A Blood History of Storytelling: Indigenous Actress and Producer Sera-Lys McArthur Talks About Spiritual Rekindling, Cathartic Screaming, and Creating Change

Written by Malin Evita

Once upon a time, when Sera-Lys was just five years old, she was midst a blissful game of hide and seek with her friends. Then suddenly, her mother came dragging her away. Because her mother had gotten the two tickets for a play, Sound of Music. Little did young Sera-Lys know then that her life was about to change forever. “I didn’t even wanna go,” she laughs, “Uh, I’m having the best time, like literally why would you ever take me to a, a play? I don’t even know what that is. And then it was amazing.”

After drinking her lemon water, sea salt, and cayenne combo and taking Happy, her beloved bishop dog (son), out for a morning walk in Central Park with her partner David, actress and producer Sera-Lys McArthur sat down with me for our first Zoom session. With a brighter smile than most could produce so early in the morning, she immediately began telling me about the plays she had recently seen (Come From Away, Pass Over, and her third viewing of Hamilton were notable highlights). With a walking distance to fantastic theatres, it is clear that she is taking every chance she can get to refill her live theatre meter after a dry purgatory year. And while she has now found her way to the Big Apple, she most certainly didn’t start out there.

Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, she, her brother, and high school teaching mother lived just over an hour away from the reserve her Nakota father lived on. But estranged from him in her youth, though still attending a naming ceremony and the occasional pow wow, most of her ‘family’ time was spent with her mother’s German-Canadian side of the tree. “I felt quite free,” she says about her early childhood, reminiscing on how she would play with her cousins out on the countryside without a care or worry in the world.

“It helped me accept and see my unique heritage as a good thing.”

Sera-Lys McArthur, photograph by Steven Hurst.

But as she became more aware of her surroundings, a less liberating landscape would start to reveal itself. “Living in Saskatchewan, though… It’s a very racially charged environment. Especially between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and that part was quite difficult for me because it just seemed like a constant undercurrent of what was happening in my daily life,” she tells me. Ever since she was a child, she felt like an Other. Someone to be pointed out. Words were spat in her direction, and witnessing overt discrimination became a common occurrence. On top of that, she became pretty familiar with channelling external judgement into internal shame from the Catholic approaches her high school taught her. At the time, she didn’t mind the religious schooling much, but now, decades later, she sees that punishing yourself for every ‘bad’ thought that has ever run through your mind probably isn’t the healthiest practice for a child’s psyche.

One of the things that helped her shed the underlying distress that was growing under her skin was the arts. Her first role was as a Métis girl in Revenge of the Land (1999, dir. John N. Smith), a period film for television. “It helped me accept and see my unique heritage as a good thing,” she smiles, “It took me out of thinking that being a mixed-race Indigenous girl was a bad thing and put it into a beautiful arena where that was the reason I was chosen to do the best thing I had ever experienced, which was just being on set and acting. I had no idea I loved it until then.” It was the beginning of her becoming and what would lead her to a journey of reconnecting with her Nakota roots and culture. With little contact with her father growing up and the aftermath of the pain and assimilation attempted by residential schools that taught the paternal side of her family that their Indigenous beliefs and practises were evil, she was far from immersed with her heritage’s culture.

“There’s a lot of trauma to unpack with that,” Sera-Lys tells me. Thankfully, there are still knowledge-keepers and spiritual leaders fighting to preserve the culture and welcome the younger generation back. And as an adult, she’s been able to find those people and that insight in a way she never had access to as a child. Moving away from her Catholic upbringing to Indigenous spirituality, she says that this has, in many ways, healed her. She isn’t a rigorous attendee of ceremonies and does still occasionally visit Christian churches as a faith-tourist. But she has found a resting place in the open that allows for deeper spiritual connections and curiosity without unconditional devotedness to specific sets of beliefs. “There’s just something about the spiritual practises of the old ways, of the Nakota ways, that feels natural and healing. It’s not intertwined with guilt or asking [for] forgiveness,” she says, “I’m very grateful for the Indigenous spirituality and medicine people and cultural teachers who have shown me that side. It’s been a very helpful tool for me; sometimes, you just need to calm down and smudge it off.”

As a teenager, the actress struggled heavily with clinical depression. While she was smart and did well in school, it wasn’t fulfilling her the way she needed. In the way acting and storytelling did. “It was the thing that made me excited to wake up in the morning,” she says, as she reflects on the moment that made her decide to pursue this yearning in her life. Inspired by her cousin, she applied (and got in) to The Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. The very next day after graduating, she got on a plane, and a new chapter began.

“It was so exciting. [New York] is everything you think it’s going to be, and then more,” she tells me, sitting in her residence in that very same city she arrived in over a decade ago. From culture-shocks, leotards, and the city-wide blackout in 2003, she experienced a shift when she moved. Her depression quieted, her focus sharpened, and she knew she had made the right decision. Since then, she travelled across the sea to earn her Masters degree in acting, returned to America, and continued to explore and train in the speculative realm of performance.

Create, destroy.”

Sera-Lys McArthur, BTS: She Whistles. Courtesy of Nicola Pender.

The realm of performance is a tenuous one. Becoming a character holds many challenges; on the one hand, you want to get lost and channel the script. On the other, that can harm you both emotionally and make the technicalities of on-set work difficult. To be in a fictive moment, despite a camera shoved in your face, is an art form. Sera-Lys doesn’t get stuck in characters either. That was one of the things she took with her from an otherwise slightly traumatising acting studio in Vancouver. “Our teacher’s motto was Create, destroy,” she tells me, “You have to learn to just let it go. Sometimes it might sit with you and kind of bring you down for a minute. But then you have to bring yourself back to being present and realise where you are and that that feeling was something you created. And you can stop having it. It’s not something you need to keep feeling after they call cut or the curtain comes down.”

That doesn’t mean the emotion is not genuine, she adds. She will most of the time source her character’s energy from personal experiences and let that transcend. But she is in control of that, no one else. “I find it to be quite cathartic,” she says, “I release the stories through my body instead of holding onto that trauma. Telling the story to other people makes the hard parts of the story, or the sad and, you know, painful parts, beautiful and important.” Acting is, in that way, one of the purest forms of empathy.

There are many important components of acting. But the voice may perhaps be the most consequential to the completion of a character. Through Sera-Lys’ many years of education and honing her craft, learning to use her vocal instrument has been one of the most enriching lessons. To truly understand how sounds move through your body and how to morph dialogue with emotions in a complimentary way. She is also a big fan of screaming. “I love it!” She grins, “I was always a loud child—not loud, but I would scream loudly when I was little,” she quickly corrects herself, assuring me that she wasn’t a screechy child, more just someone who loved to hear the echo of her voice below stone bridges. “In that way, I just enjoy sonic experiences. It feels very invigorating to express [emotions] vocally.”

“That desire to express yourself through your body, to tell stories with your voice and movement… In that way, it is cultural and biological.”

Outlander: Sera-Lys McArthur as Johiehon

And as someone who plays characters that often speak in languages and dialects which have been exposed to systemic erasure for centuries, Sera-Lys has found an extraordinary beauty in connecting with the spoken word of her ancestors.

This first happened when she portrayed a Young Assiniboine Girl in The Englishman’s Boy (2008). With Assiniboine being another word for Nakota, this was the perfect role for her. At first, the Girl had no lines. But, as director John N. Smith told her, there was no reason for her not to speak, and if Sera-Lys was able to speak Nakota, she was more than welcome to. With the help of the international phonetic alphabet, her dad’s linguistic contacts and guidance from an Elder at her reserve, she got to work. It was a lot of responsibility, but thankfully she had three to four months of preparation where she got to fine-tune her lines to be as authentic as possible.

“There’s a blood history of speaking it,” she says, describing the experience of connecting with the Nakota language. “It felt natural. The cadence, the rhythm—everything about it was already in me.” The language is also one of oral history, which is deeply intertwined with a natural storytelling instinct. “Telling stories was how you got information passed down from generation to generation, from community to community. Expressing yourself that way was basically a means of survival but also, probably, one of the only forms of entertainment! That doesn’t go away. That desire to express yourself through your body; to tell stories with your voice and movement… In that way, it is cultural and biological,” she beautifully explains. This same journey also sent her on a route of reconnecting with her father, leaving it to be an even more momentous memory.

One of the most common questions an actor gets asked is Can you cry on demand? How do you do it? To this, Sera-Lys swears there are no tricks. Instead, it is reaching a place of deep, inner sadness that will open you to the waterfall gates. To reach emotional memories that will allow her to align her own psyche with her characters’, one of the practises she has begun including in her preparation routine is connecting with senses. “I would think, What does it smell like? What does it sound like? If [the memory is of] someone that makes me sad thinking about how they are gone, like, the last time I talked to them, What did they say? How did their voice sound? What was that day like? What did it smell like, feel like, taste like?” She explains. Many times, acting is thought of as leaving yourself behind to become someone else, but in the most intense and memorable scenes, they might really be in a mental state more in touch with themselves than ever before. “I’m bringing as much truth and authenticity of myself as a human to the table. The character is just the veil.”

“I think that’s the beauty of telling Indigenous stories.”

FX: Reservation Dogs

Sera-Lys doesn’t say this with arrogance, but this—acting, storytelling—is what she was chosen to do. She knows that this is the way she can leave the most positive impact in the world; by telling stories of Indigenous people in a way she wishes she had been able to see as a kid. This is her way of healing from struggles of being the Other, and sharing that power with her community.

Part of that work lies is dismantling the extremely problematic representation of Indigenous people that most frequent the screen. Although it is not a character stereotype, the fact that nearly every film or movie (which is already far and few between) that feature Indigenous characters are period-pieces is harmful in itself. It insinuates that these people are history, entirely erased, nothing but relics. But of course, the fact that Indigenous people are being cast in these roles should be direct proof that they are not. And as much as Sera-Lys loves learning about different old cultural elements, tribal history, and languages, she believes balancing those with modern portrayals is crucial. “There is a living culture,” she notes.

This year, a handful of shows with modern Indigenous representation have made the rounds—Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls, and Resident Alien come to mind. One of the things they all contain, which is so rare to see, is humour. “I think that’s really what has gotten Indigenous people through all of these hard times—historically and now—and that is often left out of so many stories,” the actress says, adding that it is almost as if their cultural value in storytelling has been boiled down to tragedy, when they in truth are so much more.

Let it be clear though, Sera-Lys is a sucker for tragedy. It is her favourite thing to portray. But there’s a difference between authentic reflections on past and present issues and pure trauma porn. Beyond comedy, she would also like to see more movies and shows with representation that play with genres. Sci-fi, rom-com, horror—“There’s room for Indigenous inclusion in all sorts of different genres!” Sera-Lys says, mentioning the speculative monster movie called Don’t Say Its Name, which she recently starred in as an example.

“I find telling the truth of the stories and the ugliness of the stories cathartic.”

McArthur (L) and Cuthand (R) BTS: She Whistles. Courtesy of Nicola Pender.

To continue bringing new Indigenous stories to the table and doing so with an authenticity that stems from the community and not marketable exploitation, Sera-Lys eventually chose to get into producing. She explains that it started with a very much who-do-you-know, who-can-you-find search for finding specific Indigenous talent. “It’s hard to tap [young Indigenous talent] because they’re sometimes in remote areas and their family might not really know what the showbusiness is, so you have to be like, Oh yeah, my cousin’s cousin’s kid is that age, and she does pow wows so maybe she’d be into trying out acting,” she says. So that’s what producing started out like for her; helping people meet. Whether that be actors or creative consultants from specific Nations.

The other, and the perhaps more personal reason she was drawn to producing, was to have some autonomy in how the story she would embody was being told. “Keeping it realistic, and making sure, you know, that there’s something valuable in it,” she says. The more she has come to understand the importance of good producing and having representation—not just allies—at that level, the more she has come to burn for it. “Acting is always going to be my first love, so that’s going to be my focus—always. But I think that it’s a really great avenue to explore maturing with your work,” she says, teasing a future directorial debut she describes as a mix between Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Once Were Warriors (1994). “When it’s about an Indigenous family who doesn’t have a lot of money, all of a sudden, the stakes are way higher. They are so much higher, and I think that’s the beauty of telling indigenous stories; you don’t really have to build the stakes in because it’s life or death most of the time.”

“I know what it feels like to be an Indigenous woman in Saskatchewan trying to get home at night and not feeling safe.”

Still: McArthur in She Whistles. Courtesy of Nicola Pender.

One of the projects that the actress and producer recently finished is the short film: Kwêskosîw (She Whistles), written and directed by non-binary Indigenous experimental filmmaker Thirza Cuthand. Sera-Lys felt increasingly drawn to the story after being asked to read part of the script at the Female Eye Film Festival panel. After getting in touch with Thirza, she was cast in the lead and tagged along as a mentée producer. The film, set in Saskatchewan, is a surrealist revenge MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) story that follows an Indigenous woman on her way to visit her girlfriend when she’s assaulted by her cab driver. For Sera-Lys, preparing for this character came very naturally to her. “I know what it feels like to be an Indigenous woman in Saskatchewan trying to get home at night and not feeling safe,” she says, referencing the very prevalent racial tension in the region, “It’s palpable. It’s not something you can just ignore if you are Indigenous.” 

While this may appear like a typical tragedy, the tables do turn, and vindication prevails. It is not trauma porn that dwells on the pain of others for the viewer’s perversion. It’s a tale of empowerment that simultaneously shines a light on a horrific issue faced by Native women, girls, and two-spirit people in North America. “It’s more drama than trauma,” she chuckles. Throughout her career, Sera-Lys McArthur has portrayed various tragic matters her community is unfortunately not unfamiliar with, from assault to suicide. It’s worth noting that every individual’s experience with issues like these are different. While she does aim to give a voice to those who’ve been silenced, she never wishes to become a mascot for a particular issue or struggle. Simplification of the immense complexities and intersectional depths of these issues would merely harm awareness movements and halter progress. One might also assume that work like this might start to wear on you over the years, but Sera-Lys finds acting to be a tool of healing—letting her work through her own troubles through the movement of others.

“I find telling the truth of the stories and the ugliness of the stories cathartic. I don’t find it traumatic. I process emotions through my body. When I tell stories, I feel like I’m releasing them. So I’m releasing the truth of that person that I’m representing. I’m releasing that to the world and raising awareness about it so other people can understand.”

— Sera-Lys McArthur

Written by Malin Evita

Evita is the host and producer of the podcast, Instagram curator, and a writer focused on script, cultural commentary, and film analysis. She is a Vocal grand prize winner and recently her HNC in Professional Writing Skills. Through storytelling, she aims to amplify empathy and human connectivity.

Website: malinevita.com | IG: @malinevita

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