Cara Gee calls it a “dream role”: a gun-toting Métis cowgirl seeking justice on the Western frontier in 1869.
That’s the premise of a new series called Strange Empire, which premieres this Monday on CBC-TV.
Landing the starring role in a Canadian TV drama is the latest in a string of accomplishments for the 31-year old Gee, whose mother’s family hails from Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario.
She studied acting at the University of Windsor, and after a series of acclaimed performances in theatre, she was cast as the lead in Empire of Dirt, for which she was nominated for best lead actress at the Canadian Screen Awards.
Gee arrived in Vancouver in June, where she’s been shooting Strange Empire ever since. On set at a farm in Abbotsford, she took a break from a scene she was about to shoot — where her character confronts a murderer — to talk about her latest role with CBC’s Duncan McCue.
Q: You play Kat Loving, a Métis woman struggling to survive in a frontier town. She's a badass female native hero...
A: I know!
Q: What's it like for you inhabiting that character?
A: It's the dream role of a lifetime. She's very strong, much stronger than me. I find her strength really inspiring. If I had to face the things she faces throughout this series, I would be curled up in a ball in the corner (laughes). She faces everything head-on.
Not without fear, but a lot of bravery and courage. She's fighting for justice the whole time, then that fight consumes her. It's brutal what she has to go through.
Q: She's a gunslinger. What was that like?
A: It was WAY too fun. I'm not big on guns in real life. But, oh my goodness, for pretend? It's a powerful feeling.
Q: Westerns are a genre plagued by a lot of stereotypical portrayals of Indigenous people. Does that baggage make it a challenge for you?
A: I've been asked quite a few times, "You're in a Western, isn't that cool, have you always wanted to be in a Western?'"
My answer is "No!" It’s not a genre I've ever gravitated toward because of those stereotypes. So, to be able to subvert the genre, and tell a side of the story that isn't told — that has been actively written over — is a huge responsibility. The genre is often nostalgic, and this isn't. This isn't an idyllic West full of the possibility of conquering. It's actually the other side of that, which we don't like to look at because it’s not pretty.
Q: You've taken on lots of diverse roles in theatre, including a Japanese translator and a former porn star. But there aren't many starring roles for First Nations women in Canadian TV. How does your Anishinaabe heritage inform this part?
A: When I was working on Empire of Dirt, people were lumping us in with Rhymes With Young Ghouls, and saying 'Wow, it's a banner year for native cinema. Isn't it wild how different the two films are?' And I would say, 'Native isn't a genre.'
Those two films are vastly different and unique, as much as human beings and First Nations people are unique. The fact that I've been able to play First Nations characters is great, but Kat is completely unlike any character I've played before. I do think what I bring to it personally --- perhaps the one thing we all have in common as First Nations people --- is that we grow up knowing the history we've been taught isn't the whole story.
So, my perspective is informed by that, knowing this side of our nation's history is untold.
Q: The heroes in Strange Empire are all women, and much of the production crew is also female, from writers to directors. It's also pretty gritty - scenes of violence, death, prostitution.
Does this fictional show have any messages — in the context of contemporary Canada, with more and more people calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women?
'To be able to portray the complexity of one Métis woman’s life, maybe that's one way I can help our nation value the lives of First Nations women.' - Cara Gee
A: That has been so present in my mind as we've been making this. The way I've been thinking about it, we finally have this Métis hero.
I really hope the audience is rooting for her, and they see her as a full, real, complex human being. Where we get into problems with undervaluing the lives of First Nations women is that we as a nation don't quite recognize their humanity ... as individuals with lives and families and feelings and thoughts and hopes and dreams. And to be able to portray the complexity of one Métis woman’s life, maybe that's one way I can help our nation value the lives of First Nations women.
There's lots of ways to get at that disaster that is happening, but this is my way of trying to help. It's a huge responsibility, and I'm keenly aware of it. It's enormous, isn't it?
Q: It's tough for me as a journalist, to cover stories of missing Indigenous women. It's a tough place to go.
A: It's devastating. It's difficult to speak about without becoming angry. And that doesn't get us anywhere. You can't just scream at people and say, 'Why don't you care?' Because that's not a way to make people care. But it is insane to me that every single person in this country is not raging at this injustice.
Q: With all that heavy stuff, how do you stay light and happy, on a working day in Vancouver?
A: I don't know if I do. It's been really heavy. I'm not sure what life will be like when it's finished. I'm going to have to work on how to get back to some regular life.
The show is very dark. Kat Loving is living an absolute nightmare, and that is a very dark place to go every day, for months and months and long hours.
That does take a piece of my heart with it. And that's OK. It's worth it... you know, it feels a bit like having my foot on the gas and the brake at the same time.
The show is so good, I'm so excited to see these stories being told, but at the same time, it's this dark, awful place to live. So it's like, GAHHHHH! It's been a very intense experience for me.
Miigwech! Thanks for taking time.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length.
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