At the age of five, Tanaya Beatty had one line in a play called The Day the Moonfolk Landed: “What is that spaceship over there?” But it was enough; she was hooked. At 20, she moved from Midway, a remote mountain village in B.C. (population: 500), to Vancouver, where she took the acting program at the Vancouver Film School. Her first break was a big one: She played Taylor Lautner’s sister in 2011’s The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1. (She never got to transform into a werewolf, but she ran with the pack.) She got an agent. She landed a few TV series (Blackstone, True Justice, Arctic Air).
Beatty, 27, is beautiful and talented and charming to work with, so the gigs got splashier: She played a doctor on NBC’s The Night Shift. She landed a major role on an HBO limited series (more on that in a minute). Scott Cooper cast her in Hostiles, alongside Christian Bale. Currently, she’s playing a tough cowgirl on the series Yellowstone, which stars Kevin Costner; its creator, Taylor Sheridan, wrote the part for her. And on Sept. 8, Beatty’s latest film, Through Black Spruce, will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Typical trajectory, right? Except for one thing: Beatty is Indigenous. (Her mother is Da’naxda’xw.) One day that won’t be remarkable. But that day isn’t here yet.
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“In my perfect world, there would be a lot more Indigenous voices out there, more Indigenous actors, more Indigenous people in higher positions,” Beatty said in a recent phone call from Utah, where Yellowstone shoots.
Playing Indigenous characters in projects directed by white men – “it’s like, you have to take the curriculum,” Beatty continues with a laugh. “You have to play the game to get leverage, to get your voice heard. But I see taking these roles as taking a stand in some ways. It’s my way of saying, ‘I’m an Indigenous artist, there are a lot of us, and we’re all capable and talented.’”
Now seems like a good time to mention that Beatty’s HBO series was Lewis and Clark, and she played Sacagawea (with Casey Affleck as Lewis and Matthias Schoenaerts as Clark). But the story was too sprawling, the budget went haywire – ferrying hundreds of extras to remote locations by boat is not cheap – and the production was shut down. (It may be retooled.) “That canoe sunk real quick,” Beatty says wryly. “It was bittersweet, because I was excited to explore her character.”
In Through Black Spruce, Beatty finally plays the lead: Annie, who travels from Moosonee, Ont., to Toronto to find her sister, who’s gone missing; there’s a parallel story about Annie’s uncle, Will (Brandon Oakes), who’s coping with the poisonous legacy of residential schools. Most of the dialogue is in English, but there are scenes in Cree. Its producer, Tina Keeper, is Cree; she bought the rights a decade ago from the novelist Joseph Boyden, whose indigeneity has been questioned. The director, Don McKellar (Sensitive Skin), is white, as is the screenwriter, Barbara Samuels. But Samuels also wrote North of 60, which remains one of the few network series to feature a mostly Indigenous cast. And McKellar plays a reporter who interviews Annie; his line, “I don’t mean to put words in your mouth,” is a wink at the issue of appropriation.
In other words, Through Black Spruce, and Beatty’s participation in it, is a snapshot of this cultural moment, when some honchos in the film industry are passionately seeking new voices, while others are merely ticking boxes; when a vibrant culture is thriving on outlets such as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, although Canada didn’t have an Indigenous Screen Office until January of this year; and when young Indigenous actors such as Beatty still face an old choice: Participate in work that risks cultural appropriation, or don’t work at all.
Yet for Beatty, Through Black Spruce is also a dream come true. She read the book at 18 and was “obsessed with it,” she says. Before anyone was planning to film it, she longed to play Annie – “someone contemporary, who’s so layered and interesting.” Who grew up like her, shooting BB guns and fishing and paddling; who then came to the big city and felt a bit lost. Who can seem reserved, but who’s observant, who “really watches people and takes them in.” When she got the audition, she thought someone was pranking her.
“More than anyone else we auditioned, the book was really important to Tanaya,” McKellar says in a separate phone interview. “She had a kind of mystical connection to Annie. She felt it was a key part for her, and one she felt a responsibility for as an Indigenous woman. She has opinions about the representation of Indigenous women in other movies and she speaks her mind. It was hard to deny the power of all that.”
As with Annie, Beatty’s “strength and vulnerability are equal,” McKellar continues. “She has an inner stubbornness, but also an empathy. She’s instinctive, but also very responsive. For the emotional scenes, she gave me a huge range, from anger to quaveriness. It was clear the moment I saw her that she’s a movie star.”
He’d planned to shoot in winter; he’d even settled on his final image, the ice breaking up in Moosonee. But Beatty was committed to The Night Shift. He thought of recasting, “but she was stuck in my head,” he says. He changed the film’s schedule to accommodate hers.
“Initially, I thought maybe Tanaya wasn’t tough enough for Annie,” Keeper says, also by phone. “As a person, she’s so lovely and Zen. Having read the script so many times, I had an idea in my head. But Tanaya made it magic.”
Keeper, who for two years was the MP for two-thirds of Manitoba – including 19 fly-in communities, many of which had families with missing and murdered children – was particularly moved by a scene in which Annie walks through the steel and glass canyons of Toronto at night. “Just by the way Tanaya played it, she made me realize that this infrastructure of Canada is not our infrastructure,” Keeper says. “It’s not our home. No wonder we’re at risk here. That’s a big part of the film’s story. The health and social factors, the systemic racism – it’s because this isn’t our place, we don’t run this place. Watching her made me cry.”
At one point in her nighttime walk, Annie passes a “danger” sign nailed to a pole. The sign was real and McKellar almost edited it out – too on the nose. But he left it in, because he also left in the obscenities that several passersby yelled at Beatty while she was filming the scene, because they were real, too. “I’ve never felt unsafe in Toronto, but that night I could feel how Tanaya was,” McKellar says. “She never flinched, though; she stayed in it.”
Beatty’s all too familiar with the risks Indigenous women face. Adopted at birth, she protects her family’s privacy. “But here’s the rundown of the mothers I come from,” she says. “My great-grandmother was killed in a house fire on the reservation when she was 16. Her daughter was placed in a residential school, where only the worst horrors that can be imagined happened to her. Her daughter – my mother – was taken in the Sixties Scoop. By the time my mom was pregnant with me, she wasn’t confident in her ability to parent, and hadn’t had the chance to heal from the traumas she’d experienced. It’s a long line of people who have been strategically removed from one another.”
So telling the story of a shattered Indigenous family in Through Black Spruce alongside white co-creators “was an act of truth and reconciliation in some way,” Beatty says. “I’m cynical about the word reconciliation – given my history, for good reason. But if I’m to come close to that, it will be through art.”
Beatty’s opportunities continue to expand and she says she’s happy about that. “But I’m not a white girl, so I don’t know if more doors would be open if I was,” she says frankly. “It’s important that native people are able to play roles that are contemporary, that are not written as Indigenous. We don’t just exist in the past.”
That said, the characters she’s played who were written as Indigenous have enriched her the most, “in terms of getting to meet elders, hear their stories,” she says. On Lewis and Clark, the elder who taught her the Shoshone dialect was Rose Ann Abrahamson, a descendant of Sacagawea. The fur hat that Annie wears was made by Keeper’s mother. Those things move her.
“Annie’s message is, no one else can define her,” McKellar says. “She has to find and face her own identity, take matters into her own hands and speak with her own voice. I’m confident Tanaya will do that in her career as well.”
“These stories of resistance – because that’s what Through Black Spruce is – the hegemony of the West is quick to swallow those stories up and incorporate them into their own narrative,” Beatty says. “But we’re still here. People are still resisting. Their stories will get told. Even if they are becoming more commercial, or the fad, there’s a truth to them, and the truth will rise to the surface.”