When I met Cara Gee on the set of Strange Empire a few weeks ago, she was on a day off from shooting and therefore not sporting her character Kat Loving’s fierce expression or her “meat blanket” — long leather coat. She was nearly unrecognizable, seeming more like someone I might be able to have a tea with and not fear for my life.
Gee earned her living in the Toronto theatre scene for years before earning a starring role in the well-received film Empire of Dirt. After a couple of television guest starring roles, she landed a lead in yet another Empire.
We chatted before the show premiered and before either one of us had seen an episode onscreen.
Tell me about Kat Loving.
She’s a gun-slinging horse-riding badass. She’s this fiercely strong woman. At the beginning of the series she is on her way west to start a ranch with her family, and things go horribly awry pretty much right away.
She’s alone and has to survive in this completely lawless wild town.
It’s written by Laurie Finstad who wrote Durham County, which is very dark. Is it the same kind of dark tone?
It is so dark. So dark. Which is great because I think it’s telling a side of this history that is often glossed over, and the violence that was very real and present when they were making a community from scratch and the genocide that was occurring. It reflects that. It’s not gratuitous, it’s essential.
I think it’s an important thing to look at, and to look in ourselves at the potential for violence. Under what circumstances could we be forced to kill someone.
It’s from a female point of view, and a lot of Westerns tend to be a male perspective.
Well, I don’t know if we can say that it is from a female point of view because it’s from many different points of view. The women who are in it are not allies. They’re not all on the same team and they don’t all have the same perspective. They fight quite viciously.
I think it’s good and important that it’s not all “rah rah rah women power in the west.” Because that’s not how it was. Any shred of power was won, and not easily.
But we’re more used to seeing men in those positions.
Oh totally. The western genre is often strangely nostalgic whereas this is not.
It’s not a genre I’ve ever been drawn to because there’s been no point of access for me as a Native woman. The depiction of First Nations people in Westerns is lacking at best, traditionally. At best. At worst it’s horrific and perpetuates negativity and violence against my people. So it’s not really a genre I’ve been dying to be a part of.
So what was it about this one?
This one is subverting the tropes of that genre. It’s looking at the people who were actually there, all of these different disenfranchised groups who had no power but survived, somehow. I’m inspired by Kat personally, especially. If I had to face some of what she’s facing I’d be curled in a ball in the corner. She is such a strong survivor.
This is quite a departure for CBC. How aware were you of that?
Do you feel any sense of responsibility or trepidation?
Oh god, now I do!
It’s all on you. The entire future of CBC rests on your shoulders.
I love it, bring it, I’m ready for that.
No I think it’s great. Aaron Poole, who plays Slotter, recently started doing this hashtag on Twitter that was #CBCnsfw and I thought, that’s totally it.
It’s a conversation I’ve been having with my peers for a while. It’s this golden age of television and it’s time for CBC to throw their hat in the ring and I think this is the show. It’s so dark and cinematic. And with it being a serialized drama it’s something people are going to binge watch, I hope. I would. It’s something that I would watch. And you know you can’t always say that.
As an actor do you worry about the reception? Do you worry if it’s going to find an audience?
Oh I do, for sure. I come from a theatre background and when you’re performing in theatre your audience is in front of you. In film and TV your audience is the lens so it’s a little more abstract. But you are performing for the person who is at home watching, you’re just removed from them. But I’m very aware of the audience because that’s who we’re doing it for. I hope so much that we’re able to take people on a journey.
I trained with a theatre company called the SITI Company and Anne Bogart is their artistic director. She talks about theatre as making gifts. I really believe that. If you’re doing it for yourself you’re just jerking off.
You have to be doing it for someone. That’s the whole point. That’s the reason I’m an artist, that’s the reason I’m interested in telling stories.
Where did that desire come from? Have you always wanted to act?
I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor. But when I was little – I grew up in a town called Bobcaygeon …
Yes. They put us on the map.
Right, I was going to say “I know that town!” and then realized no, I know that song. Like everyone else.
I love that. It’s only 2000 people. It’s a small town so it’s funny that it’s kind of famous now.
Every year I’d participate in the Royal Canadian Legion public speaking contests, and I did quite well. I made it to provincials a couple times. So that’s a form of storytelling, but I only realized that looking back. I didn’t discover that I wanted to be an actor until my last year of high school. So it wasn’t something I was dying to do always.
And you started in theatre.
Yes, I want to theatre school and trained, and when I moved back to Toronto I worked in theatre for years and years. I ended up signing with an agent and then all of a sudden this world of auditioning for film and TV opened up. I did the film and it was so well received – that was a crazy experience, to carry a film when I had never been in a film before. It went well so I’m hoping lightening will strike twice here.
Whatever happens with it, it’s still a prominent show premiering on CBC in the fall.
I know! It’s crazy! I think people will like it. I love reading it – I haven’t seen any of it yet.
Like I said, I got excited about it because of who wrote it.
She’s so smart. It’s neat how she is observing everything and then writing for the chemistry that’s occurring, or what’s interesting to her and what’s working. It’s evolving and we’re all a part of it and we all have input. It’s amazing. It’s a dream come true.
So you’re able to offer input into your character?
Or just talk about what it feels like, what Kat feels about Slotter, what’s surprising.
Laurie’s so gangster. Every script that comes out I think who wrote this?
When I’d talk about Durham County there was sometimes a perception that women don’t go that dark, that it’s unusual for a woman to go that dark. Which suggests maybe we aren’t allowed to bring it out as much.
Fuck that. We’re bringing it out. It’s done. It’s out.
Did she access something in you with that?
Oh yeah. We’re a good match for each other. I get it. It’s such a treat to be able to go somewhere where this character has to examine what she’s made of. So to be able to strip away so much and get to the heart of something is really raw. It’s crazy hard but it’s what you dream of as an actor – for someone to hand you a script like that and say have at ‘er.
At the end of the day I want to go stand in a field and scream sometimes. It’s this power that’s bigger than me. It’s fun. Well, it’s hard. It’s fun talking about it right now but I feel like my soul is wrung out daily. I’ve been saying it feels like I have my foot on the gas and break at the same time.
Is there any lightness in the script you can access?
Are you able to leave it behind?
I don’t know yet. I’m so in it. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve had a lot of friends from Toronto come visit. It’s really helpful.
Tell me a bit about your theatre company?
We’re called Birdtown & Swanville. We’re in residence at a theatre company called Buddies in Bad Times which is the most incredible queer theatre company in the country. They do the most amazing, wildest work. It’s an honour to be in residence there with their guidance. We’ll be developing a few plays there in the seasons to come. … We’re just a group of people who had a similar aesthetic and taste and we’re all friends.
Catch Cara Gee as Kat Loving in Strange Empire Mondays on CBC. Catch up with the first episode here.