By Lee Waters
There has yet to be a Native actor who has really made it. Adam Beach and Tantoo Cardinal are in a class of their own, but let’s face it, there’s no Indian Marlon Brando taped inside our locker doors yet. However, a fresh batch of First Nations actors is rising, a talented new generation winning critical acclaim and success. Among them is Justin Rain, who received a Best Supporting Actor award at the Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival for his role in the film Two Indians Talking, which won Most Popular Canadian Film Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival last year. Rain’s other acting credits include a starring role on the TV series The Guard. He also plays a Quileute warrior in the feature film Twilight Eclipse and stars in eight episodes of APTN’s Blackstone, a raw and gripping drama about life on the Blackstone Indian reserve.
In Two Indians Talking, Justin plays Adam, a well-educated First Nations man who believes that knowledge is his best tool for survival. His cousin Nathan, played by Nathaniel Arcand, is a high school dropout whose dreams have been crushed and who accuses Adam of having lost his culture. The two men spend hours together waiting for the Cree to arrive and help set-up a road brigade. Meanwhile, they discuss issues faced by Canada’s First Nations communities, each through their own outlook and experiences. The film delivers a fresh perspective from the view of younger generations. Justin explains how he related to his character Adam: “He’s educated, fearful of death, and he wants to make a difference for his people, pass a message for difference. Nathan’s character throughout the film is trying to show Adam something that he doesn’t realize until near the end of the film: to live and trust from your heart, not with your intellect.”
Justin has taken some of this advice himself. He didn’t always appear to be acting material. A youth who mumbled, spoke in a hushed voiced, and struggled with shyness, he studied architecture but felt frustrated. When he finally acknowledged his true passion for acting, he worked hard to overcome many obstacles. “A friend/mentor told me not to worry about rebuilding my voice and making a new one, but to just believe in myself, to find confidence, learn to love myself. After that, everything else will follow, and sure enough my voice followed.” And so did a career. “I believe we’re all born artists [meant] to express ourselves through some kind of art form,” says Justin. “Painting, singing, building, carving, music, etcetera is very important. If we don’t express ourselves through something productive like art, then things can get complicated, inactive, and dormant. This kind of thing leads to youth getting involved in gangs, drugs etc. Not good.”
First Nation’s actors are often typecast and unable to break out and play more diverse characters whose race is not the primary function of their role. In the movie Reel Injun, Clint Eastwood remembers when “white people played all the Indian parts.” Although actors like Tantoo Cardinal enjoyed breakthrough roles, she was still primarily typecast as a “Native woman.” Justin isn’t worried about this. He says, “Right now I don’t think about it. Most of the work I’ve done is First Nations based. I’m fine with that, and I know that later on in my career with the more experience I receive I’ll be given more opportunities to work outside the demographic I’m used to working in.”
Prospects are more optimistic these days, thanks to the explosion of Aboriginal-themed dramas where First Nation’s actors can hone their talents. “I think the future holds a lot for First Nations actors in this industry,” says Justin. “Blackstone [the APTN drama series] is a prime example of that. And I have no doubt it’ll lead to other opportunities in the industry for those involved. There isn’t a series out there right now quite like this one. I’m really excited about it!”
When asked about the hardest part of being an actor, Justin does not speak of prejudices or marginalization, but of perfecting his craft. He says he trains himself to not take everything so personally, to hold his confidence in everyday life and be open emotionally as well as physically. “If an actor can’t express him/her self in their everyday life, how can they expect to do that in a career in film and television, as well as theatre? Loving yourself is something I teeter with here and there, but I’m working on it.”
Justin wants to reach out to youth in his community. He toured high schools in Saskatchewan and talked to students, and he is dedicated to giving back what he knows best. “I’m developing a youth leadership workshop that will tour to reserve high schools. I’ll be promoting my work and media arts and art in general as a way of expression—a healthy alternative away from drugs and alcohol, gang activity, etcetera. I’ll also be sharing my experiences with drugs and alcohol and how I overcame those obstacles in my life.” Justin’s main message is “to believe in themselves. That the sky is not their limit, and they’re capable of much, much more. Just showing them and telling them what they’re capable of was a reward in itself. And once they have a taste of that, it can become very addictive and contagious.”
In future projects, Justin hopes to portray characters that endure true battles for survival or extreme life shifts. He loves director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films for the real life journeys the characters go through, and he looks up to actors like Daniel Day Lewis, Gary Oldman, Tilda Swinton and others who “truly become out of themselves and into a character that affects you throughout. I’ve still yet to witness a Native actor that could do this to me.” Looks like that’s a job for the next generation of Native actors, and it appears they are up to the task.