A teenage girl with glasses and long, flowing black hair hunches against the armrest of the only seat in the basement of the Yellowknife Inn, clutching a folded-up registration form.
“Even if you meet DiCaprio, that’s enough for me,” her mom quips, seated. She winks at a friend who’s just rushed past, looking for someone to ask if her own daughter can audition another day. “She’s in the bush right now,” the woman explains, a little short of breath.
Poker-faced, the teenage girl’s eyes turn to the queue of other hopefuls.
There’s a casting crew in town this weekend, and they’re looking for an aboriginal woman with long, dark hair for a role in The Revenant, a western thriller from the same director as Babel and 21 Grams—and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Meyha Oake’s not aboriginal, and she’s got short, spiked hair, but she still took time off work to audition. “It’s a huge step for Yellowknife,” she says, silver hoop earrings dangling. Oake went to Vancouver Film School but now works the box office at the local theatre. Her agent’s in Toronto, which means she usually has to do her auditions via Skype. It’s very rare that a casting crew comes this far north.
The role everyone’s competing for is Powaqa, a Plains Indian warrior who gets to interact with a lot of the main characters. She comes from present-day North and South Dakota, worlds away from Yellowknife and the Dene homeland.
“There’s an overwhelming number of people,” says a nervous volunteer, handing Oake a registration form. Behind her, a few candidates are sitting at desks, filling out their own forms. Beside that room is a long corridor; at the end of it, the actual audition room. Nobody’s been inside yet.
The lobby’s filling up. “You should come!” Titter teenagers on cellphones. “We’re all here!” Everyone finds a spot to sit on the floor, and some cluster in groups, but still everybody whispers.
“Don’t curse it!” Shrieks a girl when I ask her name. In front of her, a few toddlers in tutus play tag while their mothers wait their turn to go into the room. It’ll be a few years yet before the little ones start to worry about their looks.
Then two blonde-coiffed women, all in black, emerge from the corridor. They call out three names in vaguely British accents. The candidates follow. Nobody else is allowed in. The door closes behind them. The tension grows.
One girl here knows she doesn’t fit the bill. Tanya Roach came late, after her work shift, just out of curiosity. Her hair’s cut short, and besides, she says, she’s Inuk. “I googled the movie, and it’s for the role of an Arikara woman,” she says. “Is this [Northern actress] going to stay true to that sort of person?”
Roach was right. “They told me, ‘You have a beautiful face,’” she recalls later. “I said, ‘OK.’ They said, ‘Too bad you have short hair.’ I said, ‘Too bad for the movie.’” For the rest of the girls, the audition was bewilderingly short. A couple questions about the girls’ heritage, how they are on horseback, and it was over.
Roach says the casting call brought out Yellowknife talent. “I felt a bit intimidated, in awe of all these beautiful aboriginal women with long hair,” she reflects. At the same time, “I’d be really interested to know how [the Arikara] feel. If an Asian chick filled the role of an Inuit woman [in a movie], I’d be irritated.” [When this article was written in the fall of 2014, we'd contacted the Arikara tribal office in North Dakota to ask them how they felt. They were irritated. But in a recent EdgeYK interview, Melaw Nakehk'o, the Dene woman from Yellowknife who eventually got the part, said those who portrayed Arikara in the film have been invited to the Arikara Nation this summer to meet.]
In the end, the role went to a Dene woman from Yellowknife (her identity’s being kept quiet, for now). She’ll have to learn to look and act Arikara—their culture is rooted in agriculture, not hunting—and learn some Arikara dialogue for a movie about a white man seeking vengeance in the Wild West.
But for most of the women waiting their turns in the basement lobby, there’s no call-back at 6 p.m., no flying to Edmonton for the shoot, no DiCaprio. They’ll convince themselves they didn’t want it anyway.