Over the course of three and a half seasons, Millwood Police Chief Owen Beckbie has become one of Burden of Truth’s most intriguing characters as he’s confronted racism within the police department and faced distrust from the Indigenous community he grew up in.
As portrayed by actor Meegwun Fairbrother, Beckbie is conflicted but highly moral, a brooding hero trying to both uphold the law and correct injustices that have been inflicted on Indigenous people in his town. However, he wasn’t originally conceived as a good guy.
“I was apparently written as a bad guy at first, which made sense to me at the time because I was playing a lot of different bad guy characters, like in Hemlock Grove, Haven and some other shows,” Fairbrother says. “But they took one look at me [at my costume fitting] and said, ‘I don’t think you’re a bad guy.’”
The unexpected change allowed Burden of Truth creator Brad Simpson and the rest of the show’s writers to reimagine Beckbie’s story arc and make him a central part of the series.
“Over the years, we just grew the character, because there was something interesting there—this Indigenous police officer who’s straddling two worlds, a foot in the Native and non-Native worlds, and also in a position of power,” says Fairbrother. “How does he, and how do all of us contemporary Indigenous people living in Canada, live and survive in a world that isn’t quite set up for us, isn’t quite made for us? That’s the journey, I think, of this character.”
Beckbie’s broadened role also led to Fairbrother, who is of Ojibway and Scottish origin, being added to the show’s writer’s room, first as a consultant in Season 3 and then as a writer in Season 4. He co-wrote this Thursday’s penultimate episode, “Where the Shadows Lie Waiting,” with co-producer Eric Putzer.
To get ready for the instalment, we chatted with Fairbrother about playing Beckbie, making the jump to the show’s writer’s room, and writing stories that are “truly Indigenous.”
Beckbie is a fascinating character. How did you initially approach playing him?
Meegwun Fairbrother: Just before I booked the role, I had started practicing Okichitaw Indigenous arts, it’s a Plains Cree martial arts, developed in the Winnipeg area, on this land, and it’s taught by Master George Lepine … So I was practicing that, and I was really building myself in that way, and I got to know Master George quite well, and I actually learned that he is a former police officer in Manitoba. So we had a lot of talks, and I actually based the character a lot around him. Like imagining that George Lepine was a younger man, and the younger George Lepine working in his community, straddling two worlds, working in that bigotry but also trying to do something good for his community, all the same time developing this system that would help his community to raise themselves up and to help process trauma.
Over the years, I think we just kept growing that, and that’s why you see the tomahawk throwing in Season 3, that’s part of the martial arts system. We wanted to pitch more and Brad [Simpson] got really interested in it and what it was, but we may leave that for the next show that we do. But we were able to bring that into the world, and I would say that the culmination of that story of working with him and building the character over four years is in a scene with Beckbie and Kip [played by Skye Pelletier] in [this week’s episode] when he’s showing him a knife, a historical dagger. I invoke a name in that scene, Ambrose Lepine, who is actually George Lepine’s great, great uncle. So that’s life and art all spiraling and culminating in that moment.
Speaking of this week’s episode, how did you transition from being an actor on the show to also being in the writer’s room?
MF: I would say that it actually started in Season 2. I was invited in for a one-day consultant session, and I was just able to bring some perspective from my understanding, from my family’s understanding and help these non-Indigenous writers have an understanding into the world of what it is like to be an Indigenous person and what Indigenous people face. It really is like two different worlds that exist here in Canada: the Canada that everybody knows and the Canada that the Indigenous people live in and experience every day. So I tried to bring as many stories from my father, from my sister, from my brother and aunties and uncles and people from my own life, and I think it really shifted a lot of the writers. They didn’t have that perspective before and I think it really had an impact on them, especially Brad and Adam [Pettle], the showrunner. I think after that, they were just interested in having me around some more.
So in the third season, they invited me in as a full-time consultant. I was with them for six or seven weeks and got to really understand how to put a show together, how to pitch, and how each script is developed from infancy all the way to production level scripts, and understand all the moving parts. Whereas before I was just an actor—and I don’t want to say just an actor, but I was an actor playing a part in somebody else’s world—now I’m understanding how those worlds are built. And finally in the fourth season, I get to have a hand in creating the world and actually writing something.
Is there anything in particular that you wanted to contribute to the writer’s room?
MF: The group of people that are creating the show are just wonderful human beings, and I learned a lot from them. And I understand now that that’s quite a privilege to have, to be able to be in a writer’s room, and not many people get to have that opportunity. I would say one of the biggest things that has come out of [me being in] the writer’s room is probably the amount of shows and things that will be affected by that room. All those writers going out into different shows, I was able to give them a little bit of perspective and insight into the world of what we’re dealing with.
And I really believe that in order for stories to be truly Indigenous, we have to be there at the seed of the idea, which is the writing or producing or directing. Directing is great, we’re having more directors now, we have a lot more actors now, but it’s been a lot of non-Indigenous people writing Indigenous characters. But this season, we had Madison Thomas writing an episode and directing two episodes as well. Madison was also in the room during the third season with me and launched Kodie Chartrand, the character who was played by Sera-Lys McArthur. So all of that lends itself to better stories, more well-rounded characters, getting rid of what I like to call ‘the wooden Indian.’ I’m not wooden, none of my family is wooden, we’re all dynamic, fully fleshed out people with hopes and dreams and trials and tribulations. So complex Indigenous characters is what I hope comes out of my sharing and my connection to these writers and the rooms that they’ll go off into, the stories that they’ll share, because hopefully I’ve deputised them as allies so that they will be fighting the good fight in any room and any space that they walk into.
You co-wrote ‘Where the Shadows Lie Waiting’ with Eric Putzer, who has been a writer on the show for three seasons. What was that experience like for you?
MF: I’ve always liked Eric. Even from Season 1, we were always talking on set and talking about stories and coming up with things, so we were always in a creative mindset and liked working together and talking with each other. So it just felt like a natural progression to him to be the one that I was co-writing the episode with. Over the last few seasons, he’s gotten to be known as Mr. Episode 7, Mr. Penultimate Episode. He got very, very good at telling a really dynamic story and also having us on the edge of our seat . . . So to have him as my co-writer was a dream, and he’s a very good teacher, and he’s very patient because I had a lot of questions. And he was very good with setting deadlines, and I was able to meet them, and I think he really appreciated that on my part. We were a good team. And a lot had to be done in Episode 7. There had to be some wrap-ups, there had to be some getting of people, and so it’s a super dynamic, super fast-paced kind of complex episode, and that’s a result of all of our years working together and getting to know each other.
Were you allowed to write your own dialogue in the episode?
MF: That was a question, I think, right from the beginning. Everybody was like, ‘I don’t know if we’re gonna let write his own stuff.’ But in the end, I did have a hand in pitching my own scenes, which I guess is probably not a normal thing. I think they trusted me enough to know that I was able to detach myself from the character and put my writer’s hat on, taking care of all the characters, taking care of the story, the wider movements of the drama, which in the end is more important than one character’s journey. How do all the characters move together in the story and get to a really exciting finish? So, yes, I did have a hand in creating and birthing the scenes, but TV is such a collaborative endeavour in terms of creativity. Eric and I created the episode, but then we had our head writer, our showrunner, and the writer’s room giving notes and also writing on it and changing it and adjusting it until we all are moving in the same direction and getting to the best product.
This season, Beckbie has been trying to help Kip, who has been living in an unstable situation since his dad was killed in a racist incident. How does that play out in Episode 7?
MF: In terms of Beckbie wanting to help Kip, thinking that he can control everything and he’s going fix it all, he learns that he needs Diane [played by Nicola Correia-Damude] and he needs his community and he needs the people around him, he needs his officers, he needs help to raise this child. But even then, he goes at it a bit of the wrong way, and then he has to work all that out in the next episode, of course.
What parts of the episode are you most excited for viewers to see?
MF: It’s hard to say. I love every character’s storyline so much. I guess, in particular, I really love Taylor’s [played by Anwen O’Driscoll] storyline this year. It’s very important to me. That story in our community is still very much present and for us to take down a bad guy like that is very satisfying for me. I think I will be writing a lot of those kinds of storylines in the future, getting the bad guy. I think if I can dream it up in my fiction and my drama, maybe it will start happening more in the real world, too.
It sounds like you’ve been bitten by the writing bug. Is acting still your first love?
MF: I’m very intrigued by the writing, but you know, I’m a storyteller. That entails singing, that entails speaking, that entails acting, writing, painting, sculptures, you name it. I’ll do it all. However people will have me perform and tell stories, that’s what I’ll do. So in no way am I only going to be a writer now or anything like that. But I have seen the power of writing and how we can bring stories into the world at the seed and have it be a much more dynamic and complex story if Indigenous people are part of the writer’s room, are part of the initial creation of stories. So I’m going to definitely be writing a bunch of pilots and a bunch of stories that I’m gonna try to put out in the world and learning how to be as good as I can be, so I can get the stories that I know my community wants to see.
I understand that the CBC recently awarded you funding to develop your one-man show Isitwendam (An Understanding) into a TV pilot. How is that going?
MF: Oh, you’ve done some homework. Yes. I worked on a play with a friend of mine, Jack Grinhaus, for around 10 years, and last year, we got to show it to Toronto and the Talking Stick Festival in British Columbia, and then the pandemic hit . . . so we decided to put it to sleep for a little while and then the [CBC Creative Relief Fund] came up and decided, ‘You know what? We always wanted to do something with it in terms of film and television, so let’s go for it,’ and we put in an application, and we were awarded it. I just handed in my outline to CBC, and I am awaiting notes on the first draft of my outline. Hopefully, we can push that story forward and keep developing it.
What else are you working on?
MF: Madison Thomas and I are also co-directing a short film. It just came together, it’s kind of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi short where we’re fighting aliens, but it’s a comedy. It’s called Shoot Your Shot, and it’s going to star myself and Skye Pelletier and Victoria Turko, who plays Dee in this season of Burden of Truth, as well as Stephanie Sy, who is a local Winnipeg actor extraordinaire. I don’t know if this is true, but it might have a home at Netflix this spring or summer.
Burden of Truth airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.
Images courtesy of CBC.