Amanda Brugel, Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs and Ellen Wong boast enviable screen credits for actors who still might be called emerging. Randi Bergman talks to the trio – who will be honoured during TIFF – about building their careers
If you don't know the names Amanda Brugel, Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs and Ellen Wong, you're about to. Brugel has starred in numerous comedies, most notably winning the 2014 Actra Award for the indie film, Sex After Kids. Recently, she's taken several critically acclaimed turns, appearing in the Academy Award-winning film, Room, and playing Rita in The Handmaid's Tale, a role that will be elevated to series regular status for season two. Jacobs is an actress and filmmaker who was raised in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory in Quebec. In 2016, she helmed Stolen, a short film about missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada that won Best Aboriginal Film at the Yorkton Film Festival. Ellen Wong's breakout role was opposite Michael Cera in the 2010 production Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The Toronto-born actor currently stars as Jenny Chey/Fortune Cookie on the critically acclaimed Netflix show, Glow.
On Sept. 12, the trio and a lineup of accomplished actors, directors and screenwriters will be honoured by Telefilm Canada and Maison Birks with the annual Birks Diamond Tribute to the Year's Women in Film award during the Toronto International Film Festival. We sat down with Brugel, Jacobs and Wong during their Globe Style photo shoot for a discussion about female voices in the movies and the tricky relationship between film and fashion.
What do you think is particularly poignant about being honoured as women working in film in 2017?
Amanda Brugel: I feel like it's poignant to be honoured as a woman in film at all, but particularly this year because of all the recent achievements. Wasn't it recently announced that Patty Jenkins is going to be the highest paid female director for the sequel of Wonder Woman?
Ellen Wong: With Wonder Woman, for the first time in a huge studio movie, I was seeing a woman being a lead, and she was always intelligent and independent. There wasn't a looming male perspective. And I feel like there are so many women coming together to share their unique experiences – there is no one identity.
Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs: We're definitely at a point in history when the tides are turning for women. I am an Indigenous woman and my culture is very woman centered. It's an exciting time to be a woman in film and have our voices and our unique perspectives heard.
What do you think about the fact that the buzziest projects of your careers are intertwined with such strong feminist messaging?
AB: It was never a goal because it wasn't something I was encouraged to seek. It was more about getting a strong-ish female role – not something that was demeaning or degrading. But now that we're on the precipice of this beautiful movement, I realize I can't go back. To have a role in The Handmaid's Tale is a blessing but it's also a curse because now roles that aren't just as groundbreaking will no longer be acceptable.
KDJ: My past with activism was one of the reasons I directed Stolen. Regarding the issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women, I was tired of not seeing it being brought up in the media. I'm studying at the Actor's Conservatory [at the Canadian Film Centre] right now, but I actually didn't have any formal training before. I was working as a counselor at the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal and those experiences really fueled my perspective.
Do you think it's important to use your voice offscreen?
AB: Any time you're given a platform, you have to be responsible for it. Social media was something I started to use a lot and it brings together a group of women who want to help. So I have a charity, it's called Brugel's Army. Once a year, I choose a fundraiser that benefits women and children. The first year, I raised over $30,000 for a children's hospital and the following year, we raised $15,000 for a women's shelter, plus $10,000 of donated items. I just finished doing a ride for Sick Kid's Hospital, during which we raised $10,000.
EW: I used to come from this place of fear of having a voice. I think it was from not seeing women who look like me on screen or out there with one. Without realizing it, every time I'd get a role, I'd end up sitting the producers down and saying, "you know I'm Chinese, but my parents are from Cambodia – there's a huge difference." I feel in some way I've always been rallying to tell a diverse story of Asian identity as a woman. You don't need to be relegated to what's on the page. There are open-minded collaborators out there that want to listen. My character on Glow ended up being from Cambodia, and ever since then I've felt more open to talk about my parents being refugees and what that means. I am still an Asian woman, but it's about changing people's first impression.
How do you feel about film festivals, and TIFF in particular?
KDJ: I really dislike events where you have to put yourself on display. I have a really hard time with that. So this year I'm just excited to see some films and find the sincerity in meeting new people and learning about their new projects.
AB: I feel if you go into it trying to make genuine connection and not have it in the back of your head that it's a dog and pony show, you will make genuine connections. We rarely celebrate film in Canada and because it's such a revered festival, I feel like it's our one opportunity. Toronto gets a little swag, and I love that.
What about from a style perspective – do you like dressing up for red carpets?
AB: Two years ago was the first time I ended up on a worst dressed list, and I'm not going to lie, my ego flipped out. But at the same time I was like, okay – at least we are treating TIFF as a thing. We're starting to make this a little more formal instead of rolling up in Birkenstocks.
EW: When you're starting out, you don't actually know what the more polished version of yourself is. Finding that can spiral into unhealthy pressure and fear, which takes away all of the fun. Over time, I've learned that if I am comfortable it doesn't matter what everyone else thinks. It might take me time and I might not always get it perfect, but that's okay. As women, we need to be more compassionate with ourselves and with others.
Most of the time, worst dressed lists just represent anything other than the norm…
KDJ: Like this year at the Met Gala, Tracee Ellis Ross and Rihanna were the only ones who actually were avant-garde. And it's just like why! Everyone else was in these boring dresses. When it's time for a red carpet, that's when you get to play it up. You don't get to dress like that in real life.
AB: When I landed on the worst dressed list, I was wearing a hawk's wing necklace. And I did that because I'm a mom and I'm an actor. I go to set in yoga pants, and then I wear someone else's costume. The only time I actually go out is to promote a show, so I want to take a little bit of power back and become this outrageous version of myself.
EW: It's this moment to play and experiment. It doesn't have to be perfect and on the nose. It can be messy. It's exciting to try something that you haven't tried before.
How important are your characters' costumes for you?
EW: The most important thing to me about a costume is shoes. It changes the way my character stands, walks and moves around. Those have to be perfect, so I always love to try on a variety of shoes. Or sometimes, it's the first pair that the costume designer brings out and I'm like, "That's who she is!" There's something very grounding about that.
KDJ: It's exciting when you have a say in what the character would wear. It is such a great way to get into that character. In one of my roles, I had to dye my hair pink and I was a punk glam princess. And that's something I'd never wear in my real life, but it just changes your demeanor. It was automatically a tougher attitude that I unconsciously adopted.
AB: The costume element is huge. To be able to step into something you'd never wear changes your physicality. It's so enticing as a performer, especially if you want to disappear into someone. If we were all to change clothing right now, it'd change how we feel about ourselves. And I think that's so interesting about human nature.
Photos shot on location at the Broadview Hotel. Recently relaunched in Toronto's Riverside District, the 126-year-old Broadview Hotel has already become a popular spot for visitors and locals thanks to its rooftop lounge with expansive views of the downtown skyline. Inside, the Romanesque Revival building has been revamped by Design Agency to include 58 guestrooms, a buzzing lobby bar and an outdoor patio overlooking Queen Street East. For more information, visit thebroadviewhotel.ca.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
And the other winners are…
The honourees for the Birks Diamond Tribute to the Year's Women in Film highlight the range of acting, directing and screenwriting talent in Canada
An Inuit filmmaker from the Canadian arctic, Arnaquq-Baril is best known for projects like Angry Inuk, which received the $25,000 Canadian Documentary Promotion Award from Telefilm Canada at last year's Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.
A resident of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, director and screenwriter McKenzie's first feature, Werewolf, was filmed in the province and named one of Canada's Top 10 features by TIFF in 2016.
Bainbridge is a director, writer, producer and the co-founder of Rezolution Pictures. Her documentary, Reel Injun, won the Peabody Independent Lens award in 2010 for its exploration of Native stereotypes in movies.
Leriche's 2016 film, Before the Streets, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and has been recognized with 10 awards from various film festivals, as well as six nominations at the Canadian Screen Awards.
Premiering her latest project, Meditation Park, at 2017's TIFF, Shum has written and directed four other features including Double Happiness, Ninth Floor, Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity and Drive, She Said.
A National Theatre School grad and Canadian Screen Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress in Endorphine, Mackay won the 2017 Prix Iris for Best Actress in Nelly.
At just 14 years old, Pierre-Dixon has already had prominent roles in Suicide Squad, Netflix's Between and The Book of Negroes, for which she won a Canadian Screen Award in 2016 for Best Supporting Actress.
Currently preparing to direct Little Dog for CBC – and having just executive produced the first season of ABC's 10 Days in the Valley with actor Krya Sedgwick – White's other credits include Orphan Black and Maudie.
Screenwriter Arseneau is behind the new French series Faits Divers and her writing credits also include the feature length films La loi du cochon, Le dernier souffle and Sans Elle.
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