Prior to 2008, Tarra Riggs was an aspiring unknown with limited experience in commercials and theater productions in her home state of Mississippi. All of that changed with the release of director Lance Hammer's gripping feature "Ballast" (2008), which starred Riggs as a single mother trying to raise her son in abject poverty. Riggs' performance was singled out by critics for the film's most glowing praise, and her film career soon flourished - testimony to her status as an actress to watch on both the Hollywood and independent landscapes.
Born in Crystal Springs, MS, Riggs was raised outside of Chicago, IL by her single mother. She returned to Mississippi to attend college, but briefly left again to reside in Atlanta, GA before coming back to the state to settle down with her husband and two children. Though Riggs had long harbored a desire to act, she did not begin to pursue it in earnest until encouraged by her spouse as a creative outlet. By 2003, she was attending acting classes and landing supporting roles in local theater, as well as on-camera parts in regional commercials.
Her screen debut came via one of her introductory acting classes; word reached her in 2005 that an independent film production was shooting in Mississippi and seeking non-professional actors for its cast. Riggs auditioned for Lance Hammer and won the key role of Marlee in the project, which came to be known as "Ballast." Shooting preceded a lengthy rehearsal period, during which Riggs and the rest of the cast largely improvised their dialogue, based on a script treatment by Hammer. As Marlee, Riggs was called upon to shoulder the lion's share of the film's emotional content; her single mother struggles mightily to protect her 12-year-old son James (fellow newcomer JimMyron Ross) from poverty and harm with the meager income from her dead-end jobs. When James encounters the grief-stricken Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, Sr.) in his remote home, the boy discovers that his mother has a history with this newcomer; one filled with unresolved conflict that boils over as the trio becomes an unlikely family of sorts.
After the completion of "Ballast" in 2005, Riggs continued to audition within the Mississippi area, and found work in several plays and promotional spots. In 2007, she landed two features - "100 Lives" (2009), about a series of murders in Memphis, TN and "American Violent" (2008), a drama with Alfre Woodard and Charles S. Dutton about a Texas mother who is accidentally arrested during a drug raid. That same year, "Ballast" was released to independent theaters, where it was received with near universal positive praise. Riggs' work was hailed by critics and moviegoers alike, and yielded a 2009 Independent Spirit Award nomination, as well as the Best Actress Award from the Gijon International Film Festival in Spain. Riggs' miraculous year continued with a supporting role in "Hurricane Season" (2009), a drama set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with Forest Whitaker and Isaiah Washington.