Tamara Podemski is an actress and writer hailing from Treaty 4 Territory in Saskatchewan; born to a Jewish father and Anishinaabe mother. In 2021, she won a Canadian Screen Award for her performance in the television show Coroner, and has won both a special jury award at Sundance and an Independent Spirit Award. Recently, Podemski took on the role of Teenie in the Disney+ show Reservation Dogs created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi. Reservation Dogs is a breakthrough series in Indigenous representation on television, both in front of and behind the camera, as every writer, director, and series regular on the show is Indigenous.
Reservation Dogs centres on four Indigenous teenagers in Oklahoma as they struggle to remain friends amidst turmoil in their community, and decide whether to stay in their hometown or leave. Canadian viewers will be able to watch Podemski as Teenie, the aunt of one of the show’s protagonists Elora. The second season premiered on Disney+ in Canada on September 7.
I spoke with Podemski over Zoom about how the film industry is changing, her Anishinaabe and Ashkenazi upbringing, and the episode that made her feel most liberated.
Tamara, I’m so excited to speak with you. To start, can you tell me if Reservation Dogs feels markedly different from other shows you’ve been a part of?
Once you have an all-Indigenous cast, crew, writers’ room, there’s just a familiarity, a safety, a trust that can happen. The work that comes when you have that foundation is pretty amazing.
There’s less explaining that has to be done because you all have a mutual understanding and even a mutual approach to the work. It’s been moving in this direction for a long time but this was the first time where it’s been an all Indigenous writers’ room, main cast, showrunner, and producer for me. I think the only other fully Indigenous writers’ room is on the show Rutherford Falls.
The other part that feels different is that we are a really tight knit community across Turtle Island. There’s almost nobody who I don’t know—that either I haven’t worked with in the past or am close friends with—even the newer generation that’s come up, we’re linked in some way. You get the benefit of that too.
That bond really comes across in the show. What was it like working with different directors throughout filming?
That’s very typical of television. Even on my other show Outer Range you’re used to having rotating directors. It’s too much for one director to carry through so there has to be a cycling of directors.
We are in a moment right now where everybody is so skilled and ready and we’re not making compromises in the work just so we can satisfy this idea of a whole Indigenous director roster—it’s there because they are all deserving and talented and fully capable to direct on that [network] level. The most beautiful thing is that they then continue their work on non-Native shows and prove it isn’t just for the hype that we’re doing this. We just haven’t been invited into those spaces. This is an incredible opportunity for us to showcase our talent.
How do you feel the Canadian film industry differs from the industry in the U.S. in regards to acting opportunities?
It’s funny because it’s a joke that there’s an overrepresentation of Canadians on the show but I think we have a very different industry up here [because we have] more opportunities for Indigenous actors to feature their work. Part of that is government mandates and part of that is a lot of us are creating our own work, so when it comes to some of the bigger shows, we have a pool of talent here that’s just been doing it for a really long time.
When you’re excluded from those bigger opportunities, where are you meant to get the experience? Even though you could have the potential to be in a leading role, you need to be working all the time. I do feel, even though we have our own issues up here, what has prepared me for all the bigger opportunities in America is how many years of experience on Canadian television I’ve had, to be able to work my skills. So that when Hollywood does call, you’re ready.
The other part is that there’s not enough work here. So it forces actors to really hustle; you’re doing theatre, you’re writing your own stuff, you’re doing stand-up, you’re teaching! I feel like the artist is forced to do so much more, which only makes them better. So when we show up south of the border we always leave an impression.
Absolutely, and you’ve worked in many different areas in the arts as well.
Part of it is I’m a musical theatre junkie so my understanding of performance is that it’s very fluid; any way you can tell a story, through song, dance, comedy, acting, I’m up for that. It is a necessity because I have been limited for the majority of my career by my ethnicity. Meaning I’m only working when there is a show with a role for an Indigenous character and those don’t come around a lot. The multidisciplinary approach, even though it is the most instinctive way to be an artist, I think it’s just how you get through the times when there aren’t jobs.
You’ve been successful at everything you’ve done. And you come from a talented family. Your sisters Jennifer and Sarah Podemski are also actresses and writers and both have roles on the show. What got you into acting or musicals in the first place?
We were exposed at a very young age to the performing arts and that’s largely due to my grandmother on my dad’s side, who loved dance, the ballet, theatre, opera. She was the first one who took us to those early shows. Which is just luck, if you have someone who can afford to take you to those places. The first musical she took me to was Les Misérables. I was 10 years old at the time and seeing [productions] on that scale really changed my understanding. After I saw that, I was like why is there any other way to be in the world? You need to be exposed to it in order to fall in love with it.
In addition to that, my father was a single dad raising three girls. There was a lot of trauma going on at the time [because] my mother had left. He immediately saw a connection between putting us into these [performing arts] classes and how it was a very grounding and centring [experience]. He saw the effect it had on us . . . a healthy way for us to process what we were going through. We all auditioned for a performing arts school in Toronto called the Claude Watson School for the Performing Arts. I started when I was eight years old and for 10 years of my life all I did was sing, dance, and act. We are the product of enrichment and what happens when you give kids every opportunity to play and explore and express themselves through the performing arts.
You come from two different backgrounds: Ashkenazi Jewish on your father’s and Anishinaabe on your mother’s. I’m wondering if you see yourself as having gone through any kind of Jewish journey or coming into your identities?
There was no coming into or rediscovering. We knew we were Anishinaabe and we knew we were Jewish. There was never any misunderstanding or confusion. Until the world tells you, “that’s confusing!” that you are a Native Jew. Within our own world we had no idea it was weird. There was never any conflict of being the two. They co-existed in our home. The real issue happens out in the world. My mother wasn’t Jewish and it became slightly problematic when we were younger and kids would tease me. And so I converted when I was 12 and doing so stopped that conversation. But I did nothing more Jewish after being converted than I did before. Half of our family lives in Israel so that was a big part of our life, going there to be with our cousins, aunts, and uncles. And there’s a very rich Indigenous community in Toronto so even though we were far from the reservation that my mother is from (we do get to go back there) our Native identity is very much rooted in the urban Indigenous population in Toronto that kind of grows out of the Native Canadian Centre. It’s near the JCC in Toronto and they do a lot of work together so even sometimes in life I would see this partnership [between Jewish organizations and Indigenous organizations]. And it’s like, of course that makes sense! The way they serve their communities and the way they take care of those in need are ideals and values in alignment.
I’ll just ask one more question about the show—is there an episode of this next season that you are particularly excited about?
Episode five—“Wide Net.” The way we refer to it is “Aunties’ Night Out.” It’s somewhat of a standalone episode because the show really follows these four Indigenous teenagers and their exploits in rural Oklahoma, but season two expands their world to see all the people in the background. This one zooms in on these four best friends who go to a health conference and let loose. It is a beautiful celebration of sisterhood. I don’t usually get to play these kind of characters, especially as a Native woman who has so often been objectified or sexualized on screen—or just silent—this was permission to be sexual and yet fully in your body and strong and proud and also really vocal. It was probably the closest I’ve gotten to the most truthful expression of womanhood. It was so liberating for me. The response to that particular episode has been crazy. Which reminds me that people want to see real women, and this is beyond the Indigenous community. We’re hearing from everyone, everywhere. I think people are as liberated by seeing it as we were playing it.
I hope that Hollywood takes note and it’s great that this is finally happening. I’d like to move to a different topic, and ask the serious question of: what is your favourite Jewish food?
Matzo ball soup. I’ve lived in New York, Los Angeles, and England; when I move to a new city I find out where I can get matzo ball soup. It is the thing that takes care of my homesickness. And yes, I can make it but it’s not the same—when you’re homesick you don’t want to be making your own matzo ball soup. I became very attached to Greenblatt’s Deli in Los Angeles. I never really did Shabbat but the one way I did my Shabbat was I would go to Greenblatt’s and get my matzo ball soup. They even let us do a seder there once! But I went back a couple months ago and it closed in the pandemic. It was absolutely heartbreaking because it’s not just the matzo ball soup, it’s what the food represents. It’s the memories, it’s my Safta who made it and passed on the recipes, it’s so much a part of our family and our belonging.
And as we’re on the subject of favourite things, what is your favourite Jewish holiday?
My favourite holiday, I think, is Rosh Hashanah. We’re coming up to it so it’s in the forefront of my brain. I love that it’s the beginning of Genesis. When I was at the University of Toronto studying biblical Hebrew, we dissected Genesis and I got to see the translation [of the text] and where the roots of these words come from, It made me look at Genesis in a totally different way, which I’ve never been able to turn off, and gave me a deep appreciation for that origin story. And I’m a sucker for creation stories.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Header image design by Orly Zebak.
Lara Bulger has a deep-rooted commitment to the arts. With a Bachelor’s degree in Music with minors in Film and English, plus a Master’s Degree in Arts Leadership, she is passionate about the capacity of art to bring about social change. Lara is currently pursuing her PhD in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University, focusing on documentary film and its social, political and cultural impacts.