Arts·Rising Stars

Kate Hallett holds her own against acting legends in Women Talking — and she's our inaugural Rising Star

Our new column celebrates the next generation of Canadian film talent, and the 18-year-old Albertan earned her place with an awe-inspiring professional acting debut.

The 18-year-old Alberta actor gives an awe-inspiring performance in her professional acting debut

Stylized photo of Kate Hallett. The text reads "CBC Arts. Rising Stars. Kate Hallett."
Kate Hallett. Photos by Cooper & O'Hara. Makeup by Emily Phung. Hair by Stephanie Strazza. (CBC Arts)

Rising Stars is a monthly column by Radheyan Simonpillai profiling a new generation of Canadian screen stars making their mark in front of and behind the camera. This is its inaugural edition.

Kate Hallett went from singing Disney and Broadway tunes in an Edmonton parking lot during the pandemic to starring in Sarah Polley's Women Talking, holding her own opposite Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Frances McDormand — a marquee ensemble sharing a dozen Oscar and Emmy nominations (and even a couple dragon tattoos).

In her professional acting debut, Hallett plays Autje, the narrator in Polley's adaptation of Miriam Toews' novel. Her whispery voice sets and presides over the scene as several Mennonite women who have endured repeated sexual violence and abuse gather in a hayloft to process their trauma and interrogate their options, figuring out their next step as a community resolved to heal.

Hallett gives a sensitive and soulful performance as one among the abuse victims, a child who is playful but also hyperaware, alert to the tempers of those around her as a mode of self-preservation. The material is incredibly heavy — but Hallett tells CBC Arts she always felt supported and encouraged while navigating that subject matter, regularly visiting with the therapist who was always available for cast and crew on set.

"I don't think we would have been able to give the product that we did without that sort of protection," says the 18-year-old actor on a Zoom call from her home on an acreage near Edmonton. 

Kate Hallett posing in a dark green blazer.
Kate Hallett. Photos by Cooper & O'Hara. Makeup by Emily Phung. Hair by Stephanie Strazza. (CBC Arts)

We're chatting about her performance, which nimbly alternates between hopeful and wounded, especially in gutting scenes when Autje expresses youthful pride, which is then gently overcome by a realization of her limitations in a violently patriarchal community. The character keeps her chin up, but her eyes take the slightest bow.

I would call Hallett a scene-stealer, but that wouldn't feel right because we're discussing a movie that everyone talks about with such a communal vibe. The cast involved in Women Talking — which opens in theatres across the country on January 6 — regularly describe an environment where filmmaker, actors and crew nurtured each other's ideas and shaped the final product; a set where competition and hierarchies felt entirely out of place. 

Hallett shares the spotlight with her celebrated co-stars. But she also often becomes our emotional anchor simply by bringing some childish levity and unspoiled righteousness and determination to her role. There's a reason she was chosen in the eleventh hour to become the film's narrator, usurping a previously recorded narration by Ben Wishaw, who plays August, the lone male in the film tasked with listening to the women and taking their minutes.

August's ability to write in a community where women are denied access to education, and his role as witness, made him an ideal narrator in Toews' original book. But in the edit suite, something felt off to Polley, her editor Chris Donaldson and the film's producers.

"I got an email from Sarah on a random Tuesday," Hallett recalls about the last-minute pivot. "She was like, 'Hey, do you have any, like, notes or anything from when you were prepping? We have this cool idea and we just want to try out you being the narrator.'"

Closeup of Kate Hallett smiling as she cups her hands to her collar.
Kate Hallett. Photos by Cooper & O'Hara. Makeup by Emily Phung. Hair by Stephanie Strazza. (CBC Arts)

According to Polley, Hallett's work was regularly singled out by her castmates. They were stunned that a novice — who was 16 years old at the time with no formal theatre education — exhibited not just raw talent but also technical skills uncommon among actors her age. 

Hallett's prior performing education was limited to classes at community theatre The Citadel and online lessons during the pandemic. Her experience included playing Alice in a middle-school production of Alice in Wonderland and Fantine in a community production of Les Misérables put on by the Visionary Centre for the Performing Arts. But she seemed to understand tricks of the trade that award-winning actors like Buckley and Whishaw spent years developing at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

"She instinctually intuited a classical theatre education that [her castmates] thought it was unfair they had to go to school for," says Polley, giggling, over the phone.

Hallett can't put her finger on the skills her elders on set kept talking about, but she assumes she absorbed them from bingeing behind-the-scenes YouTube videos, blooper reels and actor-on-actor interviews. "I would just watch so much that I think that stuff got subconsciously put into my brain," she says.

That's the "YouTube rabbit hole" that inspired Hallett to pursue acting to begin with — not, as I would have assumed, seeing great performances in the movies. Hallett bashfully admits that she can barely sit through a feature-length movie, a stunning revelation during a conversation about her appearance in one of the year's most celebrated films.

"I'm terrible at it," she says. "I don't have the attention span for it. I have to be in a really specific mood to actually be able to sit down and watch something."

She's almost squirming as she describes this inability to sit through anything but The Hunger Games. That blockbuster about a girl from a rural community tossed into the limelight is Hallett's balm for when she's stressed. She happened to have it playing when she got the email from Polley telling her she got the part in Women Talking.

Kate Hallett looking slightly to the side in a white button-down shirt.
Kate Hallett. Photos by Cooper & O'Hara. Makeup by Emily Phung. Hair by Stephanie Strazza. (CBC Arts)

Hallett's limits when it comes to watching movies could be a generational thing. Her cohort has been weaned on YouTube creators and TikTok; they're used to content that is no more than a few minutes long and more reliant on eye-catching social media-ready outtakes than in-depth storytelling. But her passion for acting is far more rigorous and in-depth than that characterization allows. 

Her love for those behind-the-scenes YouTube videos, and disinclination when it comes to sitting through a movie, makes more sense when I listen to Hallett unpack her methods, speaking with such enthusiasm and insight about her preparation and working dynamics. She's in love with the process more than the product. 

One of her favourite moments on the Women Talking set, for instance, was when she was just sitting around on a hay bale with Jessie Buckley, who plays Autje's mother Mariche. They were working out how their characters would enter the scene and how they would signal a shift in their relationship. Hallett isn't fondly remembering acting, or even rehearsing, but just an off-camera conversation where they were unpacking the characters and engineering the performance. 

It's a moment fit for a behind-the-scenes video or some actor-on-actor interview — the very thing that made her want to do this work to begin with.

Women Talking is now in theatres.


Radheyan Simonpillai is the pop culture columnist for CBC Syndicated Radio and film critic for CTV's Your Morning and CTV News Channel. Formerly the editor of Toronto's NOW Magazine, Rad currently contributes to The Guardian, CBC Arts and more.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now