Exclusive: Jay Arco Interviews Actor Jefferson Traywick of The Black Earth on DynamicSubspace.net

I have written a few posts about my buddy James T. Warbington’s short film “The Black Earth.” It is a film about how two redneck brothers deal with the zombie apocalypse.

James recently completed filming a feature-length version simply titled “Black Earth.” In the short film and the feature, one of the redneck brothers is played by the business person and actor Jefferson Traywick (pictured at left). I enlisted my friend Jay Arco to interview Traywick for dynamicsubspace.net. The interview follows:

Arco: Jefferson Traywick was voted into the Birmingham’s “Top Forty Under Forty” by the Birmingham Business Journal. He appears in The Black Earth (short film), which was voted into the top 100 highest rated horror films of 2011 on IMDB and has been in the top 50 short films viewed list of all time on Onlineshortfilm.net. The Black Earth (short film) was also an official selection of the 2012 Minneapolis Underground Film Festival, 2011 Iris Film Festival, 2011 Driftless Film Festival, and the 2011 Horror Emporium Insane Asylum Film Festival.

I recently spoke with Jefferson Traywick, actor, businessman, director, writer and all around great individual after he completed filming a movie for Family Curse Productions, called the “Black Earth.” In this feature film based on the “The Black Earth” short film, he portrays a character far afield of his personal life: a drunken redneck who seems more concerned with beer than zombie fighting.

So the film just wrapped, as I know “The Black Earth” is something the director James T. Warbington has taken pride in, but also has credited you with helping grow as a script, visually and as a character. What did you bring to the table to help make this character yours, and what do you feel you took away from the filming that will carry on with you in future films?

Traywick: I loved the character of Hank (pictured on set to the left) and went in embracing the role.  I had this whole backstory made up for myself that Hank was a child prodigy living in this hillbilly family.  His genius leads to him excelling in school and he was expected to be the first in his immediate family to go to college.  Heck, for a while it looked like he may even have made it to Yale by the age of 16.  Then he got kicked in the head by a milk cow.  Scrambled his noggin all up and he never was quite the same.  I tried to keep Hank’s “past” in mind when filming.  There are times in the film where Hank still has flashes of his former genius and he thinks he is imparting bits of wisdom which are usually meaningless and other times he just acts like nothing is going on in that head of his.

I really enjoyed the comedic aspect of the film and I hope to do more comedies in the future.  In the past, I have always played characters that are more serious and while those roles tend to involve more “work” as an actor, they aren’t quite as fun.

Arco: As you have been voted as one of the top 40 business people under 40 years old in the Birmingham, Alabama, which is a real honor I might add, what, if anything, can you parlay that into acting and filmmaking? Not just the Black Earth, but in general?

Traywick: I have the opportunity of dealing with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, cultures, countries, etc.  The way you conduct yourself in business dealings with the Japanese is not the same as how you conduct yourself in business dealings with the Germans or even native Alabamians.  You have to adapt and change to your client and this experience directly translates to acting in that it allows you to change to the situation presented or to the role.

You also learn to take ownership of things in business.  It doesn’t mean you go out and take over someone else’s project but if you have a role in something, be it a business project or a film, you need to go into it as if the outcome is directly related to your performance.

Arco: As a leader in Business and Business Development over the past decade in the southeast, do you feel like film and television has influenced economics in your region? Say, start up businesses? Or, the way companies promote their businesses today?

Traywick: Film has defiantly been a major economic factor Southeastern cities such as New Orleans and Atlanta but Alabama got into the film incentives game a little late and we are just now seeing results from our recently passed incentives packages.  The Jackie Robinson film 42 just shot a number of scenes in the state and we hope to see more productions of this size.  These productions hire local talent for both crew and cast, they stay in local hotels and order food services from local companies; they end up renting construction cranes to hoist lighting equipment, generators to power the set and materials to build sets.  Heck, Alabamians even built the Black Pearl for the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.  While productions come and go, having a film-friendly environment will help us to continue to attract such productions.

The state of Alabama has been working to put programs in place to ensure this happens.  Aside from expanding our film incentives, the Alabama Film Office is working to promote the state.  Tommy Fell, the Office’s location coordinator was extremely helpful in identifying locations for Black Earth and even helped initiate contact with the location owners and set up site tours.  We also have an industrial training program, AIDT, which has implemented training classes that are geared towards film production with classes in set construction, lighting, etc.

Now in terms of other media and how businesses can use these outlets to promote themselves and their product, well, I could write a book on the subject.  Well, I can’t, but other, more intelligent people could.  Marketing has reached a point of near science and companies have the ability to target their desired audience like never before through television, radio, social media and print.  These avenues of advertising are crucial for a number of our local businesses.

Arco: With the current economic downturn, is there something local businesses can take from film and television to help broaden their clientele?

Traywick: The aforementioned methods of advertisement can help broaden a companies’ clientele but some of the more fascinating scenarios that I have seen are when companies find new product offerings to attract new customers.  A company that makes speakers for cinemas may branch out into high-end home theater systems for example.  The ability to change with the conditions has allowed numerous companies to survive and thrive.  I call this the Pike/Kirk scenario.

Arco: The Director, James, is a strong believer in Social Media, and has actually went back to college specifically to learn the ins and outs of social media brand marketing, to obviously help with the film’s future success. Do you think the internet and social media play a solid role in today’s businesses in the Birmingham area, and the southeastern United States?

Traywick: The use of social media has grown exponentially in recent years and it has become necessary for some business to use this outlet to increase their business visibility and offerings, connect locals to local businesses, promote events and special causes, creates common ground for interaction among businesses of varying sizes etc. In Birmingham, it’s especially big for cultural organizations and foodies. Local-grown food is a growing trend here and lots of small markets and such are touted on social media. Also, user reviews on social media can make or break a new biz. It’s the fastest way to get a message out to a wide audience.

Social media has also been a great way for independent filmmakers to raise funds for their projects, to promote the projects and to even sell their projects.  The original Black Earth short was filmed in a day on a budget that consisted mainly of beer money.  Once the film was put online it received positive feedback from people on social media outlets.  The message received was that the story idea was interesting and people would like to see what would happen if the idea was re-done with a larger budget and a longer shooting schedule.  Social media was then used to raise funds for the film, to sell merchandise and even to recruit extras for the production.

Arco: On a less business note, as we wrap it up. I have seen a few of the dailies of the Black Earth extended short film/feature film. You are obviously one of the few main characters- Your mannerisms are superb. James explained to me that he never told you to any of them, you just did. He attributes the character to your acting genius- is there someone or a particular film that influenced you to play the role that way, or was it all just a spontaneous creation?

Traywick: Trust me there was no “acting genius” involved.  To get ready for the role I took inspiration from Dale and Tucker vs. Evil, Early Cuyler from Squidbillies, the many Jesco White documentaries and films, Hank III, the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band and beer.  I can’t say I pulled much from the movies and music but it did put me into a certain mindset for the character.  I was, however, inspired to grow the beard because of Tyler Labine’s character in Dale & Tucker.  The highlight of my, um, character research, was watching Jesco White perform at a local dive bar before filming.

For the most part the acting was spontaneous.  I just watched what everyone else was doing and just reacted.  If James and Alex were laughing after the take then I knew we had something good on film.

Arco: Thank you for your time, as a Business Leader and as an actor and creative director of Film and television, we wish you the best. We hope that the Black Earth film is successful and that the economic growth in Birmingham continues. For more information on the Black Earth film, please visit www.theblackearthmovie.com.

Published by

Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.