Canada’s Rising Star
Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs is one of the most impressive talents this country has produced. In 2013, her role as Aila in Jeff Barnaby’s residential school drama Rhymes for Young Ghouls earned her a Canadian Screen Nomination and major critical attention. Following that, she had many ups and downs, finding the strength to continue in an industry that often chews up and spits out upcoming stars. A fierce, uncompromising talent, she conveys both charm and intelligence, one of those truly warm individuals who exudes a deep humanity.
By Jason Gorber
Her recent major roles include playing Sam Black Crow in American Gods and Lilith Bathory in The Order. She’s soon to reunite with Barnaby in Blood Quantum, a zombie horror film set within a First Nations reservation that’s shot in part in her Kahnawá:ke community. DTK spoke with the actress about her creative drive, the changes she’s seeing in the industry, and the challenges she’s been forced to overcome as a young talent coming to terms with both success and struggle.
How have your recent roles changed your life? My first feature was when I was 13, and it’s taken nearly 13 years to gain any sort of success and to be able to pay my bills doing only this. I’ve been hoisted onto this platform, representing indigenous people and queer people on a much bigger scale on an American platform. I want to step up to the plate for both of my communities. After The Order premiered, I went up by 40,000 social media followers in three weeks. It’s an overnight success – 13 years in the making.
What was your start like at 13? I played an anglophone girl in Montreal in a film called South of the Moon. It was fun, but it was actually one of those experiences when I was young that convinced me that I couldn’t do this because I hadn’t seen anybody like myself. I was a little Native girl in Montreal, where a lot of industry is French. I studied to be a counselor at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. I’m technically a certified corrections officer. I was in my third year of school when I got cast in Rhymes for Young Ghouls… I was about to give up on acting, and I saw this casting notice. The character description was seven paragraphs long. For half of that feature, I was just scared shitless. Then there was a moment where I [realized] I love this, and that was a huge turning point.
After that, you had a dangerous thing: You had hope. Yep, very dangerous. I moved to New York. I lost all of my money. I lost my reps. That was very tough, but those kinds of necessary down times were something that turned me on to writing. That was the moment where I thought, fuck it, I’m going to do this myself. While I know that my first short film wasn’t the best thing ever, I’m still proud of it. That sense of creative control is really important, especially as an actor that’s literally, no pun intended, at the bottom of the totem pole.
You came out to New York convinced everything was now going to be easy? I thought, ‘Oh, I had this really successful film, so now my life is going to change.’ In many ways it did, but it didn’t change for the better in terms of the industry. I also really believe that Rhymes for Young Ghouls was ahead of its time… Now, people are pushing for inclusive voices.
“I WAS BROKE, AND INSTEAD OF GETTING A normal job AND SAVING UP SOME MONEY, I DECIDED TO KICKSTART a Campaign SO I COULD DO A SHORT FILM, AND SO EVEN MORE OF MY MONEY WENT INTO THAT. ”
Were there particular projects that you were up for that you can talk about? I had booked the role of Dani Instar in Gambit. That was the second time that I had been cast in an X-Men project that fell through. I had hints of success, but none of it actually happened. I had gone back to Kahnawá:ke with my tail between my legs. My family, out of love, were not very encouraging and were saying “Well, we see how much this is hurting you, and when are you going to call it quits?” I was broke, and instead of getting a normal job and saving up some money, I decided to kickstart a campaign so I could do a short film, and so even more of my money went into that. The person who I was with at the time couldn’t understand why that would feed me more than actually just having a job.
You got an audition for Rey in The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams was incredible; he was so well-spoken. I was in there for an hour and we were working together, but he was asking me to do things that I didn’t understand at the time, like be more commanding with my voice, fill the space with my voice. I didn’t know what that meant, I just came from the fucking rez! I’m like, ‘Yell? What?’ I never went to theatre school. I needed these years to prove that it doesn’t come so easy and that it is a job, but also to take away the illusion of what this industry actually is.
Have you seen positive changes in representation in the industry? There are more indigenous actresses around my casting age category now, which I think is really exciting. There are many of us who are going out for this and have different flavours and different skills and strengths and weaknesses. In The Order, I’m cast as a werewolf – it is not an indigenous-specific werewolf, which I was pretty psyched about. This is no Twilight! They had no conversation around race or anything in it, which was kind of reassuring for me.
You bring your own identity, you bring yourself to the character, whatever that character is. It will always be drawn from my perspective as a Kanien’kehá:ka woman. That will always shape my perspective of the world and the truth that I bring to my work, whatever role I play.
Do you still have that sense of “impostor syndrome”? It comes in waves. The more I work and the more I see the spectrum of experience, I think that I aspire to be like certain people. You’ll come across people who are bitter in the industry who think that it’s just affirmative action and diversity casting, and they’ll try and diminish you.
You have had the opportunity to meet many people who you looked up to before you were in this industry. Is it a good idea to meet your heroes? I fully geeked out when I met Taika Waititi. I can be cool as a cucumber in those moments and then geek out later, but I couldn’t do it when I met him.
He, like you, is changing the landscape and telling different stories. That’s one of the reasons I was such a fangirl of his. Boy is one of my favourite films of all time. That comedy could just be on the rez. It’s so specific, and that makes it universal.
What’s your next year like? I’m in post-production for a feature that I’ve co-written called This Place, and I’m producing a couple of projects in my non-existent free time. I am about to leave to Vancouver to shoot The Order, and then hopefully back on American Gods. The third portion of the book is where Sam Blackcrow is mostly present in the novel, and that is the part that we’re venturing into this season, so we’ll see!