North of 60 Interview: Tina Keeper

She's the native daughter who went away to become a cop and returned home to enforce the
law among her family and friends. Michelle Kenidi is tough on the outside, vulnerable on the
inside, and has to deal with numerous personal and professional challenges over the course
of the show.

I interviewed Tina Keeper in October, 2000, on the set of the Nof60 movie "Dream Storm."
In a few places, Nof60 publicist Fran Humphreys also joined in the conversation. (Please note
that the interview includes minor spoilers for the series finale, "Borrowed Time;" information
about the ending of the first movie, "In the Blue Ground;" and a discussion of the fourth-season
story arc about Michelle's trip to Calgary to look for Hannah.)

Michelle Kenidi

PW: Michelle is sort of the linchpin of "North of 60"--although it's such a strong ensemble show that it doesn't focus entirely on any one person. You were away once for something like three episodes, and yet...

TK: The show goes on.

(Click on photo for larger image.)

PW: The show goes on great. The show is still wonderful. I think that's a credit to the producers, the writers, and the cast, all of whom have built up these strong characters.

TK: Even I want to know what happens to Gerry now that he's inherited millions of dollars! [laughing] And remember the potential romance between him and Rosie? It's so funny, there's all these little dangling threads.

FH: Well, when they went into the movie format, they had to really decide what the heart of "North of 60" was. And at its heart, it's a cop show.

TK: Right. It is.

FH: That means that, although the characters are still there, the throughline in the movies has to be very tight. [A "tight throughline" means that the movies have one very focused storyline with little time left over for side stories about other characters.]

TK: Right, you couldn't continue with the episodic throughlines. With every film, it could be the end of "North of 60," and they sort of have to be able to stand alone. It's all very funny, because for how many years have we thought "This is it"? [laughing] We go year after year thinking okay, this is the end. Then we got sick of saying goodbye to each other and it was like, "Ah, forget it. See you, guys." [laughing] "We'll see you around somewhere, even if we don't come back." It's been a very funny experience from season five. Season five, we thought for sure, this is it. We all said our big goodbyes at the party, and Wayne [Grigsby] and Barbara [Samuels] were there, and we gave gifts, and it was all very tearful. And then it was like, "Oh, we're getting a season six--and we're going right away." Oookay...[laughing] And now this is our third movie.

PW: Do you have any thoughts on how Michelle Kenidi has changed over the years?

TK: Probably the most significant thing that's changed about Michelle is that she's loosened up, some. I think in the beginning she was very uptight, she was very rigid. She had to try to control everything--all the events of the town, her family. She was really afraid to let go of anything. She was afraid that if she didn't control everything, that everything would fall apart, and she would fall apart.

PW: Do you think that was an outgrowth of her trying to overcome her alcoholism?

TK: Oh definitely. Between the producers and myself, we created a very strong back story for her which was very chaotic. What I knew about her in the very beginning was that she had had a very chaotic teen life, and had gone into an in-depth alcoholism, and that her need to maintain control came out of that extreme. Then we found out that she had gone to residential school, which had been a very negative experience. And that fit really well with the lead-in to the self-destructive pattern of her life.

PW: Did anyone ever come up with a back story about how she decided to go into the RCMP?

TK: No, never. But I felt personally that once she had sobered up and was looking for a of the things I've always felt about Michelle is that she's not an intellectual. She's somebody who wants something good and wanted a better future for her child. I think that's what really drove her.

PW: A real gut reaction.

TK: Yeah, it was "I want a better life for my child." And further to that was "This is my home community. I'm going to make this a better place to live, for my child and my grandchildren to grow up in." So I think that being a cop was just one of the most sensible ways of doing that. And I think that all the order and discipline of being a cop attracted her.

PW: A way of being in control.

TK: Yeah, being very in control and very definitely having an impact on your community.

PW: Do you think she was out to control other people, too?

TK: Oh yeah, for sure! Absolutely. Her relationship with her ex-husband probably fell apart because...I think the back story was that it had more to do with the alcoholism, but I think that definitely...he came to town, and she slept with him again, but I think there was never any chance of reconciling because of how rigid she had become. She had a certain amount of contempt for the non-Native cops that would come here, because this was her town and she was going to control it. And I think her sense was that with her brother Peter, they could do that. I think in her mind, Peter was her right hand.

PW: She as the Mountie and he as the band chief.

TK: I don't think she ever saw herself as subservient to him. [laughing] I think in her mind, she could control him, too. She could challenge him and attempt to manipulate him. And of course she couldn't. Same thing with her daughter. And then, of course, Albert. Again, a relationship in which they could never reconcile. But I think she and Peter did.

PW: You mentioned that she loosened up as the series went on. How much of that, do you think, came when the character of Andrew One Sky was introduced?

TK: I think for her the catalyst was really Hannah's death. It was like she was broken by it. She was so in need of something--or somebody--and Andrew was there for her. And even there, she didn't trust him, and she tried to push him away, but he hung in. I think Andrew was there at a time when he needed him most, or needed somebody, and she was just so torn that she had to accept that help.

PW: But he was a good guy. It's not like she just fell for the first person she met.

TK: Oh gosh, no. And she wouldn't have. I think that Andrew was probably a big part of her healing. If Andrew hadn't been there, she probably couldn't have really come out of it. Peter was there, and Sarah, and Betty, but she really needed somebody to hang onto and be a life raft in a way that only a partner can, I think.

PW: It seems to me that Andrew being such a laid-back character also helped her loosen up.

TK: Oh yeah, for sure. Definitely. We've never really delved into that story too much, that relationship, but I've always felt that he really was a good balance for her. He could make her laugh. He could make her stop and see things. See the beauty of the world, see hope, and laughter, and all of those things.

PW: Is that character in this movie?

TK: Yeah, Michael [Horse] is actually going to be here in a couple of days. He's so sweet! He's such a dream to work with. He's really like that. He is really laid back. He's really creative. He actually made our wedding rings, our set wedding rings. He's an extraordinary artist.

Michelle in Calgary

PW: You mentioned that you think one of the turning points in Michelle's tight grip on the world was when Hannah died. You won a Gemini for one of the episodes in that three-part story arc. How were you able to do some of the scenes in that storyline? For example, the one where Michelle is sitting on a park bench by the river in Calgary and thinks she sees Hannah.

TK: I think there's many components that help you do that kind of work. One is the extraordinary writing. Everybody that was here was part of that...I think Barbara and Wayne were in Toronto, but they were still part of it. And Peter Lauterman was here at the time, and he wrote one of the scripts in that trilogy. Everybody was really committed and really devoted to that sequence of episodes and very excited about it.

(c) 2000 Fran Humphreys
(Click on photo for larger image.)

That was in the fourth season, and by the time you get to that number of episodes, when you get a trilogy like that everybody's so excited, and you're so excited and you really work and you just study it so closely. Everybody was studying those episodes. "Is every beat there?" "Does every beat makes sense?" I think it was an opportunity for all of us, from the creative end, to just dive into this piece of work.

We had terrific directors for those episodes as well. It was T.W. [Peacock] and then Stacey [Stewart Curtis] and then Alan [Simmonds}. I remember there was a point in the second episode where I was like, "I cannot do this any more!" I remember literally crawling on my hands and knees out of the shot, because I thought, "I can't do this any more. I can't take this any more. I can't think about this any more." And I said, "Please, just let me wing the scene." You know cheat, like actors cheat? [I.e., she wanted to do the scene without getting caught up in the deep emotions she would encounter if she gave it her all again.] And Stacey said, "Tina, please, please, please, just one more. Just try it one more time." And I said, "Okay." So I resumed the scene. I was doing a scene with John Snow, who was playing an elder, and he said, "Let's go for a walk." And I said, "Okay." And we just talked. We just had this really nice father/daughter sort of chat, and then he said, "Let's go do the scene."

So one of the things that helped me was just working with people that I really trusted. Trusting them, trusting the writers. And as an actor, just taking the opportunity to be really excited about a piece of work. That's what I love about acting: fleshing it out and making it all full and real. And there are times, especially on episodic, where you get really tired and you don't want to have to think that much, and you do kind of cheat. But when you have an opportunity like that, with that three-parter, we just went whole hog. And I just wanted to make sure that it was all full, and all real, and all logical, and all clear for myself. And I had great fun doing it. It kinda drove me a bit crazy. I remember that Byron Chief Moon, who plays Hannah's dad, was saying, "Oh god, this is such a nightmare thinking about this stuff and doing it day in and day out!" And I said, "I know! But on the other hand, it's really exciting."

PW: And very meaty as an actress.

TK: Yeah, and everybody was on board. The producers were so excited about that three-parter, and the writers were so excited, and the directors were so excited, and Toronto [Alliance and CBC] was excited. So everybody was just on this boat and everybody was so excited to be there. So it was really memorable.

PW: I remember that one scene where Michelle is being led off to the cab to fly home to Lynx River. A lot of times in films you see people who have had someone close to them die, and they're going hysterical. But with Michelle, it was like shell shock. And I thought, that seems more realistic to me. That's what people do a lot. They don't get hysterical; they're just glazed over.

TK: Right. The point where I thought I would get hysterical is where they bring her up in the body bag. And in fact, our on-set photographer was a former cop. And I asked him, "How do parents react when this happens?" And he told me that it's everything from they go completely into shock and they try to open the bag because they're sure their child is still alive, to they just lose it and they are hysterical. So he said it runs the gamut, and you can never tell how somebody's going to react.

I remember that part going to the cab. It's one of those things you can't even imagine, but I just remember thinking that it had broken her, just broken her. And then in the next episode there was the funeral scene, and in the stage directions it said, "Michelle stands at the gravesite with lifeless eyes." And I thought, "Yay, I don't have to cry, I don't have to do anything." And then I got there, and just the thought of somebody burying their child--and they had the hand drum, the Dene drummer, and that in itself is just such a powerful sound--and I just stood there, and tears started running down my eyes. And of course they couldn't shoot it, because I was supposed to have lifeless eyes! [laughing] But you just think, it's just too harrowing.

PW: So they actually didn't want you to cry at that point?

TK: No. But it was just so sad to think of burying a child. I remember that by the time we got out of the third episode, it was like, "Whew!" We were done, and I was glad it was over. It was terrific, but you're glad it's over and you're ready to move on.

PW: Do you know why they wrote Hannah's character out of the show?

TK: I think it was a dramatic choice. I think again, it's like, "Okay, it's season four. What are we gonna do?" You need something really powerful to kind of get everything going again. They'd written so many shows. They'd just kind of gotten to a point where something major had to happen.

PW: But Hannah was an interesting character, and certainly there was a lot they could have explored as she went through her teenage years. But, as you say, I guess sometimes they just need something big to happen.

TK: I know for sure that that's what that was. They just needed some drama in the fourth season.

PW: Well, it worked.

TK: Yeah, I remember after it aired, oh my god, the reaction of people. People would literally come up to me and tell me personal stories of tragedy, with nieces or their own children. It was so sad.

Native humor

PW: That particular sequence of episodes was especially dramatic, but I've seen you comment before on the fact that there's not a lot of humor on the show. Would you like to see more?

TK: For "North of 60," one of the things I understood by about the end of the first season was that it was a dramatic choice. It was a choice on the part of the filmmakers, and that's just the style of this show. But I think it was really startling for most aboriginal people--probably not for a non-Native audience, but for a Native audience especially, because we laugh so much. Humor is such a huge component of our culture. And it's just so not in this show. So when you watch Indians, and they're not even funny and they're not even yukking it up, it's like, hmmm...[laughing] It's a very strange thing to see.

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PW: Not realistic in that sense.

TK: Yeah, it's not realistic. It's not a realistic presentation of the culture. But then you realize, okay, this is a television show, and it's got a particular style. But because it was the first time that contemporary aboriginal people had been shown on television consistently, I think it was kind of a hard thing for them to accept. Here was a presentation of them without this critical component.

I remember one time in the first season where we were shooting a scene in the courthouse, in the band hall, where Rosie had attacked Leon because he had been drinking. And he says, "She hit me with the cat." And it was a cat cookie jar. Leon was so funny in that episode, so when we were rehearsing, and he was doing the lines and they were going through this prosecutor and defendant scene, we were all laughing and laughing. But then when we went to shoot, it was the first time I realized that this [show] was going to be excluding this part of who we are. Because if it was really going to be representing Native people, they would have allowed us to laugh in that scene.

There'd be a lot of times when we'd be laughing at each other, teasing each other, and all of that. In fact, it got to the point where they wouldn't allow me, Willene [Tootoosis], Tina [Louise Bomberry], and Renae [Morriseau) in a scene together, because we'd laugh so much. We'd have so much fun and we'd be teasing so much. Of course, once they said "Roll them," we'd be fine. But there was one time when we couldn't stop laughing. I think we were playing Scrabble, and we were laughing and laughing so much that they never put the four of us in a scene together again. [laughing] Never! They were so upset. It was like the bad girls in school or something.

But we've all come to accept that the filmmakers have choices, and it's their design. And I think the Native community, too, has come to accept that this is just a TV show. But eight years ago, it wasn't just a TV show. When it first started, it was the first of its kind. There was no "The Rez," no APTN.

Brian, Betty, and Rico

PW: The storyline between Michelle and Fletcher, his self-destruction, was so good. It was great to see it come back in the first movie.

TK: It was fantastic. And Robert Bockstael is an extraordinary actor. What a joy to work with. It was just so much fun working with him. And to have him come back, that was great.

PW: Fletcher's disintegration after the incident with could just see him, episode by episode, falling into this pit.

TK: Uh-huh. He is a great actor. And I remember when I shot him...We had to blow up the plane, which we could only blow up once, because there was only one prop plane. So it was just that kind of day where there was a lot of tension on the set. Not personal tension, but just tension because there was so much going on. There were guns on set, and that big explosion. I remember when I shot him, his eyes were open and I had to shut his eyes. In rehearsal the director said, "That is so good," and I said, "It's what Michelle would do, because she just shot him!" [laughing] We know these characters like the back of our hands. We know what they would do at certain times.

FH: That was an extraordinary scene that day, because they blew up the plane and you had to dive.

TK: Yeah, remember how I was smiling in one of the dives? I had to dive onto this mattress, and I kept diving, and then my legs would pop up into the shot! And they would go, "Make sure your legs don't pop up on the day! Because when we shoot it, we can only go the one time." And I remember flying through the air and smiling.

PW: But not during the actual take.

TK: It was during the actual take. But I guess it happened so fast...but one photographer caught the moment and I'm like this...[makes goofy frozen smile]

PW: I was glad to see that they brought Robert Bockstael back and wrapped up that mystery. He did an excellent job, especially in that scene with Peter Kelly Gaudreault in the jail when he looked like a madman.

TK: Yeah, wasn't that great! Ah! And wasn't Peter great in that, too? [Robert] just let himself go into that looked like he was smashing his head against the bars. Oh my god.

PW: There are so many memorable scenes throughout the show. I could keep you here all night asking, "What about the time...?"

TK: I gotta tell you one scene I remember, with Tantoo [Cardinal]. We were shooting it on the porch of Michelle's house. Betty Moses is telling Michelle about when she'd gotten married one time in a drunk, and we're shooting the scene, and she pulls out this picture of the guy she had married, and you know whose picture it was? [laughing] Andy, our first assistant director. And he's looking all goofy.

PW: This was during rehearsal?

TK [laughing]: No, we actually used it in the shot! It was so funny.

PW: Didn't you crack up when she did that?

TK: Yeah, I did crack up!

PW: And they were filming? So didn't you have to redo it?

TK: No, no, I actually crack up in the scene, because she married this goofy guy on a drunk! It was so funny. I loved working with her.

PW: In addition to the regular cast, they've certainly brought in some excellent guest actors.

TK: Um-hmm. No kidding, eh? I remember the first season when Graham [Greene] was on as Rico Nez.

PW: That must have been a kick.

TK: Well, my god, I was totally green. And I wasn't part of the sort of Native actors' world. I had my own little theater thing in Winnipeg, and that was my home. And all of a sudden to be working with Graham Greene, it was like, "Oh my god, oh my god." We were shooting this scene in the coffee shop, it was the first time I had done a scene with him, and I remember just thinking, "That's Graham Greene!" And then just sort of, "Shut up. Just work. Get to work. Just do your job." [laughing] I knew Michelle fell madly in love with Rico Nez.

PW: It must have been very fun having him back for the last movie.

TK: Yeah. I mean he's very good, eh?

Other projects

PW: I wanted to ask you about APTN. I've heard there's a show on there that you host called "Sharing Circle"?

TK: It's actually a show that's been running for a number of years. The producer, Lisa Meeches, is a friend of mine. So I ended up working with her last year on the show. I had some produced some segments for her the year before, and then co-hosted with her last year. But I'm not doing it this year.

PW: What else are you up to?

TK: [laughing] What am I up to? Well, I'm at the very beginning stages of development on a number of projects. One of them is a documentary--which I've been doing the research on for about six months--for the National Film Board of Canada. I had never really planned on being an actor as a career. "North of 60" was a great gig, and was very intensive for a long time. But now I've been producing a lot of theater. I work with a Native theater group back home...

(c) 2000 Fran Humphreys
(Click on photo for larger image.)

PW: Back home is...?

TK: Winnipeg. We have a really large Native community in Winnipeg, and we have a large Native arts community. So I keep busy. I'm sort of taking baby steps in terms of trying to cross over to more writing and directing. I'd really like to move into documentaries.

PW: What's the documentary about that you're working on now?

TK: It's on aboriginal people with disabilities. I'll be following three people and exploring the issue through their stories. I don't know what it's like in the States, but here in Canada, treaty Indians fall under the Indian Act and are a federal responsibility. It gets really complex, so aboriginal people with disabilities really stuck between aboriginal organizations or advocacy groups and disabled advocacy groups, and they really have a difficult time.

I had directed a play for a group of aboriginal people with disabilities several years ago. The director who wrote and produced it, and all the cast members were disabled. So that kind of got me involved in the community that way, I guess. So I'm doing their stories in a documentary for the National Film Board. If it ever gets done, it would hopefully go down to a film festival in the States.

So I'm doing that, and I'm working on another documentary series that's a retrospective on Indian organizations in Canada for APTN. My degree is also in history. I did a double major in school [along with theater] and studied Canadian Indian history, which is another passion of mine. I've been raised with this kind of consciousness. You know, our culture is changing so quickly, and there's so many old people out there, that when you document them, I think it's invaluable.

Michelle's future

PW: One final question: What direction would you like to see Michelle Kenidi go in?

TK [laughing]: Do you really want to hear this? Should I? I don't think they'll ever let me do it!

PW: Okay, now you've got me intrigued!

TK [laughing]: If she died in Peter's arms, in her brother's arms, wouldn't that just be heartwrenching?

PW [laughing]: Are you looking for an excuse to get out of the show?

TK [laughing]: No, I'm not, I'm not! I just think...I guess it's because this is the beginning of our ninth year together, and it kind of seems, well okay, how much do we do with this? We're not doing it as a series any more, so I find that it's kind of a weird situation to be in as a group. It's like, okay, we keep coming together once a year, and it's like, "Is it going to last?" Why don't we end it? Why don't we find a way to end it?

I think it's different when you're doing a series. You're doing really good, the numbers are really high. When we left after our sixth season, the numbers were still really high. It was all this sort of political funding stuff that ended the show. It wasn't because the audience wasn't there. Now it's kind of like...well, I know because of the reruns we still have a strong following, but it's gotta end sooner or later. And if we're going to end it, why not end it really dramatically? And besides, Michelle doesn't have a nemesis any more. It's like, "Okay, I'm the good guy, but where's the bad guy?" [laughing] It's like Batman without the Penguin. It's kind of bizarre. So I think we should do a two-part miniseries and wrap everything up and kill off somebody significant.

PW: But we should reassure the fans that there are no imminent plans to do this!

TK [laughing]: No, there are no plans. This is just Tina's idea!

PW: Assuming that there are more TV movies, within the bounds of what's actually likely, what do you see happening with Michelle?

TK: Within the bounds of what's likely to happen, I have no idea. Absolutely none.

PW: You just take it as it comes?

TK: I do. It's a very strange thing. Because it's such a small part of my life now, and I don't produce the show, I'm not that hands-on in terms of the show, it's like summer camp. You come back, and there's no anxiety. It's just a terrific group of people from production to writers and everybody. So it's a real joy to come back. But I just think...I have this weird thing. I wanted to be killed off in the fourth season. There's just this thing that I've had from day one that it's gotta end sometime, so let's go out before it gets too old and Michelle's on her walker going through the bush. [laughing] I remember in the fourth season it was like, "Kill me off!" I told them, "I've made up my mind. I'm not coming back if we get a fifth season."

PW: Did you really?

TK: Yeah, I was really exhausted. Because up until the sixth season, I worked every episode. So by the fourth season, I was like, "Okay, I'm ready to leave. Can you blow me up or something at the end of this year?" [laughing] And they said, "Well, nooo. Why don't we just leave it open and you can think about it? It's kind of like, you know, having a baby. Sometimes it takes a bit of time before you want another one." Now I don't feel like I don't want to come back. I don't feel I'm tired of the show. But I just feel there should be an exciting way to end it.

FH: I remember meeting you in season five, my first year the publicist on the show, and you were just so tired. You were like, "Could somebody else carry it for a while?"

TK: I've always said that. It's so funny, I've always said to them, "We have such a great pile of actors here." I know that essentially, though, it's an RCMP story set in a Native town, and Michelle was the pivotal character.

PW: That would be a real tearjerker if Michelle died in Peter's arms.

TK: Wouldn't that be something?

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Text and photos (c) 2000 Patricia F. Winter, except as noted.

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