Day 6

Canadian actor Grace Dove on Monkey Beach and reclaiming Indigenous identity in Hollywood

The film adaptation of Monkey Beach, the debut novel by writer Eden Robinson premiered this week at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Secwepemc actor Grace Dove shares what starring in the Indigenous-led film means to her.

'I'm able to explore these deep, dark layers of myself,' says the Secwepemc actor

Grace Dove stars as Lisamarie, a young Haisla woman who is learning to embrace her Indigenous identity. (Ricardo Hubbs)

For Secwepemc actor Grace Dove, starring in the film adaptation of Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach hits close to home.

"There's so many layers to this movie that I feel are very real in my life and things that I deal with. But also, that's the beauty of acting," she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"I see being on set, I see storytelling and being in other characters, [as] a safe space."

The film, based on the Kitimat, B.C., author's 2000 debut novel, premiered this week at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

It was filmed in the Haisla nation — a decision key to preserving the story's "magic," Dove said.

Monkey Beach follows Lisamarie Hill, a young Haisla woman with supernatural powers played by Dove, who returns from Vancouver to her territory at a "crossroads" in her life. She's trying to come to terms with the traumas of her past, including visions of her brother's drowning and her troubled younger years.

Grace Dove says she hopes that Monkey Beach will encourage young Indigenous people to 'look down at the colour of their skin and feel really proud.' (Ricardo Hubbs)

Throughout the film, Lisamarie struggles with her identity as an Indigenous woman.

"I'm able to explore, you know, these deep, dark layers of myself as Grace in other people's stories," Dove said. "I feel like I'm healing through these characters, and I think that that's why I do this work."

Dove added that young Indigenous people — herself included — continue to struggle with their identity to this day.

"As a young Indigenous person growing up in very white school systems, we always feel pressure to conform and to fit into, I think, a Western view that doesn't necessarily agree with me," she said. "It's still a journey for her [Lisamarie] to accept who she is. She feels like she's cursed. But then there's important people in her life who keep telling her that she's a superhero."

While Lisamarie's supernatural powers — she can see ghosts and spirits, and has visions of events that may happen — don't make her a superhero in the comic book sense, Dove says that the term is fitting given her selfless nature.

"She doesn't necessarily need to be wearing tights and a cape, but I think that her selflessness and her drive to put her life at risk to save her brother, to save others, that's a superhero."

Indigenous creators going mainstream

Monkey Beach is led by a cast and crew of Indigenous filmmakers and performers, including Métis-Cree director Loretta Sarah Todd.

When Dove was cast in the 2015 Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster The Revenant, she recalls there still being few "authentic" roles for Indigenous performers.

This year, she says that those opportunities are growing. 

"I'm in contact with a lot of the Indigenous film community in Vancouver and in L.A., and I know that some of my friends are now in writers' rooms in L.A. helping create shows on mainstream media right from step one," she said.

"I've been extremely vocal about representation and how important it is that we are having roles that empower us and that show the world how we should be treated. And so since [The Revenant] ... I see great change."

A television series based on Robinson's Trickster series will also premiere on CBC-TV next month, making for a "surreal and wild" year for the author.

Dove hopes that Indigenous representation on screen, particularly in Monkey Beach, will inspire young Indigenous people "around the north, around B.C., around Turtle Island."

"I want young people ... to be able to watch it and look down at the colour of their skin and feel really proud, and want to really claim their identity and say it out loud, and make art and change the world," she said.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Annie Bender.

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