A native of New Mexico, actress and acting coach Michelle Tomlinson moved to Los Angeles right after graduating from Eastern New Mexico University with a degree in theater. She began her film career by doing student films, which was sort of on-the-job training for her since up to that point, she only had stage experience. She’s since become a well-respected indie film actress, having appeared in dramas, comedies, and of course, horror. A few of her notable film roles of the latter genre have been in Kevin Tenny’s Brain Dead, and in Matt Zettell’s 2007 frightmare The Cellar Door and his upcoming Axe to Grind.
Early this year, Michelle debuted as the host of her own one-on-one interview show, An Intimate Look with Michelle Tomlinson, which she also co-produces. Michelle tells me it’s a project she considers a labor of love. After writing at her blog about her experiences of being diagnosed, fighting, and eventually beating papillary thyroid cancer, she had many responses from people who gave her support and inspiration with their own stories to tell. That sparked the idea for the show, which is now set to enter its third season. Above photo by James DePietro.
CHRIS CHARLES: First off, it’s great to be featuring you here, Michelle. If you’re familiar with this site, you’ll see you’re in some good company and have probably worked with a few of the other ladies who’ve been featured here.
MICHELLE TOMLINSON: I’m in some awesome company. Thank you for including me!
CHRIS: I recently did a piece on Reyna Young’s documentary on women in horror, Welcome to My Darkside: Women in Horror. It wasn’t until after I started writing it that I saw that you were one of the ladies Reyna featured.
MICHELLE: YES! Reyna is one of those rare people you get to meet in this industry who is just as kind as she is smart, passionate, and talented. It was an honor to be included in her documentary.
CHRIS: Would you say horror is your favorite genre or is because, since horror seems to be the prevailing genre in the indie film industry, that’s why you’ve been cast in so many horror films?
MICHELLE: A little of both? I do enjoy watching horror, but I also love action, thrillers, comedies, and war flicks. I had the wonderful fortune of falling into the genre, though, and getting to work with and meet some truly talented and genius people.
CHRIS: You started out acting by doing theater in your native New Mexico?
MICHELLE: True story! I did a couple plays when I was a kid, but I didn’t start getting too serious about it until I hit college at ENMU in Portales, New Mexico. I earned my theater degree and moved to Los Angeles.
CHRIS: Any desires to return to the stage someday?
MICHELLE: Definitely. I have a done a few plays here and there in LA, and I do hope to do more. I would love to do a really gritty play in a black box theater out here. That would be paradise.
CHRIS: What was your first acting gig after moving to Los Angeles?
MICHELLE: About a zillion and five student films. It was such an awesome time. I fell into doing them pretty much immediately upon getting here. I had never taken any on camera classes and I wound up learning the technical aspects of acting on film by ACTING IN FILMS. Nothing trains you better than on-set experience.
CHRIS: How did you train for your role in King Fu Femmes?
MICHELLE: Back in the day, I used to take a lot of martial arts. I am out of shape with the discipline now and am rusty, but I did train enough to understand how to do a lot of the moves asked of me in that series. There is an amazing fella named Terry Taneie that show creator Tony Laudati works with a lot. Terry is a friggin’ Kung Fu master and moves like flowing water in a river. He choreographed each fight in each episode.
CHRIS: It shows you had training and a good choreographer. Moving on; you did a nude scene in Brain Dead. Has that been your only nude scene thus far?
MICHELLE: YEP! I’ve done others where I have been scantily clad, but that’s the only “nekkid” one out there.
CHRIS: Are you still open to doing nude scenes or is that behind you now?
MICHELLE: It REALLY depends. The only reason I did the one in Brain Dead is because it fit the story, the moment, and the character. Not to mention it was VERY brief, so it wasn’t a big deal. It’s a per case, per script subject matter for me. There was a film I was up for a couple years ago and I really dug the character. She would have been a lot of fun to play, but there was a huge chunk of nudity that was really graphic and violent and that’s the day I realized I did have a BIG line in the sand with nudity.
Sometimes we don’t know our own boundaries until they get tested. At this point, the nudity would have to be super necessary and mapped out in a nudity clause in my contract of how it’d get shot and all that jazz.
CHRIS:The Cellar Door was a pretty intense movie. What was filming that one like for you?
MICHELLE: It was one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever shot. And therefore extremely enjoyable. I love playing characters that stretch and challenge my instrument. Rudy from The Cellar Door definitely did exactly that!
CHRIS: What’s been your most physically challenging role?
MICHELLE: I’d have to say Rudy from The Cellar Door. The cage I was locked in was dinky. It was smaller than a shower stall at a gym. It was nuts trying to find which slat to look through in order to find my light! It was an amazing time, though. Also, with Brain Dead, we shot during major record heat in the Angeles Forest. It was 120 degrees outside and we shot a lot of it in a tented cabin. The wardrobe artist was literally pinning cooling packs to the inside of our clothes to try to cool us down. THAT was a delicious challenge!
CHRIS: You played a dual role in Alien Vengeance: The Other Me. Was that your most emotionally challenging role?
MICHELLE: I don’t want this to sound like a cop out answer, but EVERY role I have ever played has been emotionally challenging. That’s what I love the most about acting, though. I’ve played several different types of drama, from being the upset girlfriend/wife, to Alien Vengeance where I am dealing with a “not me,” to major horror. I loved the challenge in Alien Vengeance to flip between playing two different characters at the drop of a hat. And of course, I always love working with Jason Liquori!
CHRIS: One of your films currently in post production is Axe to Grind. I see the killer in that one is a Scream Queen who’s played by a Scream Queen; Debbie Rochon. Who’s the character you play in it?
MICHELLE: Just a quick note about Debbie Rochon: SHE ROCKS. That girl is the real deal and I loved working with her and being reunited with Cellar Door’s Director Matt Zettell and DP Skye Borgman. I was also reunited with Adrian Quihuis and Paula LaBaredas. Scott C. Sanford is one of the sweetest producers I have ever worked with. In the film, I play a seriously sassy and fun girl named Cheryl. She is alllll about her red lipstick!
CHRIS: When this goes to press in mid-October, what will you be working on?
MICHELLE: I started an interview show called An Intimate Look with Michelle Tomlinson. I am finishing the second season of that and gearing towards scheduling more interviews to kick off season three. I am also producing the sequel to The Cellar Door (Cellar Door 2: Preymates) with my amazing husband and writer, Christopher Nelson. It’s currently up on IndieGoGo.
CHRIS: Yes, I’m impressed with “An Intimate Look” and would like to ask you about it in a bit. First; any plans for you and Kimberly Amato to resume your web series The Mis-Adventures of McT & A?
MICHELLE: Kimberly Amato and I have some plans for a project we are working on together for the spring of next year. Knowing us, we will HAVE to shoot another goofy episode of that show while we’re at it!
CHRIS: I usually try to keep my questions on the lighter side, but last year you were diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, which you’ve since successfully beaten. What would you say has been the most significant change in your life since being a cancer survivor?
MICHELLE: Humdiggidy. A million things popped up in my head in response to this question. Without giving you a 1,000 word answer, I can simplify: My ENTIRE life has changed. I am more focused than I ever have been at being a better version of myself. Every day, I wake up and try to be a better person than yesterday, and so forth. I am excited to still be here to fight for my dreams and be of assistance to others in building theirs. Even when I am having a hellacious day, I stop and remind myself that even if I am crazy pissed about something, I AM STILL HERE and able to feel human emotions. We are all so damned lucky, ya know?
CHRIS: You’ve said that the cancer thing might be the best thing that’s ever happened to you. Why is that?
MICHELLE: It was the best wake-up call I’ve ever had. Even though I was a vegetarian, and still am, I was eating like crap and eating a lot of acid forming foods. Even though I had done a lot of work on myself, I was still SO hard on myself and was sourcing myself a constant strain of negative thinking. When I found out I had cancer, it was like the world’s biggest light bulb illuminated EVERY area of my life. I found a better, more alkaline, way of eating and discovered how to REALLY be kind to myself. Not just half way do it, but fully commit to being okay with loving myself.
I know it all sounds willy-nilly, but true story: I have been able to eliminate every relationship that wasn’t healthy, including the relationship I had with myself. If I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer, who’s to say I would be walking this better path now? I know it’s just going to continue to get better and better. It has thus far.
CHRIS: Getting back to your Internet-based talk show, An Intimate Look with Michelle Tomlinson, which I’m very impressed with. It’s produced by just you and Maria Fagan?
MICHELLE: Thank you!! I love that show, it’s a labor of love and I am so grateful it’s finding its voice. Every single guest is so awesome and inspiring. Maria Fagan and I are producing partners on the show, but the team includes the epic camera and editing talents of my husband Christopher Nelson. I also have two associate producers who’ve contributed their amazing creative talents; Abra Moore and Joe Williamson, and marketing assistance from the talented Kimberly Amato. It’s a small team of dedicated humans making it happen and it’s been a truly incredible ride.
CHRIS: So, did being a cancer survivor inspired you to create such a show and provide a forum for other survivors to tell their stories?
MICHELLE: Absolutely. When I blogged about my journey, I had several people show up via the Internet and tell me about their journey and how utterly alone they felt. Here I had this huge support system, and there are people who go through hell by themselves. In what world is that okay? After the cancer debacle ended, my mom told me I should start a talk show. Of course, I was hesitant at first, then, in a flash, I literally had people’s comments and my mom’s suggestion hit me like lightning and I knew I HAD to do the show. We’ve worked on making sure it’s not solely cancer survivors, but that all walks of life have challenges and their own moments to get through.
CHRIS: Do you feel more comfortable as the interviewer or interviewee?
MICHELLE: I love being both. I don’t mind sharing anything from my own life, especially if it can benefit someone else. And I love asking other people questions for the exact same reason. We are all here as a service to each other.
CHRIS: You’ve also been quite a prolific blogger for the past couple of years. Do you schedule and plan your topics in advance, of do you write about a subject just as it strikes you?
MICHELLE: Can I just say how RAD it is you just called me a prolific blogger?? Thank you!! I think I just blushed, as a matter of fact! As far as scheduling and planning what I write about, it’s usually a subject that will come up and then I marinate on it for a day or two. I outline in my head when I’m hiking or at the gym or in yoga, the bullet points I want to hit. Then, usually on a night I can’t sleep, I sit down and bam it out. I read it out loud several times to make sure it’s at least a LITTLE bit logical and then go to sleep and re-read it in the morning, in hopes it still makes some sort of sense. I love that I now literally have readers all over the world. I absolutely LOVE the Internet for giving all of us voices!
CHRIS: I notice a couple of tattoos. Any special significance to them?
MICHELLE: Yes, definitely. Every single one of my tattoos has special meaning and reason behind them. They’re all different forms of hope and inspiration to myself.
CHRIS: I’ve watched a few of your cooking videos and you have some good recipes of your own. Cooking is one of your passions?
MICHELLE: I love cooking and having NO idea what’s going to come out of it. I also like “raw-ing”. I don’t think that word exists, but I also enjoy putting together different raw ingredients and seeing how that works out. My husband and I get pretty creative and sometimes it’s AMAZING and other times, well ….we choke it down (laughs).
CHRIS: Ever thought about having your own cooking show ….and if you do, perhaps you’d please consider replacing that guy who creates all those distractions with your cat instead?
MICHELLE: As fun as that sounds, I don’t think the cooking show people would let me do some of the whackadoodle things I like doing and call it a show (laughs) ….and I could never replace the guy who distracts me. He’s who makes it all fun!
CHRIS: As an acting coach, who or what have been some of your proudest achievements?
MICHELLE: Honestly? All of them. No joke. All of my students are AWESOME. I did something right in the world, somehow, to have the roster that I do. The moments I feel the most proud is when I see the light go on when an actor “gets it.” It’s that definitive moment when they’ve run the gamete between frustration and lack of understanding to being an unstoppable “actor warrior.” And I’m the lucky chick who gets a front row seat to that progress. It is the coolest thing to witness.
CHRIS: With that I thank you again for joining the ranks of ladies whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing, Michelle. In closing, any shout-outs to anyone?
MICHELLE: Thank YOU! My first shout out goes to you for asking some very thought-provoking questions. Thank you for the creativity behind everything you’ve asked! Huge shout-out to my rockin’ mama, my stepdad, hubby, bestie and everyone on all the teams of people I’m fortunate enough to be working with on various projects. NOTHING happens without a strong team of folks working towards a common goal and I am grateful to be working with the best of the best.
CHRIS: Oh, just one more question: How good a kayaker are you these days?
MICHELLE: (Laughs very hard) I don’t know yet. I will have to bug my friend Kelby to take me to play in the ocean again to give it another go. Clearly, as you saw on my Facebook, I am far off from being an expert!!
Kayaking earlier this year near Avalon, California
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Chris flirted with the music business there and in Nashville before joining the U.S. Army and serving in South Korea. He remained in Asia for several years afterwards, teaching English and covering the regional entertainment scenes. Currently in a mindset between Seoul and San Francisco, besides Idol Features, you can also catch his writings in the print edition of the quarterly magazine, Effective.