Jani Lauzon – Award of Excellence, ACTRA Toronto 2021

Michaela Washburn: Jani Lauzon. It’s an honour.
So, what sparked the beginning of this journey, and how did you come to know your purpose?

Jani Lauzon: I look back and realize now that I was born to think like an artist. Both my biological parents were very creative. I was raised in a household where piano playing, music and art were a part of our daily lives. My foster parents were artists as well. My foster father was the high school drama teacher and ran the local community theatre. We would sit around the dinner table reading plays or sit in front of the fire and listen to LPs of Broadway musicals. My foster father’s words to me when I left were, “Whatever you do, just do it creatively.” It was the best advice I ever received. I was taught to believe that being an artist was not only acceptable but important. I was very lucky. Figuring out what that meant for me, what kind of artist I was, and who I was as an artist… I’m still in that.

MW: Me too.

JL: Canadian icon Wendy Crewson says, “The very nature of being an artist means you’re an advocate.” It helped me understand that the stories I want to tell need to resonate with me, which doesn’t mean I would say no to a day player role on a fun film or series. Instead, I realized that my artistry and my advocacy could be connected through the projects I was involved in.

MW: How is your advocacy an evolution of your practice?

JL: I was frustrated in my early career trying to find a place for myself. In the small but growing Canadian film and TV industry in the 1980s, it was a time when casting was predominantly white. And I am brown, but not dark. I found myself in what I call “the crazy crack of mixed bloodedness.” I was complaining to an Elder, and he said to me, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” That really shifted my consciousness around my responsibility in the discussion.

So, I didn’t wait for an invitation; I invited myself to the table. One of the most obvious environments for me to engage with was ACTRA, mainly because of the work that women like Rita Deverell, Brenda Kamino and Sandi Ross had done before me. These women had already built a foundation at ACTRA that I was able to help grow. The initiatives we were developing were always about creating work opportunities for members.

I realized how important it was that we all start supporting and speaking on each other’s behalf. I got really jazzed by the idea. I also realized that in order to be included in the industry, my artistic practice needed to be excellent. Not mediocre. Not okay. If I was going to be accepted, I had to be excellent. My work ethic grew exponentially as a result of my clearer understanding of how I was positioned within the industry as a brown-skinned, mixed-blood artist.

MW: What are the surprising intersections in the work that have taught you something or that have stuck with you?

JL: Just how far from really understanding each other we still are. I didn’t anticipate, although I should have, that in our competitive-based industry, the idea of inclusion would be so adversarial. I also learned so much about myself by becoming aware of other people’s journeys.

I learned a lot about my privilege as an able-bodied actor by being in my friend Spirit Synott’s presence and admiring her courage and strength to continue to fight for inclusion for actors living with disabilities. I learned about my capacity for storytelling and love of experimental film by working alongside some incredible filmmakers who think outside the box.

I learned a lot about myself as an artist by watching my daughter grow into being one while I was trying to advocate on her behalf. So, I feel blessed. I feel lucky to have been able to crawl inside these other stories, these other life experiences that have given me a better perspective of who I am as an artist and a person.

Jani Lauzon appears in Child-ish by Sunny Drake.

MW: How would you describe the experience of being an artist and a single parent while simultaneously running a company?

JL: Every now and then, I’ll stop and think, “How did I do that?” And I’ll give myself a little pat on the back and say, “Job well done.” No one can be a perfect parent, but I’m proud of how my daughter and I were able to navigate the journey we took together. My mother was a workaholic. I have that same problem… I don’t know how to turn it off.  But I love my work. Knowing that I can add my voice to the conversation to help make change fills me with a sense of accomplishment and worth. It makes me so full of joy to know that I’m able to balance it all.

MW: I certainly appreciate all that you do, and I’m constantly learning from you. What advice would you give someone who’s eager to follow in your footsteps?

JL: I get asked this question a lot, so my first and always response is – train yourself. I say that because training gives you the capacity to navigate a very difficult environment and, hopefully, that training has given you a sense of your artistic process and who you are as an artist so that when difficult moments arise in the process, you have a solid voice within yourself to be able to stay safe and not compromise your integrity. I feel training also helps to hopefully create longevity in your career. That having been said, there are amazing screen-based media artists who learned on the job who are exceptional, so there are many different ways of doing things.

If you’re getting work that is complicated and makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s okay to say no.

Beyond that, if you’re not getting work, it doesn’t mean you’re not an artist. If you are expressing yourself as an artist or thinking like an artist while you’re a server at a restaurant or delivering pizza, you are still an artist.

MW: I agree. I think that’s a really important point to remember, especially as we’re navigating this pandemic.

JL: And what is it like for a lot of people to not be working or not be able to train? How can you still be active in your own artistry and in your own creativity? How can you continue to explore and infuse that with energy? There are some incredible books out there and lots of incredible actors who might enjoy a conversation. Reach out to them and ask them about their career.

There are so many ways you can look at expanding your own knowledge base. Don’t wait for the invitation.

MW: I think that’s a great idea because it’s like you said, it builds that connection which is lovely, and many folks love to share their experience.

What are some of the meaningful shifts and changes you’ve experienced or witnessed in the time you’ve been a member of ACTRA?

JL: That’s such a great question. ACTRA is ahead of the conversation. When things opened up last summer, ACTRA didn’t have to scramble the way many other organizations did because they were so far ahead in the conversation, they remained in that leadership position. Staff, administration, and members of the governance board at ACTRA realized many years ago that this was important. Diversity and inclusion became an important component of the strategic plans at ACTRA years ago. The governance body and the administration were willing to be educated, digest that education, and then make it a priority. Otherwise, you’re fighting against a system that says they’re going to change, and they’re not. There’s a lot of work still to do, but I have memories of working with some pretty incredible people who made great shifts and changes in this industry.

Jani Lauzon walks in the Labour Day Parade holding a sign featuring Stunt Coordinator Angelica Lisk-Hann

MW: I love that.
And for a final question, in your experience with ACTRA and over the course of your career, is there a highlight that stands out for you? Like a moment of deep joy in this work?

JL: There were a few. One is our film festival initiatives where we are able to support culturally diverse filmmakers by helping them bring their film into an ACTRA contract so that our members could be in their films. We’re building the career of the filmmaker, and we’re giving that filmmaker access to well-trained professional actors who can help them realize their vision.

The other thing that I’m super proud of is the casting go-sees, everything from one-on-one meetings to the production of a DVD of monologues from the physically diverse community who can’t get into the casting buildings. We sent that DVD to agents and producers across Canada.

It is amazing to have an ACTRA member inform us that they got work as a result of these initiatives that we created. I don’t know.. it just fills my.. makes me super excited.

MW: That is exciting! Thank you, Jani, for all that you do. It’s a lot. We haven’t even really skimmed through the work that you do. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

JL: I just want to say that I’m really blown away by the Award of Excellence and being the recipient this year. I’m excited about sharing some of my puppetry work because it’s a big part of my career. I love creating content for children that’s engaging and interesting and fun to make.

Lili in Little Star
Bella in Longhouse Tales

MW: Is there anything you want to share that you’re working on?

JL: True to my nature, I have several projects on the go. I have been helping the acting students at NTS create a devised project, which I’ll be directing in September. I have two short films that I’ve written that are just kind of tapping me on the shoulder. I’m looking forward to shifting a part of my career back to screen-based media. I am also dramaturge, writer or actor on several projects in development. I am excited to see where those projects lead me.

MW: Nice. I love the medium. I just love the medium of film.

JL: Mm hmm.

Michaela Washburn is a Métis artist of Cree, French, Irish, and English ancestry. Her pronouns are she/her/they/them, and he/ him when they’re in drag. Washburn’s craft spans theatre, television, film, spoken word, writing, hosting, clown, improvisation, stand-up and workshop facilitation. Among her many theatre credits, she appeared in Almighty Voice and His Wife (Soulpepper) directed by Jani Lauzon. Michaela has garnered multiple nominations including the K. M. Hunter Artist Award for Theatre and the Ontario Arts Council Indigenous Arts Award. Film and television credits include Burden of Truth, Baroness Von Sketch, Just One Word, The River You Step In. Michaela is a proud member of CAEA’s elected national council. Michaela is humbled and honoured to be a storyteller and acknowledges her current privilege to make art at such an extraordinary time in humanity’s existence.