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 sportingÂ her character Kat Loving’s fierce expression or her “meat blanket” — long leather coat. Â She was nearly unrecognizable, seeming more like someone I might be able toÂ 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.
Sheâ€™s a gun-slinging horse-riding badass. Sheâ€™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.
Sheâ€™s alone and has to survive in this completely lawless wild town.
Itâ€™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 itâ€™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. Itâ€™s not gratuitous, itâ€™s essential.
I think itâ€™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.
Itâ€™s from a female point of view, and a lot of Westerns tend to be a male perspective.
Well, I donâ€™t know if we can say that it is from a female point of view because itâ€™s from many different points of view. The women who are in it are not allies. Theyâ€™re not all on the same team and they donâ€™t all have the same perspective. They fight quite viciously.
I think itâ€™s good and important that itâ€™s not all â€œrah rah rah women power in the west.â€ Because thatâ€™s not how it was. Any shred of power was won, and not easily.
But weâ€™re more used to seeing men in those positions.
Oh totally. The western genre is often strangely nostalgic whereas this is not.
Itâ€™s not a genre Iâ€™ve ever been drawn to because thereâ€™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 itâ€™s horrific and perpetuates negativity and violence against my people. So itâ€™s not really a genre Iâ€™ve been dying to be a part of.
So what was it about this one?
This one is subverting the tropes of that genre. Itâ€™s looking at the people who were actually there, all of these different disenfranchised groups who had no power but survived, somehow. Iâ€™m inspired by Kat personally, especially. If I had to face some of what sheâ€™s facing Iâ€™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!
Itâ€™s all on you. The entire future of CBC rests on your shoulders.
I love it, bring it, Iâ€™m ready for that.
No I think itâ€™s great. Aaron Poole, who plays Slotter, recently started doing this hashtag on Twitter that was #CBCnsfw and I thought, thatâ€™s totally it.
Itâ€™s a conversation Iâ€™ve been having with my peers for a while. Itâ€™s this golden age of television and itâ€™s time for CBC to throw their hat in the ring and I think this is the show. Itâ€™s so dark and cinematic. And with it being a serialized drama itâ€™s something people are going to binge watch, I hope. I would. Itâ€™s something that I would watch. And you know you canâ€™t always say that.
As an actor do you worry about the reception? Do you worry if itâ€™s going to find an audience?
Oh I do, for sure. I come from a theatre background and when youâ€™re performing in theatre your audience is in front of you. In film and TV your audience is the lens so itâ€™s a little more abstract. But you are performing for the person who is at home watching, youâ€™re just removed from them. But Iâ€™m very aware of the audience because thatâ€™s who weâ€™re doing it for. I hope so much that weâ€™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. Â I really believe that. If youâ€™re doing it for yourself youâ€™re just jerking off.
You have to be doing it for someone. Thatâ€™s the whole point. Thatâ€™s the reason Iâ€™m an artist, thatâ€™s the reason Iâ€™m interested in telling stories.
Where did that desire come from? Have you always wanted to act?
I didnâ€™t know I wanted to be an actor. But when I was little â€“ I grew up in a town called Bobcaygeon …
Yes. They put us on the map.
Right, I was going to say â€œI know that town!â€ and then realized no, I know that song. Like everyone else.
I love that. Itâ€™s only 2000 people. Itâ€™s a small town so itâ€™s funny that itâ€™s kind of famous now.
Every year Iâ€™d participate in the Royal Canadian Legion public speaking contests, and I did quite well. I made it to provincials a couple times. So thatâ€™s a form of storytelling, but I only realized that looking back. I didnâ€™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 â€“ that was a crazy experience, to carry a film when I had never been in a film before. It went well so Iâ€™m hoping lightening will strike twice here.
Whatever happens with it, itâ€™s still a prominent show premiering on CBC in the fall.
I know! Itâ€™s crazy! I think people will like it. I love reading it â€“ I havenâ€™t seen any of it yet.
Like I said, I got excited about it because of who wrote it.
Sheâ€™s so smart. Itâ€™s neat how she is observing everything and then writing for the chemistry that’s occurring, or whatâ€™s interesting to her and whatâ€™s working. Itâ€™s evolving and weâ€™re all a part of it and we all have input. Itâ€™s amazing. Itâ€™s a dream come true.
So youâ€™re able to offer input into your character?
Or just talk about what it feels like, what Kat feels about Slotter, whatâ€™s surprising.
Laurie’sÂ so gangster. Every script that comes out I think who wrote this?Â
When Iâ€™d talk about Durham County there was sometimes a perception that women donâ€™t go that dark, that itâ€™s unusual for a woman to go that dark. Which suggests maybe we arenâ€™t allowed to bring it out as much.
Fuck that. Weâ€™re bringing it out. Itâ€™s done. Itâ€™s out.
Did she access something in you with that?
Oh yeah. Weâ€™re a good match for each other. I get it. Itâ€™s such a treat to be able to go somewhere where this character has to examine what sheâ€™s made of. So to be able to strip away so much and get to the heart of something is really raw. Itâ€™s crazy hard but itâ€™s what you dream of as an actor â€“ for someone to hand you a script like that and say have at â€˜er.
At the end of the day I want to go stand in a field and scream sometimes. Itâ€™s this power thatâ€™s bigger than me. Itâ€™s fun. Well, itâ€™s hard. Itâ€™s fun talking about it right now but I feel like my soul is wrung out daily. Iâ€™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 donâ€™t know yet. Iâ€™m so in it. Iâ€™ve been really lucky in that Iâ€™ve had a lot of friends from Toronto come visit. Itâ€™s really helpful.
Tell me a bit about your theatre company?
Weâ€™re called Birdtown & Swanville. Weâ€™re in residence at a theatre company called Buddies in Bad Times which is the most incredible queer theatre company in the country. Â They do the most amazing, wildest work. Itâ€™s an honour to be in residence there with their guidance. Weâ€™ll be developing a few plays there in the seasons to come. â€¦ Weâ€™re just a group of people who had a similar aesthetic and taste and weâ€™re all friends.
Catch Cara Gee as Kat Loving in Strange Empire Mondays on CBC. Catch up with the first episode here. Â