Meet LA’s Good (Or Bad) Girl Tierney Finster
If I’m the quintessential New Yorker (which I am, obviously), then Tierney Finster is a fabulous representative for the city of Los Angeles. I arrived late to our meeting at the Ace Hotel Downtown, overheated and pale in my black leather jacket, so Tierney’s blonde hair, bubblegum pink nails, and washed-out denim felt like a gaze into direct sunlight. I had read through a bunch of articles she wrote for Playboy (and Galore) the week before and became obsessed; she writes how a person should write. I watched her series of Caught Feelings videos, in which she directs, acts, and wins awards with her friend Niko the Ikon. “I’m trying to make the world softer,” she told me, “And I think you can be soft and powerful at the same time”. I nodded my head encouragingly in response. Who wouldn’t be down with that? I asked myself. Who doesn’t agree with everything Tierney Finster has to say?
Abeline Cohen: So is Niko actually a singer?
Tierney Finster: What’s really interesting a lot about things that Niko and I did—well, when we first started putting the “Caught Feelings” videos online, he was lip-synching, but in the “Wicked Games video”, it’s actually his voice. He’s been training himself to be a singer, and he truly is a singer, and now he’s going to work on his own music project…but it was interesting to get random people and press-type people calling him a singer when he was lip-syncing. It’s kind of cute to be labeled something before you really become that, you know?
AC: Yeah, it’s crazy because it’s so obvious that he’s a singer, even when he’s not singing at all.
TF: Right, like how much of everything is just the performance of being it?
AC: Yeah, and you know, everybody that I’m surrounded by right now, including myself, is going through something that’s like, okay, am I an artist, or am I a journalist, or am I the one that should be getting interviewed? I’m not even sure how to go about identifying yourself.
TF: Right, titles—you know, it’s weird because I spend so much time naming other people and naming other things. I’ve had so many of the same friends for so many years here, and Niko and I have had so much support and talent around us, which makes executing our projects so nice and fun. Then at the same time, I’ve always been writing for everyone, you know, like everyone’s bios, and everyone’s press releases. I spend so much time giving labels to my friends, but when it comes to myself, I don’t want to. And that’s fine, because I’m so excited and happy to do that, but it’s funny because it’s like, when it comes to other people, I’m like, just be chill, this is the world, you need to name yourself! But when it comes to me, I’m like, I don’t know.
AC: Absolutely. So what do you title yourself?
TF: I say writer/actress/filmmaker, which is funny because I never plan on using film in my life, and then that kind of becomes a whole thing, you know? Or, so I say video maker, because I care lot to direct video. And I’m working on a lot of video projects, not just with Niko, but more so in a private vacuum. In the coming weeks, I’ll definitely be focusing more on those projects.
AC: Also, something funny about Los Angeles and New York—everybody here in L.A. seems so comfortable identifying themselves as anything, whereas in New York, people are more self-conscious about labeling themselves as something before they’re super established.
TF: Well, I think there’s a writerly way of dissecting everything, and trying to find language to frame everything, and I mean, as much as I’m often making notes and archiving my experiences, I’m also like, well, no one actually gives a f***. No one might actually look at my stuff, no one cares. I never wanted to say I was an actor, but at the core of everything, that’s all I’ve ever been doing, and so that’s the crux of it, I would say.
AC: And how do you feel that being from Los Angeles specifically influences you?
TF: I was laughing about this the other day, because I’m super interested in political formulations, and I’m interested in nationalism as this key to forming nation-states, and patriotism, and how these kinds of things have facilitated the world being f***ed up more than anything—and then I was basically like, is my love for the West Coast a facet of nationalism?
AC: [Laughs] Maybe it is!
TF: Because I love L.A. so much, and I’m so repping that, you know what I mean? I’m so happy to travel, and I love to go other places, and I’m so describing myself as wandering around L.A. every day like, I love the valley, I grew up in the valley, and it’s one of the most diverse, chill, weirdo suburbs in the world, and I have so much amazing family there. I also think it’s a different experience, because both of my parents grew up in Los Angeles.
AC: I read about this idea that the people here all base their interest in politics around an interest in large conclusions, or crazy narratives. That works well here, when politics are more theatrical…which makes sense, because of the culture of Hollywood, but otherwise people aren’t that interested or engaged.
TF: I’ve always been very politicized and involved on what happens on a local level. Black Lives Matter was founded by someone who was a major mentor at my high school. From my own experiences, being in that space where that woman was facilitating workshops made me really engaged with true reality. For my friends, and I, I know that we’re interested in broad, sweeping conclusions—I mean, also nuanced studies, but broad, sweeping conclusions. I’m also really happy that I stayed in Los Angeles. I thought of moving to New York for college, and then I’m so happy that I stayed here, because the version of myself at that time in comparison to the version of myself now, I think, is so much better since I stayed. I’ve always loved school, and was always proudly intellectual as a child, and I think the way I grew up didn’t privilege that. I think if I went to a spot that privileged that, then it would have been a problem for me, because I think intuition is so much more important than academia, you know?
“I would really identify with the Hannah Montana narrative at that time, because I was getting top grades, but I was also getting extremely turnt.”
AC: Yeah, but what initially interested me in your writing is that it’s very academic in the best possible sense. You’re clearly able to develop an angle on any topic, and employ a lens that’s very much your own, whether you’re writing about Shakespeare, or like, for Playboy. Being able to critically think is something that is actually hard for a lot of people to learn outside of school…or maybe just in general?
TF: Okay, so I went to Cleveland High School. It’s a public school, 4 or 5,000 kids, and it’s diverse in every way you could think of. But like, the humanities program there is such an intensive program. It’s only writing exams. From freshman year in high school, you’re writing 20 page papers for tests; you’re going through racial power pyramid exercises, where a white kid is on the top and an Asian kid is on the bottom, or a reverse fishbowl exercise where men are blindfolded and women are catcalling them. So I was really lucky to go through these experiences so young. I was always a writer. I have always written, I always wanted to be a writer, and so going to a school that so championed that skill set made me good at it. And so you know, by the time you get to 12th grade, you’re studying Richard Rorty’s idea of truth and self, and you know, just like, reading every existentialist you can and comparing existentialism with romantic love, which actually informs a lot of the work I do. Having read Stendhal and Barthes, and all the academic formation of love…I mean, I don’t need any help studying low culture because I love it, you know? Because I’ve been out here, right? So now, it’s a weird place in between, where, college was so easy for me because high school was so challenging and invigorating. I was always a good student, I liked that. I still do, but college was more about me learning how to be other, I guess.
“Maybe it’s best to dissect the things you don’t love, rather than what you naturally do. I don’t know if it’s beneficial to learn the language of deconstructing yourself, when it’s hard enough just to construct yourself.”
TF: I mean, yeah, because I’ve always been super well-received…okay, that’s a really dick quote, maybe don’t put that, [laughing] but I never…I mean the type of high school I went to, I was being wild, because I was involved in student government, but I was going out all the time, and going to bars all the time, and I would really identify with the Hannah Montana narrative at that time because I was getting top grades, but then I was also getting extremely turnt. So I wanted to give myself a new kind experience, because I didn’t want to feel like I just did the same things all the time. So I holed myself up at LMU where I had a random roommate, who turned out to be my writing partner and my best friend. She just left actually.
AC: Left where? Left this roof?
TF: Yeah, like here. So in college I learned like, what wealth was really like, what white identity can really be like, what wealthy white Catholic identity can really be like in America, and I kind of just vibed out there for three and a half year. I know it’s so boring to give you a recap of my school history.
AC: [Laughing] No, no, I’m interested because everybody always feels like whatever way they did it is usually the best—
TF: I don’t know if people should go to college or not!
AC: Well, one thing that’s really hard about school is that and can feel so pointless to just sit in a classroom and talk about shit. And what it seems like you got, is like, a marriage between theory and application.
TF: Yeah! And I love humanities and aesthetic theory, but it’s so cool, because in some ways, I found communities and spaces where I can think about this kind of thing or talk about this kind of thing. But I really value that my best, most intimate relationships are with people who didn’t go to college, and who truly don’t give a f*** about the privilege of sitting in a classroom and meditating on the photographic image of self. Because you know, true artists don’t sit around critique each other. And maybe some of them do, right? But for me, it’s been this balance, and for me, I thought I would miss school a lot more than I do. I love not being in school. I love working, and I’ve been so lucky to be freelancing in a way that makes me feel like I’m hinting at different elements of what I dream of doing, or want to do. And I don’t think I would have been able to do this 4 years ago, without going to school. I was a screenwriting major, and I’m happy that it was my major, but I think it’s really scary to study what you love. Perhaps sometimes it’s best to dissect some things the things you don’t love, rather than what you naturally do. I don’t know if it’s beneficial to learn the language of deconstructing yourself, when it’s hard enough just to construct yourself. So for me, to be in the screenwriting environment, might not have been the best. But I mean, it was great, because the experience of having to turn in 30 pages of screenplay helped…I’m not afraid of criticism.
AC: The music videos remind me of being a kid and choreographing dances with my friends, or playing pretend…it seems like a lot of fun. Is fun a priority for you?
TF: That’s definitely what it is [Laughs].
“It’s just this idea of, do you want to hang out with me? That’s what my professional question is.”
AC: I also wondered about the connection between your music videos and your writing. And after hearing you talk about it, I think the connection between those two things is in the intimacy they convey, and how much love you feel for what you’re doing.
TF: Well, I don’t want to act like I have this like, trouble-free life, because I definitely don’t. There are realities, there are economical realities, there are existential wonderings, you know, but um, fun—I have so much fun, you know? I hope it doesn’t sound bratty, but I think that my professional life often feels like camp to me, because I’m like, okay, I’m going to write an investigative political article about reproductive health or maybe legislation that has come out, but I also love writing for a saccharine teen gift girl guide—you know what I mean? I try to not be so consumer-based, but then I’m like, I’m going to act in a video or direct a video, or help Niko. Niko and I always say that since we’ve been working together for so long, and our footings in a “professional word” are kind of similar, or kind of together, but because of that, my relationships with my friends haven’t changed.
AC: So are you guys able to work together and not get into arguments?
TF: Yeah! I mean, I often play an administrative role in those situations, which I don’t mind, because I’m naturally chatty, and there’s always like—it’s just about my own patience and my own ego, and my own love for what I’m doing. And I will tell you, really, so far, I’ve only done things I love so far.
AC: You’ve never worked on something you didn’t love? That’s an accomplishment.
TF: Thank you! I mean, I’m trying to think, but it hasn’t been that long, you know? I think it’s this idea, like, well, I heard this somewhere, but I used to be afraid of doing things bad, until I became afraid of not doing them at all.
“I’m dying for people to disrupt what I do sometimes.”
AC: I love that.
TF: Yeah, and I think it’s also about where you get your support from. Like I love the idea of meeting new people, and collaborating with new people, and being linked with new worlds and people to share ideas with, but for the time being, at 23, and living in L.A., where I’ve always been living, the confidence is coming from the people I’m working with. Some people are lucky to have great supportive friends, but I’m lucky to have supportive friends who are so good at what they do. I think I wrote it down recently, you know, we all freak out sometimes, and I wonder sometimes, what will this be like? what will life be like? but all I know is that for right now, I trust that I have people who will help me do what I want to do. So coming from me, the quote from me, right now is, ‘I have no reason not to have faith’.
AC: I like that. So what do you actually do every day? Do you go out a lot?
TF: Well, I always get up early. I would say that I don’t go out a lot, but then when I remember how much other people go out, I guess I would say that I do go out a lot. I love to have parties more than I like to go to parties.
AC: Really? Because you love cleaning up in the morning?
TF: Hell no, I don’t want to do that. [Laughs] I think that everything is collaboration, right? I think everything I do is about telling a story, or about making a picture, or making an environment. It’s just this idea of, do you want to hang out with me? That’s what my professional question is. Do you want to hang out? Do you want to create an article, or a video with me? Do you want to come to my party? It’s all about relationships and exchanges. It’s all the idea of wanting to connect with people and wanting to communicate. And I think the reason I moved towards producing videos or making videos with friends, or using screenplays that I’ve been writing, it’s just about being the person that helps other people have their conversations, you know?
AC: Yes, but go on.
TF: I think especially writers have these ideas about fixed truths, because it’s like, I wrote this word, I wrote this script, I wrote this book, leave it alone. But I’m in a place where I’m pretty confident about what I do, and I’m like, please edit me! I’m dying for people to disrupt what I do sometimes. But at the same time, a lot of what I’m interested in I still love, so it’s not an easy thing, but what I realize is that I benefit from knowing that people care about the type of content I’m making. Not that they love it or hate it, but they have a general human response to it.
AC: Do you need people to be honest with you?
TF: All I expect is that people are comfortable enough with themselves to express themselves with me. I’m militantly intimate, you know what I mean? You talked about intimacy already, but I’m an only child, and I have lots of cousins, but it’s this idea of like, I want you right here, I want to sleep with you right on my neck…but I want freedom within relationships, and I want everybody to have fun. I don’t have friends that don’t dance.
AC: [Laughs] And how would your friends describe you?
TF: I think they’d say, and this is a Chris Crocker quote—”I’m a real ass bitch in a fake ass world”. I’m practical and wild, in some way that that works. My expectation from a friend is that they’ll put their phone down and talk to me. But also that they’ll pick it up and take my picture with it, you know? I get so annoyed when I hear people saying, ‘I just hate when I see people taking pictures at concerts’ because I’m like, okay, we’re in the world, it’s not 1970 or like…this idea of whether artists should be online, or in public, and it’s like, well, where else would I be? For now, I won’t be on a commune, because for now it’s nice to think of fantastic escapes from reality in a different sense.
AC: But I think what you’re saying is that you, or we, all have the ability to create that for ourselves, and one part of building an escape is knowing what’s real.
TF: Yeah, and I do care about like—as much as I don’t demand the idea of reception—numbers do matter to me, because I would like to make things that normal girls in the valley love. I think I get a lot of support from people, which is great, but I haven’t gotten enough of a chance to make things for larger audiences removed from social worlds and creative circles that I’m a part of.
AC: You want to be more accessible.
TF: I want an MTV show. That’s what I would really love. I would love a lot of things, but I really want an MTV show. They have these two shows right now, “Faking It” and “Awkward” and they’re really great.
AC: That’s amazing. Oh my god, MTV is so f***ing weird. Remember “I Want To Be Her”?
TF: Yeah, with the faces? Also I think Room Raiders was really perverted because the whole thing revolved around cum stains. Essentially, the whole thing was a blacklight. I love TV. I work for a TV show right now, and it’s my first time working on a TV show, and I’m so happy to work for Chris Moukarbel, who is the executive producer. He has a model of entertainment-making that’s so relevant and fresh and doesn’t feel like this antiquated film school model that I got in some ways in college.
AC: What other projects are you working on?
TF: At SXSW, A Wonderful Cloud will be premiering, directed by my friend Eugene. There was no real preparation for doing the movie, most of the lines were improvised. All of my parts were improvised, on set with Eugene.
AC: How many actors are in the film?
TF: I’d say 6 or 7 principal cast. The story so clearly reflects Eugene’s experiences of love and life, and about moving back and forth from New York to L.A. The premise is that he had a girlfriend Kate, when he was living in NY, and they had a vintage clothing business, but different roles, and then he moved to L.A. and then her business took off, although it’s all the same business. So she goes to L.A. for 4th of July weekend to remove him from the company and when she’s there, it’s the conflict between revisiting someone from the past and feeling nostalgic versus utilizing this whole new space. She has all this access to new people, and it’s this idea of old vs. new, LA vs. NY, love v. friendship vs. hatred vs. lust, I guess, and basically just a collection of fun characters. Rachel Lord, who is like my favorite painter/poet/performer is this amazing studio artist that plays the girlfriend in this sexy rom-com, so I love that it’s getting people from all corners. And um, just an example, too, that is like, the idea of what I do every day, is just projects with friends. Eugene’s a friend that I’ve never done anything with before, so that’s fun.
AC: So what’s your role in the movie?
TF: I’m officially credited as “L.A. Bitch”! I think for Eugene there’s an interest in what’s fake, what’s real, and it’s improv, but I’m still playing a character, or some version of me, and I love the idea of playing someone naughty, because a lot of certain types of friends wouldn’t know that I could be, you know? And Kate, the main character who plays against Eugene in the movie, who clearly wrote it, and directed it—they went out for years. They had a real relationship, and there’s footage included from their actual relationship. So this idea of time, and this idea of love, and basically all I’m ever doing is telling a story of the time, and you look back and sometimes you’re like this is good, or this is bad, or this is totally made up.
AC: Let me tell you, I haven’t interacted much with actors, but I feel like they’re total freaks.
TF: Oh, they’re total weirdos. I never wanted to say I was an actor, because I think there are a lot of actors out here, wilding out, you know, in an interpersonal way. And I think a lot of people want to escape themselves, so they act, and a lot of people I think are into the oneness of everything, which I am. I mean, I know this is like heady, and very L.A., and all like, spiritualism, and magic and divinity!
AC: Well, it’s actually kind of hard not to be like that when you’re outside so often. When the sun is shining so often, it’s hard not to think like that.
TF: I take things seriously like, in terms of the things I do and it’s not like I think everything is for bliss and doesn’t matter, but the world is so funny, you know? I think we all have the power to turn the world into the genre we want it to be, because every genre can contain all the elements of everything, right? The idea as an actor is to get the impetus of one emotion, like one text or one fake love scenario, and then—sometimes I make something matter, just to feel what that is.
AC: That’s crazy. Actors are crazy.
TF: So sometimes I’m making a period in my life into a drama, because I want everything to be a drama, but then I’m realizing it’s actually a sexy dark comedy, so…just make life a sexy dark comedy!
A Wonderful Cloud premieres at SXSW on Sunday, March 15. All photos courtesy of photographer Alberto Gonzalez and makeup artist Carlota Gonzalez.