ENTERTAINMENT

Tunde Adebimpe Never Chased Indie-God Status. He’s Too Cool For That.

The TV on the Radio singer talks about flexing his acting muscles in "She Dies Tomorrow," "Rachel Getting Married" and "Spider-Man: Homecoming."
Tunde Adebimpe: "To me personally, it’s useless to walk around thinking everyone knows who you are."
Tunde Adebimpe: "To me personally, it’s useless to walk around thinking everyone knows who you are."

Tunde Adebimpe is best known as the singer of the über-cool band TV on the Radio, which — along with the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and LCD Soundsystem — defined the 2000s’ indie-rock boom. Adebimpe didn’t set out to be a famous musician, but for those who followed his work, the Missouri-born multihyphenate symbolizes a certain pre-“Girls” Brooklyn hipness. TV on the Radio hasn’t released new music since 2014, giving him plenty of time to explore his other creative inclinations.

Adebimpe’s latest project is “She Dies Tomorrow,” a haunting thriller directed by Amy Seimetz, who previously cast him in the Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience.” Adebimpe has appeared in a number of movies and TV shows in recent years, including “Rachel Getting Married,” “Portlandia,” “Nasty Baby,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Search Party,” “Marriage Story” and “Perry Mason.” In each case, his laid-back presence jells with the atmospheric rock of his younger days. TV on the Radio thrived on a brainy blend of psychedelia, punk, funk and synth-pop. Adebimpe’s cinematic interests are equally wide-ranging.

In “She Dies Tomorrow,” which is now available to rent via video-on-demand platforms, Adebimpe gets subjected to a mysterious contagion: An acquaintance (Kate Lyn Sheil) insists it is her final day on Earth, and suddenly others around her become infected with the same existential syndrome. (The cast includes Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, Josh Lucas and Michelle Rodriguez.) Each person handles it differently, lending Seimetz’s film various degrees of humor and horror. At one point, the camera is trained on Adebimpe’s face in a striking close-up, a tear rolling down his cheek as his character, Brian, experiences what he believes to be his final night.

Because his career has been so eclectic — his first job out of college was animating the of-its-time MTV smash “Celebrity Deathmatch” — I asked Adebimpe to discuss his acting work and what it was like to achieve indie-god status.

“She Dies Tomorrow” has such a specific aesthetic palette, and a lot of its ideas come from Amy’s use of color and mood. How did your impressions of the script differ from the finished product? 

It was entirely different. The version of the script that I saw, Amy was maybe three months into it. She’d shot some tests of Kate with Jay Keitel, the cinematographer, and was just showing those to me: “This is what I’m doing.” Ultimately, we were just hanging out. I was like, “Well, as always, if you would like me to be in your movie, I would love to be in it.” What she showed me was about 25 pages. It was just little vignettes tied together. There were some things with my character, but it was really bare bones. So I kind of did not know exactly where it was going, and the thing that I’ve learned from working with Amy before was, she was sticking to what she’d set out to do, absolutely, but very much in the moment gathering things that felt emotionally correct, I guess. It’s also a very liberating thing to work with someone and just trust them and say, “I’d just like to be here, but more than that, I’d like to see what this turns into.”

Adebimpe in "She Dies Tomorrow," now available on VOD.
Adebimpe in "She Dies Tomorrow," now available on VOD.

When you mention to Amy, “Hey, if you are up for it, I’d love to be in this,” there must be a certain comfort level that comes from having worked with her on “The Girlfriend Experience.” But is part of it also because you have this immediate urge to act, some sort of desire to make a movie?

With friends who are filmmakers, I love talking to them about whatever they’re making. I’m always up for acting. It’s funny because, as a vocation, you’re pretty much waiting around to get picked for something, and since I’ve moved to L.A., it’s been easier to actually be in the room and do auditions. But I feel like whenever I do get a role or I’m doing something self-generated even, it’s the same thing with music or art-making. Just as human beings, we’re taking in so much and there are a lot of messy feelings swirling around inside everyone, and it’s nice to have a venue for them sometimes as opposed to just, “I guess I can write about this in a journal” or “I could walk around and be a horrible asshole to people.” The best experience of acting or making any sort of art is when you walk away and you’ve altered something or gotten rid of something or imported something. 

If you’re able to walk away from something like “She Dies Tomorrow” feeling that way, what does it feel like to walk away from something like “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” where you know that you are a small cog in a very big machine?

Oh no, that felt great. When I got that small role, it was great for me because, as someone who is into film and likes to make stuff, I was excited to go and get to be part of a set that large that was under that Marvel banner. There was a scene where Peter Parker lifts up a bank of lockers as Spider-Man, just very quickly. That scene was in the hallway of this high school in Atlanta, and I pretty much just hung out with the special effects and hydraulics guys, like, “What are you guys up to? What’s going on here?” Just being down there and getting to be in the movie for 15 seconds was the icing on the cake. 

Before “She Dies Tomorrow,” what acting experience was the most enriching for you?

I kind of think actually, not just because it’s Amy, but “Girlfriend Experience” was great for me because it was an extended thing. It was nice to realize that whatever character development you could do inside yourself, you had the space of five or six episodes to get into it and to really solidify what you were doing. Before that, the one that stands out immediately was working on “Rachel Getting Married” with Jonathan Demme. That was great for the experience of being on a set with a filmmaker that you really have a lot of respect for. It was great to watch somebody’s working method, which was just very personable.

Anne Hathaway and Adebimpe in "Rachel Getting Married," released in 2008.
Anne Hathaway and Adebimpe in "Rachel Getting Married," released in 2008.

I adore that movie, and he is obviously one of the great American filmmakers. When you took the role as Rosemarie DeWitt’s fiancé, did the script get rewritten to accommodate you? Paul Thomas Anderson was originally cast, and if he’d done it, we wouldn’t have gotten the same kind of multiculturalism that we now see in that film.

I hadn’t seen a full script before I physically got there. It was funny, I found out halfway through. I think someone mentioned Paul Thomas Anderson, and it didn’t really connect [for me]. I think it was just a month later when I read something about it, like, “That is totally not what I was thinking.” I thought he was doing something else behind the scenes.

But yeah, I don’t know. I’m assuming. If he’d done it, it would have been different with two white families. You talk about multicultural, and it definitely is. With the wedding being East Indian-themed, there’s just a lot that comes in. There are a lot of people specifically from Jonathan’s filmmaking past that he brought in, like Fab Five Freddy and Sister Carol. It was funny, too, because after that movie, I remember doing press for it and there were a lot of questions about the fact that it was an interracial relationship. And it was strange, because it came up so often that I started thinking, “Is this what people took away from this movie? That’s really the last thing that I was thinking about.” It’s clearly about young Anne Hathaway and the mess that she’s in.

I rewatched it for the first time in a while, and it struck me how matter-of-fact that multiculturalism is. It’s nice to see a movie where that feels normal. 

Yeah. But you know, now that you say that, there were a few lines that got cut that did refer to it. I remember specifically, and it was improvised, where Anne Hathaway’s character meets my character, because she hadn’t met her sister’s fiancé. She comes around the corner and I’m putting up party lights for the wedding, and she says, “Oh, you’re Black.” And then I said, “Oh, you’re not.” That interaction didn’t make it. They were like, “Maybe we shouldn’t make that a thing.” But it was great. It was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had working on a movie.

Was the Neil Young song that you sing during the wedding written into the script?

No. That wasn’t in the script, and Jonathan actually asked me to go through a few songs that I thought would work. At first, the song that I picked was by a rocksteady singer named Ken Boothe, called “Silver Words.” He was psyched about it, thought it’d be great. And then kind of at the last minute, I think it was about a day before we shot it, he came and we were talking and he’s like, “You know, I really wanted to do this Neil Young song.” He’d done a lot of documentaries about Neil Young. I feel like “Rachel Getting Married” definitely was him just taking a lot of pieces from his filmmaking history and peppering the whole movie with it. I kind of knew the song. I was in my trailer and I recorded a demo on GarageBand to send to him to see if it would work, and he was super, super into it. I had a night to get it down, and we did it and it was cool.

Adebimpe performing with TV on the Radio in 2011.
Adebimpe performing with TV on the Radio in 2011.

After “Rachel Getting Married,” did you get the acting bug? Were you telling your agent to put you up for roles?

Well, it’s weird, because I went to NYU and studied directing and animation. The last year I was there, there’s this graduate student named Joel Hopkins. I used to have spiky red dreadlocks and horn-rimmed glasses. We just started talking and laughing, and he said he was writing this thing and would I want to be in it? I was like, “I don’t know, I’ll see. Maybe I can help write it or we can just hang out and see what’s what.” And the guy finished up and he was like, “You’ve got to be in it.” Basically what happened with it was, it ended up winning the NYU First Run Film Festival, and I got a best-actor award, which really pissed off my actor friends who were in acting school. Then it got turned into a feature-length movie called “Jump Tomorrow.” It’s just something I really enjoyed doing. 

I remember after “Jump Tomorrow” came out, it was on the IFC channel. I just remember walking around New York, and there was a day where about six people, like, walked off the subway, like, “Hey, I saw your movie.” And it was easily the most uncomfortable shit for me. So the thing that I do like about whatever level I’m at, as far as acting is, no one’s trying to mob me for anything. Paparazzi don’t care about me.

Did you have similar fan interactions based on TV on the Radio?

Yeah, later. I feel like that tiny experience prepared me for TV on the Radio stuff. But the thing with a band is, I guess it’s way different now, but I feel when we were coming up, if you were a fan of that kind of music, you knew what the musicians looked like. But I wasn’t walking around like Marilyn Manson. I wasn’t super recognizable.

I understand how a “Perry Mason” comes along or how even a “Spider-Man” comes along, but how do you end up doing what amounts to background work as Merritt Wever’s husband in “Marriage Story”? 

There’s so many things where you just don’t know. You get a call and somebody wants you to audition for something and you’re sort of like, “Why does that person even know who I am?” This was really just a call saying, “Noah Baumbach wants you to audition for his movie.” I don’t know the entire story, but my audition was one line. I feel like the audition might have been a technical thing to just be like, “You tried out,” because honestly, I don’t know what someone can do with one line to make someone go, “That’s him!”

In the course of filming, do you ever get any further enlightenment about why Baumbach had wanted you specifically?

Just talking to him, he just said he was a fan of what I did. He also said, “There’s a scene where the sisters and their mother are performing a show tune in their living room.” He said he just liked the idea of having people from bands who could actually sing, sitting on a couch, watching these people who were trying to do it. Dean Wareham from the band Luna was also on set. Also, this is not to diminish being involved, but we were shooting in Eagle Rock, which is a 10-minute drive for me. The other thing is, it’s nice to be a part of something with someone who does stuff you like. I like doing small things sometimes and not telling anybody about it, so that people who have an idea who I am are just like, “Were you in that thing?” 

You leave people wanting more when you surprise them like that. 

The “Marriage Story” sequel is all about my character.

Joel Hopkins, Adebimpe and Kaili Vernoff at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001.
Joel Hopkins, Adebimpe and Kaili Vernoff at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001.

Your first big gig was animating “Celebrity Deathmatch” at the height of MTV. Was that fun?

Yeah. The last movie I made at NYU was a stop-motion movie that did pretty well. It won an award for animation. After I left school, I’d pretty much said, “I’m going to see if I can get a job in animation.” I was one of the first 18 animators working for the show, and it was fun. You’re working 10- to 15-hour days sometimes, doing this really intricate, concentrated work. It was like animation boot camp. You go syllable by syllable. You map out mouth movements and the actions [the puppets] are going to make, and then you go in and you start animating. A lot of people hear that and they think, “Oh, that’s really tedious,” but I think if you’re doing it, it’s more meditative than tedious.

This question is probably better directed at somebody who was well above your pay grade, but did celebrities ever get upset about being depicted that way?

Oh, I can only imagine that someone was upset. I actually quit for a few reasons, but one of the reasons that I quit was, it’s a pretty gratuitously violent show. It started to get a little more, “Do I want to spend a day and a half making George Clooney pull someone’s guts out of their body? Not particularly.”

The day I went in and gave my two weeks’ notice, the match was between Ron Jeremy and Tommy Lee. You’ve got a porn star who’s fighting a musician who’s known for the size of the dick. The way in which the match was won was that one character punches the other and they fall to their knees. The other character unzips his pants. We hear a spear hitting a melon and then the Ron Jeremy puppet falls back with a giant crater in his eye. So basically I was looking at it, just like, “I’m supposed to animate a puppet skull-fucking another puppet.” I went to the director’s office and I said, “Yeah, I can’t really do that.” But I got to animate Michael Jackson fighting Madonna, and I got to voice Dennis Rodman for one episode. I was happy. 

At this point, you’ve been offstage for a while, at least with TV on the Radio. Do you ever find yourself craving the energy of a live performance?

I feel like, just for me personally, for better or for worse, it’s a good time just for my own sanity to not be doing that.

What do you mean by that?

I really enjoy making music. I’m always working on stuff. But the touring, I feel like it started as something fun, then turned into a job, which was great, but I feel like I basically got onto a tour bus in 2004 and walked out in 2014. It is what it is. I wasn’t 15 going, “I want to be playing music in front of a ton of people.” In fact, just the opposite. If you’d run up on me when I was 15 and you’re like, “You’re going to play Madison Square Garden,” I’d be like, “That sounds like the most horrifying thing that I could ever do.” I don’t like being in front of five people, let alone that. I think it’s because I like to make other things and paint and write and draw. When you’re on a tour bus, basically all you can do is wait until you get to the next place to go play a show.

Something that’s often said about famous musicians is that they become addicted to the sound of the chanting crowd and the instant gratification they get from being, for lack of a better word, worshipped by a mass of people. You never came close to that?

I think when we started, like straight up, I would keep my eyes closed while I was singing most of the set. At some point, you’re just thinking, “Wow, that guy’s really emoting,” and then you’re sort of like, “Does he know that he’s up there?” I think I saw a tape of us one time and finally got the outside perspective. I was like, “That doesn’t look right.” 

Whatever feeds you from a crowd paying attention, the way I look at it is, we’re all here at this time, in this moment, in this configuration. This is happening right now and it’s never going to happen again, so we should make it worth it in the sense of having a communal and uplifting experience. That’s how I approach shows. The energy that I’m putting out, if it resonates and comes back as cheers or someone having a loud emotional experience in a crowd, then that’s perfect because that energy makes me give more energy back and it’s just this energy exchange the whole time. But after that, it’s really not a particularly useful feeling. After a show, you’re just going to be like, “That was literally thousands of people singing along to a song I wrote on the floor of my apartment when I was so depressed.”

But I think people who achieve your level of success — and especially people who go on to play Madison Square Garden, as you mentioned — become a bit warped by it, no?

Oh man. Oh, I have a very specific story about that. I want to say that we were somewhere in England. It was 2006 or something, kind of when there was a lot of attention on the band. But I think it was one of those things where you’re not really aware of how much attention there is on you because you’re in it. We would get to this big club, and the backstage is kind of like a locker room. We do our thing, get ready for the show, go out and play. It’s an incredible show: crowd surfing, people screaming, people getting onstage, stage diving. And you’re so high off of that energy, and then the show is over. I come back down into the dressing room and it smells like a gym locker room. There was nobody there. I think everyone had gone. There’s just empty beer cups on the floor. I just sat there for a second, and I was just buzzing with this energy. As I was coming down, I was like, “Oh.” No shade to one of my favorite musicians, but I was like, “This is how Ozzy Osbourne turned into Ozzy Osbourne.” Because if someone walked in right now with a plate of drugs, I’d be like, “OK,” because I have to keep the feeling going. 

And that probably is why a lot of rock stars don’t quite hold on to themselves as the years go on, if that makes sense.

Oh yeah, totally. I was talking to my dad forever ago, and I think we were talking about an artist who had died pretty young. He said, “Yeah, if you don’t have an inner life that you know as your inner life, it’s very easy for you to start to rely on people reflecting back a positive image to you that you then end up chasing.”

You’ve become a commodity.

Yeah, and you start expecting things. I had to check myself at various times when the band was starting. It’s this dual consciousness in your brain, and to me personally, it’s useless to walk around thinking everyone knows who you are. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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