Oakland actress makes the cut for 'Wives with Knives'

Tatum Willoughby stood in a drafty television studio on the outskirts of Treasure Island wearing nothing more than a light-green silk negligee and a wig she’d brought from home. Men in cargo shorts with cameras and boom microphones jostled around her, while a man she hardly knew flapped open blankets as an invitation to the low-lit bed before her. “OK, Tatum,” hollered director Ted Leonard. “Can you kind of crawl on top of him this time?”

This wasn’t a porn shoot. Willoughby, an Oakland actress with the world’s most eclectic resume, was starring in an episode of “Wives With Knives.” That’s right, Bay Area. A television show called “Wives With Knives” is filmed on Treasure Island.

It was the last day of filming on Willoughby’s episode, one in which she plays a real-life woman who fell in love with a rapper and ended up cutting off his finger. Every episode of “Wives With Knives,” which has just finished filming its fifth season, is based on an actual crime involving a wife (or girlfriend) with a knife.

The shows are co-produced by the Investigation Discovery (ID) channel and Indigo Films, a production company in San Rafael. Indigo runs the studio on Treasure Island — the very studio where Willoughby must now change from her negligee to an orange prison jumpsuit.

“I’ve been performing since I was a child,” Willoughby said, before going on to casually detail her childhood turn as a martial-arts world champion. “What I really want to do is martial-arts movies.”

The scene Willoughby was about to shoot took place in a police interrogation room. An assistant producer filled in as Willoughby’s last-minute lawyer and was quickly given a blazer and briefcase just before the scene started. Willoughby had somehow switched wigs, and she slid out of her ever-present navy parka to shoot the scene.

The 30-year-old actress resembles a young Audra McDonald, although under all those wigs she brought along for her role, Willoughby sported a nearly shaved head. She was warm and talkative, breezing in between energetic notes from Leonard and her chats with the extras.

When she’s not acting, Willoughby is a cosmetology student at the Paul Mitchell school in San Francisco. “I’ve been doing pretty OK,” she smiled over our craft services lunch of custom-ordered burritos, “especially since I don’t have an agent.”

Over the course of my day on set, Willoughby taped a handful of scenes, including one at a boot camp for juvenile delinquents. Yet another extra failed to show, so Leonard tapped a woman from craft services. “You look like a troubled youth,” he joked.

Roles are given out pretty freely on “Wives With Knives.” In fact, if you tune into Willoughby’s episode, you might spot me as a deadpan hip-hop record producer. Willoughby gave me pointers on both my makeup and my delivery before we shot the scene. “The key is letting yourself go,” she advised, to no avail.

Willoughby is so great at being a wife with a knife, this is actually her second starring role on the series. And the actress is no stranger to ID shows. Willoughby also appeared on an episode of the ID series “Sex Sent Me to the Slammer.”

“Tatum commits to the part,” said Leonard, who’d directed Willoughby before and requested her for this “Wives” role. On one job, Leonard needed Willoughby to run around a church in her underwear. “And that’s not easy for anyone,” he laughed.

She also does her research, digging through newsreels and crime articles about the women she portrays. “This one,” Willoughby said of her current role, “she’s been through so much abuse.”

Willoughby easily and often shared funny stories, including one where she was recognized from her “Wives” role while handing out flyers. She was nervously approached by a group of teenage boys who’d remembered her episode. The star giggled, “They were like, ‘You were scary!’ and I was like, ‘Rawr!’”

The actress spun yarns while she was waiting to shoot a scene in a Treasure Island church that the production team had transformed into a nightclub. Lounging in a director’s chair, Willoughby was just as comfortable with her audience of short-term co-workers as she was in front of a camera. And the young actress was clearly having fun getting paid to play a wife with a knife.

“If you feel like someone’s going to knock on the door,” Willoughby said of her blossoming career while looking around at the converted church, “eventually someone’s going to knock on the door.”

Beth Spotswood’s column appears Thursdays in Datebook. Email: datebook@sfchronicle.com