Rainbow Dickerson is a Thai and Rappahannock actor known for her work on screen in the TV series “Banshee,” “Chicago Fire” and “Gone,” Michael R. Steinbeck’s TV movie “The Patron,” and the short films “Horizon” and “The World at Night” by Lee Feller and Yasmina Cadiz respectively as well as in American theaters across the country. After discovering acting in high school, she swiftly realized storytelling was in her DNA. She trained in London and New York City before beginning her professional acting career.
Tara Karajica talks to Rainbow Dickerson about playing Lily in her first feature film, “Beans,” directed by Tracey Deer, that premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, being one of this year’s TIFF Rising Stars, Indigenous filmmaking today, what her dream role would be, who she would love to work with, women in film and what she is up to next.
What made you want to become an actress?
Rainbow Dickerson: I didn’t start out wanting to be an actor. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a racehorse jockey because I used to ride horses. I knew nothing about the racing industry, but I rode horses, I loved horses, and I just wanted to go fast, so I thought: “I’ll be a jockey!” But then, I became thirteen and I was way too tall and too big and so, I was like: “Oh well, there goes that.” And, I found theater when I started High School. We moved around a lot for various reasons, so I was always in a different school. So, when I reached High School and I found theater, it felt like home. I just remember walking into the High School auditorium and walking through the seats and then walking up onto the stage and meeting the drama teacher and it just felt like I came home. I can’t describe it any better than that. And so, I fell in love and I ended up wanting to stay at that High School. Once I found that, I immersed myself in all the Community Theater projects. I just dug deep. And then, it was time to move again and my parents ended up moving and I wanted to stay, so my High School Theater teacher and his wife became my legal guardians for the last year of high school. That was the beginning and I really attribute my Drama teacher in High School and his wife for sparking that love in me.
I love Beans! It’s such a wonderful film! And, it’s also your first feature as an actress. How did you get on board Beans?
R.D.: Yes, it’s my first feature. Beans came into my world sort of the same way that all the other projects do. There was a casting. It came through the desk of my managers and Rene Haynes was casting. I’d read for her for various television shows and had worked with her before. I always like to ask for full scripts, regardless of what the project is. And so, I got a chance to read the full script before I read the scenes and fell in love with the script, fell in love with the fact that we see the story through a child’s eyes, through a young person’s eyes. That was one of the things that sold me along with Tracy’s passion. We never met face to face because I’m here in the United States, in Los Angeles, and Tracy and the rest of the team were all in Canada. So, we never met face to face until the shoot. We just talked over the phone. But it was the same process as everything else. I just remember something about the story speaking to me and just feeling like I knew that this was going to be important. And, not just because of a very personal story for Tracy, but it just felt like one of those projects where you just know it’s going to mean something to the community and it’s going to be timely. And then, of course, fast forward a year later and it’s even more timely globally and definitely here in the United States with all the different movements that are happening that I wouldn’t have even thought it would be.
I also love Lily as a character. She’s such a force of nature and a strong woman. She allows herself to think big for Beans, to think outside the box and outside their world. Can you talk about her and how you see her?
R.D.: I really like Lily as well. And, I tried to bring as much roundness to her and a lot of the other characters were there to support Beans’ journey and her story. But I liked Lily because we got a chance to see at least a little bit more of the different aspects of her. So, when I was thinking about her while I was working on her, I realized I really identified with Lily in terms of that vision that she has. I think, for her, the idea of community, of preserving culture, preserving identity is not just about maintaining, but it’s also about expanding. And, I think she’s not afraid of the idea of expanding beyond tradition, beyond the norm, beyond the community. I think she very much had an understanding of: “If you have a solid foundation and knowledge of who you are, you should then take that out into the world, share that with the world and see what else you can learn and bring back.” It’s not so much: “Just stay protected, stay safe, know who you are and keep it to yourself.” It’s: “Go out into the world, learn and grow and get bigger and bring that home.”
Yes, she’s a modern woman with broad horizons. That’s how see her. But there’s also the fact that the Mohawks are matriarchal. Can you elaborate on that?
R.D.: I can’t speak for all for all Nations, but I will say, just in general, different cultures have very different relationships to masculine and feminine and understanding of masculine and feminine and what that means. And, the balance between the two, especially different ideas, values and systems and what I see in the West in the United States. So, other cultures, not just Indigenous cultures, have a different relationship towards masculine and feminine and towards women. Historically speaking, for the Mohawk, there’s a council, there are Clan Mothers who are decision-makers and the ones that set forth the path. And then, everyone else supports that path and helps get that done and bring that to fruition. When I talked about the film and when I talked to people about being a woman in the film industry, it’s fascinating to me because I don’t have the same perspective of being marginalized as a woman – knock on wood. I feel very blessed to say it, but I haven’t identified that way. I haven’t felt that way very often and I wonder if that’s because of cultural differences. I wonder if that’s because of how I was raised and how I was brought up. So, portraying a woman like that was a blessing. And, it obviously felt normal as did working with a female director. I think it was really cool to watch Tracy navigate that world that I think is very challenging for strong women to navigate, especially in the director field. It is traditionally a male job. And, I think she brings to it a rounder perspective. I think feminine energy tends to do that. We’re great multitaskers, so she was able to really hold all the technical values and aspects of the film and talk about everything that had to be done logistically and technically and what her vision was. She could also just change hats a second later and talk to her actors and the creatives about how things should feel in the emotional place of everybody. She could just hold the whole picture and I think women are great at that. We can hold more than one picture and idea at a time.
How did you prepare for that role? What was the process like?
R.D.: It was pretty insulated actually. It was about a month and maybe a month and change from submitting tapes for the project to actually getting booked on the project with a couple of phone calls in-between. So, by the time I actually knew I was booked on it, I feel like I had about a month, maybe six weeks, before I had to leave to go do it. So, I felt like my biggest fear in taking on the job was that that’s not my Nation. I had to ask Tracy that to make sure that it was okay. I said: “I feel like I need to ask for permission to do this.” And so, we talked about that. What I wanted to do and needed to do was dig into the research of that culture and I also just needed to dig into the research of what is now known as the Oka Crisis because I will say, I did not know about it. I didn’t actually know anything about it, growing up in the United States. So, I dug into that historical research and that was my primary focus. Then, I built Lily simultaneously from that. We didn’t really have a lot of conversations beforehand. It wasn’t until I got there that we could really talk much about anything, but I think it was very taxing on her to have so many kids, and rightfully so. She had to focus a lot of her time and energy on them and on helping them through the process of telling the story. So, the adults, we had the ability to just bring what we thought we wanted to bring and roll with that.
Can you talk about the Lily’s relationship with Beans from a mother’s point of view?
R.D.: I’m not a parent myself, but I have friends who are and I can see it’s very natural for parents to feel their child is special. And, they are, of course. Every child is! Every person is. But I do think Lily sees an aspect of herself in Beans. I think she can see the special fire, this tenacity in her daughter and she wants to cultivate that. Beans is very intelligent and she’s very self-aware and very observant. And, I think Lily knows all of that and she knows that she could really go far, that she has the ability to go well beyond what can be offered to her just in the community. So, I think she’s very proud of Beans. She’s also very protective, of course, especially when threatened, but I think she just wants so much for Beans.
Can you talk about Indigenous filmmaking today?
R.D.: I am part of a couple different groups, where we talk about this and there’s a wonderful group called Native Voices here in Los Angeles. We primarily focus on theater and that kind of storytelling, but one thing that I have learned just in the last year, getting to know people here in LA in the Indigenous community, is that I think our stories now can be a little bit broader than maybe what they needed to be when Indigenous stories first started coming out into the big wide world. I think we’re starting to see a shift now between sort of edgy storytelling and focusing on a lot of the trauma of the History. We’re going to start to see Indigenous storytelling not caring so much about making sure someone else understands who we are, about the culture and the past, but just showing who we are now. I think that’s a slight difference, but it’s a major shift in the outcome because now you’ve got people like me having this identity crisis because of the way they were brought up because of trauma in previous generations. And, the thing that thinking about and learning is maybe this voice that I have that I’m developing that doesn’t come steeped in tradition. It’s maybe part of the new story: “Oh look! You can have an Indigenous person who has red hair and freckles and is still very much a part of the community as this other person over here.” Or maybe this is who we are now. I think the focus on Indigenous storytelling is shifting. I think it’s becoming broader. I think people are going to get a chance to see just more of what a modern Indigenous life is. And, I think that’s going to cover the gamut. I think there’s going to be less education about the History and more about now and where we’re growing.
What is your favorite role you have played so far and what would be your dream role?
R.D.: Favorites from the past, I would say Beans. Lily and Beans will always hold a special place in my heart because this is my first feature and there was a lot of growth in this for me. If I think back to other things in the past, I do like historical things, which is funny. But one of my favorite roles to play was His Holiness the Dalai Lama and I did that for theatre pieces and that was magical to work on because we also had the support of the Tibetan community. I loved sinking into a person that I admired and that was still alive and there was plenty of material to look at. That was very transformative for me. I loved that. And, let’s see… Dream roles to do… I’m a big geeky nerd and I love adventure films, even action adventure, and period pieces. If I could do some kind of job where I got to ride a horse, swing a sword, wear a ball gown and then drive an Aston Martin DB4… It’s like if you could combine 007 with King Arthur. And then, also make it heartfelt and meaningful. I would love some amalgamation of some project that probably doesn’t exist because it’s too many different things.
Maybe somebody does it one day!
R.D.: Who knows!?
How much of you is there in a character you play? Do you manage to disassociate yourself from your persona in order to play someone else?
R.D.: For me – and every actor is different in their approach and their philosophy – but to an extent, whether I want it or not, there’s always going to be a part of me there. You take yourself wherever you go. You have no choice and it’s a good thing. And, what will make my version of this character be different from someone else’s is myself, so I don’t ever want to completely try and remove myself altogether. And, I’m always going to use my perspective as a launching pad. So, there’s always a bit of me in everything and I want to keep it that way. People want to hire actors who don’t try to tell their own story through their character in every project. They are really telling that character’s story, which requires some separation and requires that transformation and that’s what I love, that’s what I’m interested in and I want to learn more and dig more into that. I think actors are magical creatures because some are different, but – again, this is my opinion – I think when you’re performing, when you’re doing a job, when you’re in that role, when you’re in the character, there’s always some awareness, whether it’s really distant, whether it’s the eagle view from up above, or just this little knowingness inside, there’s always the you that is sort of watching it and, at the same time, you are very much 100% in the other person’s shoes. And, at the same time, you have this amazing peripheral awareness of what’s going on around you, whether it’s the other actors in the scene, whether it’s your director, whether it’s the D.o.P., whether it’s the audience… Actors have this ability to hold multiple dimensions of time and space at the same time, to hold multiple levels of awareness at the same time and I think that’s fascinating. I think that’s what makes the craft a craft.
You’ve been in theater, in films, in series… Do you have any preference for any of the medium?
R.D.: I think, right now, I’m really enjoying the feature-length film. It’s probably because theater is my first love. I love following the arc of a character and having a nice big, big long arc of a character and I love honing in on something for extended periods of time. Both theater and feature film do that. You hone in for a long amount of time. That being said, probably my preference for feature right now is because I haven’t had a role yet, let’s say on an episodic, where I’m a series regular and I’m playing a character for a couple of years. That sounds interesting to me too, having a character on the show that just continues season after season. So, my favorite is any medium where I can sink in for an extended amount of time. I like that because I like discovering new things within the world. But I really enjoyed the process of making this feature.
You’re one of this year’s TIFF Rising Stars. How do you feel about that and how do you think it will impact your career?
R.D.: I think it might and I hope it does. I was shocked! It didn’t even enter my that it was a possibility, that I would be considered for it. So then, to get the call that I would be one of the four. And, the fact that then it was only four, and that they were all women. It was sort of like just when things get better and better; like someone knocked on the door and gave me an ice cream cake and then, someone knocked on the door and brought me flowers, and then it was like it just kept getting better and better and better. What an amazing year to have that honor, that recognition! So, I was totally shocked. And then, I’ll be honest and say that after the shock wore off, I was flooded with the feeling of self-doubt like: “Why? Why me? Why this performance? Really? I don’t deserve to be there. Oh my God! It’s a mistake…” So, I had to work through that, which was an interesting lesson to learn. TIFF is one of the biggest film festivals. They have the best reputation and they’re one of the most groundbreaking festivals, so to be recognized in this way, to me, just feels like I won the lottery!
There has been so much talk about women in film in the past three years. What’s your take on it? And, how is it in the USA now? Do you see any change?
R.D.: Having just sort of ventured into film and TV just a couple years ago, I am still shocked to hear some of the stories, especially having just done a lot of panels at TIFF and hearing some very well-known and now respected female directors and producers talk about experiences that they had just two years ago or a year ago – some of these stories are still so shocking – I hear them and my jaw actually drops open like: “What? That’s still happening?!” You still get that kind of disrespect or, there’s still that negative energy out there. I’m still shocked by the stories that I hear, but personally I will say, and I wonder, again, if this is because I didn’t grow up in a household where the feminine, the matriarch and the women in the family were disrespected, whether it’s just that I don’t see it or I don’t allow it in my world. Personally, I see women getting more opportunities to tell their stories and they’re doing a bang-up job at it and I haven’t had the negative impact of it, but I see people around me struggling with it. I guess my point is that it’s getting better. I think there are starting to become more and more opportunities for women in film, especially behind the camera. And then, the roles in front of the camera, I think, are starting to become richer, more well-rounded, more available and more diverse, which is all what we need. But I think women are just making more of their own projects, too. I think women are just tired of waiting for doors to open that they’re just building their own houses and being like: “I’m just going to go over here now.”
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker in general and someone that you would like to work with? And, a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
R.D.: My favorite whatever will change by the day because I tend to have five favorite things, but I will say I have recently fallen in love over the last week and a half with Michelle Latimer because I saw a couple of episodes of Trickster and the documentary Inconvenient Indian at TIFF. I remember reading some of her scripts in the past. And, when we talk about where Indigenous storytelling is going, I think she’s at the leading edge of a lot of that in the way that she delivers her story. It’s just unapologetic, so rich and so unique and I love the soundscapes that she creates in her work. I think the soundscapes are just fantastic and they always hook me. Her characters hook me, too; they’re funny. She brings humor to her work. That’s so needed, especially in Indigenous storytelling. I would really, really love to work with her. Ava DuVernay, of course, immediately pops into my brain pan as a genius female director, too.
I know times are uncertain right now, but do you have anything in the pipeline for when they are better?
R.D.: I don’t have anything that’s set in stone. Right now, I’m working with ABC Disney. They do this diversity project and so I’m part of the 2020 ABC Discovers cast, where we’re going to produce a virtual industry night to showcase these diverse sixteen actors, and I’m one of those sixteen.
This interview was conducted during the 2020 (virtual) Toronto International Film Festival.