Tamara Podemski has been an acclaimed multi-disciplinary performer for over 25 years, winning a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Acting for the film Four Sheets to the Wind, appearing in the Broadway cast of Rent and guest-starring in such TV shows as The Rez, Heartland and Cracked. But, despite her impressive resumé, she still has trouble getting into the audition room. Or, at least, she has trouble when the part in question is not specifically Indigenous.
“I think I can count on one hand how many times I’ve played a non-ethnic specific role, where it wasn’t in the character breakdown, where it wasn’t a very culturally specific subject matter,” says Podemski, who is of Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi descent, “and this is one of those opportunities.”
“This,” of course, refers to her scene-stealing turn as Alison Trent on CBC’s hit drama series Coroner. As Jenny Cooper’s (Serinda Swan) assistant, Alison is passionately professional, fiercely protective of the coroner’s office and a just little bit quirky. She also happens to be Indigenous—a fact the show does not belabour.
And that’s just fine with Podemski.
“It doesn’t mean that I don’t get to represent myself and my community,” she says. “It just means that I get to be who I am.”
To help us get ready for Monday’s new episode, “Confetti Heart,” we gave Podemski a call to learn more about Alison, her first TV writing gig on APTN’s Future History (which airs its Season 1 finale Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET), and why she believes becoming a performer saved her life.
You and your two sisters, Jennifer Podemski and Sarah Podemski, all went into the entertainment business. Why do you think you were all drawn to the industry?
Tamara Podemski: My sisters and I had a traumatic childhood which resulted in my mother leaving our father to raise three girls on his own. We were always singing and dancing around the house, but during those difficult years, the world of make-believe allowed us to process and express what we were going through in a profound way. My father took us to every class, audition and rehearsal and worked his ass off so we could have every opportunity to perform and train. He knew it was helping us cause we were thriving. I believe the arts saved my life and I think it saved my sisters, too.
It never ceases to amaze me, the more I hear of how other artists came into their performing voice or found their voice as a performer, when you hear the stories that this grew out of, there is this consistent yearning for a place to express and move all the stuff that’s inside them. And so, forever, my belief is that the arts heal, the arts empower, and the arts allow you to connect with others. Trauma tends to be a very isolating experience, so if you can have this other thing that allows you to come out of yourself, I think it’s kind of the perfect remedy.
What was your audition process like for Coroner?
TP: Luckily, I was able to go into the room to audition. That is a real rarity these days. We’re in a time of self-tapes, which means actors are in their own home putting an audition on tape or going to an audition facility. Some people love that because you’re less anxious and you get to control the environment a little bit more. Me, on the other hand, I prefer being in the room, I think I thrive when I’m in the room because I have people to bounce off of, and this was a very specific scenario where I think I was really able to show my take on this woman.
It did start out as a self-tape that I did in my bedroom with my husband and I remember the way that I interpreted her—and you don’t have much to go on, you certainly don’t have the director or writer to guide you—it was really just based on my interpretation. And so that quirky very passionate about her work, kind of socially awkward not reading social cues very well, that was all my original interpretation of who Alison Trent was. And I remember my husband saying, ‘Wow, you might want to bring that down a bit,’ because I let the biggest version of her come out. But at least they saw something in that tape that allowed me to come into the room.
I didn’t realize she was as funny, like, when the laughs started coming from how she was—and I only speak about her in the third person because I really feel like she’s so different from me. Usually, I feel closer to some of my characters, but Alison is a force. I follow her. I don’t really tell her what to do or how to be. So in the room, we just had so much fun, and then the best thing is they asked me to do an improv with Serinda of coming to work on my first day and explaining to her what she needs to do to basically operate as the coroner on that first day of work, and I went off. And I feel like whatever I found in that moment was Alison from there on.
Alison is in M.R. Hall’s Coroner books. Did you check those out before filming?
TP: I didn’t read the book because I’d known that Alison is very different in the book, and when I heard that they’d really taken her and went in a different direction, I didn’t feel like that would inform what I was doing. I think if they were trying to bring that character to the screen and honour what that original idea was, I would’ve felt more inclined to do that. But, to me, it sounded like we were creating something new for her.
Also, I do have to say that it was not a culturally or ethnically specific role when I went in for it. The majority of my roles are Native women, and so—even though I knew that we weren’t going to touch on those storylines, or from what I’d read that far—I knew that I was bringing a storyline and a background that wouldn’t be in the books from the UK. So I had to come up with a backstory that really was from scratch. I needed to be informed through an Indigenous lens of why a woman would work in the coroner’s office, of what in her life led her to take that path of justice-seeking, of speaking for the dead. We’re just at a time of these really pivotal moments by coroners, by judges, these court rulings that either bring justice for families, or they don’t. And you can see the public uprising in response to these really critical decisions that are being made. So I felt like, OK, there’s a lot of stuff there that I can use for Alison, why she chose to work in a coroner’s office. And so that was another reason why I thought I need to place her in Toronto and place her as an Indigenous woman, and that wouldn’t have been in the books.
I take it that you’re speaking of the horrific history of murders and missing persons cases involving Indigenous women in Canada.
Do you know if the series will address any of those stories in the future?
TP: I have no idea. But I know that it’s my responsibility to myself, to my community, to my character that I’ve created that she’s got to come from somewhere and she’s got to have a story. Somebody who chooses to work in justice and someone who chooses to be a public servant, there are certain paths that lead someone to that work. And when it is a highly controversial department to work in, when you know that it’s at odds with the people and the community that you represent, I think there are rich and great opportunities to delve into that. If we get a second season, that would be a great opportunity.
Showrunner Morwyn Brebner and executive producer/lead director Adrienne Mitchell have stated that they really wanted to accurately represent Toronto by having a diverse cast and writer’s room. How do you think the rest of Canadian TV is doing with that right now?
TP: There are a couple of parts to the current climate of diversity onscreen. One is that, yeah, Canadian television is certainly more diverse. I do feel like 25 years ago, though, we had a lot of diversity on television. When we did The Rez, that was an entire Native cast on television, and North of 60 was an entire Native cast on television. It’s been a long time that I’ve been doing this, and it’s the same network, and I guess what I feel that I still have to fight for is, can I get into the room if it’s not a Native character?
So that’s why this job was a huge triumph for me as an ethnic actor—as casting breakdowns say, ‘All ethnicities welcome.’ I am still celebrating every time that I get to go into the room where I get to be the actor with 25 years experience, where I get to represent myself as a woman in the world, where I’m not like a quota checklist. So, that’s why this really stands out. I think I can count on one hand how many times I’ve played a non-ethnic specific role, where it wasn’t in the character breakdown, where it wasn’t a very culturally specific subject matter, and this is one of those opportunities.
It doesn’t mean that I don’t get to represent myself and my community. It just means that I get to be who I am. And that’s just a more realistic picture of who we are, especially as urban Indigenous people. We’re all around. We’re amongst you.
We got to learn a bit more about Alison in Episode 5 when she was invited to Jenny’s for Thanksgiving. We learned she loves to bake and that she’s having her baby on her own. Are we going to learn a lot more about her personal life this season?
TP: Yes, we’re going to learn more about her. I like how slowly we are let into her world because I think that that is part of her protection. If you think about her and Jenny, they just met four episodes earlier, and so trust has had to build up in that time, and they certainly have developed a working relationship that has been very respectful and beneficial and supportive, and now we see Alison letting her in a little bit. It’s not that she’s necessarily private, but it seems, for instance, when she meets Sabina [Jeananne Goosen], who is close with Jenny, you just see what happens when Alison feels safe and feels welcome and feels included. She feels very surprised by the [Thanksgiving dinner] invitation. Work is a place of duty and responsibility, she takes her job very seriously, so when it crosses into her personal world, she’s maybe slightly too enthusiastic about it. But I think it’s because she really does have a huge heart, I think it’s very indicative of where she’s at in her life, wanting to have a family of her own, and yet not really having the life that fits the picture that we’re told is the way that we’re meant to make families. And so I really love what happens in Episode 5 where we get to see her in her personal world and why she makes some decisions, and what I love most is the confidence and the courage behind the decisions.
I definitely picked up a romantic vibe between Alison and Sabina, who was very quick to offer her a ride home when she said she wasn’t feeling well. Was I right?
TP: Yes! Its hard for me to talk about, because I know what was shot, and I know what we all knew, but it’s always very different how much is revealed to the viewer and what comes across. But if that did come across, that’s great. Because that’s where it was going.
What can you preview about Episode 6?
TP: We get a lot more time with Alison. There’s still great drama and some crazy mysteries that are happening, but Episode 6 does let us into Alison’s personal relationships. Mostly, we’ve seen Alison in the work mode, and what happens with this mid-season shift into these more personal interactions with everybody—just going into Jenny’s home and seeing the family and work people all intermingling—that is a shift. I think it’s a beautiful move into the deeper level of the interpersonal connections between everyone.
You are also working on the APTN documentary series Future History with your sister, Jennifer. How is that going?
TP: We just finished Season 2, and Season 1 is on the air right now. We were actually writing Season 2 while we were shooting Coroner, so I had to set up my trailer like a little production office and in between scenes, I would go and work on that. It wasn’t the most fun. It made for a very challenging time, but it’s been one of my favourite and most challenging jobs to write this documentary series. It has been a source of inspiration because I get to find and interview the participants that we feature on the show. Each episode has three what we call Rematriation Warriors, people who are reclaiming their Indigeneity, and through language, through policy, they are shifting the colonial narrative in Canada. So interviewing these people is pretty life-changing, to get the one-on-one experience. These are very difficult people to get on the phone, so I feel very blessed to have been the writer of this show. My sister did take a chance on me by giving me my first television writing gig. Thankfully, I delivered, so she brought me back for Season 2.
Coroner airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.
Images courtesy of CBC.