(Featured image courtesy of Devaka Seneviratne)
If one word has been dominating Hollywood for the past decade or so, it’s “representation.” Shows like Jane the Virgin, Insecure, and Fresh Off the Boat have placed underrepresented voices and stories at the forefront, giving platforms to stories that have never been the Hollywood norm before. However, one group that has still consistently been pushed to the side is Indigenous people.
It’s still rare to see a fully fleshed-out Native character on screen, but one name that is changing that narrative is Canadian actress Sera-Lys McArthur. A member of the Nakota Nation, McArthur has been developing a name for herself in projects like Outlander, Burden of Truth, and Friends from College.
McArthur sat down with TV Wasteland to discuss her experiences as an Indigenous actress, the world of producing, and the intersections between acting and activism.
Sera-Lys grew up in an artistic household. Her grandmother was a musician, and she played the flute from a young age. Acting hadn’t really been on her radar until she was thirteen and got her first professional gig on a miniseries, but after that, she was hooked. She took acting classes to hone her craft and participated in stage plays. Her love of musical theater inspired her to move to New York after high school, a goal she’d kept from when she was only fifteen. It was a while before she appeared on screen again, but she cited the arts as “a great part of [her] development.”
Last year, McArthur had a pivotal guest role as Johiehon on Starz’s period drama Outlander. Being such a popular show, she wasn’t allowed to publicly say that she had been cast, even as she was flown to Scotland with dozens of other Native performers. “Some of us knew each other, and it was a bit of a reunion… It almost felt like being a real village of people that we knew or knew through each other.” She adored filming on location, highlighting the warm welcome of the Scottish people and the beautiful highlands where they shot. “It was such an unforgettable experience combined with one of the most exciting professional experiences ever, especially with the large fire stunt at the end of the episode.”
Sera-Lys has had a lot of experience working on outdoor sets and location shoots, as “it kind of goes with the territory of being an Indigenous actor, if we do period dramas, especially.” So far, two of her characters have died in fires, giving her a lot of experience with practical effects as well. “You really have to have all of your focus on what’s happening moment-to-moment, because it’s actually dangerous if you’re not paying attention. It’s also just super cool, so you definitely want to pay attention to every passing moment.”
On Outlander, there was a scene where she had to walk towards the burning stunt double of another character, “so that the other characters would have an eyeline of me walking toward the fire.” She had to get as close as she could to the stunt double before diving out of the way, making for an unforgettable moment of being so close to someone who was literally on fire. “Hopefully you wouldn’t have to see that in real life,” she joked, “but it was really cool to see on set in a controlled environment.”
Currently airing on The CW in America (having already finished its original Canadian run on CBC) is the third season of Burden of Truth, a legal drama following Kristin Kreuk as Joanna Chang, a Toronto attorney who returns to the town she grew up in to uncover a conspiracy surrounding a mysterious illness. McArthur plays the new recurring role of Kodie Chartrand, Joanna’s childhood best friend. The two friends reconnect at a reunion after a twenty-year separation right before Kodie’s children are apprehended by Millwood Family Services. Joanna has no experience in family law, but she decides to help a single mother get her kids back. It “seems like it wouldn’t be that complicated, but of course it really is.” The two have a special connection, as “Kodie was really there for Joanna in a time of need when she was a child,” and that bond is explored throughout the season.
Sera-Lys finds a lot of similarities between herself and Kodie, mostly in that “she’s the less cautious version of me.” Both come from First Nation heritage: Kodie is Ojibwe, while Sera-Lys is a member of the Nakota Nation. McArthur was raised by a single mother, “so in that way I think I had a lot to draw from, knowing the reality that Kodie is in, like how difficult it really is to be a single parent, especially of multiple children, but also to know how much love there is, especially in a close family unit.” Kodie didn’t pursue post-secondary education as Sera-Lys did, but the actress sees her character as almost like a different version of herself, a path she could have gone down if she’d just made a few different decisions. “She’ll just say what’s on her mind and I admire that about her, it’s kind of fun to play someone who is so brazen.” She joked, “I don’t actually have to deal with the consequences, [even though] she does.”
She admitted to being both very excited and a little intimidated by her newcomer status with a show and crew that had already gotten in their groove with the first two seasons. “There’s an element of feeling like the new kid at school, that you just transferred.” However, she cited the Burden of Truth crew as “such a close family” that welcomed her with open arms. One thing she noted was how she had to stay in sort of a different mode than everyone else because “there was so much emotional trauma that I had to be portraying constantly.” However, she praised the crew as being “pros all around” and as making her feel comfortable in that new setting.
While filming the child apprehension, McArthur had to stay up very late working on what was obviously an extremely taxing and emotionally demanding scene. But when she came in the next day, she was given flowers from the producers that thanked her for her “beautiful and strong work” the night before. “That was the thing that made me really feel welcomed into the whole community there on set and supported and appreciated.”
Recently, Sera-Lys has moved into the world of producing, collecting credits on short films such as Magic Madeleines and Pharmalarm. This world presented her with new opportunities “as an actor who wanted to have a little more control and say in the stories and bring authenticity to the characters.” Especially within the world of Indigenous storytelling, she emphasized how bringing Indigenous voices to the forefront at the very beginning of the developmental process can really ensure that the authenticity of the characters can be kept intact. “Native people have been misrepresented in [the] media, historically, for a very long time… and it’s great to be in this new realm, this new age of Indigenous identity that is coming through the arts and media.” She finds producing challenging, but she highlights the payoff as being incredibly rewarding. She likened it to being a parent, as others may not know how much work you’ve put into your ‘child,’ but you do, and the self-reward is enough.
Outside of acting, McArthur also teaches ESL to students overseas. “It’s a way to use my education and also fill some gaps in between gigs.” She’s always enjoyed interacting with young performers and just teaching young people in general, and while it requires a lot of energy to make those connections, it’s also very gratifying. She highlighted how teaching a new language is very similar to teaching acting, as they’re both new skills that she’s proud to pass on in a way that can hopefully be useful to her students in the future.
Beyond teaching young people, Sera-Lys has made it a goal to promote education about social issues, especially through social media. On May 5, she wore red to raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and back in December, she participated in a theatrical protest against the death penalty. She recalled a friend and fellow Indigenous actress named Michelle Thrush telling her that “being an Indigenous actor is also being an activist.” That statement has really stuck out to her ever since, and she’s made it a goal to participate in projects that represent and reflect the society around her in a way that can create change through storytelling. “That’s why I do what I do, it’s not just a vanity project… I’ve felt the power of stories changing my perspective on things, and I’ve experienced audience members changed by stories that I’ve been able to be a part of.”
The cause of MMIWG has been close to her for a very long time, and “it’s an issue that I feel is not given the gravity that it should, and it’s getting there, but only with all of the efforts that we’ve been doing as a community.” The first short film that McArthur ever produced was about the Highway of Tears, a place in Canada where many Indigenous women have simply disappeared. Some people don’t think that a struggle that doesn’t directly affect them or their demographic is important, but Sera-Lys highlighted the importance of humanizing these issues in a way that can give them more empathy for the perspective of the people suffering. She praised Jen Marlowe of Donkey Saddle Productions for putting together the theatrical protest against the death penalty and gathering the perspectives of exonerated people previously on death row and their families.
In terms of Indigenous representation on screen, Sera-Lys said that “we’re getting to play ourselves a little more these days, which is good.” Like discussed before, more Indigenous voices are being included behind the scenes and given the platform to tell their own stories instead of others doing it for them. “There are more Native actors. There are more Native writers, producers, and consultants. And I think we can go even further.” Even though things are changing and getting better, there’s still a long way to go in terms of just getting those perspectives and voices in the room. “There’s such a thirst for unique content these days, and the only way you’re really going to get an Indigenous story is if you involve Indigenous storytellers at the ground level.” She expressed her frustration at when Native characters just “collect bullets” at the end of a movie, as it just feels like the easy dramatic way out.
McArthur has a number of projects coming out soon. She’s especially excited for the film adaptation of Monkey Beach, in which she plays an “emotional” supporting role. She’ll also be playing Alice in the science fiction project The First Encounter, and her most badass role is soon to come in the horror Don’t Say Its Name. “Usually I’m holding the baby while the guys get to do the fun stuff, so it was nice to get to do the fun stuff for once.”
Burden of Truth airs Thursdays on the CW, and make sure to watch out for any projects with McArthur’s name coming out soon.
(Correction: An earlier version of this article included a typo in the word “walk” in the seventh paragraph. The error has been fixed.)
(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified “Millwood Family Services” as “Norwood Family Services.” The error has been fixed.)