Walking through the quiet Milwaukee Youth Arts Center during business hours a day after the First Stage event, there's still hardly anyone Jeremy Tardy doesn't know. Everyone who passes by us in the community space is surprised and excited to see him and say hello.
These are some of the first people that got him on stage. He goes on to list people like Jeff Frank, John Maclay, Todd Denning, Brian Gill, Jim Tasse, Samantha Montgomery, Sheri Williams Pannell and Laurie DeMoon as teachers and influencers of his early acting career. He even talks about Jim Fletcher, whose energy and directing Tardy admired even though he never directly worked with him.
He also credits his mom.
Tardy can remember deciding he wanted to be an actor when he was five or six years old in a house on 2nd and Lloyd St., as he would sit watching shows like "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "In Living Color" and "Family Matters." He felt inspired by the African-American representation and wanted to be in the TV too—literally.
"I asked my mom how people got inside the TV," Tardy says. "I thought people crawled in, slept there and performed for us [laughs]. She explained, 'No, they're called actors' and so on. And from that moment, that's what I wanted to do."
Knowing that, his mom enrolled him into the Elm Creative Arts School back in 1997. There, on a field trip with his class, he had his first introduction to First Stage—or any kind of stage—while watching the play, "Green Eggs and Ham."
"I had not known there was such a thing as theatre. I didn't know you could be in an audience with the performers right in front of you. You could touch them. It wasn't like the TV. I was fascinated because I knew I wanted to be on the TV and somehow it would connect. So I was in the audience praying, actually during the show and after the show, to one day be able to step on stage and perform in something."
Years later, he was on that stage and he didn't stop there. He joined the First Stage Theater Academy’s Young Company, which eventually led him to winning the first place junior award at the Shakespearean Festival and Competition in Utah at 17 years old. And that led to a friend in study hall telling him that he should go to The Julliard School. It was the first time Tardy had heard of it.
"I might have gone to UWM or Marquette or somewhere in Chicago...there are a lot of fine actors who do that. But he told me about Julliard and so that night I remember going home and googling it, becoming introduced to the word 'conservatory' and realizing 'Wow, I wouldn't have to take another math or science class again! I wanna go here.' That's truly what got me interested."
With a partial scholarship and a plane ticket that his friends at First Stage helped him buy, he studied at The Julliard School.
In the end, Tardy says he graduated Julliard with the same thing he came in with: work ethic. He talks about the rigorous schedule of memorizing lines from "Richard II" overnight for one class after coming home from a rehearsal at 11 p.m., only to sleep for 20 minutes before being back in class and off-book the next morning.
Looking at Jeremy Tardy‘s IMDb, you’ll find credits from “The Mindy Project,” “War Dogs,” “Dear White People,” “Ballers” and Marvel’s upcoming series “New Warriors.” But the piece of his bio you won’t find on the page is that he got his start right here in Milwaukee at First Stage.
If you recognize Tardy from his role as Rashid in Netflix’s “Dear White People,” that means yes, though he has a pretty convincing accent, he is not actually from Kenya. Jeremy Tardy was born and raised on Milwaukee’s north side.
Now based in Los Angeles, Jeremy Tardy returned home to Milwaukee to be the keynote speaker at the First Stage ImpACT event in September.
This is where he got some of his first (even if lesser-known) acting credits when he performed in everything from 2003’s “The Magic Mrs. Piggle Wiggle” to “Peter and the Wolf,” “Holes,” “Othello” and 2008’s “The Watsons go to Birmingham.”
The heart is inconsistent. Having process is what carries an actor though a career.
He already knew how to act, but Julliard taught him how to live the life of an actor—which is a lot harder.
“Most people think you show up and you look good and you do what your instincts at the moment give you. But a good friend of mine put it this way: The heart is inconsistent. Having process is what carries an actor though a career. Instincts are an important part of the craft, but if you don’t have process and technique, it won’t hold you up to sustain a real career.”
He says he’s grateful for everything: these lessons from Julliard, the lessons from his First Stage days and for the opportunities he’s had since.
“I’m grateful for the impact of [‘Dear White People’],” Tardy says. “It’s not just a comedy or a college show. It’s a show that challenges ideas—not just about race. It challenges ideas of sexuality, political opinions…I think black Republicans come up, you know.”
His character Rashid Bakr, a Kenyan immigrant, is another nuanced part of the show that challenges ideas of identity and culture. He’s an African man among his group of African-American friends dealing with racism on an Ivy League campus at the (fictional) Winchester University. But even though he’s in a country that considers him black, he is in the middle of a friend group of black students whose culture and experiences—especially of racism—he finds hard to relate to at times.
Not all African-Americans have the same experience and not all people from the African diaspora have the same experience.
“He’s learning what racism is. He might understand white supremacy and colonialism, but racism in the form of segregation or different microaggressions…he’s learning.”
Before season three (where we should expect to see a lot more of Rashid), Tardy says he will travel to Kenya to step outside of the American perspective to be as authentic to the character as possible. To play Rashid, he also draws on his own experiences of culture shock in his travels to places like Ukraine, London and from his time at Julliard in New York, an entirely different city than Milwaukee.
“One of the brilliant points of the writers of the show is that not all African-Americans have the same experience and not all people from the African diaspora have the same experience.”
Tardy says that he’s also grateful for the opportunity he has today to be selective about the roles he takes in the future.
“I think it’s important for those of us who have the capacity to choose, to be careful about the portrayals that we put on screen,” he says.
Tardy recently turned down a small role in a show as a young character who was mixed up in crime and ended up shooting at police in a few scenes.
He says, “There’s a level that we have to be aware of what images we’re putting back into society.”
I want to tell stories that can help reflect society, stories that show us what's possible.
Instead, Tardy says he wants to play young men who are positive, hero-types like Night Thrasher, the literal Marvel hero he’s about to play, or characters like James Bond.
That’s not to say he wouldn’t play an antihero, a gangster or a character he didn’t agree with, he says.
“Macbeth for example, who agrees with Macbeth?” Tardy adds. “But he’s dynamic.”
While currently training in martial arts for his upcoming role in Marvel’s “New Warriors,” he’s also been working on writing and producing stories of his own.
“I don’t just want to be in front of the camera,” Tardy says. “Not just in fiction but non-fiction, I want to tell stories that can help reflect society, stories that show us what’s possible.”
There’s no one narrative about being human being—about being a male or female or any particular ethnicity, we can all have different experiences and share that.
One of those stories he’s working on is a short film called “Behold,” which will be hitting film festivals soon. His synopsis: an ill police officer meets a minister who helps him with unorthodox healing rituals—then, supernatural elements start to occur.
Another project is a documentary about toxic masculinity and consent in sports culture. His goal with that film is “to generate a conversation and help provide language to even start a conversation.”
Even though Tardy says he has two other scripts on deck and he has many ambitions for his production company, he still doesn’t call himself a writer. But he quotes his favorite writer on why he started filmmaking anyway.
Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Tardy considers himself an actor who writes, directs or produces like Donald Glover or Issa Rae. He talks about how much room there is for more shows like “Atlanta” and “Insecure.”
“They’re telling stories no one else was telling,” he says. “And even if someone else tells the story, they might not tell it the same way.”
From First Stage to Julliard to Hollywood, this is what he’s learned about being an actor and storyteller.
“There’s no one narrative about being human being—about being a male or female or any particular ethnicity, we can all have different experiences and share that.“