Frontier star Jessica Matten
Toronto’s Jessica Matten stars in Frontier, the Great White North spin on historical drama
As Toronto resident Jessica Matten watches the events unfold at Standing Rock in North Dakota, where indigenous people are staring down construction of an oil pipeline near their only source of clean drinking water, she sees the same issues being addressed in her dramatic and action-packed new television series, Frontier.
Set more than 300 years in Canada’s past, it is the Discovery Channel’s first scripted series.
The six-part show, which premiered last November, arrives on Netflix this month. Frontier is a historical drama chronicling the rise of the fur trade in 1700s Canada. Frontier star Jason Momoa ( Game of Thrones) portrays Declan Harp. He leads the Black Wolf Company of indigenous warriors in an often-bloody attempt to break up the monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company as it pushes into native land to secure resources. Sound familiar?
The show has been wellreceived, and a second season was already announced and filming underway in Newfoundland before the first episode aired.
“Handsomely made, populated with great-looking, mostly young actors and knee-deep in blood, thanks to near-constant hacking (knives, hatchets, etc.), it clearly aspires to be a non-fiction Game of
Thrones (Game of Furs?),” wrote Toronto Star TV critic Johanna Schneller.
Matten co-stars as Sokanon, one of the outlaws, an Ojibwa who was adopted into the Métis Black Wolf Company after her parents were murdered.
“She’s been following Harp her entire life,” says Matten, over the phone during a break from filming on the East Coast.
“And she’s grown up to be this very jaded but strong native warrior. She’s feeling, I would say, a little displaced in this new world, looking from within but also dealing with the colonialists and the land and fur trade takeover. Her people’s land
Matten says the way the indigenous people of Canada had to fight for land against the colonialists still resonates today in the Standing Rock pipeline protest and in Canada.
“There are a lot of similarities, and that’s why I find it very, I would say, easy but very relatable to me,” she says. “We are still dealing with these issues at the present moment. The treaties were broken back in the day, and they are still broken to this very day. We are still fighting for our land.”
The show employs cultural advisors to ensure authenticity, and, in addition, Matten has consulted with native elders to make sure her dialect is spot on.
“It’s still a story, like a fantasy, and because of that, because Sokanon is so unique, born an Ojibwa and raised Métis, I wanted to make sure I spoke more than one language. So I spoke with elders about pronunciation to make sure the language makes sense. Even her accent is somewhat accurate given the circumstances.”
Matten was born and raised in Edmonton, Alta. She attended the University of Alberta and set about her plan to work in the fashion industry and even did a stint as a young fashion intern at Elle U.K. before moving back to Canada to finish her degree and move to Vancouver.
While she was preparing to head to New York City to pursue her fashion design dreams, the recession hit and left her stuck on the West Coast — not exactly a hotbed of style. No offence to the Birkenstock set.
But what they lack in glamour, they make up for in creativity. With a thriving film industry at her doorstep, Matten decided to give acting a try.
“Honestly, I never wanted to be an actor,” says Matten. “But I always grew up with an extreme appreciation for film.
At a very young age, my mother used to bring us to the movie store, and we’d never go to the kids’ section, always the classics. I was raised on Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn.”
Well, all those fine films seemed to do the trick. Matten’s breakthrough role came in the 2012 short film A Red Girl ’s
Reasoning, a commentary on violence against indigenous women, which won Best Canadian Action Short at the imagiNative festival in Toronto.
Matten plays an avenging young woman who was raped and assaulted and turns into a motorcycle-riding, ass-kicking vigilante.
Apparently, Matten works as an indigenous warrior, and she turned some very important heads with her performance, including the cultural advisor on that film, who ended up working as one of the producers on Frontier.
“The producer saw that and she said, ‘Oh my God, that is the spirit of Sokanon,’” Matten explains. “They knew they wanted me on the show just from that.”
In addition to acting, Matten also runs aboriginal fitness and wellness company Lemon Tree, alongside her mother, as well as a health and wellness magazine focusing on 10 James Bay Cree communities in the north.
She moved to Toronto to pursue her acting career, and she has found our city to be welcoming.
“I love it. It feels like home for the first time,” she says. “I love the cultural diversity, the arts scene, everything it has to offer. I just feel like my spirit belongs there. I’m happy I made the move.”
Frontier is already airing on Discovery Canada and premieres on Netflix in Canada on Jan. 20.
Toronto’s Jessica Matten co-stars in ‘Frontier,’ Discovery’s first scripted series