Ashley Callingbull in Conversation with Frontier Star Jessica Matten

Last year, Ashley Callingbull became the first Canadian and first aboriginal woman to be crowned Mrs. Universe. Here, she talks to indigenous actress Jessica Matten about honouring her culture—past and present—through her work

Ashley Callingbull Jessica Matten Frontier Discovery

(Illustration: Bijou Karman)

What’s it really like being a Metis-Cree actor? Do you feel a lot of pressure in terms of representing aboriginal culture?
We’re in this great age where the industry is interested in seeing more diversity, as well as roles that represent how our society really is. I feel like my generation is putting on a great display of our abilities and our talents, and as a result, I hope aboriginal kids realize they’re able to achieve whatever they want in their lives too.

How would you say the film and TV industry is doing in terms of casting aboriginal actors?
There should be more indigenous actors cast in all parts across the board. And that doesn’t necessarily mean more indigenous storylines. It would be really nice to see indigenous actors not playing specifically indigenous roles.

Frontier, which premieres on November 6 at 9:00 EST on Discovery,  looks like a Game of Thrones–ish spectacular. (It even co-stars mega-babe Khal Drogo himself, Jason Momoa!) So what’s it all about?
It’s a six-episode historical series about the fur trade in the late 18th century. I play Sokanon, a warrior who joins forces with Declan Harp [played by Momoa]. Together they’re fighting for control over the James Bay area. I’m excited about the fact that we’re telling a Canadian story, but it’s going to be a little more gory than your average Canadian show. Also, I get to play a total badass.

Tell us more about Sokanon.
She’s a sister figure to Declan Harp. Sokanon is Ojibway, but she was raised around Metis people, and she is defin­itely influenced by that. In real life, I’m a direct descendant of Cuthbert Grant, an early-19th-century Metis leader and fur trader. It feels amazing to be able to honour my ances­tors with this role. When I found out I got it, I had shivers.

Ashley Callingbull Jessica Matten Frontier Discovery

Jessica Matten as Sokanon (photograph: courtesy Discovery)

While Frontier is a historical drama, your previous series, Blackstone—which ran for five seasons on APTN and won multiple awards—was set in the present day and dealt with big issues faced by aboriginal people on a fictional reserve. What types of feedback do you hear from fans about that show?
Surprisingly, a lot of non-indigenous people have heard of Blackstone. Recently, I was recognized by a non-indigenous woman on the street, and she told me the show helped her understand where our people are coming from, and the issues we struggle with and are overcoming. It was wonderful to hear that.

I know you’ve been active in raising awareness about Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. What do you think of the government’s current plans for an inquiry?
I had a cousin who was murdered a couple of years ago, and it made me realize all women are vulnerable. Regardless of what the inquiry yields, we need to take leadership over how our communities are self-healing from the PTSD that has plagued generations due to colonialism. If we raise our girls and boys to respect women, and, as women, if we can build on our own self-esteem within our communities, we can begin the healing process and help stop this vicious cycle.

What’s next for you?
This fall, I’m shooting a feature film in South Africa called The Empty Man [a supernatural thriller]. I also recently finished producing my first short film about a troubled couple, called Sleepwalk. Above all, I really want to be a positive figure for my generation and generations to come: someone who’s an example of the fact that First Nations people are modern but still very much rooted in our traditions.

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