there are so many amazing famous musicians, singers, composers that come from Pittsburgh—that’s what I’ll make my show about. I put together with my musical director a really fantastic and eclectic line of music.