Actor, Director and Producer Jennifer Podemski, known for such award-winning feature productions as Empire of Dirt (2013) and Dance Me Outside (1994) and has had roles on such hit series as Moccasin Flats (2003), Cardinal (2018), Blackstone (2014-2015) and a featured recurring role as Ms. Chantel Sauvé in Degrassi: The Next Generation (2003–2010,) is being honored this month with the highly coveted ACTRA Toronto Award of Excellence for 2018.
Jennifer Podemski is Israeli (her father was born in Kfar Saba) and her mother is Saulteaux (Bear/Thunderbird Clan, from Muscowpetung First Nation in Saskatchewan.) As a woman who embraces her culture, she is being honored by ACTRA, the largest organization of cultural workers in Canada.
As described on their website, ACTRA Toronto (the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists), is the largest branch of ACTRA, the union representing performers in the film, radio, television and new media industries. ACTRA Toronto’s jurisdiction includes all of Ontario and represents over 15,000 of ACTRA’s 22,000 members.
The 16th Annual ACTRA awards will take place Saturday, February 24th in Toronto at The Carlu venue. According to the ACTRA awards site, ‘The annual ACTRA Awards in Toronto recognizes outstanding performances by ACTRA Toronto members and celebrate accomplishment and excellence in our industry.’
In a conversation with Podemski, the actress and producer told Indian Country Today how it felt to be honored, a bit about pursuing her dream of working in the film industry, and what the career trajectory of a dancer, producer and actor is all about.
Ok, admittedly an introductory standard question, but certainly relevant. How does it feel to be honored by ACTRA?
It really is such an honor and I have to say I was kind of shocked. As I have said in other interviews as well, sometimes as an artist we become so immersed and so deep into our work, we don’t often think of recognition and it catches you off-guard. This award is coming at a great time as I have been feeling sometimes haggard with my work.
This is a message from the universe to keep going. Yes, it is coming at a good time.
You have advanced in your career so much since The Diviners (a TV movie in 1993) and Big Soul Productions. In terms of acting and then directing, what were your fondest memories in each of these two professions?
Just to clear up the trajectory, I began as a performer, mostly as a dancer, and I went to the high school of performing arts in Toronto for dance. That’s where I got the so-called acting bug.
I started off as extra and I would work weekends beginning in grade 9. I loved performing until it started to become all about auditioning—when I was in grade 11—then it slowly became clear to me that I was put in a box—the “native” box—and that’s where I would stay.
It worked for me to some degree. I got a lot of great work, The Diviners, Dance Me Outside, The Rez etc etc. But it was the in between of those projects where I was really struggling to be seen.
Getting into producing was partly out of frustration due to the lack of work for native actors and storytellers and part out of the desire to create more of an industry of indigenous people behind the scenes.
It bothered me that over the first 10 years of my acting career I rarely, if ever, saw any native people working on the crew, or as producers and directors. It bugged me because all the work I was doing was native stuff. So I decided to become a producer. I was 25 when I opened Big Soul Productions with Laura Milliken.
We dedicated every waking hour to building a production company rooted in authentic indigenous stories and perspectives while training a new generation of talent both behind the scenes and in front of the camera.
So in short, my two careers are not actually separate. They are one. I’m a storyteller and I will take whatever position has to be taken to honor the story and get it made.
Among the impressive body of work you have created in your career, one stand out is Degrassi TNG, which still airs all over the world, Why do you think such a show that discusses real-life issues of our youth stays so relevant?
I think Degrassi: The Next Generation was a success because it told real stories. From the beginning, even when I was a kid watching the original, it was the only place to watch stories that teens could relate to. I was so happy to be a part of that series for so long. I was a super supporting role but it was a long gig and I loved it. Especially the stories I got to be a part of, playing the guidance counselor I got to be a part of some pretty brave storytelling.
Can you discuss any other project in your past that resonates with you or that you feel passionate about?
As an actor I’ve done some really amazing work. I feel so grateful for some of the opportunities that came my way and allowed me to explore parts of myself that I had never been able to expose on TV or film.
For example, the movie Bogus (although my entire part was cut out) gave me the opportunity to work with the genius behind Cirque du Soleil, Franco Dragone. He picked 11 of 1,500 us out of a two day audition of dance, singing, clowning and movement. For two weeks we learned how to clown by the clown-master. That was one of my most favorite things ever.
Then there was the Indigenous-made series called Moose TV, where I got to do slapstick comedy and play many different characters. I feel I’ve been very, very lucky with the work I’ve done and the roles I’ve had.
As a producer I feel the same. But definitely Moccasin Flats has to be the most important and incredible experience I’ve had. Although there were many projects after that, including Empire of Dirt, there was something about the process of making that series, that was one-of-a-kind experience that I will forever be grateful for.
When we did the short film of Moccasin Flats and got into Sundance, and brought all the kids from the movie, I just had the most incredible time. I could go on and on.
You had massive success with the matriarchal cinematic story Empire of Dirt—which received the 2014 ACTRA Award in Toronto—and you were the recipient of the 2016 Nell Shipman Award, which honors a female producer. What does your work and accomplishments say about the power of sacred Indigenous women?
I don’t know if I have an answer to that question. Maybe that we, Indigenous women, have the incredible ability to transform and overcome, we have immediate reference of women who were rendered voiceless and therefore feel the power and sometimes the desperation to do something, say something, BE something.
If for no other reason than to fill the void left when the women who came before us were silenced.
What are you doing these days?
I’ve spent the past couple of years on a TV series that I created with Kris Nahrgang and produced and directed called Future History. It will air on APTN sometime in 2018.
I directed Future History. It is a series committed to exploring the diversity of perspectives and knowledge within the Indigenous community and sharing it with our viewers, in an effort to create a deeper understanding about our shared history while looking forward to a brighter future, anchored by the hashtag we are using: #IndigenousKnowledge.
Where is Jennifer Podemski headed in the film industry?
I’m really not sure, but if someone has the answer please let me know.
Indian Country Today’s Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter