He has played good guys and bad guys, a famous Cree explorer and a modern-day veterinarian among many other roles but Plains Cree actor Nathaniel Arcand wants the world to know that he can do so much more.
Having recently relocated to Vancouver in the hopes of getting more varied roles in the city’s thriving film industry, Arcand can frequently be seen on not one but two Canadian networks. He is starring in APTN’s new series, Blackstone, as do-gooder turned band counsellor Victor Merasty, while in CBC’s Heartland he plays local veterinarian Scot Cardinal.
Blackstone is Arcand’s second primetime TV role in a series that centres around Canadian Indian reservation life, having risen to popularity back in 1994 after being cast in his breakout role on CBC’s North of 60.
But, the actor says that the two shows can’t really be compared as he describes Blackstone as being “North of 60 x 10” due to its raw and intense nature as a drama.
The new show is set on the fictional “Blackstone” reservation in Alberta where the community has finally managed to oust former Chief Andy Fraser, played by Eric Schweig, so that Leona Stoney (Carmen Moore) can take over as the new Chief.
While Chief Stoney has the support of the community and its Elders, drama ensues as Fraser attempts to get back into power through a series of dark and manipulative tactics.
“There are no punches pulled in this series. North of 60 seemed to pull punches a lot and it was also very on-the-surface kind of stuff, it never got that deep into it. Blackstone is much more hardcore than North of 60,” said Arcand.
Being what he describes as a “city-born Indian,” Arcand said that while he may not have a lengthy history with reserve life that he can compare the scripted drama’s story line and he believes that it is rooted in reality. Keeping close family ties with his mother’s home on the Alexander First Nation Reserve, Arcand said that he frequently experienced “rez life,” through the eyes of his mother and grandmother.
He sees Blackstone as dealing with the everyday issues that face most on reserves and the lack of interest from those who live outside of it.
“Everything happens in the reserves and it is kind of just there. A murder will just be dismissed by the whites in the outside world or the RCMP because it is not their problem. They don’t have any concern over it unless it involves someone who happens to be part of the legal system or whatever. So it gets overlooked or swept under the carpet almost every time.
“This happens with a lot of issues, not just murder, rape, suicides and all these kinds of things that everyone always talks about on the reserve,” said Arcand.
He describes his own character as someone he can relate to as Merasty has a great deal of compassion for others and concern for their welfare, particularly when it comes to family.
Being on Blackstone did not mean that Arcand had to give up his regular gig on Heartland, however. He said that Blackstone is certainly more on his mind and that his Heartland character doesn’t get enough airtime, being only seen briefly in each episode. At that, perhaps as his character is Native, he believes that he is frequently typecast.
“They could make me more of a story as I am the only Indian on the whole damn show and it bothers me that they can’t think of anything past the tepees, sweet grass, eagles or bears for me to talk about,” said Arcand.
In moving from Alberta where both shows were being shot to Vancouver, Arcand said that he has had high hopes about being cast in other types of productions, particularly science fiction as a means of branching out. At the same time, he recognizes how TV rarely depicts Aboriginals as multi-dimensional beings.
“It is difficult to be an actor in the first place but to be a Native actor is so much harder. A long time ago I told my agent that I didn’t just want him to pitch me for all of the Native roles out there, I am tired of that. I don’t just want to play the screaming Indian on a horse anymore. I want to be a f**king lawyer, a doctor or a cop,” said Arcand.
The other major problem with the industry he said is that there are just not enough roles being created for Native actors and when they are, they aren’t necessarily being given to authentic Native actors.
He gave the example of Taylor Lautner being cast in Twilight as a Native American character though his ancestry is only distantly aboriginal, as he is primarily German, French and Dutch.
“That seems like the real problem, they don’t hire enough Native people for other productions. If you are going to be known as a Native actor, you can’t have short hair as an Indian guy in this business because they don’t know what you are. They think you are a Mexican or an Italian or something. And then when you have the long hair, you are just too Indian for the shows,” said Arcand.
Beyond that, Arcand said that he feels a certain prejudice as he has had difficulty getting cast in roles that call for actors of other ethnicities because it would upset other ethnic groups and their organizations within Canada. In his opinion, the same standard simply doesn’t apply for Native roles as he said that he has frequently seen other nationalities cast as Natives.
Getting back to the sensationalism of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, because the films were shot in Canada and called for multiple “Aboriginal” roles, Arcand said that his agents insisted that he send an audition tape, though he didn’t want to.
“I auditioned for that a long time ago and just felt stupid doing it. I didn’t even want to do it and told my agent but he said that I had to.
“So I did it in a loin cloth, running around in the bush while overacting and was like, there you go,” said Arcand.
Outside of working on the sets of film and television, in his spare time Arcand also hosts public events and tries to give back to society by going to reserves to put on acting workshops for youth and children. He most recently travelled to the Cree communities in Quebec this past fall to put on a few days worth of acting workshops for kids in Nemaska with former North of 60 co-star Dakota House.
Arcand said his experience with most workshops is good, the last one didn’t go as well as he would have liked. He felt that perhaps the age group might have been a bit too young. In other words, he and House were, ahem, upstaged.
“We were ousted by a big inflatable laser-tag elephant. All of the kids were interested in playing laser tag and not interested in acting classes,” Arcand explained.
Though he said that he certainly wouldn’t let their experience prevent him from embarking on any future trips to the north to teach acting to the Crees, he is hoping that future courses are geared towards a more mature audience, perhaps for teens only or even adults. While he understands that acting classes may not be of specific interest to adults, it is the whole process of learning how to interact with individuals and audiences that would be of value.
As for the rest of 2011, Arcand said that he his hopeful that Blackstone gets picked up for a second season and looking forward to filming another season of Heartland. But he isn’t putting all his eggs in one basket. As his faith in the acting world is waning, Arcand said that has considered going back to school to learn a different trade so that he could feel as though he is contributing to society on a deeper level.
“I would really like to do something for the world that is for everybody and to be able to feel as though I am doing something positive,” said Arcand.
Blackstone airs Tuesday on APTN, beginning January 25. For more information: www.blackstonetheseries.com