The world of indie film is no cakewalk. It is full of obstacles and struggles that require talent, perseverance, a sharp mind and an unbreakable will to succeed. Winner of the 2014 Fort Myers Beach Film Festival Rising Star Award, Tara Cardinal is known for writing, producing, directing and starring in the 2013 fantasy horror adventure feature Legend of the Red Reaper. Putting her background in martial arts, stunt work and professional wrestling to work, Tara is always on the go. However, being the goodhearted, genuine spirit that she is, this multitalented actress was kind enough to take a break from her business schedule to have a great conversation with me. Find out about Tara’s inspiring journey through the rough waters of indie film and her experience working on the set of the 2016 short horror film Puppet below.
PopHorror: Starting off, I’ve read two different bios about you. One said you grew up on a small farm in Indiana and another one said you’re from Canada.
Tara Cardinal: Yes, both of those are true. I was born in Canada and lived in Indiana for some time. I actually lived in several places. My family moved around a lot.
PopHorror: So it’s almost like the classic story of an aspiring actress moving from small Midwest rural Indiana to L.A. and making it.
Tara Cardinal: Well, I don’t know that I’ve made it (laughs), but I’m getting there.
PopHorror: When did you decide to take the leap of moving to Los Angeles?
Tara Cardinal: That’s a great question. While I was going to school in Florida for my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, I realized that Psychology was my backup plan and what I really wanted to do was film. So, I started working on The Legend of the Red Reaper. I moved out to L.A. because I thought it would help me raise money for the film. You know, L.A. being the land of opportunity and investors. It was with the understanding that I might be better equipped to finish Reaper with this move. And that’s not exactly how it all went down. There were some challenges working on that film, which is why I wore so many hats. It’s not that I set out to do all of those things. It’s that those hats got abandoned or misplaced by people who just didn’t have the same vision that I did.
PopHorror: Since it has come up, what were some of those challenges in making Red Reaper? I heard you had to take on some bigwigs who were trying to take over the film?
Tara Cardinal: Oh, constantly. Fortunately, the people closest to me were strong supporters, but every once in awhile, I’d get someone who would just try to take it in a different direction. You have to work as a team when you’re trying to make a film. It literally takes a village.
At one point, I had a distribution company try and bully me into signing a really bad contract with them and then threatened to sue me when the terms and conditions of the contract didn’t match the verbal agreement. Obviously, they couldn’t sue because there was no signed contract. But that was kind of scary, you know. I had only been in L.A. for a little while and, you know, here was this big company who has all of these big films and stars and now they’re trying to bully me out of Red Reaper? I didn’t know what to make of that. On one hand, it’s an enormous compliment that they wanted it that badly and thought there was money to be made, but on the other hand, I was just terrified. You know, small Midwest girl going up against this big company and their legal department.
PopHorror: When you first moved to L.A., you worked three jobs, not only to support yourself, but also help fund Red Reaper. What were those jobs?
Tara Cardinal: My full time day job was as a personal assistant/office manager of a one-man show called SwingDanceStuff.com. They produce instructional videos on all kinds of dancing. I was also acting. I managed to book a lot of work when I first moved out here. Sometimes it was just a day or two and sometimes it was several weeks at a time. And then I became a professional wrestler and I used all my wrestling money to put into finishing Red Reaper.
PopHorror: I heard something about that! How was your experience as a wrestler?
Tara Cardinal: (Laughs) Very painful at first. I was with a number of small, independent companies. At one point, I was part of a team originally called the Chicago Knockers and then renamed the American Knockers. They originally existed in, I think, the ’80s. These badass, athletic, amazing wrestlers would tour the world doing their wrestling shows and they were mud wrestling. I saw a casting for this and I laughed so hard. Chicago Knockers? Mud wrestling? This just sounds ridiculous. (Laughs) So I submitted for it.
I end up making about three rounds of casting. In the third round, I met a woman who now goes by the name ONYX. This woman could kick my ass and did so on a regular basis. She was only about 5’4’’ and about 120-125 lbs. The rule in wrestling is the smallest girl loses. And she doesn’t like losing. So she scouted me out and I was the one person in the room smaller than she was so she asked me if I know how to wrestle. I told her that I do stunts and martial arts, but I don’t know how to wrestle. So, she will give me $50 for 5 minutes in the ring and she will teach me.
PopHorror: Wait, she paid you to teach you?
Tara Cardinal: Yeah (laughs). So, we did a 5-minute match and she tells me that all she wants me to do is take the hits and take the falls. “You don’t fight back. You’re my rag doll,” she said. Oh, my God, I was in bed for 4 days.
PopHorror: All bruised up and couldn’t move?
Tara Cardinal: It felt like I had been hit by a car. Have you ever been in a fender bender and you’re like, “Ouch, everything hurts”? So, she calls me about 2 weeks later, telling me how good of a job I did and offers me $100 to do 10 minutes. I agreed because, why not? This is all Red Reaper money (laughs). So, I show up and she kicks my ass again and I get to fight back a little bit. Then I’m only in bed for about 2 or 3 days.
When the Chicago Knockers got a contract to perform in Hawaii, I didn’t make the cut. But I was an alternate and I showed up to rehearsals sitting on the sidelines. I was so lonely watching all these badass girls. But sure enough, one of them got injured and ONYX made sure I was the alternate that got to go. These are women who have been wrestling for years and I had only had a couple low-key matches with ONYX. So, I was ridiculously inexperienced. But the girls were great. They took me aside and told me what to do. I remember one time, this woman who had to be about 5’10’’, picked me up out of the mud, held me over her head and threw me out of the ring. I was flying feeling the night air on my skin (laughs). And then I land on the plywood.
PopHorror: (Laughing) How long have you been doing the wrestling gig?”
Tara Cardinal: I did it off and on following the 2 week Hawaii trip, but I got a concussion during a live match a couple years ago and stopped doing live shows. I still get together with the girls and practice though.
PopHorror: Maybe we’ll see another Red Reaper in the near future?
Tara Cardinal: I would like that. I’ve been approached by some people about doing a sequel or a reboot, but it hasn’t come with enough serious offers or resources to be able to do it. If that comes along, I would absolutely do another one.
PopHorror: Red Reaper seems to have a creepy Brother’s Grimm meets Xena: Warrior Princess vibe to it. What was the inspiration?
Tara Cardinal: I started working with swords quite awhile back, and I loved it. It’s almost like I feel like the sword is a part of me. When I get to do sword work, which isn’t very often, I feel more alive than I do at any other time. With that in mind, [Red Reaper] all started with this horror contest. They were searching for a Miss Horror. I had just finished doing a horror film that got picked up by Warner Brothers [Delivery] and there was a director who said we should do something for this contest. He wanted to have me slay a demon. It didn’t really tell a story so I just narrated over it. The narration was, “For thousands of years my family has guarded these wood. Last night, they were all slaughtered. I was the only survivor.” We took this short and put it on YouTube and it got thousands of hits. So, we took it to a horror convention and people loved it and wanted to see more.
PopHorror: What was your first introduction to the horror genre?
Tara Cardinal: I guess that would have been Delivery. At the time, I had been living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and, having subscribed to all the casting websites, I kept seeing a certain casting for months. It just so happened that I was scheduled to do a stunt seminar in Orlando the same morning that this casting came into my email inbox for like the 15th time. So, I sent off my headshot and resume. The director and the producer made me do a cold read. I don’t know why because cold reads are the devil. They give absolutely no indication of what you can do with preparation. But I probably did a better job than if I had prepared it. I read it through once and they gave me the part.
PopHorror: Speaking of preparation, how do you prepare for a role?
Tara Cardinal: If there’s something in the character description that I’m entirely unfamiliar with, I go out and research it. For example, in Zombie Massacre, my character was raised by a Japanese monk. What does a Japanese monk do? Well, they’re Buddhist. Okay, what kind of Buddhism is practiced in Japan? It’s mostly Zen Buddhism. Okay, so why am I slaying zombies if I’m a Buddhist? So, I went to a Buddhist temple and I was trained by a Buddhist. I learned a particular style of swordplay and the difference between how a Samurai fights as opposed to a ninja.
PopHorror: (pauses) You actually went out to Japan to study all of this?”
Tara Cardinal: No! (laughs) I went to Orange County. There’s a big temple in that area. There’s just not a whole lot of online research you can do with Buddhism.
PopHorror: (laughs) I was going to say. That’d be some pretty extreme acting preparation. So, going into Puppet. How did you get involved with this film?”
Tara Cardinal: (laughs) Everything leads back to Red Reaper. So, one of the problems I had on Reaper was that a couple of my producers absconded with way too much of my production funds. So I keep tabs on them. If they come too close to my circle, I let people know, “Hey, this is what happened, so keep your eyes open.” So, I saw that one of these producers had hooked up with Leah Cevoli. I reached out to her and told her what happened to me and let her know to keep her eyes open. I don’t think she responded, but a year later she reached out to me and said that she wishes she had listened because something very similar happened.
So, Leah and I kept in touch over the years and she was holding a red carpet event. I showed up to it and after all these years, we finally met in person and there were big hugs and she says “Puppet! You’d be perfect to play my little sister!” And then the directors showed up. As it turned out, I had met them at another event where I was a guest. They sent me the script and I thought that it was a great role. They gave me the part without having to audition.
PopHorror: What was your favorite part of working on Puppet?
Tara Cardinal: That’s hard to choose. First of all, it was small and I like that. You really build up a camaraderie between everyone when you’re intimate. And the directors? It was so much fun to work with them. There was no pretension at all. They didn’t step in unless necessary and let us do our jobs while they did theirs and that was great. I also can’t say enough about working with Leah. She is such a talented actress. Just amazing. She didn’t give me any work to do. She was so strong and so convicted that I had no choice but to respond to her. I mean, I didn’t even have to act. I could just be. There was nothing else to be done.
And it was the same thing with Matt. And Berna. Berna! Just the little intro where we meet. I’m like, “This is so awkward!” But in real life, she is the sweetest human being. I mean, you wouldn’t believe her. She would just figure out things that needed to be done and just go ahead and do them with no fuss. But, you know, when it came to that intro scene, she made it awkward for me. Just the way that she greeted me and making it seem like she was mildly irritated with my existence. Which is exactly what needed to be done. But that’s so not her character as a person.
PopHorror: Were there any obstacles and challenges through production?
Tara Cardinal: Well, there are always obstacles during production. I think the biggest struggle was that we shot in the middle of summer. For some bizarre reason, even though we had choice over our wardrobe, we are all wearing sweaters. And it’s about 110 degrees. If you have ever been on a film set, you know the one thing you can’t have is air conditioning because it messes with the audio. So most of us are just dripping and the poor makeup artist is running around powdering the crap out of all of us. (laughs)
And then there were the fight scenes. For me, I’m in heaven when I’m doing the fight scenes, so they left it to me to do some of the choreography. There’s the scene where Leah bites Jeffery and then I jump on top of her, pulling her off. When I pulled her backward, we roll off the couch and then she rolls on top of me. The dynamics of fitting all three of us on that couch and having enough room for her to bite Jeff and then for me to grab her and pull her backwards… that took a couple of tries. At one point, I choreographed something and I ended up on the floor throwing my arm backwards and I hit the arm of the couch. And IT WAS LOUD. Here I am. Supposed to be the martial arts expert Hall of Famer and I had just injured myself. I had this enormous bruise for about two weeks. It didn’t really hurt, but it was embarrassing (laughs).
PopHorror: Do you always do your own stunts?
Tara Cardinal: When I can. There are some things I refuse to do. You can’t set me on fire and I don’t like to take high falls. I did on Reaper, though. When I fell out of the tree, I actually fell out of that tree. And we did it several times before I said, “No more!” (laughs).
PopHorror: So, with Puppet, I hear rumors that there might be a full-length feature in the works soon?
Tara Cardinal: Well, about that. It’s not that it isn’t happening, but people are waiting to see if there is enough buzz to make it a reality. I’m just an actress on that project, but I can say that if it were to come to pass, I would be happy to resume my role.
While Tara has some exciting new projects currently in the works for the near future, stages of development are much too early for details to be released. Stay tuned to PopHorror for news regarding her upcoming work!