By Pat Mullen
Tanaya Beatty is asked what she learned most from playing Annie Bird, the young heroine portrayed in Through Black Spruce.
“Strength,” she replies. “Definitely strength.”
Beatty pauses, lets the answer hang in the air, and considers the role. “Annie and I had some parallels in that we came into ourselves as women, even though she’s around 23 in the script and I’m 28,” says Beatty. “We both found a different level of maturity and independence. Playing Annie taught me that I am capable of carrying a story like this.”
Based on the 2008 Giller Prize winning novel by Joseph Boyden and directed by Don McKellar (The Grand Seduction), Through Black Spruce follows Annie as she searches for her missing sister, Suzanne. The performance calls for raw vulnerability as Annie walks in Suzanne’s footsteps, encountering the all-too-relevant violence that Indigenous women face in Canada’s streets.
wThe role of Annie demanded a lot from the Vancouver-born Beatty. It’s her first lead role after small parts in films like Hochelaga, Land of Souls and Hostiles, and roles in TV series like Yellowstone, Arctic Air, and The Night Shift. “Every different character teaches me something new,” observes Beatty. “If it’s on a medical drama, I might learn new technical aspects, or if I’m playing a role like Sacagawea [on HBO’s long-delayed mini-series Lewis and Clark] and learning an entire dialect, that’s what I love about being an actress.”
Reading Through Black Spruce as a teenager gave Beatty something to which she could aspire because she related to Annie. Beatty says that as a dynamic, complicated Indigenous female lead, Annie arrived when she felt uninspired by the roles that were available. “The audition came just as I was telling my boyfriend that I wished there was something like Annie that I could do,” says Beatty.
Through Black Spruce demands strength of any performer as it comes steeped in controversy following questions raised about the legitimacy of Boyden’s Indigenous heritage. Beatty is diplomatic. “I think that it’s its own standalone piece,” she says. “I’m grateful that Joseph wrote this story,” adds Beatty. “I’m grateful that this film was even put on its feet and that somebody like Tina Keeper is the one who spearheaded it. It’s rare that even happens.” Keeper plays Annie’s mother, Lisette, and is the film’s mother in her own way as producer.
The film situates Suzanne’s disappearance within the greater mystery of missing and murdered Indigenous women, a cause that has gained more attention in the ten years since Boyden’s novel was published, but still not nearly enough. Beatty says this aspect of the story is what gave her strength. “I’m still carrying that weight and that responsibility with me. It feels like that’s something that doesn’t go away,” says Beatty. “Given my history and my ancestors and my peers, these stories just feel so close to my heart.”