Tomatoes have been the enemy of actors since as far back as 1883, when an article in the New York Times recounted how a Long Island theater audience pelted aspiring thespian and lecturer John Ritchie with bushels of the fruit, sending him fleeing from the stage.
But for actress Paten Hughes, tomatoes have been her career salvation, ultimately resulting in “Heirloom,” her new nine-episode digital series premiering today on Vimeo.
“I had a film project fall apart a few years ago that I thought was sort my big break,” recalls Hughes, who trained at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and became an original member of Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic New Voices Network. “I had been working so hard. I just needed to take a step back and think about what I was putting out there and what I wanted. What is success for me? What is fulfillment? I know it sounds so corny, but I needed to grow something and connect to the earth.”
Hughes and her fiancée decided to start a tomato farm on just under an acre of land in California’s Sonoma County. What started out as a hobby turned into a business, dubbed Heirloom Heiress. Today, she grows 43 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes, which she sells to local restaurants including Barn Diva, Dry Creek Kitchen and Chalkboard.
“It was funny, because as soon as I was planting the tomatoes and growing them, something else came alive inside of me that I had maybe lost touch with as an artist, and it helped open a new perspective in me in terms of my work,” says Hughes, who commutes back and forth between her home in New York City and California to care for the farm. “And then I started booking roles,” including parts in the features “Long Night, Short Mornings,” which debuted at SXSW in March, and “Beauty Mark.”
“Heirloom” is not exactly a visual roman à clef for Hughes, but it does follow a rough sketch of her personal journey. In the series, she plays a struggling actress who rediscovers herself when she leaves her acting career in New York City behind after inheriting a small farm in Sonoma, where she learns how to grow heirloom tomatoes and finds love in the process.
“It’s thematically and emotionally parallel,” says Hughes, who developed the story with series writer Bekah Brunstetter (ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth”). “A lot of those auditions that you’ll see at the top of the pilot, they’re either my experiences or some of Bekah’s friend’s experiences. But we definitely crafted the storyline and invented a lot with it to help bring out the themes of inheritance and what it means to be given something special, and then also to up the rom-com drama.”
Directed by Michael Melamedoff (“Weakness,” “The Exhibitionists”), the self-financed series was shot on location at her farm in Healdsburg, Ca., and in New York City over the course of 17 days in the summer of 2015.
In spite of the series’ small budget and lightning-fast shooting schedule, Hughes was able to get some well-known actors to sign on to the project, including Tom Wopat (“Dukes of Hazzard,” “Longmire”), Margaret Colin (“Gossip Girl”), Ryan Cooper (MTV’s “Eye Candy,” “One Life To Live”), John Lavelle (“Selma,” “Zootopia”) and Broadway star Pascale Armand.
“Each actor just sort of fell in love with the story and took a leap of faith in me,” says Hughes. “And [director] Michael [Melamedoff] has made some independent films that people were familiar with, so having him the helm the project gave people some faith that it would probably turn out well. Margaret came up to me the first day on set and hugged me and said, ‘Thank you so much for telling beautiful, fun story,’ and that was sort of the attitude from everyone.”