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Photo by XYZ Films, courtesy of Devery Jacobs.

How ‘Reservation Dogs’ Star Devery Jacobs’ Indie Cheerleading Drama ‘Backspot’ Came Together

If you don’t know Devery Jacobs yet, you soon will. The star of Reservation Dogs, one of the hottest shows on TV, is part of a new wave of Indigenous actors making a mark, and changing the way we think about native characters.

Jacobs’ star may have just risen, but she’s been at it a long time and worked her tail off in plenty of lesser roles to get to this place. Now, she’s taking full advantage, not just in front of the camera, but behind it as well. Her new film, the excellent indie cheerleading drama Backspot, is a project she developed over the years alongside the film’s director, DW Waterson, and, eventually Elliot Page and his Pageboy production shingle.

It’s her first film as a producer, but far from her last. She spoke to us from Toronto.

How did you start acting?

I always wanted to act. I was a ham and would record myself on home videos. I was a part of the Turtle Island Theatre Company growing up, a summer program on my res. My mom had submitted me to an acting agency in Montreal, which borders my res when I was like 10. I got in, I had maybe a handful of roles, and so I tried to pursue something else.

I intended to go towards social work and worked at the native women’s shelter in Montreal until I auditioned and was cast in my first leading role, a feature film called Rhymes for Young Ghouls. It was directed by the late Jeff Barnaby, who was definitely on the same scene as Sterlin Harjo, Taika Waititi and Sydney Freeland, all of these Indigenous creatives who are finally getting their due and can do the work. It was that film that changed everything for me. 

And then you hit it with big with Reservation Dogs.

For sure. I mean, I’ve been working for like 17 years now, but it was really in the past three years that things have taken off on a global scale with Res Dogs, yeah.

Let’s talk about Backspot. Were you able to do all those handsprings and flips beforehand?

(Laughs) I used to be a competitive gymnast. I was a former provincial champion. A lot of people don’t know that about me. 

Riley is very complex. Throw in the physical side and it’s a pretty unique character.

I don’t think I ever would have been cast in a role like Riley had I not created it for myself with the director and my partner DW Waterson. We have been working on this film for six and a half years now as producers, trying to make it happen, and my old-ass gymnast’s knees needed a lot of training leading up to it.

[I did] A lot of stretching. I did physiotherapy, I did personal training, open gymnastics, open cheer yoga and stretching every day. I was in the writer’s room for Res Dogs and everyone was joking because I was on the splits app to help me get my splits back. It was the most physically demanding role I’ve ever done. I performed all my stunts except one, which was the fall.

Devery Jacobs doing push ups and looking intense. Photo by XYZ Films, courtesy of Devery Jacobs.

After six and a half years, what was it that finally got you the green light?

I had a general meeting with Pageboy Productions, and I didn’t realize that Elliot Page would be on the call. I had even asked because I’m such a fan of his and have been so moved by his work that when he was on the call, I geeked out. I’m not somebody who usually gets starstruck, but there are specific people and he is one of them. 

That’s pretty special, to meet someone like that, and in a professional setting.

Yeah, I went numb, but I remembered something because I was able to talk about Backspot. At the time, we had been turned down for funding because this funding body had said, “Well, we don’t understand why this protagonist is Indigenous.”

It told me that there’s such a narrow view of who native people are and what stories we can be a part of. Riley’s Indigenous because I am Indigenous, because I am a producer who helped create and shape this character, so what is the issue here?

Getting Elliot involved, Pageboy read the script and loved it and gave notes to our incredible writer, Joanne Sarazen, and she was able to incorporate them seamlessly and strengthen the script. From there, Elliot got involved, and all of the doors opened for us. 

I apologize if I’m clumsy about how I ask this, but is part of the mission of this film and you as a filmmaker to introduce to people that Indigenous characters can be mainstream? 

I don’t know if that’s necessarily the mission. I think for me, it’s just telling stories that I’m interested in. As an actor, I am more than willing to tell stories from outside of my own experience, people who grew up in different parts of the world or from different class backgrounds and help the director and filmmakers realize their vision for those projects.

As a filmmaker, I am interested in hearing and telling stories from my communities. I’m both queer and Mohawk, so I would love to create stories that touch on either of those identities. Stories that resonate with me as an artist that I want to be able to see in the world that I haven’t so far, whether that be a native story or, in this case, with DW, what is first and foremost a queer film.

Yes, with our production company, I think we’re looking to tell stories from marginalized communities, ones we haven’t heard before, but first and foremost, stories that are interesting to us.

And in the process, take more control of your career.

Absolutely. I started writing out of necessity back in 2015 when I wasn’t being cast in anything. There were stereotypical native roles out there and not much else for Indigenous actors, and it occurred to me, why am I waiting for somebody to tell stories from my communities when I have a perfectly capable voice of my own?

I think I just get antsy if I’m on one side of the camera for too long. If I’m in front of the camera, I start to have a pull to have that creative control and to be able to tell stories, and then when I’m behind the camera, it’ll reach a certain point where I’m like, Okay, I need to go and be free and play around as an actor for a little while. (Laughs)

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