Native stars go mainstream
Mixed feelings surround ‘feather and leather’ roles
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.”
Lorne Cardinal, as the lovable but dense police officer Davis in Corner Gas, says non-native roles for native actors can have their drawbacks.