Providence, episode 12 of #Outlander is receiving praise across the fandom. Sera-Lys is the extraordinarily talented and beautiful First Nations actress who played Johiehon, the Mohawk woman who fell in love with and had a child with the priest, Father Alexandre Ferigault. I spoke to many people about Sera-Lys‘s performance and each one was impacted in some way by her portrayal. It made me want to know more.
We all know I’m a Canadian, I talk about that on the regular. The actor’s Outlander auditioned for the Mohawk and Cherokee this season were chosen from First Nation actors in Canada. I found many have familiar faces from our television landscape. When Sera-Lys popped up on the screen I had a “Hey! I know her moment!” Only because I had watched her on a show called Arctic Air. Not because I actually ‘know’ her. Since we are both Canadian, I felt confident enough to reach out to her.
It is with no surprise that I can share with you, she is 100% delightful, 110% smarter than I am and yes, I think we are best friends (don’t tell her, she may not answer any more of my DM’s)
So without further Sherry babbling, please enjoy my “Interview with Sera-Lys”
I understand you grew up in Saskatchewan and were fairly young when you started acting. Now, many reading this might not understand my asking but how did that happen for you? (Saskatchewan isn’t really known as Canada’s Hollywood) Haha, oh thank-you! Arctic Air was a big breakout role for me in terms of my Canadian career, it’s nice that people still remember that show. And you’re right, getting a start in acting from Saskatchewan is uncommon. I didn’t ever think that a person could even pursue acting as a career. My neighbour signed up for modelling classes when we were 11, and I wanted to join her. I really enjoyed it, so my mom supported me in signing up with a local agency in Regina. A couple of years later, when I was 13, there was a CBC miniseries coming to town called “Revenge of the Land,” directed by John N. Smith (Dangerous Minds, The Boys of St. Vincent). They were casting the role of a young Metis girl (a word that describes a mixed-blood Indigenous person) and had already cast actress Carmen Moore (She is in Outlander also, her role was introduced this week and continues in next week’s finale) to play the character’s mom. I went to the audition and the director and casting director were instantly impressed at our resemblance. Then they said, “But wait, can she act?” and I did my audition. It was my second audition in my life. I guess I didn’t suck, and they asked me if I had ever acted before. I said I was signed up for a workshop ‘next week.’ They smiled and told me to take the workshop. When I was at the workshop, they called my acting teacher and I was informed that I had got the role. It was very surreal! Needless to say, I loved the experience and was “bitten,” as they say. I continued to study Musical Theatre and Acting and audition throughout high school and later, in post-secondary education.
Where is home for you now? As a First Nations person and actor, I have the ability to “live, work and cross the border freely as [I] choose” thanks to the “J Treaty.” I really see Acting as my home, and wherever it leads me. I will always have roots in Saskatchewan and that is still where my family lives. Lately, I split my time between New York City and Toronto.
As a young Canadian woman, what would you say has been the biggest challenge in your career thus far? Historically, there are not a lot of substantial roles for women in general, less for women of Colour, even less for Indigenous women, and even then, we often lose these roles to non-Indigenous actors. This is because it’s a catch 22 in the industry: An actor has to have proven their ability to green light an X-million dollar production, but no Indigenous actors have ever done this, so investors find us to be too risky to cast. Sometimes they rewrite Indigenous roles and change their ethnicity to suit an A-lister that will attract more investors. It can be very frustrating. But I am happy to confirm reports that this is finally changing in our industry. The amount of opportunities for everyone seems to be growing, and so those of us who have been waiting and working on our skills all these years are finally getting a chance to show what we can do. Outlander 412 “Providence” was definitely one of those opportunities!
I see you have worked on a few projects with women at the helm, as we are in a (much needed) time of change in the industry, how do you find this is impacting you? For one thing, it has been the status quo for so long, that it was an important dynamic for me to learn how to negotiate. I get along with most men, I have many platonic male friends. I choose to connect with human beings, not genders. Now, of course, I have noticed an inequity and it does bother me. But it is important to create allies, not otherness. I have had excellent experiences working with male directors, and equally as wonderful experiences with female directors. I feel blessed to be able to collaborate with all of them and I am hopeful that more and more women and minorities will be given a chance to helm large-scale projects.
Did you audition for the role of Johiehon specifically and what was the process like for you? Yes, I did audition for her specifically. I knew the character was supposed to speak Mohawk and French, but the sides were given in English. Like most Canadians, I studied French in school growing up, so that was the easier part. Mohawk is another story! There’s no google translate option for Mohawk! While the casting director said that it wasn’t necessary to translate for the audition, I know from experience that producers almost never cast Indigenous actors for period-dramas from a tape where they speak English. They want to cast someone they know can handle the language challenges that the role demands. So I reached out to my friend Devery Jacobs (Sam in STARZ’s American Gods) who is Mohawk and also was auditioning for the role. She passed along recordings, translations & phonetic transcriptions of the Mohawk lines. I went in for my audition a few days later, and I guess I kinda “nailed it:” one take and done. Then I was “On hold” for over a month. During this time I auditioned for another role on Outlander, the Cherokee translator played by Crystle Lightning. When I got the call from my agent that I had booked Outlander, I had to ask, “which one?”
I am very grateful to belong to a community of supportive First Nations actors. It’s a rarity in this industry and even this day and age that someone would aid their “competitor.” But I would have done the same. We really want each other to succeed, and we know the best way for us all to experience success is to support one another.
I know I shouldn’t feel personal pride in the fact the First Nations actors from my home country behave in this manner as the only real thing we have in common is we are from the same country, but damn, this makes me proud. To know there is such a cohesive unit of actors, working with one another to assure each other’s success knowing it will make the whole stronger in the end. That’s probably the most empowering thing I have heard in a long time. It makes this screenshot mean a lot more to me.
How did you find out you earned the role of Johiehon? My agent Rich Caplan called me while I was on a lunch break from a theatre workshop I was doing with Oregon Shakespeare Festival (in Manhattan). He had called me earlier that day to say that I had booked a role in a Canadian independent feature called Robbery, which is currently doing the festival circuit. It was a pretty awesome day!!
When you read the script for Johiehon’s introduction and demise, what were your thoughts? The introduction I knew from the audition, but the demise was a big surprise! They kept it under wraps from even me until about 2 weeks before my contract in Scotland began. She had a different name than in the books. It definitely explained why it was only a one-episode contract! I was shocked and excited. The second-to-last episode is often the climax of the season in today’s television market. A big fiery, epic ending in this episode was very exciting! I actually portrayed a young Nakota woman who died by fire in another CBC miniseries called The Englishman’s Boy about 11 years ago. So I knew I could perform it well. Still, I had never seen anything quite like the fire and stunt work that I witnessed on Outlander. It was truly amazing!
Truthfully, you had such a little amount of time to endear yourself to the audience, allowing us to feel you had this deep love with Father Alexandre and that Kaheroton was deeply in love with you, and…you did it. More than did it. I was sobbing when you (well, your stunt double) walked into the flames. What was your reaction when you saw it all put together for the first time? Honestly, I cried too! It was so beautiful. It was so sad and visually stunning. Mairzee Almas, the director, did an amazing job with this scene and episode. It was her idea to put the Adagio For Strings music over the silent slow-motion sequence. In my mind, I compared the epic, emotional moment to The Last of the Mohicans, and it definitely delivered. In today’s industry, an actor rarely gets the opportunity to act in something this grandiose! I feel truly blessed to have been a part of it. I am proud of my work and of the entire team. It’s tremendous.
I have to admit, Providence stands in my top 3 episodes of the whole Series thus far. From start to finish, every extra and every effect, every performance held my attention.
Richard Rankin is the regular cast member you had scenes with. He is known as being a very light-hearted guy. How was working with him? It was great! He is very friendly and easy to be around and work with. Poor guy had to be in constant “pain” during our scenes. It also was a very demanding season for him, so I am very impressed with his stamina and commitment. His scenes with Father Alexandre in the “Idiot hut” are truly remarkable and were rewritten right up until filming. He brings an amazing sense of humour to his portrayal. A true professional and a warm-hearted person. I feel lucky to have worked with him.
I often worry about the portrayal of first nations and indigenous peoples in television and movies. We want the portrayal to be true, respectful and not a caricature. I understand you are a modern woman, not a historian but am interested in knowing, how do you feel Outlander did, as a whole, in regards to portraying the Mohawk/Native culture? They really did a very good job. They went all out in their research. The costumes, hair, make-up and wardrobe were all very specific. And that set! It really transported us there in our minds. They worked with two Mohawk elders from Akwesasne and had them answer questions and do translations and coachings with us. They also gave us a document about Mohawk customs and culture, especially pertaining to what was happening in the scene. For me, the biggest departure from reality is that a Mohawk woman would ever abandon her child and commit suicide to be with her loved one. But it is a fantasy after all. It’s a beautiful story.
It was most certainly a part of the story I always struggled with, but yes, fantasy, love stories, tragedy. They tend to go hand in hand. Speaking of fantasy – I am envious you travelled to Scotland. How long were you there? Tell us a bit about your experiences if you could. I was there for 3 weeks. I was happily able to explore quite a bit. I went to Edinburgh, stayed in Glasgow and near Pitlochry. I went with fellow actress and friend Carmen Moore to Loch Lomond. That was a special experience. After my role was completed, I went on a horse ride in the countryside or a “hack,” as they say in Scotland, with Tannoch Stables. We stayed in a beautiful castle hotel during filming. It was breathtaking. Scottish people, on the whole, are lovely, friendly and have a great sense of humour. I highly recommend going and I hope to return someday soon!
You were surrounded by many other Canadian actors/esses while on set, which must have been interesting. Being in another country but still with people from home. What was that like? It was a surreal and pride-filled experience. There were other people from the Prairies and even an elder who spoke Nakota (my Native ancestral dialect). There were multiple other actors that I had worked with before who reunited there for this production. One of them, Gregory Odjig, looked at me at one moment and said, “We’re at work right now. Halfway around the world, in Scotland. That’s friggin awesome!” And I couldn’t have agreed with the sentiment more. Very special and unique.
What was your biggest take away from your time with the Outlander production?That all the years of struggling and career ups-and-downs were worth it so that I could experience something this amazing.
I see you have some projects that include writing and producing. Besides acting, what field do you see yourself pursuing more in the future? Acting is my true love. But acting leads me to producing and writing. I want to do them all, but most of the behind-the-scenes work I do is so that I can act in the production myself. I am sure this will continue to evolve. Acting and storytelling are my “Buffalo,” they provide my soul with sustenance, similar to the traditional life of my ancestors when they followed the herds of bison. I will follow them wherever they lead me.
That is so beautiful. Our First Nation culture carries with it such a powerful spirit. We have so much we can learn.
The issue of MMIWG (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls) in our country is one that was long ignored. The more the loudest voices speak, the more the silenced can be heard. Can you please tell me more about the project ‘In Spirit’?In Spirit is a very special project. It was written and directed by Tara Beagan and designed by Andy Moro. While we changed the character to a fictitious girl, the original play was based on the murder of Monica Jack. You can look up all of the details available on CBC’s website. 40 years later, they have finally arrested, tried and found a man guilty of kidnapping, assaulting and violently killing this young girl who was days away from celebrating her 13th birthday. It is very emotional and speaks to the core of our community. It illuminates the bigger problem with our society today. I hope we remount it and many more will get to see it. It’s truly riveting. I hope that the conversation continues and we work together to stop this senseless violence. Native women have been too easy to prey upon. Native people are victim to systemic violence, racism and erasure by historical and modern society. This has to change. We have to talk about it more and more. And if we could please stop objectifying our women in so-called “sexy Indian” costumes, that would be a great place to start.
Do you have any other upcoming projects that you are excited about that we can watch for? You can currently catch me in Season 2 episode 3 of Friends From College, I have a really fun soccer scene about 8 minutes in. I will be doing a play at Portland Center Stage in Oregon called Crossing Mnisose by Cherokee playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle. That opens in April. Other than that, stay tuned to my social media @seralysmcarthur for announcements.
Once again, your performance in Providence was captivating. You managed to create a heartbreaking love story within an episode of television that left a fandom bereft. If there is anything else about your experience with this role you would like to share, we would love to hear it. Well, while Yan Tual and I were busy working and dying on pyres and crying for literally days, the other actors and supporting artists were often on break, if it was only filming our close-ups. As I mentioned, the set was impeccable and while much of it was natural, we would randomly find “set dec” hidden amongst the natural world: fake rocks, sticks, mounds, grass, etc.
Richard Rankin, Carmen Moore, Greg Odjig and some of the Mohawk warriors/ stunt actors made hilarious behind-the-scenes videos of knocking Greg over the head and body with these set pieces. The resulting videos were HILARIOUS!! What a fun group of people to work with!
Outlander BTS video Credit goes to Gregory Odjig
Prairie Oysters. I def gotta try one someday to be truly Canadian! (I do know what they are, lol!)
It truly was a pleasure to have Sera-Lys take the time to invite us into a few corners of her world. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed putting it together for you because I enjoyed it A LOT!
Sher (Founder of the ABOotlanders)
Be sure to live tweet the Finale of Outlander with us while watching on W Network on Jan 27th.