PASADENA, Calif. -- By any measure, Tamara Tunie has had a successful acting career, with roles in daytime TV ("As the World Turns"), prime time (Dr. Melinda Warner on "Law & Order: SVU") and producing credits that include Broadway's "Spring Awakening" (the 2007 Tony winner for best musical) and August Wilson's final play, "Radio Golf."
But the 1981 Carnegie Mellon University drama program grad, who was born in McKeesport and raised in Homestead, has never been the lead in a prime-time show from its start until Sundance TV's "The Red Road" (9 p.m. Thursday). With all of her other work, that might not seem like a big deal, but it is to Ms. Tunie, a 1977 graduate of Steel Valley High School.
"I've always come into a show when the show was already up and running," she said in an interview at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January, her first time ever at TCA. "Being asked to be part of the inception of a show and the creation of a show is hugely flattering. Everybody looks at my career and goes, 'You're so successful,' but I still question and doubt myself like any human being. For Sundance to bring me on this show from the beginning, I feel really honored and flattered and excited about it."
"The Red Road," set in New Jersey near the home of the fictional federally unrecognized Lenape Mountain Indian tribe (based on the real-world Ramapough tribe), follows two families: the blue collar Van Der Veens, members of the tribe, and the family of Walpole, N.J., police officer Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson), whose life is shaken by his wife (Julianne Nicholson) and her drinking and an event in the premiere episode.
Ms. Tunie plays Marie Van Der Veen, who faces her own challenges when her ex-con son, Philip Kopus (Jason Momoa, "Game of Thrones"), returns to upset the existence she has carved out with teen foster son, Junior (Kiowa Gordon), who is dating Jensen's daughter.
"The Red Road" executive producer Bridget Carpenter said Ms. Tunie won over producers during her audition.
"There was no pretension to it, no chewing of the scenery," Ms. Carpenter said. "She had her hair long and she just was that character. There was a simplicity to her presentation that speaks to me to deep craft, and as a playwright from way back I recognized a fellow theater artist, so it was a no-brainer."
Ms. Carpenter said the writers think of Marie as the show's moral center.
"She's the person in the tribe everybody turns to when they're in trouble," Ms. Carpenter said. "She takes in strays, she makes food for people whose families are not doing well and she has a relationship with her son that is strained. ... She wants to love this human being, but she loves her community and has to ask, 'Who do I protect? Where does my allegiance go?' "
Ms. Tunie is wary of accepting the moral center cloak.
"I don't feel that way because as an actor I don't think you can play the moral center," she said. "But if in watching the show, she comes across as that kind of moral center, then I don't see that as a bad thing."
Ms. Tunie was especially keen on playing Marie because of her own background.
"Her ancestry is very similar to my own in real life," she said. "I have Native American blood. I have African blood. I have European blood. And so it was the first time that a role was presented to me that actually completely embraced my entire DNA makeup, so I was really excited."
Ms. Tunie said her paternal great-grandmother was full-blooded Indian and she kept an old photo of her relative on set during filming "The Red Road." But most of her research consisted of reading about the Ramapough community.
"My Native American heritage was not embraced by our family, and we grew up African-American," she said, "so I didn't have a lot of access or history to that line of my family."
Ms. Tunie said she makes it back to Pittsburgh about four times a year, including this past December, when her mom, Evelyn "GG" Tunie of Shadyside, held a family gathering the weekend after Christmas.
"She had a whole weekend of activities planned out: Friday was arrivals and spaghetti dinner and salad, Saturday was brunch and gift exchange and a big dinner party with extended family and friends, and on Sunday everybody came over and watched the football game," Ms. Tunie said. But she missed the game gathering because she was at Heinz Field singing the national anthem before the Dec. 29 Steelers-Browns game.
Now she waits to see if "The Red Road" will get picked up and if she'll be invited back for more "SVU" episodes.
"Thus far Dr. Warner is still a part of the team. She's not there as regularly as she used to be," Ms. Tunie acknowledged. "Oftentimes even though I'm not in the episode, the detectives will talk about [my character] so at least I know I still kind of have a job over there. I'm hoping to [be in] a few more episodes before the end of the season."
Production of "The Red Road" (in Atlanta) and "SVU" (in New York) overlapped in 2013, making for some hectic travel days.
"One particular time I flew to New York on Sunday because I was shooting 'SVU' on Monday morning," Ms. Tunie recalled. "I had a morgue scene and a courtroom scene and I was finished by 11 a.m. and went directly back to the airport for a 1 p.m. flight back to Atlanta so I could do a scene for 'Red Road' at the end of the shooting day. My career has been a lot of overlapping and simultaneous [events], and I love it. It's energizing. When those kind of situations present themselves, I really feel like a successful actor."
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.