At last year's Toronto International Film Festival, actor Cara Gee was crowned one of the event's rising stars and granted all the A-list accoutrements that came with the title, including a driver and temporary custody of many carats of diamonds. The chauffeur, alas, was hers for only the first few days of the festival; when a meet-and-greet with the Minister of Canadian Heritage came up later in the week, Gee was without her limo and out of cash and transit tokens. So she put on her $200,000 worth of jewellery, hopped on her bike and cycled downtown.
"This is exactly what it's like to be an actor in Canada," says Gee, telling the story over coffee in Vancouver almost a year later. "It was a really wonderful moment of just the absurdity and the [contrast between] the image of what we put out there and then the reality of what our life is."
Gee has been in British Columbia since May, shooting a gritty new CBC drama series, called Strange Empire, that premieres Oct. 6. Set in 1869, it's billed as a western with a cast of female heroes. Gee plays Kat Loving, a Métis woman struggling to survive under terrible circumstances, displaying enormous strength and a powerful, Beyoncé-like sexuality (Gee has a tendency to compare her characters to Beyoncé, with whom she is obsessed).
We're caffeinating in Vancouver's Yaletown, where Gee is staying in one of the upscale neighbourhood's sparkling waterfront towers. With a high-end marina at her doorstep, her temporary home is a world away from her bicycle and Toronto's Parkdale, where Gee lives "very frugally" with her fiancé, actor Kaleb Alexander. Her West Coast digs seem perfectly suited, however, to someone whose standard joke, when asked about life goals, is that she's going to buy a yacht some day.
Luxury-boat aspirations aside, Gee has a surprisingly frank and down-to-earth perspective on the life of an actor, especially when I ask if she minds telling me her age.
"I like telling my age because I think that it does all of us a disservice to pretend that we're younger than we are, because it actually takes time and effort and dedication to get good at the thing that we do," says Gee, who turned 31 a few days earlier.
When I explain that some actors – often women – are concerned that having their age made public might affect their ability to win roles, she acknowledges that that's a reality, but perhaps not for her.
"I feel like I'm in a unique position because I'm not ever cast in those sort of beautiful-blonde leading-lady roles, so I have a bit of freedom to bring my full and realest self to the thing.
I don't have to pretend to be something that I'm not because there's no point," says Gee, who is half Ojibwa. "I'm very obviously a minority and there aren't many of us in movies or on TV. So when I do get a role like this, it's because of who I am, which is wonderful, but it's also ridiculous that that is still a thing. That people are going 'Oh wow, the CBC's doing this really diverse show – because there's a black woman and a native woman.' I can't believe it's 2014 and this is still something we're talking about."
Gee was born in Calgary and raised near Bobcaygeon, Ont., where her family moved when she was 5, before relocating to Newmarket, Ont. She attended four high schools, finding her destiny at the last one when, looking for an easy OAC credit, she enrolled in a drama course. She had already applied for a postsecondary arts-management program – she was organizing punk concerts and envisioned a behind-the-scenes music-industry career – but scrapped those plans. She studied acting at the University of Windsor and has been working steadily since graduating in 2007.
Most of that work has been in theatre, with a stack of acclaimed performances – most recently in Daniel MacIvor's Arigato, Tokyo at Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (she's an ensemble member of the independent theatre company Birdtown & Swanville, which is in residence at Buddies). A couple of years ago, she landed a starring role in her first feature, Empire of Dirt, about three generations of First Nations women. The film had its world premiere at TIFF last year and Gee was nominated for best lead actress at the Canadian Screen Awards.
Then came the CBC series and an intense role that, in addition to its artistic riches, offers a steady income. "I cried when I got my first paycheque," says Gee, who figures the dress she bought for her 31st birthday party was the first article of clothing she had purchased in almost two years. "I'm a theatre actor; I'm a poor lady. You can't have extravagant tastes," she says, dressed simply in an olive blazer, black T-shirt, skinny jeans and neutral flats. Her off-duty look is a stark contrast to her character's western-gothic style, a wardrobe she calls "badass, gangsta."
As we continue to chat, her stories are infused with what she calls a reckless optimism. She displays a sharp insight into her craft and has, as she puts it, "the energy of a monster." Right now, Gee is in a great place, but she's also keenly aware that the life of an actor is filled with ups and downs. Like borrowed diamonds on a bicycle, she is on a dazzling, fast-moving ride.
This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Globe Style Advisor. To download the magazine's free iPad app, visit tgam.ca/styleadvisor.