The Canadian First Nations family drama Fire Song is a touching and provocative story of a young man who falls in love with a male classmate. Their “Two Spirit” union goes against the grain on their traditional reservation in Northern Ontario. Shane believes his choice to love the person he loves will bring shame to his family, an added weight since the suicide of his sister. His mother Jackie, played by Jennifer Podemski, is laid low by her daughter’s death, unable to get out of bed. Shane is unhappy but wants to spare his mother further grief. Podemski tells us that she was personally in crisis shooting the film but that it worked to her advantage.
Jennifer, your performance in Fire Song is incredibly still. Despair has overcome Jackie and she’s in a fetal ball in bed. Is it tough not doing much, as an actor?
Well, I’m not going to say I cheated because that wouldn’t be accurate but the real issue was that I was very sick at the time, I was dealing with Lyme disease and even to travel to Thunder Bay to do this film was really difficult for me.
I was in a lot of pain and heavy. I had a load that I was carrying that was incredibly painful and uncomfortable. And this role gave me the opportunity to sort of bring that to the forefront and not be ashamed.
Oftentimes that I’ve experienced since kind of getting so-called sick is that I’m constantly trying to act like my old self and be my old self and be normal.
But this role called for a really great heaviness to really bring it, to be true to the character, so I just trusted very much that all the pain that I was holding in me physically would work towards breathing life into this character in a very honest way.
It felt so authentic. It makes perfect sense and your illness was part of the art really, which is sort of bizarre.
I think with every obstacle that you come across, especially when you’re an actor, we have to embrace. And when we do that, other opportunities present themselves and I think this was one of those opportunities where I haven’t even considered being able to work, like it just wasn’t even an option.
So when Laura, the producer called me, it was like, well you know my situation isn’t really ideal so even lying there, I can’t even imagine what the inflammation is going to be like on that, right?
But the whole team was really willing to work with me and I don’t know that the director intended for that character to be lying down the whole time. I don’t know, I don’t even remember when I read the script what it said but I did tell him “Here are my limitations. I can’t really stand for an extended period of time. I can’t get up and down from a seated position and look normal. So if you want to still work with what I’ve got to offer, I can bring all that to the role”.
And then all the other issues I think we’re just like everything else that I do which I feel has been more of a channel to spirit and play the character that way rather than trying to assess like what would a mother who just experienced this, rather than intellectualizing it, I emotionalized it.
And as a mom myself it’s not very hard to realize the gravity of the themes in the movie like suicide and mourning and sexual identity and all of those things and the heaviness of all of that, feeling as a mother, like all of those feelings I’m so familiar with as a mom.
You’ll always second guess yourself; you’re always worried about your kids. So yeah, I guess it was a combination of bringing my own physical ailments and my own channeling.
You mentioned that in the bonfire scene you were emotional thinking about your own children.
I’m a very empathetic person to a fault. There are articles about empaths and how destructive it can be for their own psyche or wellbeing. And I think that’s what a lot of actors are, just overly empathetic so that you could hear a story and just in the way you interpret it and listen to it, your physicality and the way you emote everything sort of almost shape shifts into what that story is when you are an empathetic person. So it doesn’t mean necessarily that you’re an actor, it means you’re an empath.
So you’re adding more emotional weight all the time.
Yeah. So you have to get rid of that obviously. That was really the only good advice I had for the young guy, Andrew who plays my son because he was fairly new with this and had a lot of very heavy stuff.
One night he cried, he was crying during a scene and then it just didn’t stop and I said, “I’ll tell you one of the most important lessons that I have ever learned doing this job is not to forget that your body will remember what’s happening right now so you have to remind it to let it go and forget it because it’s not yours.”
Once I learned that, because I always got cast in those really deeply psychological crying, big, dramatic roles and I’m certain that I held on to some of that stuff not knowing that you need to let it go.
You have to walk away and then somehow whatever process it is, just let it go, cry it out, punch it out, whatever you got to do to get it out of your system because some of it is dark, especially when you’re doing a film like Fire Song. Some of that is really heavy stuff.
There’s a lot of darkness there. But the film’s not all darkness.
No. I mean when I look at the film, it’s a love story.
On so many levels.
That’s the beauty of storytelling is that you often realize through everything that there is very little divide between dark and light. There’s a lot of crossover. So something that might seem to be a very dark story very often has to have the light to make it dark, like you can’t have one without the other.
As an actor, obviously you think a lot about this when you go to the psychology, do you find yourself sort of looking around and you’re always thinking about that, always thinking about how you can express that?
I’m not thinking about how I can express it but I’m really captivated by people. And I don’t necessarily recognize that in myself but I was in New York last year with a friend of mine and we were walking around and I would say, “Oh, that guy looked like so and so. Did you see that guy’s eyes? It was so amazing.” And she said, “You know? I look at bags and sunglasses and watches, but you have always looked at faces.” And I was like, “I guess so. That’s part of my job. It’s why I’m good at my job.” I am really good with faces and I think if I wasn’t doing the acting movie thing, I would probably be some sort of — I would work with people on that level.
An artist or a photographer or a healer?
Something, something. Yeah.
Yeah. I could see you being a healer.
I think that’s what I would want to be in some way.
Fire Song was an Official Selection at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and the Winner of the ImagineNATIVE Air Canada Audience Choice Award and Reel Out Festival Best Feature Narrative.