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Interview with Gail Maurice

by Shani Betz

Gail Maurice

cail Maurice is a Metis writer and Actor from Saskatchewan whose work includes CBC's Big Bear, PSI Factor and ShowTime's Street Time. She recently received rave reviews as the star of the award-winning feature film Johnny Greyeyes which she also co-wrote. Shani Betz spoke to Gail recently at her home in Toronto.

Shani Betz
Do you feel Native woman are still given stereotypical roles in film and television?

Gail Maurice
Yes. Many films, written by non-Natives, don't represent Native people realistically. It's such a shame that there are all these roles where Native women are passive or token. Everyone has an image of what an Indian is and if you fall out of that norm of what an Indian is, you have a harder time getting roles or having films produced. There are Native filmmakers like Chris Ayre and Sherman Alexi, in the States who are fantastic but we also need to see and hear more from the many Native female filmmakers out there, such as: Shirley Cheechoo and Annie Frazier-Henry, to name a few. We are trying to break down stereotypes, but it's hard when our funding sources come from non-Native people or government bodies.

Shani Betz
What contemporary subjects or issues would you like to see addressed in a film or television program starring Native actors?

Gail Maurice
The feature I wrote deals with issues of: adoption, sexuality and race identity. There are so many issues..tons.. Identity and what makes a person identify as who they are and showing Indians as regular people, are important. There's nothing mysterious about us. Issues like suicide, alcoholism and violence; all issues that Native people stereotypically have are extremely devastating but they are not just "Native syndromes", they are in every culture; if we do show such issues there are ways in doing so that people will be more receptive to it, I fear that many are getting tired of seeing these specific issues dealt with in the same way. Why not show other aspects of the Native psyche with our ever present humour?

Shani Betz
Do you feel Native women and Native culture are portrayed realistically in contemporary film and television?

Gail Maurice
I haven't seen many, but all the contemporary films I have seen with Native women…the stereotype is prevalent, it's there. Again, Native women in a passive role. There aren't a lot of roles for strong, modern Native women.

Shani Betz
Would you like to see more films or programs portraying modern Native culture and issues or do you feel it's still important to show the history of Canada's Native people even if this means that the roles may be more traditional or even stereotypical in nature?

Gail Maurice
I just did Big Bear and there's another I did a few years ago called Sitting Bull. CBC is doing 6 episodes called Chiefs, which look at the famous Chiefs in North America. History is very necessary, it's amazing or maybe not so amazing, how many Canadians don't know the history of the country they call Home. There are shows being made and there always will be shows made about Native history, but it's about time that historical films are being told by Native filmmakers, but we also need contemporary work. There's not enough of it. There's nothing. There's nothing to show modern Native culture, "what is that"? Exactly! There has to be a broadcaster who's willing to take a chance on a Native show. Show reality. Native people are gay, they're lesbian, they have the same issues that everyone else has. No one has taken a chance on a modern Native show, by this I mean, sitcoms or series; name a series in North America that has Native actors; not too many. There are so many interesting ideas for series' out there, but someone has to be willing to take a chance on it.

Shani Betz
Do you feel there are enough resources and opportunities in Canada to encourage Native children to pursue careers in the Arts?

Gail Maurice
No, not at all. One of my dreams is to build this huge performing arts centre in Northern Saskatchewan. There's nothing right now. We're natural storytellers-but there's no theatre. Growing up there was absolutely different. I didn't grow up with television or any other type of media I didn't even know movies were made in Canada until I was 23 years old and living in Vancouver. If you have a dream to be an actor, there's absolutely nothing you can do as far as living in the North of Canada is concerned, although "Atanajurat" was made entirely in the North, there's still not enough opportunity for aspiring actors. There are Native theatre groups but not enough of them. There aren't enough resources and there definitely needs to be more.

Shani Betz
What are the biggest challenges facing Native actors?

Gail Maurice
Stereotypes. Lack of roles. When an audition comes up, you see the same faces all the time because we're all vying for the same roles. We all know each other and there's a strong support system, but at the same time, there's huge frustration because there's nothing coming our way. If something comes up, it's like, "I have to wear this hide again" and say the same sort of lines over and over again…it's pretty bad.

Shani Betz
How did you get into acting?

Gail Maurice
It was in Vancouver when I was 23. I was walking down the street and saw all these movie trucks. I didn't know what they were, so I asked and someone told me that they were making a movie. That was the first time I thought it was possible to make a movie in Canada. When I saw this movie truck, it was like I got hit on the head, you know? I just thought; "I want to do this". So I started taking courses on my own, even though I was so shy at first. You have to find a good acting coach to work with, that's very important. I stuck to it and here I am.

Shani Betz
What would be your ideal or perfect role?

Gail Maurice
My ideal? The one I'm writing now, because it shows a Native woman who's very strong. She knows herself: she's modern and she's hip. She can cry, she can laugh, she's lesbian with strong family ties. She's a city girl with a country heart. That's my role. Showing that she can be a little screwed up, like everybody else, but in the long run it all works out. One genre that I love is Science Fiction. Ok, this is my perfect role…the perfect role would be a female knight. A female in armour, having chivalry you know…fighting for a cause and having strength-both mental and physical. That would be my ideal role.

Shani Betz
What role do you wish you had played?

Gail Maurice
Mists of Avalon. I wanted to play Morgaine. That was the one. Another one was Thelma and Louise. I would've liked to have been in that. Something showing female power.

Shani Betz
Which role was your most challenging or demanding?

Gail Maurice
Johnny Greyeyes took 5 years to complete and it was the first feature and first starring role that I was in. Keeping continuity was hard. By the fifth year I had done a lot more acting and my style had changed, so it was hard to keep that continuity of character. It was challenging, but fun. I love the challenges, I get lost in it. For Street Time, I just did an episode where I get raped. I had never done a rape scene before. I was stressed out about it for about a week before. That was difficult to do.

Shani Betz
Is there any actor that you would like to work with?

Gail Maurice
Angelina Jolie. She's so extremely talented, she's amazing. She really gets into her roles; it's just a treat to watch. I'd love to work with her.

Shani Betz
What else are you working on right now?

Gail Maurice
I've just finished shooting Street Time for ShowTime. I shot a BBC film in March and April up in the Yukon, which is called The Monsters We Met. I'm working on a project called Cop Killers (that's a feature.) It's going to be done, hopefully next year, with Leda Serene Films. I'm also script editing my own feature called Blood with a Canada Council grant and I've written a short film titled Assini, with production money from the NFB.


Shani Betz is a freelance writer from Toronto who has written for such magazines as Native Careers and Target. She is working on a novel, which she hopes to have complete before her 80th birthday.

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