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.


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

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