This week we connect with ARLENE DUNCAN, also known as the straightforward "tell it like it is" Fatima Dinssa, owner of Fatima's Café, the hub of Mercy.
Born and raised in Oakville (ONT), Arlene is a fifth generation Canadian on her father's side, one of the first Black families that settled in Oakville, coming through the Underground Railroad; her children now make the sixth generation. She is also of Jamaican heritage on her mother's side.
Arlene is a multi-talented actor of stage, screen and radio, some of the many television and film credits to her name include: Puppets Who Kill, Soul Food, Degrassi the Next Generation, The Music Man, Eloise at Christmastime, Get Rich Or Die Tryin', Ain't Misbehavin', Sophisticated Ladies, and The Who's Tommy, to name a few. A rich history that lends itself well to the feisty yet rooted character she portrays on Little Mosque on the Prairie.
Although Fatima is one of the more conservative Muslims on the series, there is a great deal more to her character, as well as the woman behind the hijab. In person, Arlene carries herself with a down-home regality and is as soulful and sharp-witted as the character she embodies.
What are the positive aspects of you playing this role?
AD: Of the many positive things that have come out of playing this role, I would have to say mostly how it breaks a lot of stereotypes. While the Muslim religion is an international one, rarely do you see them represented as other than middle-eastern in culture and the women as quiet, shy and repressed. Although she is an African woman, I am especially touched by the people who tell me how they can relate to Fatima's character as a real person and how she reminds them of their aunt, friend or someone they know. I have also been able to use my profile from the show to effectively reach out thru charity work and personal appearances.
How different is this role compared to other roles you have played?
AD: It's very different from any role I have ever played. When my I first got the call to read for the role, my first thought was: What?! You want me to come in for the role of a Somali Muslim café owner? What about me would make you think that I would be right for this character?!!! I had a lot of preconceived notions about Islamic and Somali culture but then being the kind of gal I am, I readjusted my attitude and decided to take it as an acting challenge, and explore what this woman could really be about. So I researched the culture, and studied the accent. Later, I was thrilled when I got the call that I had been given the part...but it had also been decided to now make her Nigerian!! So it was back to the drawing board! Now it's one thing to prepare a character for an audition, but the real challenge is sustain it for an entire season or future seasons. As I found out more about the character, I realized just how much I could relate to her. She shoots from the hip, is a grounded, independent, self-assured, business woman--very much like the women that I grew up with.
What were some of the challenges preparing for this role?
AD: Well once I changed gears, I picked the brains of Nigerian friends and colleagues, and learned, what I call 'conversational Yoruba'. The Yoruba language is one of among the main languages in Nigeria. I also have what I like to call 'My Village' constantly running in the background in my dressing room during production. It consists of my vast selection of Nollywood movies and African music that helps me to maintain Fatima's rhythm, especially when I'm way out in Indian Head, Saskatchewan, or have ' dueling accent scenes' with Baber!
What inspired you to become an actor?
AD: Although I had always been encouraged to pursue a 'profession', I always had a love of and been supported in being creative and music and the arts had always been a natural part of my life. I tossed around the idea of being a costume or dress designer, drama teacher, or music teacher because they sounded like, you know, real jobs. I never seriously thought it would be possible to be an actress or singer, but by grade 13, I was singing and recording with our school band & had the lead in the school musical. I began to really feel the support for what I loved to do! After high school I attended Sheridan College for Music Theatre and well... one thing led to another and I haven't look back since.
Do feel pressure as a role model?
AD:I don't feel 'pressured' to be a role model, although I am very aware of the responsibility of being one. I was recently approached in a shoe store, by a clerk who was a budding writer/ actor. She had recently read an article written about me in a magazine chronically my career etc., and told me how she had found it both encouraging and inspiring. Just as when I was growing up, and as the mother of two young men, I am well aware of the importance and the influence that positive role models have on the future choices made by our young people.
What do your sons think about Fatima/ your celebrity?
AD: LOL! I believe your children are given to you to keep you grounded! Ever since they were old enough to read, they have been running lines with me and helping me prepare for auditions. If I can do a scene for their unimpressed, expressionless faces, it's but a 'walk in the park' to perform for an actual director. After 30 odd years performing in various media, winning accolades and awards, they were most impressed with the 5 minutes (left on the cutting room floor) that I spent with 50 Cent in Get Rich or Die Tryin'! While they have always been proud of my achievements, I'll always be just Mom first.
How do you use your profile to make a difference in the lives of others?
AD: Through my charitable involvements. My mother was very involved with community service, and would say 'To those who much has been given much is expected.' I was named Honorary chairman of Literature for Life will be performing at the Riverdale Share concert over the holiday season & I'll also be joining up with my fellow cast for the Little Mosque fight against hunger drive, another reason why this series is so special.
What do you do for fun, just to let loose?
AD: Well to name a few: I design jewelery, I love gardening and nature, which morphed into an herbal & aromatherapeutic bath & body products company that I created; I still occasionally find time to paint, I'm an avid techie, and I enjoy using my computer technology for songwriting and graphic design (I'm a little late on designing this years' musical Christmas card...) and just like Fatima, I love to cook and experiment with new recipes. It's one of the great things about the new Little Mosque website and Fatima's recipe section showcases that side of both of us. I hope viewers at home do a little experimenting of their own with the online recipes.