Going into the Gemini Awards ceremony, Blackstone had a certain mathematical advantage in the category of Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role: Two of its stars, Carmen Moore, Wet’suwet’en, and Michelle Thrush, Cree, were among the six nominees.
But Thrush wasn’t optimistic. The series, about intrigue and hard times on a fictional First Nations reserve, airs on the fledgling Aboriginal People’s Television Network. “I was completely prepared to lose,” Thrush says. “I was just happy that I had been nominated. We were up against the big ones — shows on CTV and CBC, and women who are amazing actresses in Canada.”
Thrush was previously honored for her work on Blackstone with a win in the Best Supporting Actress category at the 2009 American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. Thrush and Moore were both nominated for Leo awards (which honor achievements in the British Columbia film and television industry) for Best Lead Performance by a Female in a Dramatic Series; on that occasion, Moore took home the statuette.
But for Thrush and Blackstone, going from AIFF and Leos to Gemini — Canada’s annual television broadcast industry awards, roughly equivalent to the Emmy Awards handed out in the United States — is a quantum leap. “This is the biggest award I’ve ever won,” she says, and she hopes it also translates into a bigger following for Blackstone. “I hoping it means some more exposure and that we’re looked at as a more serious production as the rest of the them.”
The first season of the series ran for nine episodes; Thrush and her co-stars recently wrapped up filming on the eight episodes that comprise season two.
In addition to Canada, the first season of Blackstone has also been shown on Maori Television in New Zealand. It is expected to be shown in the United States soon; a distribution deal with a California-based company was announced in early September.
On the show, the Blackstone First Nation is greatly suffering in part because of the corruption and mismanagement of its chief and councillors. Thrush says there’s a simple reason why Blackstone has received rave reviews: “It’s very real and raw. It’s human beings having human experiences.”
Thrush says non-Aboriginals often ask her whether Blackstone is an actual portrayal of what life is like on a First Nations reserve.
“It’s not every community that is like that,” she tells them. “But there are some communities that are worse than Blackstone.”
Though she was portraying a fictional character in Gail Stoney, a combative alcoholic, Thrush says it was rather difficult for her to simply leave that person on the set, particularly when she was working 12 to 14 hours a day. “Last year was hell for me. It was such a dark journey I was on.”
“I enjoyed the crew I worked with,” she said. “And I’ve always adored Ron Scott, who is the producer, writer and director of Blackstone. But the crew stayed away from me. They knew how difficult it was to be in an intense dark place. It was very gloomy for me.”
Filming her parts for season two, which wrapped up in early September, were considerably easier. “Gail is walking a totally different route this year,” she says. “But I can’t give away too many of the show details.” She does say that season two, over-all, will not be as dark as the inaugural one: “It’s a lot more about the hope this year and looking for solutions.”
Another change is that Blackstone will be without legendary Cree actor Gordon Tootoosis, who died in July.
Thrush, who was born and still lives in Calgary, is 44 and has been acting for more than a quarter of a century in films, television and theater. Her first credited work was a 1984 film titled Isaac Littlefeathers, and one of her most memorable roles was that of Nobody’s Girlfriend in the 1995 Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man.