stage star cara gee burns bright in big-screen debut
Cara Gee shifts from stage to screen with stunning ease in Empire Of Dirt
She’s one of the brightest and hardest-working theatre actors in the city, but Cara Gee’s life is about to get a whole lot busier – and more glamorous. Every year TIFF picks a handful of “rising stars,” and this year she’s one of them, chosen for her breakthrough performance in Empire Of Dirt, the slow-burning sophomore film by Defendor director Peter Stebbings. Gee plays Lena, a 30-year-old First Nations woman who’s losing touch with her teenage daughter, Peeka (talented newcomer Shay Eyre), just as her estranged mother (Jennifer Podemski) did with her at the same age.
It’s a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her, gripping performance – Gee’s in practically every frame – and all the more impressive considering it’s her feature film debut.
Right now, sitting on the Drake patio and sipping a big glass of Pinot Grigio, Gee seems ready for all the attention. Before the TIFF Canadian film presser a couple of weeks earlier, she got a crash course in how to present yourself to the media.
“There were cameras in my face, and I kept remembering, ‘Stand up straight, relate things back to the movie, and if your feet are killing, don’t show it,’” she says, letting out a guttural, lusty laugh that shows she’s not taking herself too seriously.
The film is serious enough. Lena’s backstory involves losing Peeka to child services and then kicking drugs, cleaning up and getting her back. In the early scenes of the film, shot a few blocks from where we’re sitting, Peeka experiments with drugs and a near-tragedy ensues. That difficult mother-daughter dynamic broke Gee’s heart when she first read the script.
“Lena’s fought so hard to have Peeka back in her life, and she’s a rock star with these kids in the community centre” – she works as a counsellor to Native youth – “but she can’t break through and connect with her own daughter because she’s repeating the same mistakes her mother made.”
Gee’s relationship with her own mom – who’s Ojibway – couldn’t be more different. In fact, she stayed with her parents, who live in Aurora, during the filming of the scenes in Keswick, Ontario, and ran lines with her mom every night.
“She’s my best friend,” says Gee. “I can’t imagine not having that support and guidance. She’s a sounding board when it comes to all my work. Where do you even start if you don’t have that? How can you learn to be a good mom if you don’t have one yourself?”
One of the richest themes in the film is First Nations pride. When I quote a particularly moving line that comes near the end, Gee’s eyes moisten.
“I wish my granny were here so she could see this,” she says, pointing out that the idea of loss – of children, land, culture – hits home powerfully for First Nations people.
“Part of the struggle of being First Nations is that so much has been taken from us,” she says. “My granny was the last person in our family to speak Ojibway. She had babies in the 50s, and she didn’t teach them the language because they’d get beaten by their teachers for speaking it. It was easier not to know it.”
This is a woman, she continues, who had Jean Chrétien over for dinner when he was minister of Indian Affairs. She fought for the right to vote – which didn’t come until 1960 – and protested the “archaic, sexist, bullshit law” that had aboriginal women lose their native status if they married non-native men.
Gee’s obviously inherited her grandmother’s fierce spirit. You can see it in her stage work like her breakthrough performance in Stitch, in which she played a tough former porn star, and Arigato, Tokyo, in which she was a Japanese woman with reserves of strength and passion hidden beneath a placid surface.
Strong women have had a continuing presence in her professional life. Many actors have taken her under their wing, including Jean Yoon – who has a small role in Empire Of Dirt – and Jani Lauzon, both of whom shared the stage with her in a colourblind remount of Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters. Gee’s been in several all-female powerhouse ensembles, like Tout Comme Elle and The Penelopiad. And she first emerged on the festival circuit in the show 36 Little Plays About Hopeless Girls, by the experimental company Birdtown and Swanville, which produced the recent SummerWorks hit Family Story and, earlier, the biting satire The Physical Ramifications Of Attempted Global Domination, in which Gee played a chilling Chairman Mao.
Onstage Gee’s an honest, intuitive performer, and she found she missed the audience feedback while filming Empire Of Dirt.
“In the theatre, if you make a joke and people laugh, you know it works. You don’t have that in film. Your audience is the camera.”
In addition, she had to adjust to the rhythms of filmmaking: shooting scenes out of sequence and not having the usual three weeks of rehearsal beforehand.
“On day one of shooting you’re making final decisions, doing something that can’t be done over,” she says. “It was like showing up off-book the first day of a play’s rehearsal. You have to know the whole arc. You make discoveries, but you can’t go back and apply them to scenes you’ve already shot.”
The day after we talk, TIFF is flying her and the other rising stars to New York City to promote their films and themselves. And next week she’ll be walking the red carpet, decked out in some complimentary clothes that also come with the honour. Expect her family to be in the crowd, along with her fiancé, the talented actor Kaleb Alexander.
EMPIRE OF DIRT
CWC D: Peter Stebbings w/ Cara Gee, Jennifer Podemski. Canada. 99 min. Sep 6, 9:45 pm Scotiabank 2; Sep 8, 9:15 am Scotiabank 14 Rating: NNN Stebbings’s follow- up to his quirky psychological superhero movie Defendor is a quiet, absorbing look at the cycle of abuse and abandonment among three generations of First Nations women.
Lena (Gee), a 30-year- old single mom, has been drug-free for eight years but is gradually losing touch with her teenage daughter, Peeka ( Shay Eyre). When near-tragedy strikes, Lena and Peeka hitchhike north from Toronto to stay with her mother (Podemski), a gambling addict who kicked her daughter out years earlier. Also still in town is Lena’s ex (Luke Kirby), who may or may not be Peeka’s dad.
Stebbings never finds a consistent tone for the film, which wobbles between earnest understatement and something grittier and more exciting. But it’s beautifully shot, newcomers Gee and Eyre are revelations, and the central theme of cultural pride is stirring and urgent. GS
In fact, intead of talking about the festival’s glitz and glamour, Gee would rather tell me the adorable story of how Alexander proposed to her. Or how much she and Alexander want to catch up on certain TV series before the festival begins.
In other words, she seems pretty grounded. Appropriate, since one of her favourite acting techniques is the Suzuki method.
“It’s this rigorous form of theatre training that connects your centre of gravity to the floor,” she explains. “At every moment you’re aware where your feet are and what they’re doing. Some people think it’s weird, but I know exactly where my feet are the whole time I’m in a show.”
I don’t have to look beneath our table. I can tell Gee’s feet are firmly planted on the ground, ready for what’s coming. 3