Cornelisse grew up in Chicago and Grand Rapids and started working professionally as soon as she could hustle her parents into the car. “I was overwhelming to say the least so my parents threw me in the theatre to shut me up,” says Cornelisse. “Theatre allowed me to figure a lot of shit out, and as soon as I was bit by the theatre bug all I could think was how fast can I get away from from my parents and on Broadway.”
At sixteen Cornelisse auditioned for the early action program at New York University’s Tisch School of The Arts and spread her wings. “Being in New York so young helped me realize fast what this career was all about,” says Cornelisse. “I enjoyed being in class but I liked working a lot more.” In three short years, Cornelisse found herself working Off-Broadway with the some of the best in New York including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Alan Arkin, and Thomas Sadowski. She also understudied in the Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, performed in a handful of indie feature films and won Best Supporting Actress at the prestigious Humana Festival at The Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. “I learned so much about myself as an artist in those early years in New York, I eventually completed my degree when I went back to double major in Psychology alongside of the Acting.”
Cornelisse’s hunger for understanding the human condition is obvious by her fearless approach to each role. “I’m so grateful for every play, movie, commercial – whatever. I approach my characters from the inside out, from the guts, in pursuit of a deeper understanding of why we are doing what we are doing. That makes me, Tonya, horny for life,” says Cornelisse as she laughs sipping on her iced coffee.
After Cornelisse finally graduated from NYU her resume only blossomed mostly working in film. “New York is my home. It is in my blood and bones and loins but every actor must come to terms with making a living,” says Cornelisse. “So I started to sell drugs and fuck underage boys for money. No, I am kidding. I moved to Los Angeles.”
For many successful New York actors moving to Los Angeles can be a very difficult transition, in Cornelisse’s case the work continued to flow along with the endless parking tickets and fender benders. “I’m eternally grateful for my New York theatre homies because they opened so many doors for me here in LA,” says Cornelisse. “I was instantly connected to a strong group of artists that had something to say and did something about it.”
Cornelisse started writing and quickly found herself at Sundance with a film she wrote, stars and produced. She hasn’t had much time to work in the theatre in Los Angeles because of her globe-trotting schedule which has taken her to Wales, Singapore, Toronto (to promote Nick Cassevetes’ upcoming fall release Yellow), and most recently Brazil to work on Imagine Entertainment’s upcoming bio-pic Pele. “Seeing how magnificent the world is first hand, there’s nothing that can beat that. That said, the stage is my first love and it has been calling my name loudly as of late.”
Opening this season at The Whitefire Theatre, Cornelisse has agreed to a six week run of the 35th anniversary of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Buried Child. “Having a chance to dive into Shepard’s work is everything I enjoy as an actress. You’re right in the center of the onion and it never let’s up,” says Cornelisse. “It’s great to be back on stage here in LA and sharing it with a cream of the crop cast takes it another level.”