Actress-director-writer-producer Devery Jacobs discusses her career-long love of storytelling, from Rhymes for Young Ghouls to Reservation Dogs.
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In Jeff Barnaby’s 2013 feature debut, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Kahnawà:ke actress Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs gives an incredible performance as Aila, a teenager in the 1970s who is doing everything in her power to stay out of the local residential ‘school’. Having faced more trauma in the first few years of her life than most settlers will face in an entire lifetime, she’s hardened, meticulous, and does what she needs to do to protect herself. In the hands of costume designer Anie Fisette and hairdresser Marcelo Padovani, she is also incredibly cool and badass.
It wasJacobs’s first starring role, and yet you wonder why she hasn’t been and won’t continue to be the lead in every single film out there. You can’t take your eyes off her: Jacobs’s Aila is always thinking and feeling, capable and vulnerable. It’s hard to imagine the film without her, and yet Barnaby had to fight to cast her — in a film that was itself a fight to make, already way ahead of its time. As Jacobs tells it, “Back in 2012, when we shot it, Jeff was writing scenes of mass graves [at residential ‘schools’] into his script. We’ve known about this for a while and not all filmmakers were brave enough to put it out there. But Jeff was, and continues to be.” In the last year, mainstream media has finally been reporting on the many mass graves that have been uncovered at residential ‘schools’ across the country.
Disappointingly, the Canadian (and American) film industry had yet to catch up. Jacobs was already a star, and yet there weren’t any vehicles for her. Jacobs recalls, “There were so few opportunities for Indigenous folks, and the opportunities that were out there were like Indigenous women who were in period pieces who were being horribly assaulted. [The stories were always being] told through the male, white protagonists.” While today, many of the most exciting emerging filmmakers are Indigenous — among them, Sonia Boileau and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers — Canada simply wasn’t funding these kinds of projects a decade ago.
Slowly but surely, as the industry caught up, Jacobs has found a plethora of diverse roles to play over the years. When watching Jacobs’s supporting roles, you can’t help but wish whatever project she was working on had shifted gears and decided to focus on her character, instead. Without asking for attention or hamming it up, she tends to steal every scene she’s in: she has ‘it’, whatever that is. So it’s a pleasure to get to see her in almost every scene of settler director Kirsten Carthew’s The Sun at Midnight (2016), for which Jacobs won Best Actor at the Whistler Film Festival in 2016 and Best Actress at the American Indian Film Festival in 2017.
Though Jacobs has made a few small film appearances in films by Indigenous filmmakers like Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum and Sonia Boileau’s Rustic Oracle, much of her work has been in television. On Canadian detective show Cardinal (2019), she had a recurring role as Sam Duchene, an Indigenous woman stalked by someone she accidentally saw commit murder. In The Order (2019-2020), she plays Lilith Bathory, a badass werewolf with very poor impulse control and very cool leather pants. She gained international attention for her recurring role as Sam Blackcrow on American Gods (2019-2021), and she can now be seen starring as Elora Danan in the ensemble of Reservation Dogs, which just got picked up for a second season. Her first French-language role in Caroline Monnet’s feature debut Bootlegger (2021) premieres this month and will be making the rounds at Canadian regions film festivals in the fall. (Join our newsletter for updates.)
In addition to being whom we at Seventh Row regularly refer to as “the best Canadian actress,” Jacobs is also active as a director, producer, and writer. To date, she’s written and directed three short films. Stolen (2016) tackled the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls well before it became a mainstream issue in Canada. In Rae (2017), she played a character based on her grandmother: a depressed mother who has forgotten her young daughter’s birthday. And in Ara Marumaru (2018), made over the course of just 72 hours in New Zealand with two other Indigenous filmmakers from other parts of the world, she stars as a young mother who almost gives up her baby — before deciding against it. All of Jacobs’s films show a great sensitivity to sound design and to telling women’s and girls’ interior stories as they grapple with difficult situations.
When I contacted writer-director Alana Waksman so I could see Jacobs’s work in We Burn Like This, Waksman offered effusive praise of Jacobs as a storytelling collaborator and an incredible actress. After seeing Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Waksman contacted Jacobs about starring in a film she had planned to make about an Indigenous woman. She wrote, “What I saw in you was a balance of fierceness and softness. I saw a strength and relentlessness to fight for what you believe in and to fight for survival. I also saw a vulnerability and a depth and deep care to how you see the world.”
Though the film, over the years, shifted from an Indigenous story to a story of a Jewish-American woman like Waksman herself, Jacobs was involved throughout the process. Waksman wrote to me, “On set for We Burn Like This, I continued to be in awe of Devery. She commands respect, and is so kind and so gracious. When the cameras rolled, she would bring a powerful depth of feeling and vulnerability that I somehow was always surprised by, and she had us all transfixed. She lights up the screen, and brings so much honesty, truth, vulnerability, and joy to the role. I didn’t want to be done working with her when her shooting days were done! She is a treasure and a leader, and I know she will continue to make great art. ”
Off screen, Jacobs is a key advocate for Indigenous rights, maintaining an always thoughtful Twitter presence. I’ve found I continue to learn from Jacobs outside of her films. When the Michelle Latimer scandal broke last year, her tweet explaining what it means to be Indigenous was the clearest, most succinct distillation I’d read. Like Waksman, I’ve been in awe of her work, but also of her political presence online and in the industry. She also works with Made Nous to promote Canadian storytelling on screen and tell diverse stories that reflect the varied backgrounds of our population.
In the weeks leading up to the premiere of Reservation Dogs on FX in the US — it will be available on Disney Plus in Canada this month — I sat down with Jacobs via Zoom to talk about the last decade in her career as an actor, producer, director, activist, and above all, as she puts it, a storyteller.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you get interested in acting?
Devery Jacobs: I was raised in Kahnawa:ke Mohawk Territory, which is my reserve, my community. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in acting. There’s home videos of me that are really embarrassing, where I forced my sister to tape me. I would direct these videos and be in them, reenacting Disney movies and stuff. I was a part of the Turtle Island Theatre Company, where I had my start as a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz.
It was actually my mom who saw how interested in acting I was. She had heard of this acting agency in Montreal, which bordered my rez, and had submitted me without my knowledge; in case I didn’t get in, she didn’t want me to get my heart broken. But if I did get in, then she would approach me and ask me if I wanted to do it. And that’s what happened. I was like, “Oh, my god, of course, I want to do this!” She [played] a huge part, driving me to auditions and taking me out of school early so I could go read for a role.
While I loved acting, and it was my first love — the one constant in my life of what I wanted to do — I just didn’t think that it would be possible to get a career out of it — especially being in Canada, being in Montreal, being an English speaker, and an Indigenous kid. I had never seen it be done until I started doing it. There have been a couple of people alongside me in the community who are finding success, as well, but when I was young, I didn’t see that laid out for me as a possibility.
Because of that, I decided to go to school for something else. I’ve never had any formal training. I’ve never gone to a drama school or anything. Instead, I studied at John Abbott college, this youth and adult correctional intervention program. My goal was to become a counselor, because my thinking was, if I can’t act, then I want to be able to help Indigenous people.
It was around the last year of schooling there that I was cast in Rhymes for Young Ghouls, which was the first time I had worked in a live action project that was written and directed by an Indigenous filmmaker. It was the first time that I had seen the experience of my community reflected in a character that reminded me of my mom and her experience growing up.
That project changed everything for me, internally. I think I was expecting my life to change afterward. I was expecting things to happen. I was like, Oh I’ve got US managers: that’s it. My career is made. That was really not the case. There were so few opportunities for Indigenous folks, and the opportunities that were out there were like Indigenous women who were in period pieces who were being horribly assaulted. [The stories were always being] told through the male, white protagonists.
I was feeling really frustrated career wise, emotionally, financially. I was approached by a Jewish-American woman director when I was living in New York, and she was like, what are some of your dream projects? What are some of your dream roles? What are stories that you want to tell? Nobody had ever asked me that before. I froze, and I had no idea how to answer it. I was like, I will get back to you. I went on a whole existential crisis and was like, who am I? What do I want to say?
When I finally got back to her, I wrote this really passionate email on all these ideas that I had, and stories that I wanted to tell, and why. She was just like, wow, that’s so impressive and meaningful, but unfortunately, I’m getting back into the family business of real estate. So good luck with that. That really was the kick in the ass that I needed. I was like, why the hell am I waiting for this Jewish-American woman to tell the stories from my community, when I have a perfectly good voice of my own?
It was around that time that I wrote Stolen, which was my first short film, the first thing I’d ever written. While I would write things differently now, I’m still very proud of it. The inspiration behind creating that was combining my passion for Indigenous rights, my experiences working at the Native women’s shelter, and studying to be a counselor, [plus] my love for film. It follows a girl who’s in the social services system in the last twenty-four hours before she goes missing.
It was around the time in Canada where the case of Tina Fontaine was making headlines. It was also just at the time before people were talking about the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Our Prime Minister at the time, Stephen Harper, was quoted as having said, “It isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.” And so that was my need to tell the story of Stolen.
I’m hugely passionate about collaborating with storytellers in front of and behind the camera. I think I’m more open, as an actor, to learning about different experiences and empathising with different types of characters and people and exploring new things. As a filmmaker, behind the camera, I’m much more interested in passion projects and stories that reflect my community and my experiences and my queerness, whether it’s writing, directing, or producing. Sometimes, I’m in front of the camera; sometimes, I’m not. It depends on the project.
7R: What does your ideal collaboration look like now?
Devery Jacobs: I am experiencing many different iterations of that right now. On Reservation Dogs, I’m an actor, but we all have huge say and influence and input over our characters and our dialogue and what we portray. I’m also involved in a number of projects that have been in development for a while, one of which I’m hoping to be my directorial debut as a writer-director, another that I’m producing as well as acting in, and another that I’m co-writing and co-creating. I have my irons in many fires. But they’re all stories that I want to tell.
I have a tattoo. This is my first tattoo. They’re Cree syllabics, and it says otâcimow (ᐅᑖᒋᒧᐤ) in Cree. And basically, that means storyteller. At the time, that was the one constant in my life that I knew I could tattoo on my body and not regret.
7R: When I got in touch with Alana Waksman, who directed We Burn Like This, I told her that I was interviewing you, and she said repeatedly that you were such an important and amazing collaborator on that. She just couldn’t say enough good things.
Devery Jacobs: That’s so very sweet to hear. Alana is so great. I had been attached to that project forever in its many different iterations. I was glad that we could finally see it through. I wasn’t sure if it was going to happen. It was also a very different story when I was originally attached to it.
Alana is a Polish-Jewish filmmaker. It was originally a different title, and the lead character was originally an Indigenous woman. But somewhere down the line of creating it, Alana took a step back, which I hugely respected. She was like, I’m not the person to be telling an Indigenous story, especially around these topics, as a Jewish, white woman. Instead, she dug deep and reflected on her own experiences and made it much more personal to the experiences that she’s had in her life.
She was so worried that I would take offense in some way, but I actually thought that was commendable. I appreciated that she wasn’t trying to put words in the mouth of another community and was more interested in collaborating and telling her perspective. That was something I really respected, and I was like, I’d love to still be a part of the project and see it through. For me, it wasn’t whether the role was a lead or supporting; it was telling this human story, and I was glad that she had done it in an appropriate way.
7R: You’ve been working with Jeff Barnaby now for many, many years, in both Rhymes and Blood Quantum. How has that collaboration looked for you over the years?
Devery Jacobs: I will always collaborate with Jeff, given the opportunity. Jeff is family to me. He fought for me to land the role of Aila, which, in turn, has led to the opening of doors for the rest of my career. I wouldn’t even be acting right now if it hadn’t been for him.
Even in Rhymes for Young Ghouls, there were certain funders who didn’t believe that I could play the role, and so we had to do like five or six auditions. We were filming mock-up scenes in back alleys just to prove to the financiers that I was the person to play the role. So Jeff has fought for me since the beginning.
[We were] getting the family back together when filming Blood Quantum. After the first take I did, he ran up to me and gave me a big hug and was like, “Devery, I fucking missed you!” Jeff is not a touchy-feely person. He is a recluse. He’s an introvert. But that was such a nice moment where we have such an innate understanding of each other. He is a great friend in my life and someone who I’d love to work with forever.
7R: It’s really hard to imagine Rhymes without you as Aila. What was that project like for you? Obviously, it was life changing in a lot of ways. But when you were actually in the process of making it, I’m sure you didn’t know that yet.
Devery Jacobs: I don’t think that I knew it. I felt like it was finally a role that I could sink my teeth into, and one that I really loved. Before that moment, I didn’t think that I was capable of carrying a film. I had my start as a kid. I was thirteen in the first project I had ever acted in.
As I got older, and as I was graduating high school, I had a holy shit realization moment of, like, this is actually really hard! When you’re a kid, if you just do what’s on the page, then everybody’s like, “Oh, my god, you’re amazing!” People aren’t as forgiving as you get older. As an adult actor, there’s actual, tangible, difficult work involved. Around that same time, I didn’t think it was possible for the industry to make space for me, but I also didn’t think that I had the talent to forge space.
When I was cast in Rhymes, it changed everything for me, because I not only had proved to the industry that there was a place for young Indigenous actors, but I had proved to myself that I was worthy of such a role.
The experience of shooting was… it’s so long ago, but it was shot five minutes away from my house on the rez. They had done an international search across Canada and the US, and I ended up being from the same community that they were shooting in anyway, which was a weirdly serendipitous moment.
Jeff also worked at the Native women’s shelter, the same shelter that I worked at, but we had just missed each other. Even though he is Mi’kmaq and from a different community, he had lived in my community for a little while. There are so many funny moments of it being just serendipitous, where we were walking through the world not even realizing, and then it finally all came together when shooting Rhymes. That’s still one of the projects that I’m most proud of in my career.
7R: It’s a great film. And you’re so amazing in it.
Devery Jacobs: Thank you. I think it’s also a testament to Jeff’s voice. Now, they’re uncovering the remains of unmarked graves and mass graves of Indigenous children at residential schools. But back in 2012, when we shot it, Jeff was writing scenes of mass graves into his script. We’ve known about this for a while and not all filmmakers were brave enough to put it out there. But Jeff was, and continues to be.
7R: It feels like the film industry in Canada has come a long way in a short period of time. In 2013, Rhymes was sort of a one and only film, as a narrative owned by an Indigenous filmmaker, telling an indigenous story. Now, we’ve got so many emerging Indigenous filmmakers, and from my perspective, most of the most exciting films that are coming out of our country are Indigenous.
Devery Jacobs: Right. And I feel pretentious saying it, but I do feel like Rhymes for Young Ghouls was ahead of its time.
7R: Oh, for sure.
Devery Jacobs: If it were to be released now, I feel like it would have had a very different response and receptiveness. The fact that it’s taken on a life of its own and is still shown at festivals and is still shown at schools and is taught in universities and things like that… it holds up, and it’s had a continued audience and interest. It’s become like a cult classic within our communities, which is the best kind of cult classic, as far as I’m concerned.
7R: Do you have a process for how you approach characters? Or does it change from film to film?
Devery Jacobs: I think it changes from film to film. Something that I’ve noticed in the past couple of years that has been helpful is how the character speaks. I think I’ve also undergone a journey of having to learn how to shed my Kahnawa:ke accent, which was a process of mourning in and of itself. That was something I held very close to me and that I didn’t want to have to be able to turn off and on. But the feedback that I’d gotten for years was that it specified me too much to a certain place, if I’m going to play characters from different parts of the world.
I did a film two years ago, right before the pandemic, called Bootlegger, and that was filmed by the Algonquin French director Caroline Monnet. It was her directorial debut. That was my first film entirely in French, and that was a huge challenge. I grew up speaking basic French, because I was in Quebec. I didn’t learn a ton of French in school, to be honest. I was in the lowest level class. Where I learned the most French was working at my cousin’s cigarette shop on the rez, as well as on film sets growing up. So this was a huge challenge. I didn’t have to be accent perfect, but I did work with a dialect coach. That was one of the more labour-intensive projects that I have had to do in terms of speech with characters.
Since shooting that, [accents have] almost been a way into character. When shooting Bootlegger, there was one moment where the director was just like, “Switch to English, and just improvise and do whatever.” I remember speaking English, and it felt so wrong for the character because I’d gotten so used to speaking in French as the character. The same happened with Elora Danan in Reservation Dogs. I based my accent off of the showrunner Sterlin Harjo, whose life the show is based off of. That’s like a Muskogee Creek Seminole and Oklahoman accent. Very mild though, I didn’t go too Southern. But it provided me access into that world. Sonically, that’s become a bigger part of my process.
7R: How do you approach that kind of accent work?
Devery Jacobs: I work with a dialect coach to get me started. And then, being in those spaces on location is extraordinarily helpful. Working with a French film crew and speaking nothing but French with everybody really gets me into the space of it. My character, Mani, who I played in Bootlegger, is definitely more fluent in French than I am and is more graceful in the language. I sound a little bit like a caveman when I speak French improvising. And the same for Reservation Dogs: being around a lot of folks who were local, who are from Oklahoma, it was easier to fall into the [accent].
7R: How important is costume for you? I know a lot of actors talk about finding the character when they get into the costume.
Devery Jacobs: I think it definitely helps. Specifically, in Rhymes for Young Ghouls, costuming was really helpful for me finding a piece of myself as Devery versus as an actor. That was the first time that I stepped into the shoes of someone who was less femme, who wears baggy jeans and practical clothes. I had found a part of myself that really liked presenting that way.
I feel like that energy has been infused into a lot of the characters that I play, in different iterations, sometimes more artsy, like Elora Danan in Reservation Dogs, who is definitely someone who likes to go thrifting and is a little bit more artistic and funky, and probably more of a skater. Whereas a character like Lilith in The Order loves to wear Doc Martens and leather pants, and is a little bit more of a show off when it comes to that. I’ve played many tough girl roles, but they are all specific characters and differ from each other.
7R: I wanted to know a bit more about Lilith in The Order. I imagine that the process of being in so many episodes on TV in a lead role is very different from working on film.
Devery Jacobs: It was very different. It was actually a great learning curve, just how fast the pace moved. I was used to working in indie films where you never bought a trailer and you had to change in the back of a pickup, or in the backroom of vans. You’re running from location to location.
This was in a studio where we would shoot day after day, and we would also shoot, like, eighteen pages of dialogue a day. My short term memory got really sharp. It was just a different medium.
It was so much fun to be in a project that didn’t take itself too seriously. It was definitely a learning experience, because I had been used to insular, stoic characters, as opposed to someone who is a part of an ensemble and feeds off of each other with quips and a rhythm of the scene. It taught me many things about different mediums and different styles of acting.
7R: What do you like about the more insular characters versus more of an ensemble?
Devery Jacobs: I feel like I’ve found a great balance of both. I don’t think I have a preference for one over the other. It just is a matter of what is called for in the story. I found a great combination of both in Reservation Dogs, because it is an ensemble piece and Elora Danan is a bit more of an insular character. I think we found a great balance, combining those two different elements. I’m definitely more of an insular person in my life, so that’s a more natural reaction for me to get into, but also getting into more extroverted characters who are a part of ensembles put me out of my comfort zone [in a] welcome way.
7R: I wanted to ask you about The Sun at Midnight. How did you get involved with that project?
Devery Jacobs: I had shot that project, I think, in 2016. I had auditioned alongside many Indigenous actors. At the time, I had just had really long hair — I had it in Rhymes — and I had just cut my hair really short to a pixie cut when I auditioned for [The Sun at Midnight].
I did a callback with the writer-director, Kirsten Carthew. In the script, it said that the character has bubblegum pink hair. She was like, “You have the role, but you don’t have to dye your hair. I know, bleaching is a big process, so I’m not going to make you do it.” And I’m like, I have two inches of hair, of course, I want to bleach it, what are you talking about?
It’s not wardrobe so much that gets me into character as much as it is hair. I’ve had many, many different hairstyles for different roles, starting with Rhymes, but also with American Gods and the character Sam Blackcrow, [whose hair is] quite asymmetrical.
Hair is very personal. In a lot of Indigenous cultures, we believe that your hair is an extension of your spirit. When cutting it, or creating it in different styles, or wearing it in different ways, for me, that feels like an in to the character.
7R: I have to ask about the hair in Blood Quantum, because I’m just obsessed with your hair in that film.
Devery Jacobs: Oh, my gosh, it was the same hairdresser, Marcelo Padovani, who had done my hair in Rhymes for Young Ghouls. He also played the priest in the haircutting scene, because he knows how to handle hair, but he had cut a wig. He had managed to fit all of my hair under a wig. So he’s an incredibly talented hairstylist. And he also had done my hair for Blood Quantum in a fun, apocalyptic updo.
7R: I know you only appear briefly in Rustic Oracle, but I do love the film and your work on it. And I hadn’t realised until I saw Rae that you were the first person to put Lake Delisle, who stars in Rustic Oracle, on film! Could you tell me a bit about getting involved with Rustic Oracle?
Devery Jacobs: I had written and directed the [short] film Rae, which is based on my mom’s life in my community in the ’70s. I played the character based on my grandmother, who has schizophrenia and was a very young mother.
I had done local casting for my community, and there were so many talented actors to choose from, budding young actors. One of them was actually Violah Beauvais who was in Beans. But the person to play Rae was Lake, who is just so naturally gifted and charismatic. She was such a little pro working on set. Lake also ended up making an appearance in Blood Quantum. She plays one of the kids who are being put to bed with a nursery rhyme.
I was so happy to hear that she was cast in Rustic Oracle. When there was an opportunity to play the older version of her character, I thought, well, I played her mom before, I would love to be able to play the older version of Lake in this film. So I was happy to do that, and also happy to be in a project with a Mohawk, female writer-director at the helm, [telling] a story that’s so important.
7R: I definitely want to talk to you more about the films you’ve written and directed, because I think they’re really wonderful.
Devery Jacobs: I love all aspects of film and television. I’d love to work in front and behind the camera throughout my career. [There are some] people who I really admire and respect [who do that], like Margot Robbie, for the projects that she produces that she might not even be involved in. Ava DuVernay who, I can’t remember the quote verbatim, but she says, if your dreams don’t involve anyone else, then you’re thinking too small. I love that she really put her money where her mouth is and has invested in not only the films of Black creators, but BIPOC creators, like Indigenous people, people of different backgrounds, Latinx, Asian, South Asian. She’s been a true collaborator. That’s something I would love to be able to do within my career.
7R: I’m wondering about how you think about sound which is so, so important in your films.
Devery Jacobs: In both Stolen and Rae, I didn’t focus on score or music intentionally. I’m a person who doesn’t really think in music. I know there’s a lot of filmmakers who really excel in that. But for me, the sound design and building the world was most important to transport characters into a sonic experience of what’s happening around them. I also had the privilege of working with Joe Barrucco, who was the sound designer of both projects. He’s an incredible sound designer, foley artist, and mixer. [Sound design is] something that has always spoken to me when telling a story.
7R: How did you think through the sound design in Rae?
Devery Jacobs: There was actually a bit more sound design originally. It had focused a little bit more around Ista’s — which means mom in Mohawk — schizophrenia. But I ended up reining it in because it wasn’t a film about that. It was about her daughter, Rae, and observing her mom through her eyes.
The songs that I was able to feature were songs by Buffy Sainte-Marie from her eight track album. That was something I was so honoured to be able to use in my project. I wanted to make sure, from the very beginning, that we had licensed it. It’s my pet peeve when you watch a show and they’re totally dancing to different music than what they’ve plugged in at the end. I made sure that we were dancing to the right music, but also, what the song meant [was important].
7R: What’s it like to direct yourself?
Devery Jacobs: I wouldn’t do it for everything. I think because it was a character who was based on my grandmother, that was a reason why I wanted to do that. I had told myself, I have to cast somebody else, I can’t direct and act at the same time! I had gotten that feedback a lot too from different people in the industry. But I had a minute where I was like, if Taika Waititi can do it in Boy, then I can do it in my short film.
7R: I feel like there’s a story behind Ara Marumaru, which IMDb tells me was made in 72 hours.
Devery Jacobs: That was a part of the 72-hour film challenge at the Maoriland Film Festival. That’s such a great festival and great program. They combine a team of three Indigenous filmmakers from across the world, and each team has a Maori host. They’ll have two different global Indigenous people who stay with a Maori host in New Zealand. On my team, there was myself, Mohawk from Canada. There’s Ken Are Bongo who is Sámi from Norway. And there was Rich, Richard Curtis, who is Maori from Rotorua, which is where we stayed with him. They give you the theme, and 72 hours later, you have to hand in the final film.
The theme for our year was ‘for the love of our mother’. [We could] interpret that in any way we wanted. When we first arrived in New Zealand with Rich, he took us to his family homestead and basically toured us around Rotorua, which is beautiful. It has sulphur hot springs in that area, but there are also some beautiful freshwater lakes.
In New Zealand, within the Maori people over there, they’re huge on genealogies. They’re able to name their ancestors back until like the beginning of time. He took us to this tree. His great aunt, or great, great aunt, before colonisation, had a newborn baby, and they were at war with a neighbouring group. She thought that doom was impending. She didn’t think she was going to be able to make it out alive. So she laid her daughter in this tree and prayed for this tree to keep her safe. She ran away; she thought that she was going to be killed by this other group. But luckily, she wasn’t, and when she got back, her daughter was perfectly fine. That was a launching off point for Ara Marumaru, where a young mother basically gives her daughter up to this tree thinking that she can’t do this anymore, and quickly realises that she’s made a mistake.
[The speed of the project] forced creativity and squashed second guessing, because there’s just no time for it. As soon as you land on an idea, you run with it. We each had ideas that we wanted to bring in. Ken Are and Richard both really wanted to use underwater cameras. So we’re like, okay, let’s combine this thought process, what do we want to do? We landed on the story, then I combined [our ideas] and wrote it for us, and we all co-directed it.
7R: I saw in an interview where you said you wanted to direct Lily Gladstone, to which I say, when’s that happening?
Devery Jacobs: I don’t remember saying that in an interview, but I still stand by it. Lily is fantastic. I can’t wait to see her work in Killers of the Flower Moon. I was so happy to hear that she was cast in it, because she’s first and foremost a community member who I know will hold that community history and the life of Mollie [Burkhart] with such respect and regard. I would love to cast Lily in something; I’m just waiting for the right project. I have an idea in mind, but we’ll see what happens.
7R: I feel like you’ve become such an important public figure in Canada. I find you so thoughtful. I’m a big fan of your Twitter feed and was listening to all of your Canada Reads stuff. I’m wondering how you think about managing that part of your life, alongside the acting and the directing?
Devery Jacobs: I think I just try to consider my family and my community in all of the decisions that I make, whether it’s an acting role, a speaking event, or partnering with a group or organization or campaign.
I think there are a lot of people who take the platforms that they have so much for granted. There has been such little space afforded for Indigenous people, especially in this industry, that I want to be able to use whatever platform that I have to uplift and share and empower my fellow community members in what they’re undergoing, or issues that we’re facing, and celebrating their successes.
7R: Given that Rhymes was so ahead of its time, how has your experience changed within the film industry since then? As an outsider, it feels to me like it’s changed a lot in the last eight years.
Devery Jacobs: I definitely feel like it’s changed a lot. I remember when Rhymes came out and there were different award ceremonies and different events and things like that. I had gotten the feeling that people thought it would be a blip, or that it was a happy accident that it was such a successful film.
But over time, I think people have taken notice of Jeff’s work, my own, and also of other Indigenous filmmakers. While it feels like right now could be a fad for diversity and inclusion, our stories are not just ticking a box. We have human experiences that are colourful and three dimensional and interesting and haven’t nearly been explored enough.
We haven’t even scratched the surface for Indigenous stories. The landscape is more welcoming than it ever has been, but it’s overdue, and I hope that it’s only the beginning.
7R: Has that led to more people that you want to work with within the industry or more opportunities?
Devery Jacobs: I think so. I want to work with people who inspire me: Indigenous folks who are up and coming, non-Indigenous folks who are more established. I want to work with great storytellers and bring our stories to the masses.
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