Sera-Lys McArthur is a Canadian actress who played the role of Johiehon in season 4 of the enormously popular Starz show Outlander. We talked in-depth about working on this show (learning Mohawk, stunt work, cast, crew, sets, babies, visiting Scotland etc.) other shows, theatre, movies, the origins of her name, living in London and other cities, hobbies and passions, martial arts and much more.
DB: You were born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada: could you tell me more about the area in which you were brought up and your childhood there?
SM: It’s a simple place, kind of cut off from the rest of the world in a lot of ways, but still part of the Western World as far as television is concerned. We didn’t do a lot of travelling because it was expensive back then and only lucky people got to go to Disneyland and such. It’s very, very cold in the winter (getting down to about -45 degrees without windchill) and the winters last about six months. You get about two months summer but they are actually very hot, and nice.
DB: Did you grow up in a town?
SM: I did, in a city called Regina, it’s the “Queen city”, the capital of Saskatchewan, but I don’t know that it’s got a whole lot else going for it. It’s quaint, a small city. We did have a very good arts training programme for young people. When I was growing up that’s when they first started doing film and TV production in Saskatchewan, so there are a lot of people that are around my age that started when I did because we were all in a kids’ show there. I actually started in a different show from them, much more dramatic and serious but then I was also on their kids’ show, eventually. It was great but sad at the same time because the film tax employment credit has been completely axed by the government that’s in power now, so everyone who started there doesn’t live there anymore. There are quite a few of us still in the industry, I fear that maybe that number will be significantly declined for people there now because there are no opportunities for them to even try to do it.
DB: Is it quite rural?
SM: Yes. The way it works around there is: we have a city and it’s very neighbourhood-y, there is a downtown area and then the city abruptly ends and you have open road and fields. There’re no suburbs and each town is separate from the next. It’s prairies, plains, very flat, a lot of farming. Canada is a lovely country and I do think it’s a very nice place to grow up and I’m grateful for that.
DB: Apart from yourself, who else was in your family as you were growing up?
SM: My mum was a single mother and my brother is about 3 years younger than me, his name is Robbie. I have some other half-siblings that are mostly older – I didn’t know many of them most of my life but I know and have relationships with some now. My elder sister does hair and makeup on set, so we also started in the industry around the same time (her name is Nina McArthur) and sometimes we get to work together. Just being able to talk shop with somebody in your family, you know some of the same people and can speak in acronyms, it’s nice. I knew her as I was growing up but we’ve gotten to know each other much better as adults.
DB: Your name is unusual: is there a story behind how it was chosen?
SM: Yeah, my mum has this story. She was pregnant, I think she was a substitute teacher at the time, so she was playing around on the blackboard and combined my two grandmothers’ names. My one grandmother’s named Seraphina and the other’s named Gladys, so she took the lys out of Gladys and combined it with Sera.
DB: Where does the McArthur come in?
SM: It’s interesting. My dad’s last name is McArthur, my dad is Nakota, but we have a Scottish person in our background quite far back and that name stuck to a lot of Indigenous Canadians around there, so there’s a little pocket of us in Saskatchewan who are Native Canadian but also McArthurs.
DB: And then you end up on Outlander!
SM: Yeah! It was fun to tell the driver, ‘By the way, my surname is McArthur,’ and he’s like, ‘No, really?’ And the rest of it I couldn’t quite understand because of the accent. (Both laugh)
DB: What was your experience of school? Did you have any particular favourite subjects or teachers?
SM: I was actually more of an overall nerd, didn’t love sports, I was into music, I didn’t know much about drama but I liked artistic things, I was really into maths and science and literature as well. As I got to high school that’s when I started focusing more because I got a part in the TV miniseries, I thought, ‘I guess I like acting now.’ I wanted to do more of that so I started focusing a lot more on arts and less on the science and literature. I graduated and headed to New York City right after that.
DB: How did you get that very first part in the miniseries?
SM: It was called Revenge of the Land and I was already at a kids’ modelling agency – my neighbour and I just took a class there because we were interested, but I didn’t really know what I was doing because I was like 11. I was at the agency when they were casting for this role that they wanted to be Métis (which means mixed-blood Native and white) child from the 1800s. They had already cast Carmen Moore to play the mum of the character that I was auditioning for, so when I walked in they were like, ‘Oh my God, she looks just like her!’, ‘Calm down, calm down. Can she act?’ I did my little scene that I’d prepared and I guess I wasn’t that bad. They asked me, ‘Have you ever acted before?’ I said, ‘No, but I’ve signed up for a workshop next week,’ they told me to take the workshop and while I was at the workshop they called me to tell me that I’d got it.
DB: Your entry point was with Carmen and then, all those years later, you’re on Outlander together.
SM: It’s such a small world in that way. We were on another Canadian series together as well, called Arctic Air, our characters didn’t have a lot of interaction but more so off-camera. When we got cast (for Outlander) we had such a great time and we got to do some exploring together, it was just such a nice, familiar energy to have around when we were going through this very special experience, very, very far from home.
DB: You mentioned earlier that you moved to New York: what prompted you to move to the Big Apple?
SM: Well I had already ventured into musical theatre, just training when I was a kid, there wasn’t a lot of film production, so there were not a lot of ways that you could keep limber, practising and learning. There was a really good musical theatre company for young people in town, I auditioned for that and was in that throughout high school. There’s a few other folks from that who are still doing things, like Tatiana Maslany (we go way back) and a few people that are on Broadway. I loved Broadway and I think I had this obsession with New York and just wanted to get out into the world and had these big Broadway dreams. I auditioned for AMDA (American Musical and Dramatic Academy) and I got in. I had been telling my mum since I was in the 10th grade that I was going to move to New York after I graduated but I don’t think she really believed it, but then I literally did it the day after I graduated. Experiencing New York, that’s where I became an adult for the first time, out on my own, figuring life out, so I’m very attached to it. I was 18.
DB: Coming from a relatively small, quaint town, to New York: how was that as an experience?
SM: It was crazy, for sure. I think I was so excited by it and there’s also so many things that are hard at that age, difficult to figure out, that I don’t know that I would have been any better or any worse at it anywhere else. I started to get the hang of New York very quickly. For me it was awesome because I don’t like driving, so I walked everywhere, got around on my own, took the train. I got a job right away, and it seemed like the land of opportunity in a lot of ways, even though it was loud and obnoxious, and dangerous at times. Then I moved on to other places, for a bit, because it wasn’t the best place for me to be career-wise as I’d chosen to do film and television, to focus more on acting than musical theatre, by the time I had finished my training. There wasn’t a lot of film production there because it was too expensive to film in New York back then and it seemed like a lot of the things I was watching on TV were actually shot in Vancouver, so that’s why I went to Vancouver after that.
DB: That’s a bit ironic because there’s quite a lot filming in New York now.
SM: Yeah, now, so that’s why I’ve moved back.
DB: How do you divide your time now, are you in New York some of the time?
SM: Yeah, I’m in New York some of the time and Toronto some of the time. Right now I’m in Winnipeg almost all of the time [filming].
DB: When you moved to Vancouver: was that solely because that’s where there was much more filming going on?
SM: Yeah, and I think I wanted a big change. I wanted to get back to Canada and I wanted to try something new, to pursue acting and some place that was green and outdoorsy and people are nice. It’s almost like the flip side of the coin though, because sometimes people are fake nice (nice but only on the surface and don’t want to talk to you) whereas New Yorkers kind of get in your face, want to keep having the conversation, get to know you a little better and then, if it doesn’t work out it doesn’t work out. In Vancouver and other parts of Canada I found it a little lonely because people don’t actually want to connect with strangers very much.
DB: When you were in Vancouver did you study acting?
SM: I actually just focused on general arts [at Capilano University] taking some things to flesh out my education, because my training by then was very specific. I took some really interesting electives like Phonetics (a Linguistics class but for learning how to notate accents and dialects). I had already learned that in the US, at school, and then I took it from a more academic perspective when I was in Vancouver. When I was in the US they were teaching me standard American dialect as the base dialect and then when I was at school in Capilano they were teaching me the Canadian accent as the base accent, so it really helped me differentiate sounds and the International Phonetic Alphabet. I also took Jazz History and French and just some fun stuff like that. I was taking studio acting classes with a Strasberg type of school and I met a bunch of people there as well who are still very much in the industry.
I lasted about two years and then I was like, ‘I want to get a master’s degree in acting, where should I go?’ I looked up places and that’s when I came to East 15. That was the only one I had my sights set on, I auditioned for it and I was happy that I got in. I lived in London and I took the tube out every day (to Loughton) because I was actually lucky enough to get a really nice-sized scholarship from British Columbia to go and get my masters. I didn’t really want to live ‘next door’ to London, I wanted to live in London.
DB: When you were living in London, what did you do in your spare time?
SM: Our drama school brought us to some shows and then I went with my mum when she came. One of my friends was this American young man who I met at a gay bar when I first got there, so that’s also what I did a lot, I went to gay bars and danced and stayed out really late, made some friends. That friend, Marlon, worked for a company and sometimes he would get free tickets to shows. One time he took me to the ballet and we got box seats, we were definitely the youngest people we saw there, and I was in one of my costumes from school because I was like, ‘I’m going to go to the Royal Opera House but have nothing to wear.’
DB: You list a lot of accents on your resume…
SM: I was happy to study linguistic voice and speech production again when I was at East 15. There again my base accent, that we were writing in, was RP (Received Pronunciation), so that gave me even more experience in being able to understand the different accents. We were in the first of its kind international programme, 17 students from 15 different countries, so I could hear people whose second or third language was English from various parts of the world and I could also start to get a feel for their accents.
DB: Straight after you came back from London: where did you go and why did you choose that place?
SM: To Los Angeles. Apart from being an actor and wanting to try LA, I was dating someone long distance and we decided to give it a try. I stayed in LA for about a year with him, and it didn’t work out. I also gave LA a try, I don’t think it was the right time for me to be there. I’m glad I was there to learn things and to see how the industry is but I knew it wasn’t the right time or place for me to be. I like things about it but I don’t want to live there when I’m not working as an actor. The driving thing is annoying and the traffic’s gotten much worse since I lived there. I’m a theatre girl as well as a television girl, there was not a lot of theatre there and I found it difficult to connect with people as well. I did studio classes with a Strasberg teacher, her name is Barbara Bain, she was lovely and I still keep in touch with her. That was one of the things I enjoyed about Los Angeles. Her class, hiking and that’s about it; I love the hiking.
DB: You also did a one-woman show called In Spirit. I would like you to talk a little about that, what appealed to you and its subject matter.
SM: I was the only actor in it but it was still a very collaborative experience between the playwright/director, Tara Beagan, and the designer who did all the lighting and sound design, Andy Moro; there were a lot of sounds and projections that I had to interact with that were almost like a second character. I was drawn to it because I really wanted to do a one-person show – I just think it’s a rite of passage as an actor, it’s very challenging and I wanted to see if I could do it. It’s about a little girl (it’s based on a true event, we had to distance the identities somewhat) who was abducted, went missing and then, about 20 years later, her remains were found – it had been a violent end. I wanted to tell the story because it’s about a very big problem in Canada and the US and I think even in Australia (Canada was one of the first to really start acknowledging it) called Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Basically what happens is, there’s a systemic problem in these countries which stems from colonial behaviour, where indigenous people, especially women, aren’t valued, so when one of them goes missing they do a lot of victim blaming, the authorities don’t look into it and the news doesn’t take it seriously. Now they do because it’s a hot topic, but that’s a problem with media because unless it’s a hot topic they won’t cover it. So drawing attention to MMIWG and this area where it’s been rampant since the ‘70s which has the nickname “The Highway of Tears”, a highway in Canada where very many women have gone missing or were last seen before being found murdered. When I was doing this play we were still lobbying the government for a national inquiry, when Trudeau took over he did make one and now they’ve put together a report and now we’ve got to figure out what’s going to be done about it, so it’s still very much a living issue.
DB: You’ve produced some short films: what is it appeals to you about producing and do you want to do more?
SM: It’s a new experience for me still. I wanted to be in charge of the narrative a bit more and to tell stories that matter to me, that I think will make some sort of social impact and also hopefully help my career. Helping to raise my career to a higher level will, in turn, help me raise awareness for the issues. My first short film that I co-produced was also about the Highway of Tears (I actually did that before I did the play). When you belong to the very group of people that are marginalised, it’s like you’ve got to start to make some noise about it if people are going to listen to you at all. I just remember looking at the headlines and seeing the faces of the women who were the family members of people that were victims of multiple serial killers and I remember thinking that they looked like they could be related to me, you know, and that really affected me. I was like, ‘You know what, I’m no different than any of these women. I could be walking by myself at night for any number of reasons and then, because of my demographic, the authorities might question what I was doing out there, blaming the victim.’ It could be anyone, you know, and you shouldn’t have to be afraid walking from point A to point B, as a woman. That short is called The Wolf of Waubamik Woods – we did quite a few film festivals, we got it on Comcast Xfinity and on Amazon. I co-wrote that, helping make the story more valid from my indigenous perspective, with my friend Steve (Belford) who was the main writer.
DB: I caught you on Netflix in the show Friends from College, playing football/soccer: had you ever played any soccer before?
SM: I did when I was a girl and then one of my friends, she lives in London (she actually plays in a league there) was over in New York, I bought us a soccer ball and was like, ‘Help me!’ I did fine. First of all you’re nervous, because all the eyes are on you and it’s not something you’re that proficient at anymore; I was actually quite good at it as a child, so I think I had a bit of false confidence there. It was also a crazy, windy day so sometimes you’d kick the ball, and it wouldn’t go where you wanted. I think it was more about the acting and I only had to kick it into the net that one time. That was fun because it didn’t have anything to do with my ethnic background and it was a funny role, and I don’t get to do comedy very often.
One of my short films was a comedy for that very reason, and I don’t get to play people with a career very often either. My friend wrote it after I gave her some parameters, it’s called Pharmalarm, it’s kind of taking the piss out of the pharmaceutical sales industry. I do want to continue being a producer, I don’t know if I want to produce things if I’m not in them because my main goal is being an actor. I’m producing a play right now in New York, that I was suppose to be in but I can’t because I booked this other role in Winnipeg. It’s been a very invaluable lesson to learn producing for different projects in different ways and branching out. I find it a great learning experience but I don’t know that I want to make it my main focus. My boyfriend is a producer and he’s making a very nice living at it, but I just love being an actor so much I wouldn’t want to give this up.
DB: Has it given you a completely different perspective?
SM: It has because there’s so much that goes into making something come together: multiple locations, trucks that need to move from one point to another, background performers, permits if it’s in a public place. I am in awe of production teams!
DB: Moving onto Outlander, you play the character of Johiehon: what was the process by which you were cast for that particular role?
SM: I knew that they were auditioning Native parts because there was already a call out for extras (“Supporting Artists” in the U.K.) so I checked with my agent and Johiehon was the first role that I auditioned for. I got the sides and they were in English but they said, ‘This part will be in French and this part will be in Mohawk. If you don’t speak those languages don’t bother doing them in the audition.’ But I know from experience that that is not a good route to take because producers have a very limited vision of what they can imagine, and already you’re not in the woods, you’re not wearing what you’d be wearing, not holding a baby, so they’re already using their imagination a lot, and the last thing you want to do is speak English because what accent are you going to use? Because the character doesn’t speak English. I reached out to a friend of mine, Devery Jacobs, and asked her if she could help me translate and she said, ‘Yeah, I’m going up for the role as well, so I’ll send you my recording.’ She’s Mohawk and Mohawk’s a very different dialect from what my people speak, which is Nakota; I practised that. The French was much easier (because we take French in school here) and I also reached out to a friend just to make sure I was saying it right. I had my audition planned out in my head and went in and did it in one take. The casting director that helped out with the Canadian casting was Lisa Parasyn in Toronto and as I was in town for an audio book, so I was able to go into the room. I was placed on hold for the role (which means you’re being highly considered). In the meantime I got another audition for the role that Crystle Lightning played (a translator for Tantoo Cardinal’s character from the Cherokee). My agent called – it was at least three weeks, maybe even a month – and he went, ‘You got the part in Outlander,’ and I was like, ‘Which one?’ (Laughs) I was very happy that it was Johiehon because I was more attached to that role and I thought I did a really good job in my audition with all the Mohawk and French.
DB: Apart from the language side of it, what other prep did you do before filming?
SM: I learnt about Mohawk culture, the producers provided us with some information such as how Mohawk traditionally behaved in their society. The thing is I had already played a young, Native woman who died in a fire, so I knew how to do that because, apart from there being a few of my friends there including Carmen, it was brand new and was a really, really big-scale production, bigger than I had ever been on, in a new country. I could rely on the fact that I had done this before, I had cried and died and had had to do two days of filming for one really big, last scene.
DB: After you got the other lines what did you do about the parts in Mohawk?
SM: They sent the sides and put me in touch with Carol Ann (Crawford), who is the dialect coach for Outlander, who got an elder, named Eva (who is from Akwesasne Reservation in Upstate New York) to record it. Then Carol Ann wrote it down with phonetics and checked with me that I understood phonetics and we did two of three Skype coachings before I went over. When I got there we had a week of prep which included a few more coachings with Carol Ann and Eva, in-person. For me I didn’t have any other major things to prepare but there were a lot of people doing the fight scene with the gauntlet, and they had rehearsals. Some of the boys had to learn things like archery, horse riding and fun stuff like that.
DB: How did the costuming, jewellery and hairstyle help in you to capture her character?
SM: It helps a lot because it’s very different from what I would wear and you can move around really well in those costumes; I’m lucky because historical period costumes aren’t usually that kind to women. Just the look, looking at everyone else around me, seeing the beautiful work that the costume, hair and makeup departments, did as well as the set builders, really helped ground us in the reality that we were portraying. There was even smoke coming out the huts, everything looked real. Honestly, apart from the camera crew that you would see, you would think you were coming into a time warp Mohawk village. Sometimes I would step on a cute little mound and it would kind of crunch and wasn’t real ground, but it looked real!
DB: Working with the babies: how did that work in practice?
SM: I didn’t meet them until I got to the set. Their mum was there with two nannies but she had to be there all day with the girls. We had Sadie and Neve and they were so sweet and cute. Basically I held onto the baby most of the days because one baby was being watched with the mum and the nannies, and then one baby would be with me. Sometimes it would be worse to give her back and take her back again because then she might cry, so she just got used to being with me, and if her mum wasn’t in view she was fine. People were nicknaming me “The Baby Whisperer” because I was keeping her from crying; she would fall asleep sometimes and get really heavy. We had the one baby that was really happy at first, so she did the first day (the scene where Johiehon meets Roger) but right after that she started teething and she was not happy, so then we switched her out with her sister who was much more sensitive and could easily cry but wouldn’t stay crying, necessarily. It is actually good to have one baby that can be happy and one that can be sad because you can use the one that cries more in the sad scene – so manipulative. (Laughs) We filmed for five days.
DB: The scenes that you had with Richard Rankin and Braeden Clarke: what are they like as individuals and to film with?
SM: Oh they’re awesome! I wasn’t shy around Richard at all – because I wasn’t fully caught up on the show yet – I just knew he was a lead character and had something with Claire’s daughter. Richard’s very funny, humble and easy to be around and he’s a really really good actor. Braeden was very new: he’s very energetic, a lot of fun on set and he does his homework, which is necessary with a character that speaks different languages.
I kind of wish I had been able to see what they were working on in the hut because I still think that’s some of the best work I’ve ever seen. They had to re-film that because they did rewrites after they had already filmed it, so they had to do it all again, but different. Richard and Yan (Tual) were learning new lines every night and they have a lot to say in those scenes.
I felt that we were having a fun time, I was very supported and it was nice to meet new people. Braeden and I worked together again just recently on a film in Manitoba and that was because we met on Outlander – I knew the producer and he asked me if there was anyone I’d recommend. We actually hadn’t seen each other in real life since Scotland, so that was nice.
DB: The crying scene: how long did that go on for?
SM: Two days! Like I said, I had done these big, epic scenes before, luckily, so I kind of knew what to expect. Crying, you have to really, really pace yourself and it has to do with energy. We had a really lovely director, her name is Mairzee (Almas) and she’s from Vancouver; she was just so supportive and a lot of fun. The thing is they didn’t really say all the stuff that I had to do in the scene, all it said in the script is: the action is in slow motion, that Roger throws the barrel and it explodes, incinerating Father Alexandre, then Johiehon starts walking towards the fire, at the last moment she turns and throws the baby to Kaheroton… (Both laugh) and then she goes onto the fire – all I had to go with was that. We talked it through with Mairzee and Karen Campbell about what I would be going through in that moment, the decision I would have to make, all the beats to hit, and I hit them. I was happy because I got a lot more of an emotional journey shown on camera than what was written originally.
DB: Thinking about the stunt work involved in that: were you on-set watching when that took place?
SM: That was one of the most bizarre experiences ever, but it was so exciting! Braeden and I were like, ‘This is so great!’ First of all I got to walk very close to the burning stuntman when they had the first big flame thing go up on Father Alexandre. Richard and Braeden needed an eyeline to watch me go into the fire, so I walked as close as I was allowed to walk and then I dove out, then they had to react to me going up there in their minds’ eye. The camera was also going on the flaming stuntman who was in a flame-retardant suit with flame-retardant gel on it. He was up there and they burned him. They have 15 seconds, they start counting down and then they shout, “Out! Out! Out!” when they have to cut and put on all the fire extinguishers. When they were doing my character I had to not be seen, so they had me watching from the tent where you see the monitors but I think I did watch in real life a little bit. She’s dressed like me – although you can only see from the back so it looks like you are doing it. When she was on her way up her foot stumbled down, so she face planted into the burning body of the other stunt double but then she managed to get herself up and do the final move. Later she had second degree burns on her lips because, although she was in a flame retardant suit, there was a straw that went into her mouth, so she could breathe, but when she stumbled and face planted it melted the straw!
DB: What a way to earn a living!
SM: I know and they can only afford so many of those. I think we did two with just the guy burning by himself and one with both of them burning, then they used dummies in that same position and made that the highest flame shot.
DB: You talked about the director, Mairzee: how important do you feel she was in the final product that everyone sees on the screen?
SM: Very important, I think more so than in some other TV shows, because a lot of times directors don’t have a lot of say in shows that are already established. She told us on-set what she was picturing and she started playing the Adagio for Strings asking us to imagine it, we were listening to it and all of us were getting teary-eyed, ‘If that music is playing while that scene is playing out… Oh my goodness this is going to be like something from Last of the Mohicans!’ I saw a little bit on the monitor and I could tell it was going to be beautiful and that I had never been in anything that looked like this before! I was really happy that you got to see Johiehon’s total emotional journey before she made her fiery decision.
DB: It’s a fantastic piece of work and Yan did a wonderful job as well because that’s a lot of crying and dying, it’s emotionally and physically draining.
SM: Yes and they’re very long days, at least 10-12 hours, depending on the light. I was glad because we shot my close-up coverage at the beginning of the second day, so I had already one day to get acclimated to that scene but then I was losing energy. I was concerned that we were going to try and get it in at the end of the first day but they pushed it to the second day and that was much better for me energy-wise. I felt confident going into my role on Outlander, which was challenging, and I was just ready for the challenge, I knew what it took and made it my goal to speak Mohawk as correctly, and authentically as I could. I got feedback from someone after it aired, on social media, and they said, ‘Thank you so much, I’m a “Mohawk” speaker and I could understand everything you said, so thank you so much for doing your homework and learning how to speak our language and representing us well.’ Honestly that so warms my heart to hear because that’s what my goal was. I know when it’s my ancestral language it matters a lot to me, so I want to give the same respect to someone else’s.
DB: Could you describe working on the show generally, the crew, the cast etc.?
SM: The crew was lovely, they were very supportive and kind. There’re a lot of moving parts and they seemed to have a shorthand with each other. There’s always a bit of, they’ve been there and they know what’s up and we’re like the new kids, but overall they were very supportive, tight-knit and super-professional. I was so happy with my entire experience out there. Even one of my friends (who played one of the Mohawk warriors), he and a bunch of the boys got a tattoo of the Mohawk clan on their arms, when they were out there filming – he said it was the best experience of his life. He found a real brotherhood with the other men that were in the Mohawk village but you know the whole thing wouldn’t have been so memorable had the team not been so strong.
DB: Where did you stay and what things did you do outside of filming?
SM: We were in Glasgow for the prep and then we went up to Pitlochry for filming. The supporting artists were in one hotel and the actors were in another hotel, in Glasgow. When we were up in the Pitlochry area even the actors were split up between different hotels and Air BnB type of places. There was a small group of us that were able to stay at this castle-like hotel called the Fonab Castle Hotel. We met in Pitlochry town and would go for dinner and shopping, and Scottish whisky, not a lot, just a little but you’ve got to try a few because we don’t get nearly as many varieties over here in a North America.
DB: You also went to Loch Lomond didn’t you, with Carmen?
SM: Carmen hadn’t been overseas before, she loved that song – and I think she had some family connection to somebody singing that song – so we were like, ‘Let’s go to Loch Lomond!’ That was a really special experience for both of us. It was really beautiful and quaint, relaxing, awesome. It was great to be there with someone that you’ve known for so long and care about. I also went horseback riding “hack,” as you say over there.
DB: Do you have any advice for anyone considering acting as a career and maybe any particular advice for anybody who is Indigenous considering acting as a career?
SM: As I’ve been told (and saying this tongue-in-cheek) ‘it’s never been a better time to be an Indigenous actor’. I say that ironically because people are saying that now and it’s like: ‘It’s never been a greater time to have narrowly escaped genocide and have to reclaim your culture, and all the other issues you may be facing in life due to these colonial things that happened to your ancestors, your parents.’ There are a lot more roles now for Indigenous people, though I would prefer if I didn’t always have to play an Indigenous character but I’m also so happy that there’s some really awesome parts and they weren’t like that when I was young – it was period drama or else you weren’t in it, that means you don’t get to speak English (I know, I didn’t in Outlander). I find that there’re other parts to the career that really excite me and I would hope that someone getting involved would be interested in that. It’s helped me learn about my culture, learn about other First Nations’ cultures, languages, history – I see it as a very enriching experience.
You can’t get attached to the outcome. Of course you’re auditioning for a part you want to get, but what you also want to do is enjoy the journey. You can still get a lot out of auditioning, so if I wouldn’t have booked Outlander I would still have learned how speak Mohawk. As a journey it’s been very kind to me because I find all of the experiences very enriching: going to school in the U.K. might not make me famous, but that’s not the overall goal for me. I still haven’t ridden a horse on camera but I started riding horses because I was getting auditions for parts that required riding. I do stuff like that, so martial arts, learning different languages, phonetics, music, singing, and all of that helps in your bag of skills.
It can get confusing for people because they’re like, ‘Oh I just want to be on TV and get famous,’ and then perhaps acting isn’t the thing for you because you get a lot more nos than you do yeses, you have to be ready for that, to roll with the punches – but if you love it then it’s worth trying.
DB: Who would you say has been the most influential person, or people, in your life and in what way have they been influential?
SM: My mum, her being very, very supportive of me. She didn’t know what it was to be a stage mum, she just supported me every step of the way. She’s a good model of a parent and I’m very lucky with the moral support and helping me get to my lessons. There was financial support too but she didn’t just buy me lessons and send me there, she found funding for me, drove me to my classes, asked me what I wanted to do, took me to my auditions and all that. The director John N. Smith, who was the director on Revenge of the Land and The Englishman’s Boy, basically chose me to be an actor when I didn’t know what it was and turned me into an actor. I felt support from him – he’s almost like an artistic father in some ways. My own father for helping me with Nakota dialect and language, putting me in touch with elders when I need to find out cultural and language information, to get coaching etc. He’s always encouraged us to “Dream Big.” I’m very lucky that I had parents that didn’t limit me mentally, they both wanted me to achieve as much as I could and go for big goals. I also have a boyfriend, we’ve been together for two years, he’s a producer and we live together in New York, he’s very supportive – it can be very difficult to find someone who is understanding of the needs of your career. I’m very lucky to have him, his name is David Garegnani. He’s in New York with our dog, Happy.
DB: When you aren’t working, what do you do to relax? Do you have any particular hobbies, passions or special interests?
SM: Besides horseback riding, I like martial arts or boxing classes, they are a great stress buster for me. I do go to yoga but I prefer yin yoga, the stretching yoga, to help relax and stretch out my body, which does get very stiff from travelling a lot and staying in places that aren’t my house. I love going to plays, musicals and any live artistic things. When I’m in New York I get to go to Central Park all the time, I do outdoorsy things and we hang out with the dog there. I love going to spas: massages and spa treatments to decompress and I’m lucky enough to be able to afford it when I need it.
DB: When you do go horse riding: where do you ride?
SM: All over. I found a place outside of Winnipeg (Otterburne), Horseback River Trails, and it’s lovely and then I’ve gone in Vancouver, outside Toronto and there’s also a place north of New York.
DB: You learned kung fu for a role: is that one of your main martial arts?
SM: Yes, that is my main martial art, it helps with focus, strengthening and energy and again it’s good for acting because there’s quite a bit of kung fu in action movies. Olivia Cheng, who’s in Warrior, she and I were in a Canadian pilot called Skye and Chang and we had to learn martial arts for that.
DB: What’s your first ever musical memory?
SM: Oh the “Hallelujah Chorus”! My grandma used to play that on a record, she had a really nice record player in her living room. That was one of my favourites when I was little. She played piano and accordion, by ear; she and her siblings had had a professional band when they were younger that did gigs. She went to school in the one-room schoolhouse and the nuns were like, ‘No, you can’t do that, you have to study!’ But she was like, ‘No I can do it, I can study and do gigs.’ And she did. She learned from the radio and from looking in the mirror and reversing what she saw people do when they were playing on the accordion. She would play a lot of polka and songs she heard on the radio and TV. I wish I would have learned more by ear because I started reading notes playing the flute and it can kind of box you in, mentally, like, ‘I’m not doing it right, I have to know which note it is.’ She had the same block towards reading music because she was like, ‘I can’t read music, I don’t know how to read music.’
DB: What’s the first single or album you bought with your own money?
SM: With my own money I’m not sure, but I know my first CD was Tina Turner. Tina Turner and Dolly Parton were my go-tos as a child. If there was any way to see Tina Turner live I would do it in a heartbeat. I also really loved my Alanis Morissette Jagged Little Pill album.
DB: What genres of music do you like listening to and do you have any favourite artists?
SM: I’m a big musical theatre nerd so I do actually listen to a lot of show tunes. I love Sondheim, particularly A Little Light Music – the revival with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones is one of my favourites. I love pop music and Robyn is one of my favourite artists, she’s really fun. Lily Allen is also one of my favourites (from back when I lived in the U.K.) and Pink. Jazz music I love as well: Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Bessie Smith.
DB: You trained as a dancer: if there’s a party with music on will you just get up and dance or do you have to be dragged onto the dance floor?
SM: Oh I like to dance! I prefer to dance and if I don’t get to dance on the regular I get kind of sad; I don’t get to go out as much nowadays. I’m looking forward to going to Vancouver this weekend because I’m shooting a proof of concept trailer, and my friends there always love to dance. I’m hoping they haven’t gotten too old and boring either and we can all go out just like old times.
DB: Do you sing alto-soprano?
SM: I’m in between both but I’m a stronger alto, the timbre in my voice is a bit higher. I’ve always been told by my voice teachers that I’m actually soprano but I would say mezzo. I feel comfortable as an alto because that’s where I first learned to sing harmonies. I haven’t kept up with my range, and your upper range starts to dwindle, as you age, unless you keep it going by training and working regularly as a singer.
DB: Would you ever get up and sing socially, if it was a karaoke or something like that and if so what would be your songs of choice?
SM: Yeah, I do, I like karaoke a lot. I had a karaoke birthday a couple of times, maybe even last time… (Laughs) I have go-tos. I love “Cabaret” and doing “What’s Up” from the 4 Non Blondes and I just started doing “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon. Then I’ll also do Alanis Morissette and more modern things from the ‘90s.
DB: Imagine it’s your final meal on planet Earth: what would you choose to feast upon and what would be your preferred drink to accompany that meal?
SM: I think I would like there to be bison meat involved because it’s very delicious, and I also love tacos, so if there’s a way to make bison meat in the tacos… and then there would have to be guacamole to go with it. I would also drink mezcal: a delicious, smoky “pechuga” mezcal.
DB: The Mexican-bison fusion sounds the way to go. Could you tell me about the book or books that you’re reading at the moment?
SM: I’m reading Killers of the Flower and Moon by David Grann, which is also becoming a movie which is casting right now (I hope I get to be in it). It’s about the murders of several Osage Nation members in Oklahoma in the 1920’s because they had oil money. There was this big conspiracy going on where people were marrying them then offing them, and then usurping their oil-riches. They signed for this really terrible, rocky piece of unfertile land. In order to stay alive they relocated to it but they signed a treaty that said that this was their land plus anything above or below it, having no idea that oil was going to become a thing. So this very small group of “Indians” (as they were called back then) became very rich overnight. But people weren’t happy about the status quo changing and started to try and figure out ways that they would be able to take it from them. It does have to do with, again, the authorities not caring much at first, so they weren’t looking into the murders seriously, so they went on over years. It was clear that these people were being targeted but it was so methodical and thought out that it was almost impossible to figure out who was doing it. My boyfriend is actually a registered member of the Osage Nation and he was the one who gave me that book.
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
SM: I think I would get up and eat a really big breakfast with eggs, bacon, potatoes at some restaurant and then I would go horseback riding out in the country on a hack. Then I would go to the spa, get a massage and hang out in the hot tub and then I would go to dinner (where I would probably have what I talked about before) and then go on an outdoorsy walk near water somewhere, a river or a lake or the ocean. Maybe I’d go to a theatre show as well.
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