At only 8 years old, Keris Hope Hill is already pure magic onscreen
The young star brings a natural spark and tenderness to her roles in Rosie and Little Bird
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.
Keris Hope Hill is the first actor I've ever interviewed who tends to make funny faces at me over the course of our conversation.
She's only eight years old, but occasionally Hill sounds like she's going on 13. "I have the worst fake laugh ever," she tells me, testing the limits to her talent. Her real laugh can melt the room.
The little star — who, as her kindergarten teacher will tell you, has a lot of "spunk and sass" — made her screen debut last TIFF as an orphan finding chosen family in Gail Maurice's Rosie, now available digitally and on VOD. And she'll be appearing later this month as a child stolen during the Sixties Scoop in the harrowing Crave and APTN series Little Bird.
The latter stars Darla Contois as Behzig Little Bird, an Indigenous woman raised in a Montreal Jewish family who travels to Saskatchewan in search of the younger siblings she lost track of in the foster care system. Hill, who plays Behzig as a child, describes the character as "a little mother," much like herself — she's a middle child, with three younger siblings who she tends to look after. "Trying to keep them out of danger," she says. "I'm always doing that."
Hill is Mohawk from Six Nations, a reserve about an hour's drive away from Toronto. Her family lives on a 90-acre property, about half of which is used for farming. "I usually see deer, eagles, turtles," she says when I ask her to list the wildlife she can spot from her yard. "And not to be rude, but my siblings. They're kind of like animals."
Her younger siblings didn't hear the sick burn — they're somewhere napping on this early Monday afternoon.
Hill is speaking to me on her family's iPad alongside her mother Tammy. A print of Norval Morrisseau's Thunderbird hangs above the mantle behind them. Hill is home because the federal government strike means First Nations schools are closed. She's enjoying the time off. "I do not like sitting down for a long time," she says. "I get squirmy."
That becomes abundantly clear as we keep going. Whenever Tammy is explaining something about their recent experiences — how Hill jumped from the couch into show business — the young actor busies herself making those faces, holding a giant magnifying glass to her wide-open mouth so I can really see the gap between her front teeth and taking advantage of her time on this Zoom call to fiddle with the iPad.
"If this was broken, our whole house would be broken," she says, explaining that it basically functions as the central control for the lights, stereo and satellite television in their home. "We aren't even allowed to touch this iPad."
At one point, Hill's eyes go wide after her tinkering clearly messed something up. "I pressed a button to see what it did and it made my face bigger."
She's an extremely adorable and animated child, a natural performer who also likes to sing for fun and dances competitively. The family was recently on a Disney Cruise where they had to stay up until 11pm because Hill insisted on performing karaoke every night. According to her mother, Hill was singing during the entire drive from Six Nations to Toronto for our photo shoot, where she was busting some moves to Dua Lipa's "Levitate."
Her talents are obvious to everyone around her — which is why her kindergarten teacher Toni Demille recommended that Hill, at six, respond to a social media casting call for Rosie. The titular character she portrays is a playful and strong-willed young child who brings joy to everyone around her. "When we read the synopsis of the character, we were like, 'That sounds just like Keris,'" says Tammy.
In the film, Hill plays a child whose mother, a Sixties Scoop survivor, recently passed. Rosie, an English speaker, is pawned onto her aunt Fred (Melanie Bray), a French-Canadian artist who is facing eviction and trying to figure out a way to take care of herself — never mind a child — with help from her friends Flo (Constant Bernard) and Mo (Alex Trahan).
"It's about resilience, strength, love and chosen family," says Rosie's Métis writer and director Maurice over the phone from her home in Toronto. The film is a considerably hopeful and joyous homage to the children growing up in foster care. "Rosie not only survives, she thrives — and she changes the lives of the adults around her."
When I ask Maurice to clarify the gender identities of her characters, specifically Flo and Mo, if only to nail down how to write about them, she explains why she refuses to put them in a box.
"In my culture, there is no gender," says Maurice, a Cree and Michif speaker. "There is no 'him' or 'her' when you speak. Flo and Mo are simply two human beings that simply dress the way they dress and love whoever they love. They simply are two spirits that live the life they are meant to live."
Part of the reason Maurice chose to tell her story from a child's perspective is because they're not judgmental. Hill, Maurice, says, proved that.
"Not once did Keris ever question Flo, Mo or Fred, and why they were the way they were. Not once did she ever see any difference between her and them as human beings, which is what I love. We're all spirits in this beautiful earth just trying to get along. And when you find family and people that you connect with, it's powerful."
According to Maurice, Hill was shy at the live audition for Rosie, where she was testing opposite Bray. But Maurice says Hill — who, unlike most other six-year-olds, could already read a script — had a spark in her eye, and would follow her instructions when she suggested different takes on the audition. "You can tell she was hearing me as a director," says Maurice. "I knew she would be fine."
That ability to take direction is a big reason Hill landed her follow-up role in Little Bird. "For me, it was a no-brainer," says producer Jennifer Podemski. She explains that beyond Hill's obvious acting talent, her recent experience on Rosie was helpful, since it meant she had some shorthand when it came to set life, whether that meant arriving at her mark or performing the same task 20 times. "She was so professional. She knew what she was doing."
Podemski is the Moccasin Flats producer who co-created Little Bird alongside playwright and TV writer Hannah Moscovitch (Interview with the Vampire). Podemski's own Anishinaabe and Ashkenazi identity helped inform the series, which is directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy) and Zoe Leigh Hopkins (Kayak to Klemtu, Run the Burbs).
The mostly Indigenous team brought a lot of their own family's stories to the series, which deals directly with Sixties Scoop and residential school trauma. "We had to hold space for each other and make sure everyone was okay," says Podemski.
Hill talks about learning more about that history as part of the process working on the series. She's part of intense sequences, directed with care and caution by Tailfeathers, where police rip the children from their home. Tammy would spend the days before shooting making sure Hill understood the storyline, what she was filming and emotionally preparing so "it wasn't weighing heavy on her." They also had an on-set therapist and a counsellor.
Tammy was surprised to find herself getting emotional watching her daughter play out key scenes. Her grandmother and father were residential school survivors; the trauma resulted in her father being alcoholic from the age of 14 to the day he died at 64. She didn't realize how much intergenerational trauma had affected her until she was watching Hill perform. "I couldn't pull myself together," she says.
"As soon as filming would be done, Keris would come and find me right away," says Tammy. "I'd be a bawling mess. She would just give me a hug and say, 'Mom, it's okay.'"
Hill says she herself was fine, feeling secure that everything she was doing was make-believe. "I don't find a lot of the scenes affected her," says Tammy, taking comfort in the distance Hill has from that lived experience.
She adds that for Hill, the intense and dramatic scenes were really an opportunity to flex her acting skills. And then she would just go back to being a kid — playing with the clapper, arguing with her co-star or finding someone to make faces with.
"She'd be screaming at the top of her lungs," says Tammy. "They would yell 'cut,' and she's laughing."