Actress Tara Ochs is the quintessential working artist, landing modest roles in independent films, commercials, television and regional theatre for the past 20 years. Being cast alongside Oprah Winfrey in Selma, one of the year's most important films, was likely the last goal on Ochs' mind, until it happened.
A southerner and daughter of a U.S. Navy pilot, Ochs doesn't come off as a woman concerned with Hollywood glamour and rubbing shoulders with celebrities. This could be what inspired Ava Duvernay, Selma's director, to imagine Ochs as Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights activist and mother of five. Liuzzo was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan after participating in a successful march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
As society faces the same racial inequality and systemic racism depicted in the film Selma, today, social activists are keeping the spirit of Viola Liuzzo and MLK alive through various movements.
To commemorate the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march and to honor MLK, Duvernay, Winfrey and the cast of Selma headed to Alabama. I caught up with Ochs after the event to discuss working on the film, as well as the Oscars' controversial overlook of Selma. Here is what was said:
So, how was the march?
Tara Ochs: It was really intense. It was so beautiful there -- I don't know the temperature, but it was just below 70, so you can wear a t-shirt and you're not too hot. The sky was clear and the sun was gorgeous. They lit up the bridge and set up a stage where Common and John Legend performed Glory. It was beautiful.
Did you actually march, or was it just a concert?
Everybody marched slowly down the street towards the bridge where the concert was set up. So, yeah, absolutely.
This last year has probably been pretty crazy for you.
You know, it's been life changing.
So your family is probably proud of you right now. How do they feel about everything?
They get to share this fun with everybody -- all their friends -- but, they've been there the whole time. This is just another special journey for them.
Another gig -- but this gig includes Oprah Winfrey!
Oh man. They don't get too starstruck with this kind of stuff. They keep me grounded. But, this isn't just another gig for me. This is a life-changing experience. My parents treat me the same, no matter what, and everything I do they take it in stride. But, for me, this is definitely not just another gig.
Are there parallels between Viola Liuzzo and yourself?
Yes, absolutely. It's kind of strange, actually, there are a lot of parallels between us. She was raised in the South; she moved up to Detroit later in life; she got married. She kinda had that background of being from the South like I am. What you're hearing actually is my Pensacola accent coming out -- it's coming in real thick!
Before landing your role in Selma, would you have considered yourself politically aware?
I wasn't -- I'll be honest with you. I vote, and there's been times where I've participated in volunteer efforts. I've always been a community minded person. But, I didn't always know my history -- I'm embarrassed to say, and I'm stuck in the middle of it. I live in Atlanta, between Hosea Williams Drive and the freeway, and I didn't know who Hosea Williams was. Driving down the street, that's all I knew it was. It was a shortcut. It woke me up to the fact that I can do more for sure.
There's been public uproar over what many consider an Oscar snub.
I can't speak for the cast, but I wrote and I blogged about my public perspective about how I feel, because it's definitely a question on everybody's mind. As far as the cast goes, we're kind of taking our cue from Ava because every place she goes, everywhere she speaks, she speaks with elegance and intelligence. I think I take my cue from her -- to be grateful for the nominations Selma has been given.
For me, personally, being a part of Selma has reminded me not to ignore the fact that race is an issue. I mean, the president of the Academy is a black woman. I don't think she's forgotten that. I don't call it a snub, I call it a miss, because a snub is done with intent, and I don't think this was intentional. I hope it wasn't intentional. For me, it was a miss.
Of course it's disappointing and it's frustrating because when I was on the set with Ava, I felt like I was working with an Academy Award winning director. On every level, it's definitely award-worthy. She took that film from script to screen in less than a year for $20 million. And we're not just talking about some Nicholas Sparks novel, we're talking about Dr. King, whose never had a feature film made about him before. It's a huge accomplishment. She absolutely deserves a nomination.
In my gut, I'm mad -- I'm disappointed. I don't want racism to be an issue, and I know it is -- and it makes me angry every time I see an instance of it. Do I think this is evidence of it? I don't know; there are too many details I'm not aware of. For one, no one thought this film was going to make it. This film came out at the twelfth hour and no one expected it to do what it did. There's so many factors involved.
One more thing about this Oscar thing -- it's frustrating, but you know what -- it's brought a lot of publicity. And Dr. King was a strategist. This strategy could work because the nation is not happy.
What do you hope comes from this historic film?
So many things. I think what Ava has done with Selma is change the game for historical dramas, and for stories for people of color. She's stepped it up. This is a movie we want to see more of. I'm hoping this is a game changer for "black" films. I hope that because art is important, and I think she's made a huge difference in the way it's perceived.
I hope that some day we're not looking at Oscar nominations for black films and white films -- we're just looking for films. So many communities are making an effort to make sure their students are coming to see the film, so I guess the long game is to ignite the younger generation. To give them context of their history and a point of reference for how to deal with their present.