CBC's winter season is about to start and they asked me to come in and chat with some of their stars. Adam Beach is a familiar face on both sides of the border, with am impressive resume ranging from North of 60 to Flags of our Fathers; yet somehow the first thing I ask him about is Twilight.
People talk a lot about Taylor Lautner, being this young leading man who's also a native actor...
Adam quickly cuts me off.
"Well, it's very controversial, cause he isn't native. And there's speculation of a couple of other "native" actors who aren't native. And for me, when it comes to the demographic of native actors and filmmakers, there's a very small percentage. And when you take a movie that has a worldwide success and you're not hiring native talent, you're really pointing fingers at them saying "you're not good enough. You're not worth playing yourselves. We're going to hire a non-Indian to make you guys look good." And I don't believe that they're taking any of the steps that I've been struggling and striving to do in the past 15 years. It kinda makes me feel that Hollywood has no intention to change when it comes to changing that perspective and demographic of minorities in film and television."
Wow. This is not the conversation I expected to get into. On the other hand, it does bring up a nagging question: there are some people who would say that it's colour-blind casting and they're just hiring the appropriate person for that role. I mean, I'm Irish and there's always non-Irish people playing Irish. So how do you ride that balance between colour-blind casting and the need to embrace history and heritage?
"Well, you know, you're not going to see me try and play Martin Luther King. You're not going to see me try and play Irish folk. I stay in my group. I'm not going to play someone of Latin descent, 'cause that's just not my priority. When you look at the demographic of Native peoples and their struggles, to get out of the poverty that they're in, it's important that we maintain a certain honesty of who they are as a people. Especially when you're dramatizing them in this traditional way, and make a story that they're werewolves and shape shifting, and for them it's a direct message to the consciousness of a people that's been stripped of their identity, because of residential schools and land claims, and they're still doing in this medium of film and television.
But they decided to take a few of the native actors and give them very minimal parts. It's unfair. And you know, I understand; like you demonstrated, when it comes to playing Irish, as long as you look white, it works. I understand that. But when you look at the portrayal of native people throughout Hollywood, they were always non-Indian and we're at a time where it doesn't have to be that any more, especially when they've so distorted our image and made us the victim, the alcoholic, the killer, the one that was raping and pillaging, when it was the other way around.
Do you feel that that's shaped the path of your career?
"Oh definitely. Starting out in this business, I was very stubborn when it came to what I wanted to do and I wouldn't do anything that would represent native peoples in a bad way. And sometimes I wouldn't work certain years because of that, but that's s choice I made, and I still continue that choice. I'd rather not work; I'd rather starve, than to do something that's against what I believe in."
"By the time I get the people through the film school, I'll create a native entity that we never have to depend on Hollywood on providing little scraps of native characters that they don't even give us, they give it to somebody else. That in the next 10 years, when it comes to native films and characters, it will become our department."
"It's a Northern community, Yellowknife, which is beautiful, so part of it is to show that rich Canadian contrast. There's East, Central, West and what we're doing is going further north and it's important to show Canada is very multi-cultural. But also that the north is not just a cold, isolated place."
So it's not Nanook of the North anymore.
"It's beautiful and that's what we want to show with Arctic Air. The family and friends involved in the show are so amazing because no matter what happens, they support each other and love each other and that, I think, represents Canada when it comes to community bases -whether it's urban or out in the bush -we will all support each other to make the greater good. And I think Canada has always been a leader when it comes to the whole multi-cultural community."