Actor, costumer, and seasoned hand at about a half-dozen other roles in front of or behind the camera, Nancy Frye has voiced that theatrical criminal mastermind M. Tressano since the first season of BRASS. The UW-trained Frye lived in Japan and California before returning to Washington, adding to her credits throwing spears from horseback in heavy armor for the History Channel, shooting AK-47s at helicopters as a movie guerilla, and playing a cardiac surgeon on Japanese TV. Frye’s interest in 19th century history with a twist (aka Steampunk) predates her involvement in BRASS by several years, so it was the first thing we asked her about.
BRASS: You were one of the first people I met who was completely outfitted in Steampunk when I scarcely knew what it was. How did you get into it?
NANCY: I’ve been into historical reenacting since the late 80s. Started in the SCA then moved into Civil War, WW2, and late 19th century miscellania, including robbing trains in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Back in the day Steampunk was a literary genre, and read Verne, Wells, and Burroughs from childhood onward. In the 90s I discovered James Blaylock, especially his Lord Kelvin stories, and that was my first foray into what I’d call legit Steampunk. Going from neo-Victorian to Steampunk was pretty effortless. It’s kind of a way of life at this point.
BRASS: From early on your credits have been divided between costume work and acting. That’s a fairly unusual combination. How did it happen? What are the different challenges? Are you still doing costuming with regularity?
NANCY: I’ve been acting since I took over the role of Goldilocks at the last minute, literally, for a production of “The Three Bears” for a Kindergarten Mother/Daughter tea back in the late 60s. Sewing became a hobby not much later. I landed in the Drama department at UW when my math skills proved unsuited for the Oceanography department. I love acting, but wasn’t sure I had the chops, so focused on costume design instead. Of course when a production of my favorite Gilbert & Sullivan, “The Pirates of Penzance,” went up I had to audition for that and landed in the chorus. The skills I learned in the UW shop, and later at the Seattle Opera Costume shop, made a lot of historical clothing possible for me later on.
BRASS: What brought you back to the Northwest after working in California?
NANCY: I landed in California by way of Japan, following some SCA stick fighters whose skills I hoped to emulate. I hadn’t planned to stay long, but two marriages and several moves later finally escaped after 15 years.
BRASS: Your work on independent film has increased recently, with jobs in a variety of areas in front of and behind the camera. What’s it like working on these smaller budget productions after some of the larger projects you’ve been involved in?
NANCY: My career in on-camera work has been kind of backward. My husband, Gordon, got me into working on large-budget feature films in the 90s when cavalry pictures like “The Postman” and “The Patriot” were still shooting here in the USA. I’d join him on location and pick up work as background cavalry, armorer’s assistant, day wrangler (when they needed a lady wagon driver) and the occasional background bit. This is the “jump in and see if you float” alternative to film school. I actually love working on small indies a lot more, as far as the day-to-day experience goes. You get to know everybody involved, and I love the “everybody pitch in as needed” atmosphere, which is impossible on a strictly union set. I also like not having to drive trailer full of horses cross-country a couple of times a year.
BRASS: You’ve done your own fair share of podcasting in collaboration with your husband Gordon, including the quite excellent “History Files.” What’s the status of this and other Bad Cat productions?
NANCY: Right now “The History Files,” “Gordon’s Gun Closet,” and “What’s in a Name?” are all on hiatus due to Gordon’s busy day job schedule plus his history teaching gig for the Navy. The existing episodes are all available to stream and download at CSICON.fm or iTunes, and since they’re mostly about historical subjects the podcasts are pretty much evergreen. I do a weekly podcast with a couple of folks in Stockholm, Sweden, called “Movieing On”, also on the CSICON podcast network, where we discuss films from 1999 or earlier. For instance this week we talk about the 1942 film “The Spoilers”, a John Wayne/Marlene Dietrich western about Nome Alaska during the gold rush. (To listen to an episode of “The History Files,” go here.)
BRASS: You live out in a fairly rural part of the Washington peninsula. What drew you out there? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of living a fair ways out of urban areas?
NANCY: Since I first left home to live near UW back in the 80s, I’ve been moving farther and farther away from urban settings. The city is fun to visit, but the noise, pollution, crime, and just general dense population are very oppressive to me. I’m much happier with more green stuff around me. I like to heat with a wood stove, grow a big garden, feed the chickens in my bathrobe, and build things. We’re on five acres right now, and even though we no longer have horses I’m ready to take the cats and chickens and move even farther out. My goal is to be out in my yard and not see any other nearby houses or hear other people’s music, dogs, or cars. Bliss.
BRASS: What’s on your plate next as an artist?
NANCY: There are a couple of possible roles coming up in small features this year, as well as some possible producing. Everything is set in jello for the moment. My big dream right now is to buy a used toy hauler trailer and set it up as a one-stop production trailer, with office space, screening capabilities, wi-fi, and a work space for props, wardrobe, and/or armorer services. On small productions we end up tailgating and basically working out of our cars or under a tree somewhere when on location, and that becomes exhausting pretty quickly even for the 20-somethings, and 20 was a long time ago for me. There are already wardrobe and makeup trailers, green rooms and honey wagons, but I don’t think there is anybody in the Puget Sound area with something like what I have in mind right now, so I’d like to fill that niche.