Let’s face it, love is complicated. You feel the butterflies, you smile and bat your eyelashes more than usual… and where did that goofy laugh come from? You’re following your instincts and you’re both taking a risk, allowing yourselves to be vulnerable. Then comes the scheduled dating and favourite restaurants – who’s vehicle are we taking? When’s the next road trip, holiday or excursion? Are we moving in together and taking it to the next level? Who are we voting for? Maybe you don’t have the time or the right environment for the average courtship. Maybe, just maybe you’re in a mental health institution and you fell in love with another patient, so you’re working with what you’ve got.
In 1995, Celeste Beard (Julie Benz) was admitted for severe depression and met patient Tracy Tarlton (Justine Warrington). There was an attraction and they fell in love after Celeste had seduced her. Celeste had told Tracy that the only way that they could be together, was if she killed Celeste’s retired broadcaster and millionaire husband, Steve Beard (Eli Gabay). Tracy loved Celeste and would do anything for her. She killed Steve Beard and was charged with his murder. She testified against Celeste to help get her convicted and in return, received a reduced sentence. This is a true crime story with real characters. Celeste is still in jail but Tracy has been out for years.
The Lifetime TV movie, SECRETS OF A GOLD DIGGER KILLER, premiered on June 13th, 2021. Directed by Robin Hays and executive produced by Barbara Lieberman and Howard Braunstein. An original movie that is part of the networks first annual ‘Summer of Secrets’ television movie series, which is compiled of six different original movies based on true stories. When you are making a film based on a true crime story, you really want to select your cast carefully. The people in the story deserve to have their story told accurately and convincingly. They didn’t have to look very far when they knocked on Vancouver’s own award-winning actor, Justine Warrington’s door to tell her she’d be playing real life convicted murderer, Tracy Tarlton. Justine has shared the screen with legendary actors, Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, and Thomas Kretschmann in S. Craig Zahler’s feature, DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE. She was also opposite Johnny Depp in Wayne Roberts’ dark comedy feature, THE PROFESSOR. Justine is known for her dedication and activity in theatre. She went on to train at notable acting schools in Vancouver and with Anthony Meindl at AMAW Studios.
Justine appeared in a wide range of roles for network television, including BBC America, Hallmark, The History Channel and Netflix. Her first feature film role was the free-spirited vixen Ginny in the Canadian cult film, THE CABIN MOVIE, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Leo Nomination. In addition to her work as an actor, Justine is also a talented writer, creator, and producer of projects including EARTHLICKERS (2014), an award-winning sci-fi comedy short film that is now in development as a feature film.
Based on true events, Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer follows multimillionaire Steven Beard (Eli Gabay), a retired broadcasting executive, who fell hard for Celeste (Julie Benz), an attractive waitress who served him his nightly cocktail at the local country club in Austin, Texas. In 2003, Celeste Beard was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison. Tracey Tarlton received a reduced sentence and has been released on parole.
The movie is based on the book, The Fortune Hunter by Suzy Spencer.
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Justine Warrington about her real life role in this bizarre but true crime story. Roll the tape!
HNMAG “You play a real-life character, Tracy Tarlton in this film. Was it difficult to find info on her?”
JUSTINE “It’s an interesting story, the audition was in early Oct. so I did a lot of research back then because I was a little intimidated. I’ve never played a real-life person that was still alive. I had a crack at playing Marilyn Monroe back in the day but this is the first time entering this realm. I did as much research as I could, there was a lot available online about the case as well as video footage. It was enough for me to get a sense of who she was, to a certain degree. I came late to the project – the part was originally intended for another actor that’s very popular in the US. She’s on another popular prison show but I’m not at liberty to mention the actor’s name. Once the role became mine, I only had a week to prep before going to camera, so it was quite a challenge. Luckily, all of the research I’d done prior to the audition process was still with me. I was able to step in and give it my all.”
HNMAG “What would you consider the take away in this story?”
JUSTINE “Isn’t it so funny in today’s society. We worship money and we worship the capitalist system. It’s amazing what people will do for money and what they’ll get involved in. This is to the extreme, in terms of committing a horrible crime. I think the big message for the character I play is to not ignore red flags in a relationship (laughing), no matter how long you want to be loved. We all deserve to be loved fully for who we are and not just because we are of service to someone else. It has to be a 50/50 relationship and Celeste and Tracy were not – it was all manipulation.”
HNMAG “Did you meet anyone involved in the crime story?”
JUSTINE “No, unfortunately. Because I came late to the project, I wasn’t privy to what had come before or if they had consulted the individuals and if they were part of the process. I would’ve loved to speak with Tracy. I don’t know how that would’ve gone over, but as an actor portraying, with all my heart I wanted to do justice to this individual’s life, their pain and their struggle. The tone of Lifetime is slightly lighter, even though they deal with heavy subject matter. I wanted to do her justice to the best of my ability by portraying a human being in it for love. I believe, because the people involved are part of the public domain, the producer avoided copyrights but a lot of characters and names were changed, except for the three leads.”
HNMAG “How did you prepare for the role, in terms of being an inmate, lover and killer?”
JUSTINE “The mental illness, the bipolar and suicidal tendencies, substance abuse issues – I definitely did research on all that.”
HNMAG “Because this film is based on real characters, do you ever worry what the real-life people might think about the film’s portrayal of them?”
JUSTINE “Of course I do and I’m completely sympathetic to that. Imagine being those people and having your story on Lifetime? It would be pretty wild. I really wanted to do honour to this individual.”
HNMAG “Do you enjoy playing multi-layered characters?”
JUSTINE “(Affirmative nodding) This was a joy and our director Robin Hays was so wonderful. Working with Julie Benz (Celeste Beard) was wonderful and the stuff that she got to do. I loved this especially because I love to dig in, I love the dark places and this was exciting to me. I really wanted to sink my teeth into it – it all happened, I wanted to explore the psychology of that, it was a real gift.”
HNMAG “You’ve been in a lot of theatre; have you trained in it?”
JUSTINE “I’ve been in theatre my whole life, but have I trained in it? By doing it…I also trained as an actor in school. Theatre is the best training for an actor and I’m always surprised when an actor hasn’t done theatre. It really allows you to experience things in a total linear fashion; the beginning, middle and end. When you’re on set, it’s cut all over the place and not shot in order. To have that understanding of where that journey takes you is one of the biggest foundations and I can’t imagine not having it. I love theatre (laugh).”
HNMAG “In theatre, there is a I, II and III act play. Have you been in all three types?”
JUSTINE “Oh yes, I’ve written two 1 woman shows as well, which I performed solo but had a small ensemble cast of women also. It was an experimental monologue performance, I’ve been onstage for 2 hrs. at a time, I’ve performed in traditional theatre, experimental theatre, not a lot of improv… because that’s terrifying (laughing). I’ve also done some stand-up comedy, which is a blast. Writing the material was a lot of fun.”
HNMAG “I see that you are shifting more toward producing. Can you tell me what you’re currently working on?”
JUSTINE “Yes, I’ve got a couple on the go. I’ve produced my own theatre as well but I started producing films as a way of getting my stories out there. It started with a crazy 8’s film in 2014 called Earth Lickers. I co-wrote, co-starred and co-produced it. It has since turned into a feature length screenplay and is in development. I was at the Whistler Festival for The Producers Lab in 2019, just before the pandemic hit. I’ve produced a handful of short films and I’ve got a feature in the vault that is awaiting production that I’ll also be acting in. I want to tell the stories and get them out there. I don’t necessarily enjoy producing and don’t recommend it to anyone because it’s really hard (laughing), but if you want to get your work out there, somebody has to do all the work.”
HNMAG “What do you want to say with your films?”
JUSTINE “Hmm, what a good question. I love to make people laugh, I love things that unify and I love to break people’s hearts open. I’ve got a dark comedy in the works, an absolutely ridiculous stoner comedy/sci-fi in the works and a very heartfelt character driven drama that Angie Nolan is writing. I’ll be helping to produce and act in it. Breaking people’s hearts open, making people laugh, unifying humanity, that’s my jam (laughing).”
I had asked Justine where I could get a bottle of that amazing, incredibly inspiring jam. She surprised me by informing me they will be selling jars of jam at the premiere of their next film. Reserve a case for me please.
HNMAG “As a producer, do you have any insight as to when theatres or film festivals will be reopening?”
JUSTINE “The RIO Theatre is opening in 8 days (woo hoo) on the 15th.. It’s our lovely rep centre here in East Van. I believe comedy clubs are also opening the same day, in BC anyways. I know that LA has already opened up quite a bit, but Toronto… (a head swaying, No).”
HNMAG “I really hope that the Whistler Film Festival will be a live event this year.”
JUSTINE “I know… bless everyone for putting on the virtual festivals and the work scene but I can’t tune into screens that much, so I’ve basically missed out on the last festival season. It’s not the same, you’ve got to be there in person. Screening it together in that room is the most beautiful feeling.”
HNMAG “Do you have any submissions this year for festivals/Whistler?”
JUSTINE “Good question, I’ve got a really fun short film that I’ve got in post. I was executive producer and I’m the lead actor. It’s an absolutely ridiculous comedy and a Rambo – First Blood spoof movie. I play a female Rambo type, named Katie Rumbo. Laura Chartrand wrote and directed it and we shot it at the end of last summer in Hope, BC – where the original was shot. It’s a total homage to Sly, to First Blood and the franchise, we had so much fun with it. We hope to be ready to submit by the end of August. We were able to film in many of the same locations and we were able to match shot for shot for many of the scenes. It’s going to be hilarious (laughing). We were able to use some of Canada’s best stunt people and they made me look so badass with the running, the punching and the kicking! They made me look like I was capable of that (laughing).”
HNMAG “Do you mind if we switch gears and I ask you a couple fun questions? Would you rather spend the day orbiting around the earth for the day in a space station or spend the day at the deepest part of the ocean for the day?”
JUSTINE “Oh my goodness… I have a deep connection to the ocean and what’s going on in the deepest depths, which makes it a tough question for me… however, I might have to go with the orbit because I know a lot of people that tell me the earth is flat (laughing) and I would have to go up there to see it, so I could tell them how it actually is, whether it’s this way or that (laughing).”
HNMAG “You have 3 modes of transportation to travel 100 miles. You can use a hot air balloon, a motorcycle or a boat. Which do you choose?”
JUSTINE “Motorcycle, baby. Put the fun between your legs (laughing).”
Justine was so full of energy and life, she’s banned from cemeteries. She was such a joy and is on my top ten list of extremely fun interviews. Her films have something to say and we can all appreciate a good listener, so give her films a look and support a talented female writer/actor/producer.
Justine shares her passion with others as a volunteer for Project Limelight: an arts program for kids in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside. She also collaborates with The First Weekend Club: an organization dedicated to the promotion and celebration of Canadian film, where she hosts red-carpet interviews at festivals and awards shows. She is also a judge for Vancouver’s genre film festival, The Rio Grind.