Photographer / Steph Martyniuk Assistant / Michael Chiang
Cara Gee: woman about town who’s making colours, waves and inspired (and inspiring) moves with her acting. Cara’s career has been a-changin’ in big ways for this Ontario-born actress. Named as one of Torontoist’s “People to Watch” in 2012, and honoured as a Top Ten Theatre Artist for Now Magazine 2011, Gee’s theatre roles have been notably diverse: a mentally challenged Ojibway woman; a porn star; a woman romantically interested in her brother… the list goes on. Most recently, Gee has made the leap from stage to screen, landing a leading role in her first-ever feature film Empire of Dirt. Filmed in Kensington Market and Lake Simcoe and wrapped within a mere 15 days, Empire director Peter Stebbings was apparently “gobsmacked” by the “breakout performances” he caught in his second feature.
Well, get used to it. Seems Cara is only getting started.
HC: What do you see in a director or a script that makes you think: I want to work with that person/do that script?
CG: I think it comes down to having a strong reason to tell that particular story. Whenever I see a play, I always ask “why this play now?” I choose to be a part of projects that I feel have a strong answer to that question, which can come from either the script itself or the director’s vision.
HC: What’s the hardest part about creating a character, for you?
CG: Crafting the moment-to-moment perspective of that character and then trying to let that go and be in the moment while being very physically specific. I endeavour to always be aware of exactly where my feet are on the stage in every single moment.
HC: You’ve been called an actress with “range”. What does it mean to you to have ‘range’? How do you access all those different places you need to go for the variety of characters you’ve played?
CG: As far as having range, I think it’s about committing to the story you’re telling. If I have range, it’s because I have been lucky enough to play so many different kinds of characters. I believe the only reason that I possess the characteristics I do is because of the specifics of my birth and upbringing. I approach a character imagining that if the circumstances of my birth were different, I might not be so different from them after all. I pretty much just try to empathize with the character’s life as much as I possibly can and hopefully the audience with feel some empathy for them, too.
HC: What about a role that really shaped you?
CG: The first play I was in was called Twelve Dancing Princesses at Bobcaygeon Public School. I was in grade 7 and I played Angelica, the lead. One of my favourite memories of that play was the scene where the princesses pass through the magical forest to meet their dancing Princes. My Mom spent HOURS making little leaves out of foil and sticking them onto these tree branches. Under the lights, the way the leaves sparkled was pure magic.
HC: That’s funny Cara! One of my favourite childhood books was The Twelve Dancing Princesses. You get the Toronto Tiara for playing that role. I just made that prize up. Your mom gets Best Mom in a Supporting Role. Anyway, how would you describe yourself as a performer to someone who’s never seen your work?
CG: Oh god. I don’t know. Hopefully there is a different feeling to my work with every project. Although there is definitely an edginess in my approach, even when I’m playing a super innocent 7-year-old, I try to find the characters’ sense of humour and intelligence so that they are never any less funny or smart than me. Hopefully they are funnier and smarter, if the writing’s good.
HC: You’ve played plenty of Native characters so far: Empire of Dirt; The Rez Sisters; Spirit Horse; Almighty Voice. Do you worry at all about being pigeonholed as a ‘native performer’?
CG: I have been lucky enough to be cast in both Native-specific roles and roles where it doesn’t matter if I’m Native or not. I have also been cast in roles where I play a different ethnicity all together. I have never played a half-Ojibway character, so in that sense it’s always a performance. I always say that I am an actor by choice and I happen to be Ojibway, and no matter what role I play it will be coloured by the fact that I am Ojibway. Some Native actors make the choice to identify as Native people who happen to be actors and they prioritize telling our stories as the main reason they want to make theatre, which is amazing. I think there’s room for all of us.
HC: I take it Empire of Dirt is your first major, on-screen role. How did you like the process of filming a feature in comparison to working on stage?
CG: Filming this movie was an amazing experience. We had a really small budget, which meant that everyone was there out of love for the story and love for the work. So there was this amazing positive vibe and I LOVED coming into work every day. Every single member of the cast and crew was pure joy to work with. Apparently when they were hiring people they had a “zero asshole policy”, which meant that our set was full of the best humans.
The biggest challenge for me, coming from a theatre background, was that in film you shoot things out of order. I prepared by reading the script about a million times so that I knew the story and the character’s journey inside and out. Peter Stebbings, the director, knew that it was my crack at film and he was so gentle and understanding and patient. And he would often just tell me to “simplify” what I was doing so that it was appropriate for film. I would love to continue doing screen work. And I will always love theatre. Both forever!
HC: You were named one of the people to watch in 2012 by Torontoist, a top ten theatre artists for NOW in 2011; how does it feel to be getting more attention?
CG: It’s actually really scary. I remember when I was cast in The Real World? at the Tarragon I realized that it would be the first time I’d performed since all that press came out and so people might have an expectation of my work. There’s nothing you can do with that feeling and I don’t think it got in my way, but there is definitely a pressure there. I try to remember that it’s about the story you’re telling, not really about you at all. And there will undoubtedly come a time where I get it wrong and I’ll get some bad reviews and whatever. I have to risk that because if I don’t then I’ll just be boring, which is much worse.
HC: What’s a favourite thing to do in your downtime?
CG: Make out with Kaleb Alexander.
HC: Kaleb Alexander – code word for Cara’s boyfriend. Gotcha. You’re great Cara, thanks.