Rising star

The weather was usually cold and snowy. They were constantly working in open meadows and dark forests. There was no electricity. There was little contact with the outside world.

Grace Dove, clothed in raw leather and wrapped in animal skins, caught the eye of a senior member of the work crew.

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"You OK?" he asked.

She nodded and simply said "I'm good. I'm Canadian."

The caring crew member, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, just smiled at that satisfying answer.

Dove's Canadian roots extend down to Prince George and specifically to Salmon Valley, where she grew up.

Her folks still live there.

The other location coursing through her veins is Tsq'escenemc land, the "people of broken rock" near the Cariboo community of Canim Lake, another faint pinpoint compared to the closest town of 100 Mile House.

"I'm a northern kid, my territory is northern, it's definitely in my blood," she said.

All that aboriginal, rural, northern and rugged background is what led her to the red carpet at Hollywood's famed TCL Chinese Theatre standing between superstars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy at the premier of The Revenant.

In this new film from director Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu (he also directed the powerhouse films 21 Grams, Babel and Birdman), DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, a real-life wilderness pioneer figure in early 19th century North America akin to Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett but, unlike that pair, without the benefit of elected office to help document his fame.

Glass's survival of a gunshot wound, bear attack and abandonment to die by his frontier exploration companions turned into an epic tale of survival and of the continent itself. Mostly, this tale is patched together from newspaper articles and letters from that era, and filled in with speculative fiction by contemporary writers and filmmakers.

TV and film facsimiles of Glass have also been played by the likes of Dewitt Lee, John Alderson and Richard Harris over the years.

Now DiCaprio presents his depiction in what many are calling the acclaimed actor's best work.

Dove is cast as the wife of Hugh Glass, after he assimilated with the Pawnee First Nation sometime between 1816 and 1821.

As Dove said during their red carpet interviews when the film opened, her actual ancestors in north-central B.C. lived in this way, off the land as one with the environment, less than 100 years ago, so connecting to her role came easy, in an anthropological sense.

It was not as easy in a craftsmanship sense. It took her most of her life to accomplish the feat.

It started with a father who made films and took her on tourist visits to Hollywood to help give her a realistic look at that culturally caricatured place. He could see that his daughter had an interest in show-biz.

Dove remembers where that all began. She played Santa in a class Christmas concert production at Salmon Valley elementary school.

Then, when she was about 10 years old and unafraid of pursuing her stage dreams, she sent her application to Prince George's PGTV station for a kids' show called Splatterday and she got a part.

Taking the next step in that career, she applied for the job as the station's summer Fun Chaser community correspondent.

General manager Ken Kilcullen gently broke the news to her that at 15, she was not eligible for that role as it required a driver's license. But he promised to keep her application on file, and he was true to that pledge.

The summer she had her license, he hired her on for multiple years as the youngest Fun Chaser the station ever had.

Dove was also taking drama classes first at Heather Park Middle School and then as a standout with Kelly Road Secondary School's respected drama department.

Her career path already had a lot of sign posts directing her to the entertainment industry.

They pointed her to Vancouver Film School. She moved down and enrolled with her P.G. pal Scott Thorp, whom she credits with being the reason she could adjust to the big city from her rural upbringing.

Upon graduation, Dove embarked on a nearly constant regimen of unsuccessful auditions.

This window got narrower after she landed a steady gig as one of the co-hosts of reality TV show UnderExposed on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).

It is a youth-based adventure sports program. Each episode brings the viewer along on excursions and expeditions where the adrenaline flows freely.

"I can't even name the number of times in the past few months I've gotten home, unpacked, packed and just went straight to the airport," Dove said.

"I shoot 13 episodes every season and this is my third season in two years. I'm currently shooting right now - about five more episodes in the new year."

She had a snowboard in her hand and was heading for the airport, as usual, when she got the call from her agent that one of the audition projects she'd been involved with (the audition process is sometimes layered and spread out over time) was calling her with an offer, but not the one they initially pitched. She was aware the project was called The Revenant and she was aware it would star Leonardo DiCaprio.

Casting directors had accepted her submissions for one of the smaller parts, but after getting to know her, the offer was not for that role at all. They saw her as DiCaprio's love interest.

Thankfully the UnderExposed producers saw the benefit in allowing Dove to veer off into this short-term venture. Soon she was in front of Irritu's cameras in places like Burnaby, Calgary, California and the Argentine location of Ushuaia.

These locations were not selected due to their glamour or tropical appeal. All were functional for Irritu. Brutally functional.

In one media report, DiCaprio called the wrap of The Revenant not so much the ending of an acting project but the closing of a chapter in his life.

The snow is all real.

The dirt and grime is all real.

The sense of wild mortality is as close to actual as an actor can get. Dove was not contractually allowed to talk about these details yet, but she confirmed that she kept a daily journal because the experience was an onslaught of industrial strength life lessons.

"I felt so much support. All my bases were covered so I could just do my work. It was a high-level production. I couldn't have asked for a better situation. There is a mad level of respect between the crew and the actors. If I don't feel safe, my best work isn't going to come out, and they knew that."

The drama room was always her "safe place" growing up, but she had no idea that it would lead one day - and so quickly - to the set of the reigning Oscar-winning director, where her wellbeing was checked on by the reigning Oscar-winning cinematographer.

As much as the audience tend to attach to the celebrity co-stars that surrounded her in this tight cast, they were focused heavily on the people unseen by the camera - the ones cranking out the scenes before the cold crept in too deeply and the daylight crept away.

All the work was done without the use of industrial lighting, so the camera could depict the action with as much natural authenticity as possible. The minimalist approach, said Dove, was also aimed at getting each actor more deeply into the persona required.

"Once I was there, then you have a character, you have someone else to worry about," she said.

"Suddenly Grace isn't there, it's someone else, and you realize oh, that's why you do all (that youth theatre). Every day I'd come back feeling like a whole new artist. I've been working my whole life for moments like that. I already feel like I have all these emotions in my body, and once you get on set, that is my chance as an artist to be able to express that for other people. I know it's already in there, that's the amazing part, it's just constantly uncovering layers. I never doubted my abilities to portray a character - I think it was more everything leading up to that moment was the hard part."

Now that the film has wrapped and it is on the screen, Dove's influence on society has been forever established. She knows already it is having an impact on northern youth and on aboriginal cultural esteem because that feedback has already reached her ears.

She even felt pangs of it herself, when she saw that the New York Times named her one of the young Hollywood stars to watch in the fashion industry and when she walked out of a movie in a Port Coquitlam cinema where she and her UnderExposed teammates were catching a show, and she was gobsmacked in her tracks by a giant poster of her and DiCaprio touching foreheads.

It was the first time she'd seen a poster for the film. It wasn't what she'd been expecting.

She thought it would be some image of DiCaprio facing the elements, not one of Hollywood's biggest stars so intimately connected to a little Tsq'escenemc girl from rural Prince George.

She is proud, too, that as an aboriginal actor, she has never been asked, in her professional career dating back to childhood, to be anything but an aboriginal person.

Less than a generation ago, it was largely Caucasian casting even for aboriginal characters, and aboriginal actors got few opportunities or any sort of screen or stage time.

"Alejandro has so much respect for our culture and I really appreciate that," she said.

"The movie industry has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go. I'm so excited to be part of it. I'm so proud of my heritage, but I'm not going to let that put me in a box either."

A great many of the Prince George area's most successful performers have also have aboriginal roots - Marcel Gagnon, Kym and Mike Gouchie, Rick Stavely, Steven Cree Molison, the Baker Twins (Shauna and Shannon) - so she has had role models of her own, and embraces being the next one in that line to whom local youth will now look, whether they be aboriginal or not.

She feels the weight of that mentorship she now possesses, and isn't going to squander it.

"I don't think politics is something I'm going to talk about yet, I just want to focus on the art. As a young person of course I have lots to say, but less is more at this point," she said.

"And I really want to encourage youth, especially young artists, that there's a difference between goals and expectations. It's important to have goals. I've had goals since I was a child. But when things don't go exactly as you expected, that can turn negative. You can't have expectations on your craft, you just have to keep saying yes (in pursuit of the goal) every day."

She also urged aspiring artists to maintain a grateful heart for those who help you out along the way.

In her life, that was her parents and two older brothers), the folks at CKPG, the Barber family, her agent Darren Boidman, and local teachers Lisa Davison, Audrey Rowell (KRSS), Mrs. Sargent (HPMS) and Mrs. Sieb (SVES).

The Revenant is already getting Oscar buzz.

The film's release was in a mix dominated by Star Wars and The Hateful Eight across the broad box office spectrum, but 20th Century Fox opted to release The Revenant first in specialty theatres and no film had a better per-theatre box office average (PTA) in that time period.

According to box office analyst website Deadline Hollywood, it was the second-highest PTA of the entire year (the Steve Jobs biopic was the top) and the best PTA result in Irritu's stellar career.

The Revenant gets its full-market North American release on Jan. 8.

The new season of UnderExposed also launches this month on APTN so the world will be tuning in to Grace Dove in the months ahead on screens large and small.

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