Interview by Paisley Smith
Tammi Cubilette, who describes herself as the lovechild of Whoopi Goldberg, Rita Moreno, and Lucille Ball, was born and raised in New York City. Now at 52, she is an actress, known for the acclaimed sketch comedy show House of Buggin’, where she worked with John Leguizamo. Her award-winning Web series Get Some! is free to watch online, and was featured in the New York Times. When Tammi isn’t creating, she finds fulfillment in teaching.
I met Tammi when I worked as a student-teacher during a summer program at a daycare in the Upper West Side of New York City. I remember being immediately enthralled by her explosive personality, and over the course of that summer, learned so much just by watching her interact with the children. I hadn’t talked to Tammi in several months since I moved to Berlin from NYC, and we set up a Zoom call in May of 2020 to talk about her girlhood growing up in NYC, her experiences as an Afro-Latinx/Caribbean woman in acting, and her current life in the city during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
// Can you tell me about your childhood and what it was like being a womxn growing up in NYC?
I grew up in the ‘70s in NYC. It was dangerous but also kinda great. I remember riding my bike around the block, but it was kind of a dangerous time for a girl. Lots of streaking: a big thing in the ‘70s. Strange men in cars saying things like, “You want some candy?” or “Your mother is in the hospital, and she told me to come get you.” That kind of thing. A lot of that was happening when I was a kid. My mom was always telling me and my sister “I don’t care who they say they are. If it's not me coming to get you, you don’t leave with nobody,” because kids were getting taken. But this time was also marked by the birth of hip-hop. Lots of graffiti all over the trains. It was a crazy time, a fun time to grow up, but also, like I said, a dangerous time.
// Can you think of a time you felt particularly aware of your gender and how it led you to be treated?
All the time. I think I always was made to feel aware of my gender. My mom used to dress us up and she knew she could count on my sister looking just the way she had put her together by the end of the day, whereas with me, my hair would be a mess, my clothes would be dirty, something would be ripped. I wasn’t lady like. My sister was more lady like. I became aware that I was supposed to be and act a certain way because of how others perceived my gender.
// I think this is a commonality between womxn. As we grow up, we slowly gain awareness that everyone else seems to have an idea of how we are ‘supposed’ to be as womxn or girls. Did you want to be an actress, even as a young girl?
I always wanted to be a performer. I knew that. I grew up watching Lucille Ball and watching these shows and I would sit there on the couch with my mom and laugh and laugh, and I thought, “I want to do this. I want to have fun like them.” I knew I wanted to be an actor and a performer. With that in mind, I auditioned for high school performing arts, but I didn’t really start acting professionally or get my first paid acting gig until after I graduated college. I started working for a theater company called Irondale Ensemble Theater, and they’re a very bigtime experimental theater company now. That was my first paid acting gig where I was part of an educational outreach team. We used to go to the high schools and do an improvised show about safe sex and then do safe sex workshops. This was when AIDS was in the foreground, still a very big issue in the early ‘90s, and kids were –– and still don’t –– use condoms, thinking, “Well I can’t get AIDS. I’m not gay,” and all that s---.
While I was doing that, I was still also doing other projects. I did a lot of stuff for free when I was coming up, as you do. I was doing a lot of shows with friends. When I was with Irondale, I met John Leguizamo and I auditioned for him to be a part of his improv troupe, and he hired me. He would call me and a bunch of other people, who are still my friends to this day, and we would do readings of his scripts and screenplays, and then we started doing this show, this sketch comedy show called House of Buggin’. We started doing it around the city in the East Village for practically no money. It eventually got picked up by Fox, back when Fox was still cool when Fox wasn’t what it is now. Shortly after House of Buggin’, I hung around NY for a while auditioning, and then I moved to California.
// When and how did you get involved with Get Some! ? Which by the way, I was going to watch one or two episodes before this interview but ended up watching the whole first season. I love it.
Yay! That’s so great. When we first started Get Some! I thought,“Man, it is only gonna be our friends watching this show. Nobody else is gonna care.” I’ve had so many people your age tell me that they love it, and I’m always like really?! Wow!
They were my friends and the three of us had been wanting to do something since the ‘90s. I’ve known those guys since the ‘90s. Angelo, who passed away last year, was the warm-up comic for House of Buggin’. When I moved back from California, it wasn’t right away either, after my mother died, Sonya said, “You guys can we just do this already. Can we just make something together?” She wanted to work with me and Angelo and asked, “Can we finally get together and do something?” We were like “yeah,” and at first we started just making these short films, just pumping them out. Eventually, we thought, “Let’s write a pilot.” We just decided to write a pilot.
// And then it really took off! You guys even had Selenis Leyva!
Yeah! She and Angelo had an improv troupe back in the 90s. It was really groundbreaking. They would do shows every month, and they used to pack the place. There were a lot of Latinx artists, poets, recording artists. Angelo was really good about featuring other artists and bringing other artists into the fold. We were wanting that. Latinos were wanting that. To see our own doing music, doing poetry, doing stand up comedy, all of that. It was a really great outlet for all of that.
// Outside of Get Some!, What would you say is your proudest accomplishment?
I would have to say my Master’s degree. Getting that, it was one of the few times where I can vividly remember saying “I want this,” and then going and doing it. I remember saying “I want a Master’s degree” and then I went and got a Master’s degree. It was not easy. I was really proud of myself for doing that, and having a full time job and taking care of my sick and dying mother while doing it.
// Hell yeah. Is there someone in your life who you think taught you the importance of empowerment or representation?
I can’t think of anyone right off the top of my head, so I am going to say it is something I’ve had to learn myself. I feel like when I was coming up, it just was the way that it was. I think all these words like “empowerment” are “today words.” There was no such thing as that when I was growing up. It was just how it was. And if I look back on it now, there were people who were teaching me. Even if they themselves did not realize it, they were teaching me empowerment. My African American studies teacher, the women in my family, the fact that my mom came from D.R. and made a life for herself and was holding it down on her own. These were just things I was watching and observing. It wasn’t like someone told me to empower myself. Now looking back, I realized, wow, I was one of the only Black/Latinx people in my circle doing what I was doing. It made me think about all the times I would walk into a room and realize how I was the only person of color there. It made me think about how I was treated. I think I learned representation and empowerment by being myself, being who I was, and walking into the room.
// That makes sense. It sounds like you were interacting with empowerment in very white-dominated spaces, as the acting/theater sphere is very white. I’m reminded of the Oscars hashtag a few years ago, #OscarsSoWhite.
// It is a struggle that I’m sure lots of people of color who are in this field are still managing today. And it sounds like you did not have a lot of role models at the time because you were one of the first women of color in your sphere to pursue acting. You just had to do it. How would you say you’re using this experience to empower other women?
What a great question. I think that if there’s any way that I empower women –– it is just by being myself –– being who I am. I work with a lot of people who are younger than me; both of my teaching partners are in their late 20s. They look up to me; I feel it. It isn’t because I give them tons of advice or tell them what to do with their lives. I just talk to them about what I go through and what I’ve learned. I think if I’m doing any empowering, it is through being who I am.
// I think empowerment is not necessarily something that you set out to do. It isn’t setting an agenda and deciding, “How am I going to empower others today?” Instead, it is about what others can take away from their interactions with you, and how does that make them feel empowered, which I think you’ve already answered because it is through being true to yourself and your values and showing that to others. People see you and think, “This person did it, this person is like me, and they did it, and I can do it.”
Right. It is just something I felt like I didn’t have growing up.
// What do you enjoy and appreciate about being a womxn?
I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question. I’m sorry, I’m about to make this about men versus women, but we’re smarter than men, and that’s a fact. That’s just the way it is. Somehow, somehow, they have managed to get themselves into a position of power and they are running s---. And yes, obviously that is changing now –– women are coming up into positions of power. I just think I appreciate the level of intuitive knowledge I have as a woman, the sensitivity that women, I think, inherently have. I appreciate my body, which wow is it changing. Girl, my body is changing in this pandemic.
// Yes, I was also going to ask how this pandemic is changing the way you express your gender or the way you feel your femininity? For me it has definitely changed my expression of femininity, I’ve stopped wearing makeup, I don’t really care what other people think of my appearance, or whether it is “feminine enough.”
Oh my god, yeah. Well I’ve gained weight, and I kind of don’t care. That might be an age thing, but I don’t give a f---. This is my body. Love it or leave it.
// There’s a sense of community among women because we all inherently know that we have these tendencies. One could argue of course that men also have a sense of community, of “Bro culture,” but that sense of community is often built on weird tenants of dominance and aggression.
That’s how they commune. It is like they need to fight just to find an excuse to touch each other. Toxic masculinity is a different conversation though.
// Is there anything you would like to share with the Global Girlhood community?
I’m trying to think about what I would have wanted to know when I was younger. I’d say tell these girls to just be themselves. Don’t try to follow and don’t try to be like anybody else. I suffered from that, and I still do. And it's only now –– “now” literally meaning “today” –– that I'm finally wondering why was I wanting to be like someone else? I’m so awesome. I should have just been like me the whole time. Certainly, when I was younger, I was really trying to fit in. I was trying to be like the other girls, to look like everybody else, to act like everybody else. Because, well, I thought, “I am not gonna get anywhere by being me.” And that is false. It is so cliche, but just be yourself. You are never going to go wrong. - GGH
CONNECTIVITY CONTRIBUTORS REACTIONS
Paisley Smith’s interview with Tammi Cubilette was incredibly intriguing and inspirational to me. I found that while we’re womxn of different ages and backgrounds, there are some common experiences Tammi and I have had both as womxn and people of color. Tammi spoke of being hyper-aware of her gender as a young girl and the criticism she received for not being “lady-like.” As a young girl, I also struggled with how I was “supposed” to act and dress versus how I wanted to. I experienced gender-based microaggressions when I dressed less feminine, acted more assertive or when I was more athletic as a young teenager. While this was not perpetuated by my family like in Tammi’s case, I was constantly made aware of my gender by my peers at school and other outside influences.
Also, I connected to Tammi's experience as womxn of color. I always thought that because existing as a womxn of color means double the obstacles. I had to start early if I wanted to pursue my interests. l thought I had to have everything figured out right away so I could be given the same chance as individuals with racial or gender-based privilege who are represented more and frequently given more opportunities than people like me. However, Tammi mentioned that she only began pursuing acting professionally after graduating from college. Tammi’s story is inspirational to me because if other womxn of color can live authentically, take their time to figure things out, and be successful, then so can I.
Lastly, Tammi and Paisley’s discussion of how the COVID-19 pandemic has altered our expressions of femininity resonated with me. Many womxn’s bodies might be experiencing weight gain at the moment, or their bodies may have stayed the same. We may choose to wear no makeup or we might continue wearing makeup because we want to. Regardless of how we express our femininity, we all are uniquely beautiful. This sentiment can be summed up in Tammi’s statement declaring, “This is my body. Love it or leave it.” I love the succinctness of that statement and the idea of body acceptance and positivity that it emotes.