Mitchell Saddleback: Pawakan Macbeth
January 25, 2020
Interview with Mitchell Saddleback who was an actor in the Pawakan Macbeth theatrical play and the movie Cold Pursuit.
Guide: You can talk about some of the problems that an Indigenous actor runs into if you want.
So what’s Pawakan Macbeth all about:
Mitch: Macbeth is a Shakespeare play. It’s about a king and it’s funny because I don’t really know much about the original Shakespeare play. Our play Pawakan Macbeth is a Cree takeover of that. So instead of a king it’s a chief. Instead of witches there are trickster spirits. It’s inspired by the youth of Frog Lake First Nation and they really connected Macbeth to the Witigo spirit. This play is very healing. I’m coming into it and I’m speaking Cree, there’s a really good lesson in it and it’s funny and it’s a really dark play, fourteen and up. I think everyone should see it. It’s the one play I am most proud of.
Guide: Have you ever done Shakespeare before?
Mitch: No. This is my first time ever tackling Shakespeare. I’ve really been reading up on it.
Guide: So it’s a good experience.
Mitch: Yes, it’s like medicine. It’s healing.
Guide: You were saying that. I guess that’s different than it just being an acting job.
Mitch: This isn’t just an acting job for me. This is like medicine. I am getting taught so much by this play. We did all our rehearsals at the Banff Centre for the Arts. It was good being up in those mountains. We learned about the spirit up there. It’s been quite the journey.
Guide: What character did you play?
Mitch: In Pawakan Macbeth I play the character, I’m not sure what the original character was called, but my character is Koona Chapio. I’m actually playing five different characters. I’m playing two Metis warriors, Koona Chapio, an old man story teller named Otepa Samagia and that’s my favourite character to play. I didn’t realize right away when I was rehearsing, practicing and finding the voice for this character that I’m playing my late Uncle. I was practicing my lines in my room in Banff and as I was doing this voice I had to take a moment and go: “Hey Uncle, I missed you. It’s good to have you here.”
I’m very thankful to encapsulate that. I think a lot of people are going to connect with that. It’s other peoples Uncles too. It’s a really fun character. It’s a really good monologue. I’m a story teller. We also play these trickster spirits called Wiyoyowakak. I’m trying not to be Smeagle from the Lord of the Rings (laughs) but we found this nice, really organic way that our body moves and how we change into these trickster spirits. It’s very physical and it takes a lot of you.
Guide: When did you get the part for the play?
Mitch: I met the writer of the play Reneltta Arluk , and she runs the Akpik Theatre, by chance. It’s funny because most of my roles have come to me. I didn’t ask for it. It came to me. So I met Reneltta back when I was doing this reading called the Talking Stick festival in Edmonton. We did a reading of this play called the Red Patch which was based on World War 1. She was in it and we did a reading together. She asked me where I was from and I told her Maskwacis. She said, “Oh your Cree.”
I said, “Yes.”
She said, “I’ll remember that.”
Two years later I get this phone call and they offered me a part in the play and we did it in Edmonton two years ago. That was a really good experience and there was more people in the cast. I was only playing one character back then. Now, I’m playing more characters. So it’s more of an ensemble piece. There’s more of storytelling presentation of it. We’re following the script but there’s also room for improvisation. To be able to be in those in characters and to do improvisation is the next level. I’ve never done a play like this before or this type of rehearsing. I’ve never heard of acting like this. I would rather do every play like this. This has been the most intense play I’ve ever been a part of.
Guide: It sound like the play has been Indigenized and you can connect as an Aboriginal person.
Guide: And that’s how other people can connect to it if they come see it.
Mitch: It’s a Cree takeover. It’s connecting to who we are. Our theatre, our stage has become our ceremony. We bring Protocol into it. We save room for smudge. We save room for spirituality because it’s a huge part of this process.
Guide: It kind of sounds like it was meant to be in the spirit of reconciliation. It seems like aboriginal people across turtle island are getting those opportunities to express how they feel in their art whether it be acting, singing or writing.
Mitch: It’s a really exciting time to be an Indigenous artist because now our voices are being heard. We can be as loud as we want. I always say; when we we’re doing this play that not long ago this would have been illegal. There would have been police outside waiting for us when we we’re done this. Now, we have the center stage and we have this microphones and we can be loud. As loud as we want. I always tell my four young nieces that you can be whatever you want: I wanted to be an actor and be in movies and in plays. Now I get to experience that. Whatever you want to do: painting, music, dance, if you want to go the moon you can go to the moon. Just go to school for it.
Guide: I saw your Youtube improvisation acting in Vancouver when you were doing the Poetry reading. I was impressed how you memorized your lines and how everybody was clapping when you made a point.
Mitch: I love to make people laugh. I’ve always been a class clown and I just like performing.
I love to write. Whenever I think of something funny I have to write it down. I moved to Vancouver eleven years ago. I got into stand up comedy, slam poetry and I’m writing a bit. We just finished a web series for the CBC Gem (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in June 2019. The film is called “The Bannocking.”
Guide: The Bannocking?
Mitch: The Bannocking! (laughs all around).
It’s going to be on CBC Gem (gem.cbc.ca) this Halloween. There will be nine episodes.
Guide: Halloween 2020?
Guide: We will watch for it. Moving on to the next question, is there any particular scene that you liked in Macbeth.
Mitch: I think encapsulating Otepa Samagia and doing that story telling aspect of it, it has become a dream to play that role. Every time I come on stage I just feel the energy of the audience and they’re really listening to me. My buddy Nathan who did all the choreographing, the fighting part, we’ve been practicing for awhile and my body is broken. I am so sore from doing this intense choreographing. It’s like a dance and it’s real beautiful. He’s just a fun character to play and I can’t wait for people to see him. I can’t wait for the people from Maskwacis to see it. I was just thinking about it in Banff and I can’t believe I am bringing this character to Maskwacis. It’s come full circle. I am bringing art back home to show people.
Guide: Next question, where did Pawakan Macbeth all play at and did it make it Edmonton?
Mitch: We did a show in Edmonton in 2017. We rehearsed up in Edmonton and we did on Whyte Avenue. I cannot remember the name of the theatre. It’s right where they do the Fringe event. After that we travelled to Frog Lake. We did a couple of workshops for the youth in From Lake and we had a small showing of the play up there. It’s real beautiful to go the land where the story was inspired from. The youth loved it.
Guide: So you’ve inspired them. Not just in From Lake but wherever you go with Pawakan Macbeth. Next question, how difficult is it to play a character in the play?
Mitch: It is difficult. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth there’s a lot of rhyming and they talk different. If you go see a Shakespeare play, for the first 10 minutes you have no idea what’s going on.
You have no idea what they’re saying. So this is kind of the same but now we’re speaking Cree. Native audiences are going to get some of these jokes. Some people will not get it because we speak it in Cree. It’s so powerful to be able to do that. I never saw myself being on a stage doing Macbeth in my life and now I’m here and it’s Cree Macbeth. It’s my language. I’m learning my language, I’m decolonizing by being part of this wonderful project. I’m so thankful.
I think this play has room to be set anywhere on turtle island. This Indigenous spin on something that has been so white, it’s like we’re taking over the theatre. People can like it or not but I love it. Everybody who sees it-there breathes will be taken away because they’re not expecting it.
I really hope, because I grew up without representation, I didn’t really see myself represented in theatre, movies or music. Now there’s a huge wave of this Indigenous art that’s coming out. I really hope it inspires more people because that’s my goal.
One of my goals is to come to Maskwacis and host an acting class or workshop. I want to inspire the youth. The youth is my core audience.
Guide: Time to give back?
Guide: Let’s talk about Cold Pursuit. What was it like playing a character in Cold Pursuit?
Mitch: The whole thing was like a dream. I got the audition in Vancouver. My main goal was to trying and make the cast and director laugh and I did. After my audition I felt really bad about it because you don’t hear anything back from them. You think I should have done this, I should have done that. Two weeks later out of the blue I get a phone call and my agent says: “They want you for a call back.”
I couldn’t breathe. I was like, “They want to see me again?”
I was on the C bus coming in from north Vancouver, downtown Vancouver and I was just sitting there in silence. There was this old lady next to me and I said to her: “I just got a call back for a Liam Neeson movie!”
She said, “Congratulations.”
So I went to my call back and I got to meet the director, the producer Michael Shannon. Michael produced a lot of Quentin Tarantino movies. He’s an intimidating man and I thought to myself, “I have to make that guy laugh.”
So I went into the audition and they were asking me to pretend to put on paragliding equipment and I’ve never done that before. I tried to put it on, I put on my pants backwards, took them off and then put them back on regular again. I put my hat on backwards and I was just having fun with this part. So I didn’t hear anything from them again and I didn’t think I got it. There were some actors in the room there when I was waiting and I was telling them, “Oh man your going to get it. I’m so happy for you.”
Two weeks later they call me and offer me the role. They flew us out to Kananaskis and it was all such a blur. It was like I was in a dream. I dreamt about doing something like that. We filmed on top of this mountain. When I met Liam Neeson he shook my hand and he has such big hands. His hand wrapped around my hand twice. He’s a really nice guy and he has been working a real long time. Very down to earth. I didn’t want to fan boy out like, “Can I get an autograph?”
I used to have a toy of him when I was little from Star Wars and I wanted to tell him that. I got to meet Emmy Rossum, Tom Jackson and I got to work with my buddy Nathaniel Arcand again. It was real fun being up there and being part of Indigenous cinema.
Cold Pursuit is on Amazon Prime and DVD. Whenever I am in walmart and I see the DVD I take it and put it in the front (laughs). My character’s name is Avalanche. You don’t quite see it in the movie but everybody has guns. I had this big knife. My character Avalanche, you never see it in the movie, but he’s ambidextrous, he’s really sad that his buddy passed away in the movie and I cried. I actually cried because I had just lost a cousin. I kind of used that to get to that point. I used up all my tears on a close up. It was real fun and I look back on that as being a happy point in my life and that there’s something out there that I can show people. Being an actor in theatre-there’s not much media attention. It’s just something I can show to people. I worked on that movie for 8 days and I have the best line in the movie.
The years are turning now. It has opened me up to more possibilities. I actually just filmed a movie last December and it’s coming out in March 17th or 20th, 2020, and it’s called First Cow. It’s about the fur trade. Gary Farmer was in it and I got to hang out with him. We talked about acting and how we got into acting. There’s a number of actors that I looked up to and I finally got to meet them in this movie. It’s a period piece and I got a little part in there. It was really cool to be flown out to Portland. They speak a language in that movie, it was a trading language that they had back in the day. There was only 40 people who spoke it. Gary Farmer he is just a professional. I was really thankful to be able to work with him. The guy is my Dad!
He’s my Dad, Smoke Signals.
Guide: We will be watching for it in March 2020. Next question, what would you say to any aspiring actors or actresses out there who want to pursue an acting career?
Mitch: If anybody wants to be an actor go for it. When you go to high school you will have a Drama class. Take that class. Learn how to encapsulate a character. Pursue art. There was so many times in my life when I turned away from partying and that gang life and I wanted to be an actor so bad that I moved to Vancouver. There was a lot of times when I was alone. I slept outside. There was times when it wasn’t working but I just kept on going. Just keep going. Whatever you want to do with art you can do it. We have such a powerful, strong platform and voice that the world needs right now. They need to hear you, they need to hear our voice; you can do anything you want to do as long as it’s not hurting anybody. This acting for me is just play, it’s nor work. I do not work when I go to rehearsal. It’s always fun. I’m so thankful that I’m in a position to be able to say that to people. I wish that there was somebody who said that to me who was a working actor: “You want to be an actor? Go be an actor!”
We’ve been acting our whole lives. We wear white people clothes…it’s in us. It’s in us to teach and heal like that. We’re in a good position. If any youth want to be actors or do art they can, it’s not difficult.
Guide: So determination and perseverance, praying and smudging? Next question, what was it like being around Tom Jackson?
Mitch: Tom has such a presence. When Tom walks into the room it’s his room. He’s so wise. It was great to be able to talk to him. He’s so funny and he has an awesome voice. He’s a singer too. During one take we just waiting around and he started singing on the stage and we all just sat there and listened to him. I grew up seeing Tom and now I’m sitting here listening to him sing. We just killing time but we we’re having fun. I ran into Tom this last December at the Vancouver airport and he saw me from really far away and I was in my own world and I was waiting for my airplane and he saw me and he said, “Mitch!”
I met his wife there and he was happy to see me. He wanted to know how my acting was going. I was really thankful to meet him.
Guide: Was there any particular scene you like in Cold Pursuit?
Mitch: Any scene that involved me (laughs). I went to go watch it in Wetaskiwin, I came down when it was in the theatres and me and my brother were going to go watch it. There was like sic people in the theatre but when we got there people actually recognized me. This lady came out and she said, “Oh my God that was you! I read about you in the Gazette!”
She came and hugged me and made sure I was OK.
Being on that mountain and shooting our scenes; when I watched that movie I just remember how much fun we had. I had to look around and say, “This is real!”
I’m having that same feeling when I am doing Pawakan Macbeth. We were in Banff and I had to say to myself that this is real. This isn’t a dream. There’s just so many things to appreciate. When you do perform and it’s out there forever. This movie will outlive me. I hope more opportunities come my way. I can’t wait for the Bannocking. I have a whole episode where it’s just me talking to myself. That was real fun too. Me and my friend wrote a grant and we got picked for the Telus Town to Watch. We got a quarter million for a web series-nine episodes. It was a learning experience. We’re a small production but I think we made something really cool. I can’t wait for people to see me in First Cow. I can’t wait for people to see Pawakan Macbeth.
Guide: How important is it to understand your culture and language while being an actor?
Mitch: It’s important to know who you are and where you’re from. As an actor, especially in Indigenous roles it comes to you. Whether you like it or not the lesson and tradition come to you. I really like that this play has taught me the language. I’ve also made a lot of close friends, brothers and sisters. I never would have got that from a regular play. I’ve been in plays that were not Indigenous and you don’t get that family aspect part of it. In Cold Pursuit those actors are my family. When they see me they remember me. I speak so highly of all of them. Doing this play has been real challenging because I’m remembering things that I already know. I feel like I’m growing up. I feel like a better version of myself because of this play alone.
Guide: This will be the last of the questions, do you still go to sweats and what’s your Indian name?
Mitch: Yes I still go to sweats. I try and do ceremony every time I come home. We’re actually going to have a sweat tomorrow for some of the cast and crew. I loved helping set that up.
I had a name when I was a baby, “Owner of a sorrow Horse.” I have carried that name for a very long time. A few years ago I was going through a dark time in my life. I talked to an Elder about it and he gave me “White Wolf.” It’s been really helpful in what I’m doing because it’s easy to get caught up and lost. As long as I remember my name and I’m from Maskwacis, my family and friends here I feel like I can never get lost. This is my home:
Guide: Yes, this is your home and you can always come back if you want.
Mitch: This is always going to be my home. No matter how far I go. I love this place.
Guide: And your Mom is Melody Littlechild?
Mitch: Yes. My Dad was late Hoss Saddleback. The last time I was here I went to visit my Kokum on my late Dad’s side and we got to sit down and talk. We talked about Cold Pursuit, this play that we’re doing now and we just connected. I feel like my job is to talk about depression. It’s taboo, nobody talks about it. I talk about it in my stand up, in my poetry. It’s really important to talk about our feelings. It’s my goal, it’s my job to talk about it.
We we’re talking about how tears are powerful. Crying is important as laughing. You can’t bottle up emotions.
Guide: You’ll get sick if you keep those tears in. Is there anything else you would like to say Mitchell before we wrap up.
Mitch: It’s wonderful to come home and to be able to do this work. I’m not just an actor. I’m a story teller; I’m coming here because we’re healing people. I’m very thankful to come home and it’s become full circle. I used to pretend that I was winning an Academy Award in the town site. I would use a shampoo bottle in front of the mirror. I don’t quire have an Academy Award yet. I really hope people who come see the play get a lot out of it. I really hope we inspire some youth to pursue their dreams. I like to remind people who we are, we are able to take over Shakespeare.