Arts

American Gods, The Order, Cardinal...we could go on. Kawennahere Devery Jacobs is on the rise

Timing, talent and tenacity have made this Indigenous actress/filmmaker Canada's latest breakout star.

Timing, talent and tenacity have made this Indigenous actress/filmmaker Canada's latest breakout star

You'll be seeing a lot of Kawennahere Devery Jacobs. (Photo: Justine Nelson)

Actress, writer and director Kawennahere Devery Jacobs is on a roll.

Earlier this year, she appeared on Canadian television screens as Sam in the hit series Cardinal. Just this week, a new supernatural show called The Order, where she stars as Lilith, arrived on Netflix. And after this weekend, you can find Jacobs playing the highly coveted role of Sam Black Crow on American Gods. The critically acclaimed series returns for a second season March 10.

A petite yet striking presence, I first saw Jacobs in A Tribe Called Red's video for "Sisters." I remember her dancing, I remember her laughing — but mostly I remember the way she gazed straight into the camera. It was confident and defiant, and it was a look that stayed with me long after the music had faded.

It's challenging to be any kind of artist in Canada, but to be an actor is a particularly uphill battle. Our film and television industry is small, our Canadian-focused entertainment media is sparse and our national audience is frequently preoccupied with content from south of the border. It's not unusual to see a talented actor work for decades in Canada without ever becoming a household name.

That's why it's so exciting to see the rise of Devery Jacobs.

Kawennahere Devery Jacobs and her stunt double on the set of American Gods, Season 2. (Courtesy of Kawennahere Devery Jacobs)

That rise is the result of a fascinating set of factors, including timing, talent and tenacity. Jacobs and I talked earlier this month about her creative journey. During that conversation, she shared the story of how she landed the role of Sam Black Crow. It turned out to be the perfect example of this perfect storm of factors. "That was the hardest I've ever fought for almost anything," she told me, laughing.

As a huge fan of the Neil Gaiman book American Gods, Jacobs had been tracking the series since she heard about the adaptation. Her sights were always set on the character of Sam Black Crow, a queer, Indigenous, college age student with whom she resonated deeply. During her first meeting with a new agent, Jacobs stated that when the casting notice went up, she had better be in the running. American Gods went on an international search for the actor who would play Sam Black Crow, and when all was said and done, Jacobs was selected as their first choice for the role.

However, her euphoria was short lived. Another project she was working on had a conflicting schedule with American Gods. It all came down to one single day, and the other (unnamed) production refused to let Jacobs go. "We fought for a week; we tried absolutely everything, I pleaded with the production and they would not budge. I was gutted. I was crying. I couldn't sleep," she said. Finally, the team behind American Gods informed Jacobs that they had to move on to their second choice.

Resigned to her fate, she decided to write a letter to the producers. She told me the letter was meant to be her "swan song" — an opportunity to explain how much she connected to Sam Black Crow, a chance to reiterate her unwavering love for the character and the book and a final expression of her sincere gratitude to them for selecting her as their first choice. But that letter became her saving grace. Jacobs told me that it was passed to everyone in the production office, even landing on the desk of Neil Gaiman. They all agreed: Devery Jacobs was meant to be Sam Black Crow.

It's hard not think of words like destiny when one hears that story. And to a certain degree, that idea of a chosen path has been a consistent thread in Jacobs's journey. A member of the Kanien'kehá:ka Mohawk Nation, Jacobs was born and raised in Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory, a reservation located in Quebec close to Montreal. She told me her first role was at a drama summer camp on the reserve — she played a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz. "I was always such a ham. I was always stealing the home video camera and forcing my sister to either tape me or [I was] directing my own little stuff."

Jacobs's mother observed her daughter's love for drama and decided to nurture that creative spirit. She secretly submitted Jacobs to her first acting agency in Montreal, only telling her after she'd already been accepted because she didn't want 10-year-old Devery to experience the disappointment of rejection. It's a heartwarming story — and a nice change from the more commonly told tale of the artist at odds with a family that hopes they'll take a more conventional path. When I expressed that to Jacobs, she said, "I know a lot of immigrant experience is you have to be a doctor or you have to be a lawyer. I can 100 per cent appreciate that. Where I come from, there's no expectations on you to achieve these high-paying jobs. The focus is never on money or academic accolades but it's more family-oriented. When are you having children? And you need to stay within the community. My family's been incredibly supportive of my acting. The thing that is harder for them — and for me — is to be away from home."

Portrait of the artist as a young ham. Kawennahere Devery Jacobs with her dad, Clint Jacobs. (Courtesy of Kawennahere Devery Jacobs)

Jacobs knew that in order to pursue acting as a career, she would need to leave her reserve and head to the city. But Montreal wasn't the right fit for Jacobs. "Living in Montreal, there's not a lot of Anglophone creatives and a lot of them are primarily white," she said. Jacobs moved to New York for a year, hoping that the Big Apple would be the place where her dreams would manifest, but after a series of gigs fell through, she realized how isolating such a large city could be. The opportunity to star in a short film called "The Choir" led Jacobs to Toronto, and it was there that she found the creative sustenance she had been seeking. "Toronto was my first experience of true intersectionality within the creative industry and within creative people. I was really inspired by it. So I just up and moved."

Jacobs's connection to social justice issues has been a defining aspect of her journey as an artist. Before committing to acting, she worked at a shelter in Montreal — an eye-opening experience that helped inform her worldview and has inspired much of her work. Jacobs began making her own films after realizing that the only way she would see stories that deeply resonate with her would be if she began to tell them herself. She has written and directed three award-winning short films and is currently in development on her first feature-length film, This Place.

Toronto was my first experience of true  intersectionality  within the creative industry. [...] I was really inspired by it.- Kawennahere Devery Jacobs

Despite still being in pre-production, the film already stands out in the Canadian film landscape because of its all-female team. The script is co-written by Jacobs, Tamil-Canadian filmmaker Nayani Thiyagarajah and Iranian-Canadian writer Golshan Abdmoulaie. On a recent panel at TIFF, Jacobs jokingly referred to This Place "as the most intersectional movie ever made." Thiyagarajah described their vision this way: "It's a reflection of what's possible when we really want to change not only [the way] film looks and who's on screen but how we actually make film."

Jacobs's first starring role was as Aila in the critically acclaimed film Rhymes for Young Ghouls, written and directed by Mi'kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby. The performance garnered her a Canadian Screen Award nomination. I asked her if anything changes when she's working on projects with Indigenous creators at the helm. "It just feels like there is a sense of understanding that you don't have to explain," she said. "That doesn't mean that we can't create great work by non-Indigenous filmmakers — there's just a sense of caution that non-Indigenous filmmakers have because they're not telling their own stories and they don't want to offend anybody."

Kawennahere Devery Jacobs and filmmaker Jeff Barnaby on the set of upcoming film Blood Quantum. (Courtesy of Kawennahere Devery Jacobs)

As a result of that caution and desire to be politically correct, Jacobs told me that she often finds herself becoming an unofficial consultant, asked to speak up if she finds anything offensive or inaccurate. It's a job not required by any other actor on set, leaving Jacobs to do double duty while the rest of the cast can focus on their craft. It's also important to note that this labour is generally uncredited and unpaid. "It's a little frustrating and exhausting when you're constantly having to represent a community as opposed to just being yourself and be within that. That's something that you don't face when you come across Indigenous filmmakers because there's just that collective understanding. We all get it. Even if you're not from the same nation there is that collective understanding."

I know from personal experience that being viewed as a representative can lead to pressure not only from the outside but also within one's own community. Being "one of the few" of any group in the public realm can lead to a level of scrutiny that is challenging to navigate. When Jacobs decided to cut her hair a few years ago, she got a taste of this. "There's that idea that your hair is a connection to your spirit, and when you're in mourning, you cut your hair in certain Indigenous cultures. And I had really felt stifled by the weight of my hair, the emotional weight of a lot of heavy things that I had been carrying." People on social media were angry at her for choosing a new pixie cut, and the backlash was unsettling. "It was such a weird experience to have that sense that people had an ownership over my body and my hair."

It's a little frustrating and exhausting when you're constantly having to represent a community as opposed to just being yourself.- Kawennahere Devery Jacobs

North American culture has a reverence for individualism. Countless films and TV shows depict stories of wild and carefree young people, living life in the moment, doing whatever feels good, accountable to no one and nothing but themselves. But when you are a representative, when you are one of the few from your culture or community with access to a public platform, there is a strange collective ownership that happens and an unspecified sense of responsibility. Your actions and decisions don't just belong to you — they now become representative of an entire people. And that carefree individualism can often feel very distant. I wondered how Jacobs, at the age of 25, is able to manage this sometimes precarious balancing act.

She told me: "I'm 100 percent happy to represent Indigenous Kanien'kehá:ka women because that is what I am. That's my experience. That's how I was raised." However, she also confessed that she's thought about and felt the other side of the coin. "There is definitely a lot of pressure from within our cultures to be straight edge and to set that example for our youth and to be that role model. It's a tricky situation. I feel like people of colour from other communities can kind of empathize with this, where it's like you're not just an individual representing yourself in this world and through [your] art. We are representing a greater community and it's more about the collective as opposed to the individual."

From the work that Jacobs has fought to be in, to the art that she creates when she is behind the camera, it's clear that she's focused on reflecting a more radically inclusive future. "The future I'm trying to build would look varied. We would have as many voices and perspectives as white film does," she said. "I think we are going to define it on our own terms and it's going to be reflective of our communities and our culture. The future that I'm trying to build is guided by the voice of our ancestors, but it's in respect and collaboration with our brothers and sisters from other cultures and communities."

I, for one, am very excited to watch as she manifests that vision.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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