Interview with Jani Lauzon, ACTRA Toronto’s 2021 Award of Excellence Winner

The ACTRA Toronto 2021 Awards will be presented this year via YouTube broadcast on February 21. Among the categories for awards and accolades is the Award of Excellence. ACTRA Toronto has announced powerhouse Métis actress and multidisciplinary artist Jani Lauzon is this year’s recipient of this prestigious award.

Jani’s incredible career spans over three decades. She is an award-winning screen actress, a multi-award-winning stage actress, a Juno-nominated singer-songwriter (blues, jazz and traditional Indigenous Music), a Gemini Award-winning puppeteer, a director and filmmaker. Her current work in theatre landed her on Now Magazine’s list of ‘Top 10 Theatre Artists’ for 2019. Her accolades, and there are many, continue to expand including recognition for her ongoing championing of diversity in the entertainment industry.

Jani Lauzon
Jani Lauzon

We had the opportunity to check in with Jani ahead of this year’s ACTRA award ceremony…

Congratulations on being named ACTRA Toronto’s 2021 Award of Excellence Recipient!

JL: Thanks you. I am humbled by this. It’s an award I have often helped to create the short list and help make the choices so this is a unique reversal of the role.

Your work in the arts is multifaceted but we can’t help but wonder if they are intertwined somehow? 

JL: When I was younger I was often encouraged to focus on just one thing. I tried, I really did, but the other facets of my artistic expression kept tapping me on the shoulder. Opportunities would come up I couldn’t turn down. Then threads began to appear. My acting improved because I looked at the musicality of the language, my singing improved because I was telling stories through song, my directing blossomed because I have the understanding of looking at a story from many perspectives. I am a tree, my artistic expression is the seed of that tree, the many facets of it’s expression are the branches. All connected.

We’ve read that you have a passion for Shakespeare. So, what’s been your favourite and what was one of the most unforgettable roles for you on stage?

JL: Oh that is so hard! I just love Shakespeare. The text challenges me as an actor, I have to be on top of my game and work really hard to bring it to life, make it easy for the listening audience to understand. I absolutely loved playing Paulina/The Old Shepard with Shakespeare in the Rough during the summer of 2019. Checked that one off my bucket list. I  was very thankful to have the opportunity to play Lady Capulet in the Canadian Stage production of Romeo and Juliet directed by Vikki Anderson in 2010. Vikki let me explore Lady Capulet as I think Shakespeare intended, an ever changing persona who navigates the expectations of women inside the family structure of patriarchy. It was an exhilarating opportunity. But of course playing the Fool and Cordelia with the late great August Schellenberg was also a highlight…ahhhh, I can’t choose!

Your eyes have seen so much– as a woman as well as an Indigenous artist.  What has been some of the most challenging obstacles and what have been the most rewarding?

JL: Every single time I step on set I am aware of the privilege I have to be as storyteller. I love my work. I know that I am blessed. So I try to keep a good attitude when it comes to obstacles. But there are two I struggle with the most. I was on a panel years ago about the industry along with a prominent agent in Toronto and a young woman asked a question from the audience about navigating motherhood and career. He told her not to have children. That it was impossible. It took everything I had to remain calm. Now this was several years ago and we have made some small progress, but that moment is still so vivid in my memory. The look on that young artists face. I don’t remember what I said, but I hope I reversed the damage that had been done.

The other belief system that irks me is the “you weren’t there” syndrome. Canadian stories told from a purely white perspective that Indigenous people, people of colour weren’t part of those stories. We were there, have been there all along, in some cases very prominently placed in the history, but when it comes to making movies First Nations, Metis and Inuit participation in these stories have been erased. The most rewarding thing that is happening is that this is changing. The work around inclusivity that started a very long time ago is finally blooming. And the stories are richer as a result.

You are an inspiration with so many accomplishments in your career. Who inspires you?

JL: My mother was my inspiration. She worked very hard in her life. My father also, in his own way, over came some very traumatic experiences growing up though never gave up playing piano and creating art. After my mother it was my foster parents. I was surrounded by creative energy, love, and encouragement to be an artist from an early age. Not many kids get that kind of wave out the door.

There’s progress in the mainstream entertainment industry with more opportunities for Indigenous talent to be heard and seen, and you’ve been an advocate for the community — what would you wish for at this time?

JL: The great thing is that stories, from an Indigenous perspective, have been created by and for Indigenous people for many a century. In the last 100 years there have been countless films, music, Opera’s, jazz albums, theatre works along with visual arts and incredible craft. The Indigenous community was doing it with or without the mainstream industry. That’s the kind of resilience that has always been present, despite the horrendous and inconceivable things that have been experienced by Indigenous people. What is finally happening is that the “mainstream” industry is opening up and finally listening, interested, in come cases coerced (any way we can get there). This has already been transformative.

What I wish for at this time is that every, single, Indigenous youth, every single one, sees the value in being alive, thriving, and recognizes their worthiness through experiencing and seeing themselves represented on our screens. That’s not just for Indigenous youth. I would extend that to include Black, POC, physically and gender diverse. Let’s just open this all up shall we? Life is valuable. Stories help us see that.

Do you recall when your daughter decided to follow in your footsteps in acting? What advice and encouragement have you offered to her?

JL: My daughter struggled in school early on. I saw that she expressed herself much like I did growing up, but it wasn’t until she was in middle school when she came home one day and said to me, “I realize that I think like an artist so even if I wanted to be something else it would be hard because I would want to be looking at things from a different perspective. So I might as well just be an artist. I am in awe of my daughter. And my advise to her has always been the same, have fun. You still have to do the work, you still have to train, work at it, put in the effort, but reach for the joy of it.

Who are some up and coming bright stars that we should keep an eye on?

JL: I am in awe of the talented, creative and inspiring artists that are out there already doing some incredible things. Too many to mention!!!

What advice did someone give you that you will never forget?

JL: When I left my foster family home my foster father said to me, “No matter what you do, just do it creatively”. It took me years to figure out what he meant by that. And now that is my mantra. For those time when I am not on set, on stage, there is still a creative process as to how I approach whatever I am doing. That is the nature of being a human being. We were meant to be creative. Somewhere along the line we lost that fundamental right.

What’s next for you?

JL: Looking forward to more film work. I love film. I also have another short film I have written and would ike to make. Slated to direct a new devised work at the National Theatre School in September and somewhere on my bucket list is a jazz album with Wayne Kelso. Oh so many things to look forward to.

Thank you so much for taking the time!

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