Q&A: Tawny Newsome on Life in Comedy, Space, and the Outdoors
The LA-based actress, musician, and outdoorist talks growing up on a farm, working with Steve Carell, and being Black in nature
Courtesy Tawny Newsome
Tawny Newsome wants to see a Black woman become the face of a major outdoors brand. She wants to return to the Tour du Mont Blanc. And she wants to answer that question you have on whether that one thing you said is racist or not (it probably was, sorry). An actor, a comedian, a musician, and an avid outdoorist, Tawny is a rare multi-hyphenate talent that’s starting conversations and breaking down barriers.
Tawny had no “ah-ha moment” in embracing the outdoors and building a relationship with nature. She's always had one, having grown up on a farm with horses and chickens in coastal Northern California. As a result, she is noticeably calm. The type of calm that only people who spend vast amounts of time traversing the outdoors possess.
She credits her outdoor adventures in helping her stay at ease on set. And apparently, it's working, because the work isn't stopping for Tawny, even amid a global pandemic. Whether it’s promoting her recent Netflix show Space Force—on which she plays the first Black woman on the moon, alongside Steve Carell, Lisa Kudrow, and John Malcovich—recording for Star Trek: Lower Decks, a new adult animated comedy series, or filming another IG video series to educate new outdoorists, she’s making every moment in the limelight count. And she’s really funny while doing it.
We recently caught up with Tawny over Zoom to talk about her love for nature, the dualities of being biracial, how she’s advocating for BIPOC in the outdoors and the foundational role an encouraged childhood spent riding horses in small rodeos, taking dance classes, and monologue courses has played in the successful career she has today.
Listen to the full interview above and read on below for the transcript.
On your new Netflix show Space Force, you play the first Black woman in space. So I have a question for you, which do you prefer: space or the outdoors?
Well, these days, what is the difference? They're both a place that you go to get away from other human beings. There are strange creatures there. Some of which you're interested in and some of which you are not. It can be quite dark and cold in both places. Yeah, having never been to actual space, contrary to what Netflix would show you, I guess I gotta' say I prefer the outdoors. I like earth, man.
"I want Oprah to drag me up the side of a mountain to do a thing I don't know how to do. I got to have Oprah!"
You're an actress, a comedian, a musician, and a Black woman who loves the outdoors. Some would say those things don't go together. How do you think it all fits into your identity?
I mean, I don't know any other way to be. People whom I've encountered, it's not that they think it doesn't go together, but they think, "Oh yeah, all this stuff is accessible to everyone. Sure, you can like this." They don't realize how big the barriers are and the unintentional gatekeeping can be to a lot of those places.
I'm in a folk-indie-alt-country band with British people and other Black people. We're not in any way mainstream. We're very DIY and weird and, you know, turning up at bluegrass festivals in Calgary, or in Wales, or Madrid or whatever—it's strange. You don't see as many of us, so there's unintentional stuff that bar's entry and can make you feel unwelcome even from really nice people.
Same with the outdoors, you know, when you're hiking alone in the woods or with one friend and the only faces you pass look one way, it can feel like, "Oh, this isn't for us."
In the past you've said you’ve learned from working with veteran actors like Steve Carell. Are there any lessons that you've learned from the outdoors that you take into acting?
I mean, it takes a lot to rattle me, which I attribute to being outdoors. But I do get a lot of anxiety outdoors, even when I go camping, even when I'm not alone. I think it's natural to wonder what's out there and wonder if you've taken all the precautions, and, if your bear canister is actually foolproof. I remember a trip on the Kenai [Peninsula] in Alaska with a friend who lives up there. We backpacked like ten miles out into the middle of nowhere. And she just goes, "Okay, let's set up right here." And I was like, "But,but... I'll be safe?!" And she was like, "We're not going to be any safer at a campsite. What are you stressed about?"
I think continually doing things that are a little anxiety-producing and scary has definitely helped me on set. Like, you can't be killed by anything that you're nervous about on set. Doing a bad job or people not laughing when you're making jokes—you're not actually going to physically die. So there's no reason to be scared.
I’m biracial, and one of the reasons I was so excited to interview you is because you're biracial too. What was that experience like for you growing up as a biracial kid in America. You spoke about your parents taking you in the outdoors, and do the two correlate?
Yeah, I mean, pretty directly. My mom, who is white, is the one responsible for getting me into hiking. We used to go to Mount Lassen a lot when I was a kid. Or go up to the Point Reyes seashore. I grew up riding horses. We had a ranch, and I rode in little rodeo events. We did a lot of horse camping. Sometimes when I start telling stories from my childhood, my friends will be like, "Wait! What?”
My dad is Black, and he's always been very supportive, whatever I want to do, even if it's not what he is interested in, but he was never outdoorsy. And so I literally had the duality, I would go to one home with my dad, which was in this manicured little suburb, in this tiny tract home and then on the weekends, I'd go to my mom's, which was like, you know, a ranch—we had pigs and chickens. So, it was as opposite as you could imagine.
You recently did an Instagram video series called Tips for New Outdoors People, and it felt fun and approachable. What was the inspiration behind those videos, and what did you hope they would achieve?
It was directly inspired by the Black Hikers Week hashtag that was created by Corina Newsome, who's not related to me—you know... last name... slavery. The amount of times I have to tell people, "No, I'm not related to the governor [of California, Gavin Newsom], and I need you to think for like three seconds why…” But, yeah, she's a Black scientist and outdoors person, and she had teamed up with a couple of other organizations, and they created this hashtag, #blackhikersweek in addition to #blackbirdersweek, which was a direct response to Christian Cooper, the Black birder in Central Park. I don't want to put words in their mouth, but I saw it as a way to take something that these people were experts in, being Black and being outside, and saying, "Hey, more of us should get to do this and let's showcase it, so we increase the visibility." And I was like, oh, well, I can do that. Like, I'm a nerd, who's obsessed over the ten essentials (how to stay safe outside) so I can do that.
What it really did, that I was super grateful for, was connect me to everyday people who are outside—just like, Black women who do this all the time. I used to follow so many of those "mountain girl" accounts, which no shade to them, truly, cause everyone's just making a living, but they're just traditionally beautiful, white, blonde, and very thin. The enableism in the outdoor community is a big thing, one in which I'm not qualified to talk about, but it's something that needs to be addressed. And I was looking at my social media feed as someone who thinks of myself as pretty aware of that stuff, and it was just like, man, all my outdoor inspiration looks one way, and they're getting these huge sponsorships and endorsements and good for them, but I would love to see a black woman get a huge REI sponsorship. A huge Patagonia sponsorship. You know, I'd love to see her just make six figures selling us leggings on the side of an alpine lake.
You have a podcast called Yo! Is This Racist? Can you tell us a little more about it, and do you use it to discuss systemic racism in the outdoors?
I do a little. The Venn diagram of our listeners and the people who kind of engage with me online about the "outdoor" stuff isn't that large I've learned. I try not to soapbox on the podcast to a bunch of city dwellers who just aren't interested in going outside. Which is fine; not everyone has to love trees.
But yeah, the show was started by my friend, Andrew Ti, from a tumbler account where he just took voicemails from people about things that have happened to them or things that they've said, or our personal favorite, somebody narcing out one of their friends or their coworkers, where they're just like, "I can't tell you who, but here's some nonsense that happened..." So the two of us together, we invite a special guest, usually a comedian, to help us parse these things together. And you know, we're not experts, no one went to college for racism, but the podcast is intended for entertainment even though the topics can be heavy.
Any big outdoor goals that you'd like to hit in the future? Or any big trips on the bucket list?
One of our greatest trips my husband and I ever took was the Tour du Mont Blanc, a circumnavigation of Mont Blanc mountain, and it straddles three countries—France, Italy, and Switzerland. You trek through all the stages that go around it, and you stay in hostels at night, or you can camp if you want to carry all your stuff. (We didn't. I was like, "Put me in a bed. My pack is heavy enough.”) We never finished the final stage because by the time we got to Switzerland, we wanted to stay and keep going off that way. But one day, we'd love to go back and complete the whole thing.
Let's play a game! Hike, camp, climb? A play on f*ck, marry, kill? Oprah Winfrey, Billie holiday, and Misty Copeland.
That's too simple, right? Well, maybe it's not too simple. For me, that seemed instantly simple. I feel like Billie Holiday and I are going on a hike because I'm going to have about two hours worth of questions for her. I have more, but I don't want to wear her out. She doesn't need me peppering her with questions for an entire camping trip. So, like for two hours, I feel like I can sufficiently annoy Billie Holiday and still respect myself. And then for camping, we're going to do Misty because we're a little closer in age. I feel like we could be buds, and you know, make a little meal together. It just feels more like a girlfriends hang. And then, oh, I want Oprah to drag me up the side of a mountain to do a thing I don't know how to do. I got to have Oprah!
Are there any outdoor folks or any organizations that you'd like to plug that you're really into right now?
Yes! So, there are two folks that I just got linked up with who have started creating camping kits for Black, Indigenous, people of color. They started with a pretty small goal of just providing three camping kits to people. Now they have hundreds of requests for these kits and are trying to raise a substantial amount of funds, but they're also looking for people to donate gear. You can find the link to donate or request a kit here.
The team's handles are @littleuzipervert (Mo) and @battle.mage (Griffin). I'm child-free, but I think about people with whole families, and one of the few things you can do right now safely, is be outdoors with your family unit. Not having access because it's expensive or because you don't know where to start is a huge barrier. The work that these two people have done, Mo and Griffin, who are breaking down those walls and providing that access, is really inspiring to me.