Na­tive stars go main­stream

Mixed feel­ings sur­round ‘feather and leather’ roles

Calgary Herald - - Entertainm­ent - ALEXANDRA BUR­ROUGHS CAL­GARY HER­ALD

Episode 103, scene 10. Ac­tion. Dressed in vet­eri­nar­ian over­alls, Scott emerges from the old barn. Sud­denly, Lou ap­pears from the farm­house look­ing beau­ti­ful, even in her sweats. Scott’s heart skips a beat. Lou in­vites him in for cof­fee, but he can’t ac­cept. He’s got surgery in the morn­ing. Their hands graze. There’s an awk­ward mo­ment. The chem­istry on screen is pal­pa­ble.

From that short ex­change in CBC’s new fam­ily drama, Heart­land, we learn a num­ber of things: Scott is a ded­i­cated sur­geon, he’s shy and he harbours a se­cret crush.

What isn’t overtly ex­plained: Scott is abo­rig­i­nal.

Al­though this shouldn’t mat­ter, any First Na­tions ac­tor will tell you that race has of­ten kept them from lead roles in main­stream, con­tem­po­rary film and television shows. In­creas­ingly, how­ever, abo­rig­i­nal ac­tors such as Nathaniel Ar­cand, who plays sur­geon Scott Car­di­nal in Heart­land, are cast as key char­ac­ters in roles that have tra­di­tion­ally been filled by non-na­tive ac­tors.

Most na­tive ac­tors are heart­ened by this change be­cause for years they were only of­fered stereo­typ­i­cal “feather and leather” roles. But it’s an un­easy road to the main­stream for some ac­tors who worry their chance to rep­re­sent their her­itage is be­ing lost.

The trend be­gan years ago, but re­cently strength­ened with the likes of Adam Beach play­ing de­tec­tive Ch­ester Lake on NBC’s Law & Or­der: SVU, Lorne Car­di­nal as RCMP of­fi­cer Davis in Cor­ner Gas and, now, Ar­cand in Heart­land, which is filmed in Cal­gary.

“It’s re­fresh­ing for me to play a role like this. And I want to do more. I want Shake­speare,” says Ar­cand, who ad­mits his part in Heart­land has re­as­sured his faith in the in­dus­try.

“I don’t think of my­self as a na­tive ac­tor. I’m an ac­tor that hap­pens to be a na­tive, but I play a range of parts. It’s im­por­tant that we put peo­ple like us in th­ese kinds of roles.”

Ar­cand grew up the old­est of six kids in a sin­gle par­ent home on a re­serve near Edmonton. He says he was a bad kid. He was ar­rested sev­eral times for steal­ing and spent time in prison on more than one oc­ca­sion. At 19, he was look­ing to change his life. That’s when he stum­bled into act­ing.

“My friend and I were go­ing to play paint­ball and he had to stop off and see his agent,” re­calls Ar­cand, re­fer­ring to his friend, the now well-known ac­tor, Dakota House.

“I had a fam­ily that loved me. My mom did the best she could to raise us and sup­port us. This was a way I could work, make some money in a good way.”

Since then Ar­cand has played all man­ner of roles, in­clud­ing tra­di­tional na­tive char­ac­ters some in the in­dus­try de­scribe as “feather and leather” roles in dozens of pro­duc­tions in­clud­ing Into the West and The Lone Ranger. He has also played a ninja in Elek­tra, star­ring Jen­nifer Gar­ner, and “cute gay guy” in an episode of Naked Josh.

“You get the stereo­types,” says Ar­cand, re­call­ing an in­ci­dent on Amer­i­can Out­laws, di­rected by Les May­field and star­ring Colin Farrell.

“I thought my char­ac­ter (Co­manche Tom in Amer­i­can Out­laws) should speak nor­mal, not in bro­ken English.

“Then the di­rec­tor comes up and says: ‘Nathaniel, I like the way you’re do­ing your part, but can you have more bro­ken English.’ And I’m like: ‘This guy has been rid­ing with the Jesse James gang for like five years and you don’t think he’d pick up on the lan­guage and try to blend in?’ ”

May­field lis­tened to Ar­cand’s ar­gu­ment and even­tu­ally al­lowed him speak the role as he felt it should be spo­ken.

“I did it my way. I re­spect Les, but I de­fied him,” says Ar­cand, tri­umphantly.

“I wanted to put my foot down. You have to give some of th­ese na­tive guys a break.”

Cor­ner Gas star Car­di­nal speaks of sev­eral sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences. He was once in­ter­ested in a mu­si­cal stage show of Last of the Mo­hi­cans, pro­duced in Toronto by a group from Lon­don’s West End.

But when he got the script he was hor­ri­fied by the way the abo­rig­i­nal char­ac­ters spoke.

“It just pissed me off so I wasn’t go- ing to au­di­tion at all. But my agent talked me into it. She said ‘The best way to change it is from the inside,’ and she was right,” says Car­di­nal.

“I ended up rewrit­ing all my parts in English and in com­plete sen­tences and com­plete thoughts — as they would speak. When I was up in front of the au­di­tion­ers I told them straight out: ‘I find this par­tic­u­lar lan­guage of­fen­sive so I’ve re-writ­ten the parts.’ And they liked it. They were re­ally very re­cep­tive.”

Un­for­tu­nately, the show’s main in­vestor lost his for­tune and the show was never pro­duced.

Car­di­nal got into act­ing at age 23, which is late by in­dus­try stan­dards. Af­ter work­ing as a tree-planter he went back to school at Cari­bou Col­lege in Kam­loops where he got hooked on act­ing. He says he never dreamed of be­ing a TV star, but that is what he has be­come with more than 30 cred­its to his name to date, in­clud­ing Davis, the love­able but dense cop on Cor­ner Gas.

But with all his suc­cess Car­di­nal says play­ing tra­di­tion­ally non-na­tive roles can also have draw­backs.

“It’s a dou­ble-edged sword. Now they’ve gone so far the other way you start won­der­ing why they aren’t ac­knowl­edg­ing her­itage. You get to a cer­tain point and won­der: ‘I could be a white ac­tor,’ ” he says.

“There should be some­where in be­tween. And I’m not into mak­ing a point of it, or nec­es­sar­ily deal­ing with it, but that’s what hap­pens when you get five white male writ­ers in the room. They’re ei­ther afraid to tackle the sub­ject or they don’t know and are afraid to tackle it. It’s the same for women.”

Through­out the years many mi­nori­ties have tried to break through this kind of racial prej­u­dice in film and TV. Some say ac­tors — no mat­ter their colour — are all judged on ap­pear­ances. Whether they are too fat, too thin, too old, too young or “too eth­nic,” but there are those that have over­come the in­dus­try’s need to type­cast.

“When th­ese ac­tors get the chance to cross the cul­tural di­vide, racial di­vides fall,” says Jean LaRose, head of Abo­rig­i­nal Peo­ples Television Net­work.

“I’m hop­ing it’s a trend that’s in­ten­si­fy­ing over time. Peo­ple just want to con­nect with a char­ac­ter and it doesn’t mat­ter want that char­ac­ter looks like.”

For his part Ar­cand will re­main op­ti­mistic that this trend will grow.

“It’s just ig­no­rance. It was the same for the blacks and Asians. Peo­ple even­tu­ally fit into so­ci­ety as time goes by,” he says.

“The In­di­ans just so hap­pen to be at the bot­tom of the totem pole, so to speak. That sucks, but what­ever. Our peo­ple are strong and re­silient. But that doesn’t even mean noth­ing to me be­cause I am na­tive, but I don’t go around say­ing I’m na­tive. I’m a hu­man be­ing. I’m just like ev­ery­one else.”

Nathaniel Ar­cand

Cour­tesy, CTV

Lorne Car­di­nal, as the lov­able but dense po­lice of­fi­cer Davis in Cor­ner Gas, says non-na­tive roles for na­tive ac­tors can have their draw­backs.

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