Tribal’s Jessica Matten: “There’s always going to be prejudices and stereotypes”

It’s always a pleasure to speak to Jessica Matten. The actress doesn’t shy away from discussing issues that are close to her heart. And many of them are tied to Tribal.

Ron E. Scott’s newest creation—airing Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on APTN—puts Matten’s interim Tribal police chief Sam Woodburn alongside veteran, white city cop Chuck “Buke” Bukansky, played by Brian Markinson, to solve crimes on and off the reservation. Season 1 storylines include pipeline protects, healing lodge justice and murdered and missing Indigenous women. The last topic hits particularly close to Matten, who discusses that—and more—with me.

What’s it been like being the lead and working alongside Brian Markinson on this series? On Frontier, you had a large role, but I’d argue that this is probably the largest television role that you’ve had.
Jessica Matten: The beauty of Frontier is that I was considered a lead, but that was an ensemble, and ultimately it was Jason [Momoa’s] show. The pressure didn’t really fall on me in a lot of respects. With being a lead, I realized there’s a whole new amount of responsibility, the biggest one is setting the tone for the entire show. I just wanted everyone to feel super welcomed and for them to understand, no matter what the size of their role was, that they were super integral to the process and the storyline.

There definitely was a lot of pressure to just make sure everyone was always cool. But I think because we created such a strong foundation of being a kind, collaborative set, there were no problems in that regard. The hardest thing was the amount of dialogue because we really …  Ron, Brian and I really, everyone, the whole crew, we really pushed it. We shot eight one-hour episodes in 39 days. A full day is six to eight pages of dialogue and I was doing 13 to 17 pages a day.

What is it about Ron E. Scott that makes him such a great showrunner?
JM: I think Ron is sincerely one of the kindest humans ever. And I think when you’re working with a kind human in any industry, I mean, you’re just going to feed off of that, right? With kindness comes empathy, a person who knows how to empathize, and also instinct to understand what the other person needs. So imagine a kind person who happens to be your director, showrunner, producer, writer, guiding you throughout the whole thing. He’s coming from a place from the heart constantly.

Blackstone was my first big gig, and even though I knew some of the actors since I was literally a child. I’ve known Glen Gould since I was 10 years old. That helped me with any intimidation that I had or felt. But when I met Ron, he’s not only amazing at giving an actor good direction, but he’s just calm, and that’s what you need in a leader is when shit hits the fan. You need a calm leader that isn’t going to delegate things in a disrespectful or non-passionate way.

What kind of feedback did you have with regard to Sam and who she was and how you wanted to play her?
JM: I’ve turned down roles, which I’m extremely grateful for, big studio roles where they were perpetuating a negative stereotype of a native woman. And I was just like, ‘I haven’t come this far, I didn’t do the role as Sokanon in Frontier just to revert back to a stereotypical character.’ How can I empower people of what it means to be a native woman, and they’d go back to something that very much dehumanized a native woman in a lot of respects. And the cool thing is I had brought that up with Ron as well. As Ron’s like, ‘Jess, you and I have the same thought. I want to create the first female native superhero. She doesn’t come from a bad family. She doesn’t have a bunch of baggage. I want her to present yourself in a way that you know exists in our native communities.’

Ron has been at the forefront of putting Indigenous people in a contemporary setting, in the spotlight forever, and he always just pushes things forward and I just respect him so much. It was a very, very much a collaborative effort about making Sam believable, tough and likable at the same time.

Sam is called a sellout. She’s caught in this world. She’s a cop. She’s got an old white man as her partner. So she’s not fitting in the white world traditionally, but she’s not fitting in her own world. Is that part of her journey this year, walking between these two worlds?
JM: Thank you for catching that because that was a powerful moment for me too as an actor, so I’m so happy you caught that. Yeah, and I think what we’re going to explore later on in future seasons is where that comes from, more about her family background and her history. I think that’s kind of the theme throughout the entire season is Sam walking in between two different worlds constantly. And not only her careers walking between different worlds, but her being half-native, so it’s like she was born walking between two different worlds and I think that’s what’s really given her an inside and outside perspective of what happens within her native community, but also an understanding of what happens outside of native communities as well.

Some of the storylines this season include a pipeline explosion and murdered and missing Indigenous women. These are stories that are true, are being ripped from the headlines. How does it feel to have these stories that are so close and part of your life being shown in a drama on television? Is it kind of a way of educating?
JM: It’s a way of educating and continuously creating awareness, and also in a lot of ways, to be honest, coincidental. It just proves how relevant and how those issues have not gone away. And that is something that I’m very happy that Tribal touches on, two issues that have not gone away, have not been resolved. My biggest thing was, with the missing and murdered Indigenous women is that one of my relatives is one of the victims.

My family to this day still has not gotten justice. They still struggle every day. It’s hard. It’s extremely hard. And yet, remember five years ago there was this big awareness for it and it became kind of trending on the news for a hot second? And all the celebrities were joining on board. And trust me, even celebrities in Hollywood were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to make a documentary about this.’ And then once that died down, the new hashtag and the new trendy thing, topic to follow, everyone jumped on board that wagon and everyone disappeared off the MMIW train. That annoyed me and I knew it was going to happen. I was grateful for it. But at the same time, that’s why you’ll notice on my social media, I never support anything outside of MMIW or if it’s related to it, because my biggest thing is, nothing got resolved and this isn’t a hashtag, trendy, charitable thing. It’s not trendy. It’s my life, and it’s other people’s lives and it’s super important.

I’m glad that Tribal is still harping on that issue. I’m glad that Tribal is targeting the pipeline issue because what’s happening in communities right now in B.C. And I really want to emphasize this, for non-Indigenous people who don’t understand why people are protesting, it’s not just because it’s on our territory. It’s because these people on the frontlines are protecting our future girls and women from being raped and murdered.

What happens is these manned camps get built while the pipelines are made, and that is where the highest rate of girls go missing and murdered. And so I want the general public to remember that, no matter what, there’s always going to be prejudices and stereotypes in the world against any culture because we have this beautiful way of forgetting that we’re all one and the same, we’re just human.

Tribal airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on APTN.

Images courtesy of Prairie Dog Film + Television.

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One thought on “Tribal’s Jessica Matten: “There’s always going to be prejudices and stereotypes””

  1. I saw the first episode of Tribal last night and thought it was great. I’ve really liked Jessica Matten in Frontier and Burden of Truth and she deserves a leading role. Brian Markinson was great too in bringing the bigotted white guy to the series. They had great chemistry together. I expect by the end of the series the two characters will be drinking beers on the porch reminiscing about their cases. The script was well written too. I look forward to many more years of this show.

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