A Q&A With TV/screen/stage actress Tanis Parenteau
In the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Manahatta, a young of Lenape descent, Jane Snake (played by Tanis Parenteau) leaves her family in rural Oklahoma for high-octane financial job on Wall Street, a move that sets in motion parallel stories; one during the early 1600s, when Manhattan was purchased by the Dutch for a pittance, and another in modern times. The play hops back and forth with increasing frequency as the plot gains momentum, maintaining the same actors in characters that are like eerie echoes, and perhaps literal ancestor/descendants, of each other.
It is okay to do a double-take, not only because Parenteau is showing up in the double role on stage in Ashland, but wait, isn’t that the same actress on the TV show Designated Survivor, and who played in House of Cards? She is also the writer and star for A Big Black Space, a well-received short film.
A member of the Métis Nation of Alberta and of Cree and Sioux descent, Paretneau talks with the Messenger about roles for Native American women, about moving between the stage and screen, and about Ashland.
Rogue Valley Messenger: How did you end up Ashland? (With this role.)
Tanis Parenteau: I first auditioned in New York last Spring and then had two callbacks after that. This occurred over the span of a month and a half. Then I got the offer in July. OSF brought me out in September to workshop the play and then again in October to do the photo shoot for the poster and the marketing materials. And then I came out here on February 20 to start my contract.
RVM: You have such an established career in television, and also film. What draws you to act on stage?
TP: I don’t have a preference between them. I think they each offer valuable environments in which to flex your acting muscles. They each have their pros and cons. I like going back and forth between the stage and being on camera because I feel like they balance each other out in extremely enriching ways. For the stage, I love that the stakes are so immediately high because you’re in front of a live audience and the energy is so heightened. It’s like the audience is almost another character in the play with you. And depending on the play and direction, sometimes you get to acknowledge the audience and break the fourth wall. You get to perform the play in the chronological order it was written. It’s also challenging (in a good way) being on stage in the regard that it is live and if you or anyone messes up you just have to keep going, you have to figure out a way around and/or through it. And sometimes the stage is so bare, sometimes you’re not working with any kind of furniture or props–sometimes it’s just the bare stage–that’s a good challenge as well.
On camera, you have to dial back what you’re showing in a way; it can’t be as big as it needs to be on the stage because the camera picks up everything. You have to make the camera come to you. You can’t give away too much or it can just look too big and over the top. The craft and the acting/emotions are the same process; they are just on different ends of the scale when it comes to output. In TV and film, most of the time you don’t shoot the script in order, so that can be a challenge depending on what you have to go through in the scene.
RVM: In this season’s Designated Survivor, you play the Tribal Chairwoman of the Ocheole Nation. Are there better roles for Native American women these days? If so, how so?
TP: Yes, I believe there are better roles for Native women these days, but there is still tons of room for improvement. I feel like we’re just starting to see a very small growth in contemporary roles that aren’t based on harmful stereotypes. But those roles are very few and far between. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of roles that are based on and perpetuate stereotypes from the past—Natives in buckskin and fringe and feathers, or contemporary roles all have long dark hair and dark skin—that just promotes the harmful stereotype that that’s all Natives were/are and erases our vast diversity and that we are actually living in the present.
And unfortunately, some of the bigger roles are still going to actresses that just say they have Native blood to get the role but they aren’t actually a part of any nation or community. Casting directors are doing a great job these days because they’re asking to see Native actresses for Native roles but the powers that be above them, who have the final say in the casting process, could help even more by adhering to a stronger vetting process when it comes to claiming Native heritage.
RVM: I don’t want to presume, but your role in Manahatta seems like a dream role. Yes? If so, why? If not, what would be the dream role?
TP: It is definitely a dream role. This play and these roles have had such a huge chunk of my heart since I first got to do the play at the Public theater in Manhattan. Both my characters are so strong and unique and are following their dreams. I’m very grateful, honored and blessed to be a part of telling this story about the Lenape and being a part of such a brilliant play that people learn so much from and come away with their own gratitude and emotion and they experience feelings that are stirred up inside them and thoughts that are spurred into their head because of what they see in this play. It’s been an incredible experience. I love connecting with the patrons here in Ashland.
RVM: Favorite discovery in Ashland so far?
TP: I love being so close to so many animals! I love that the deer just hang out in my backyard and there are owls outside my window. The landscape here is beautiful and it’s a nice break from the city.