June 24, 2017

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IN CONVERSATION WITH GEMINI AWARD WINNING ACTRESS & ACTIVIST MICHELLE THRUSH

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IN CONVERSATION WITH GEMINI AWARD WINNING ACTRESS & ACTIVIST MICHELLE THRUSH
Photo Credit To CBC.ca

Photo: CBC.ca

…she was this conglomeration of all these different women in my life, you know, aunts, and my mom and my own Grandmother, just women in my life that I witnessed growing up surrounded by a lot of alcoholism. So I just pulled all these different sources and put them into Gail Stoney.

JD: What has the impact of your Gemini win in 2011 had on your career?

MT: It’s had a huge impact. Before the Gemini, I was living in the South Okanagan, I had left Calgary in 2009. I was working a show back then called Mixed Blessings for APTN, and doing other things, I teach, I use various theatrical characters to work with Aboriginal youth…I made a decision in 2009 that I was going to move away from Calgary to the country and go off the grid with my daughters. We had solar panels and pumped our water from the river, and we used candles and kerosene for light, and a wood stove for heating the house, it was very basic, but such a beautiful way to live. I was there for two and a half years, very secluded, in the woods, coming into town, you know it was a small reserve and I knew everybody there. And then, in the summer of 2011, we were doing our second season of Blackstone, my daughters and I spent about 8 weeks in Edmonton to shoot Blackstone. We had just lost Gordon Tootoosis ten days before we went to camera that season, so we were all really shook up from that, and still very vulnerable and emotional, he was so important in my life, he was like a father to me.

I got the call from our producer Jessica Szymanski, she’s the one that told me I’d been nominated for a Gemini. My mind was blown, I didn’t even know they submitted me, I didn’t even know I was capable of being nominated, it wasn’t even in my radar – it was beyond anything I’d ever conceptualized. I was pretty freaked out about it.

michellethrushgemini_0When I was nominated I thought there is no chance in hell I’m going to win this award, but I’m going to go there, and have a good time, and I’m going to meet George Stroumboulopoulos, which would have been the ultimate thing for me at that time.

So I contacted late Gordon’s daughter, Disa Tootoosis, who is a fashion designer, and a really good friend of mine. I told her “I gotta go to the Geminis, and I need a dress, let’s just say the one in a million chance I win this award, I’m going to dedicate it to your dad, so it would be awesome if I was wearing your dress” So I won the award, wearing the dress she designed, and then my life just kind of went into extreme high gear, and I had to move back to Calgary and be close to an airport and have electricity, so yeah, my life changed hugely after the Gemini. It opened up so many doors, it was beyond any dream I’d ever had.

JD: What has it been like playing the role of Gail Stoney?

MT:  Blackstone in itself changed my whole life. I can no longer walk into a Walmart anonymously (laughs).  My life has changed a lot since the first season. It’s created a huge amount of buzz, and we have the phenomenon of Facebook happening, so there were all types of people inboxing me in the first season, telling me their stories of how they sobered up, or how they lost a child due to suicide or, you know? Everything that they identified with Gail Stoney, and it hasn’t stopped.  I still get approached constantly, my daughters don’t like going anywhere with me anymore…

JD: What is your relationship like with Gail Stoney?

MT: I just finished filming Season 4, and I’m feeling pretty raw, this season really kicked the shit out of me. I can’t give away too much, but I feel like this season, [producer, writer, director] Ron Scott pushed me emotionally beyond anything I’ve ever done, even in the first season. There was so much turmoil and emotion and just things that Gail Stoney had to figure out this year dealing with a lot of guilt, and trying to seek redemption, and what that means to her. My relationship with Gail—we get along great. I love Gail Stoney, honest to God.

When Ron first offered me the role in Blackstone when we did the pilot, I took a lot of liberty with how she was going to be. I knew she was a chronic alcoholic, and I knew that she had a really bad relationship with her daughter who would eventually kill herself, but that was it. So I had a good meeting with Ron about what I saw as Gail Stoney, and she was this conglomeration of all these different women in my life, you know, aunts, and my mom and my own Grandmother, just women in my life that I witnessed in my life growing up surrounded by a lot of alcoholism. So I just pulled all these different sources and put them into Gail Stoney.

Back in the day when we were in the beginning parts, Gail had the bad teeth and a wig and stuff, so once I got into her, it was like I was channeling somebody else, and it was pretty incredible. I remember when I did the scene that I believe won me the Gemini, which was the ditch scene in the first season, that was the episode that I won for – I could feel the shame, and just the sense of disempowerment of so many women in my life who have lost so much to alcohol, and to intergenerational trauma, and all the things that our women are dealing with. That is what won that Gemini, it was myself channeling those aspects into that character – it’s pretty powerful, so it’s really important for me to put that out there.

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Photo: Prairie Dog Film & Television

JD: You’ve been in quite a few films, including Jim Jarmuch’s Dead Man with Johnny Depp, what has the Hollywood experience been like for you as an Indigenous woman?

MT: I’ve been pretty anti-Hollywood, and I’ve never really been attracted to the Hollywood scene. I’ve been to LA of course, hung out with Johnny Depp down there, but the American films I’ve done have been independent. Dead Man, Skins, Jimmy P that I shot with Benicio Del Toro last year…

JD: Hollywood often portrays Indigenous people as a stereotype or trope, what has your experience been like navigating that?

MT: It’s hard. I’ve taken jobs that later I’ve looked back and thought, oh god that was such shit.  But you have to sometimes, you have to take the work, and it means filling that spot and playing that Hollywood Indian for that producer down there who has no idea who you are, or has never had a conversation with you but wants to fulfill the whole stereotype of the romantic Indian or the savage. That’s the problem right there, is that we need to have our own producers, our own writers who are able to provide funding. That is what Adam Beach is doing with the Adam Beach studio, he’s got this whole thing going on where he’s trying to create the revenue so we can create our own films. And that’s what we really need to do. It’s difficult, but there are a lot of great writers out there and producers and directors coming up that are amazing. Chris Erye, Jeff Barnaby, Georgina Lightening, but we need to provide the revenue for our films so we do have a say. I am just so tired of the stuff that is coming out, and I just keep putting it out to the universe, that I want to play a character that has nothing said about being Native. You know, just to play a human being.

JD:  You are quite an outspoken activist as well, and you mentioned you’d been living off the grid for two years – can you talk about some of the advocacy work that you have been involved with?

MT: I’m pretty politically involved. I was recently approached by Greenpeace International, and I’m going to be their Canadian Ambassador. In August, myself and Emma Thompson, who is the UK Amabassador are going out to the Arctic for ten days.

My first love along with drama, was politics. I did my very first blockade back in 1988 – I remember jumping into a van being extremely concerned about Lubicon Lake, and a bunch of us got into a van and we drove up to Lubicon. We got behind the lines and tried to stand our ground against the things that were happening back then with Bernard Ominayak.

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Photo: Byron Christopher

I canvassed for the NDP back in my twenties, and for Greenpeace, going door to door trying to do what I could. I’ve created a lot of marches here in Calgary for various things. My daughters have grown up watching that and being a part of that, and knowing that you’re either a part of the solution or a part of the problem, and that is your choice to make. My latest political activity was brought on when Idle No More was in it’s height – and I always said that I am an artist in solidarity with Idle No More, because I’ve never been idle, I’ve always used my art, my voice, my activism to create effect. When Idle No More came up I was so elated, I mean, all of us were, to see those marches and see people coming together and the numbers and the allies…

One of the things that really angered me was the Calgary Sun, well the whole Sun Media across Canada really, but especially Ezra Levant and his whole bunch of idiots that call themselves journalists. Especially with their question of the day – you know “Should Theresa Spence be charged?” or “In one word describe Chief Theresa Spence” and they were really creating a huge amount of racism. It was horrifying, the things that were coming out of the Sun. They were stirring the pot of racism to a deep boil.

One day I was doing my dishes in January when Idle No More was really strong – and wondering what to do…and then it kind of hit me, what I am going to do is create a racism funeral. So I built a casket and put “Racism Rest in Peace” and we started a campaign on Twitter and Facebook, and building it up on social media, things like, “Racism has been found dead – we don’t know the cause”. It was a four day process between the day I got the idea, the next day I built the coffin, and then I just really focused on getting people to show up and creating mystery around it. We chose a space about four blocks from the Calgary Sun, but we didn’t release the information until midnight before, because I didn’t want the police to come. We sent out a media release that night, and the next day I showed up at 11am, and there was like a couple hundred people there. We had arm bands made, and a friend of mine who is 6’6” showed up as the Grim Reaper. We told everyone this is not about laughing or fun; that we needed to play the role, and we smudged, and carried the casket all the way to the Calgary Sun. I had a sign that said “the race card” you know, because Ezra Levant is always saying that, and I spoke and I said, “this one Ezra is for you.” And I threw it in the coffin and slammed the coffin shut.

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Photo: Jennie Eagle Speaker

And then the media swarmed me, asking why I was calling Ezra racist, and trying to catch me. I was very picky with my words to make sure I didn’t shoot myself in the foot.  Anyways, the next day when it was all over, my agent called and was like “this guy named Ezra Levant from Sun Media wants you to come on his show, and he wants to defend himself against you calling him a racist Nationally?” (laughing) I told him to tell Ezra to hold on, and I contacted APTN in Winnipeg, to see if we could do something with APTN, Ezra could Skype in, and we would invite Sylvia McAdam and Gitz Crazyboy and myself and we’ll talk to Mr. Ezra about the accusations, and why I did call him a racist. But when my agent asked if he would be willing to do that, Ezra refused, so that was the end of that.

JD: How old were you when you first got into acting, and how did you find your way to the stage?

MT: I was in grade nine in the public school system, and I had a great drama teacher named Mr. Brailey. I did my first play and fell in love with acting at that point. I didn’t think it would be my career or life choice, but I just knew I loved it. After, I was kicked out of the public school system and than went into an alternative school called the Plains Indian Survival School, but there was no drama class. I kept trying to get plays going with all the kids at school – I was doing everything I could to cast it and create sets. I would finally get a cast and be excited to go into rehearsal but then no one would show up for rehearsal! I was so frustrated because I really wanted to act.

 

Photo: Nadya Kwandibens
Photo: Nadya Kwandibens

When I was in grade ten, I was fifteen or sixteen, there was a film in Edmonton called Isaac Littlefeathers, a feature film, and they were looking for a fifteen year old Native girl to play a role in it. They came to my school asking if any of the students would like to audition for it, and my principal right away was like “there’s one girl in this school that loves acting!” So they came to the school and read me for it, and that was my first film, in 1984.

After that I was cast in another film the following year with the National Film Board called Daughters of the Country which was a four part series that the NFB put out. And I still didn’t think it was going to be my career, I was determined that I was going to get into university and take either social work or political science. And it wasn’t until I met Gordon Tootoosis when I was seventeen, and he really influenced me to take it as a career. So when I graduated grade twelve I eventually made my way to Vancouver, and found an agent, and I’ve been going since then.

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About The Author

Jamaias DaCosta

Jamaias DaCosta is a writer, Spoken Word artist and performer, co-Host and Producer of The Vibe Collective radio show and is the Producer of Indigenous Waves Radio, both on CIUT 89.5FM. She sits on the Advisory Board for Mixed in Canada and is a member of the multidisciplinary artist group r3 collective. Jamaias facilitates educational workshops in grade schools, universities and at conferences such as the Allied Media Conference in Detroit and Toronto Truth and Reconciliation around stereotypes; Indigenous education and decolonial thought. Jamaias has worked with Caribbean Tales Film Festival, written for the CBC, and multiple publications. Jamaias is a mixed settler of Kanien’keha:ka, Cree, Irish and French, Jamaican (Colombian, African, Portuguese, Sephardic Jew) ancestry.

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