Actor and Filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, on Being an Indigenous Woman in the Film Industry and ‘Blood Quantum’

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in the film 'Blood Quantum'. She is in motion, holding an axe, looking like she is about to swing. She is an Indigenous woman, around her 30s with dark hair that is tied up and a sharp jawline. She wears a plain burgundy long sleeve top.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in ‘Blood Quantum’ (Shudder)

Blood Quantum, the Indigenous zombie film by Jeff Barnaby (Mi’gMaq) that was released earlier this year, is a decolonised take on the typical genre film. The performance of actor and filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Blackfoot and Sámi) as Joss stood out from all the gore as she played a dynamic Indigenous woman in a world full of toxic masculinity. Some might recognise Tailfeather’s name from last year’s The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, a gentle look at a chance encounter between two Indigenous women in an urban setting. 

Screen Queens guest contributor, Shea Vassar (Cherokee Nation) got to talk with Tailfeathers about her experiences as an Indigenous woman making movies. 

Shea Vassar: How did you get your start in the film industry?

Elle-Maija Tailfeathers: I moved out to Vancouver to study acting, largely because I thought that was the only way I could work in film. I didn’t even imagine that I could become a filmmaker. Later, I started acting professionally and found myself frustrated as an Indigenous person, as a woman of colour, and just as a woman in the industry. Eventually, I went back to school and while I was there, I was exposed to Indigenous film and literature. From there, I decided to make my own films. I would still like to go and immerse myself in cinema studies since everything I know is from the world that I’ve created but it would be nice to go and just study film. 

SV: Since you have worked both as an actor and as a filmmaker, do you prefer one or the other?

ET: They are completely different experiences. I love directing but I love acting. I just finished working on Danis Goulet’s latest feature. Being able to work with Danis as an actor was incredible. Directing is a passion and my driving force because I feel like I have more agency in the ability to create community and cultural impact. That being said, when the opportunity arises to work with directors like Danis or like Jeff (Barnaby), it’s a generative experience as an actor. It’s complicated because they are totally different things. I never thought I’d be able to do both. 

SV: You were acting and directing last year’s The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, which continues to be awarded and deservingly so. What was the timeline like for that film and working on Blood Quantum

ET: We shot the last scene of The Body Remembers and I grabbed my suitcase to catch a redeye [flight] to Montreal and started on Blood Quantum the next day. They were back to back and it was a really surreal experience. 

Violet Nelson and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. Both Indigenous women have their backs turned near a quiet road. Violet is wearing a purple and blue tie dye hoodie with a backpack over one shoulder. Her dark hair is soaking wet but you can see a hint of blue dip dye. She looks scared. Elle-Máijá is in office wear, all you can see is her tan wool coat and a grey tote bag over her shoulder. Her dark hair is pulled into a pony tail and she is looking back over her shoulder.
Violet Nelson and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in ‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’ (Shudder)

SV: To do that with such different films as well must have made it even more of an adventure for you. 

ET: They are completely different films in a lot of ways but they speak about similar issues. We took a lot of inspiration from art house cinema and filmmakers like Andrea Arnold for The Body Remembers while Blood Quantum is very much a genre film that is meant to impact audiences that are horror fans. Both are very valuable and add to the palette of representation for Indigenous people. 

SV: Blood Quantum really tackles some of the harsh aspects of the Indigenous experience. In your opinion, what was the goal of the film?

ET: When I first read the script, I didn’t know if this was for me. But I had a conversation with Jeff and began to understand the deeper nuance of what he was trying to unpack as the filmmaker. Blood Quantum is about tackling toxic masculinity in the Indigenous world. I think it’s really important for Indigenous men in our communities to be confronting toxic masculinity and all the ways that settler colonialism has damaged families and gender performativity. Because of this, I was often the only Indigneous woman on set which was a bit challenging after coming off The Body Remembers, where it was largely women in general. 

Indigenous actors Forrest Goodluck and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in 'Blood Quantum'. The pair are pushing against a large door that zombie hands are grabbing through. Forrest has a shaved head and a khaki jacket, he is throwing most of his weight against the door. Elle-Máijá has long dark hair and a tan jacket, she is pressing on the door much lighter and is looking behind her.
Forrest Goodluck and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in ‘Blood Quantum’ (Shudder)

SV: This experience is similar to your character in Blood Quantum, Joss. She is such a strong Indigenous character who anchors some of that masculinity. 

ET: Playing Joss was interesting because she’s so many women that I know. She’s unique in the sense that we haven’t seen enough characters like her on screen but she is so many people I know in my community and other Indigenous communities. Indigenous women are incredibly vulnerable and have been a target for violence since contact. This has something to do with the threat that we are to settler colonialism. I think it is so important to show strong Indigenous women because that is the truth, that is an honest and authentic representation. In my community, the people that are doing the most important work of nurturing us as a people and making sure that we will move forward with love and respect are women. 

SV: As an Indigenous filmmaker and actor but also as just an Indigenous person, what does true Indigenous representation look like to you?

ET: Representation is a complex conversation. When it comes to the film industry, I’ve realised the importance of Indigenous capacity in all areas while on set. We have a severe under-representation within technicians, like sound designers, sound recordists, cinematographers. This has a significant impact on the way a film is made. Obviously, there’s the representation on screen. The types of Indigenous characters we show which has a definite impact on the well-being of Indigenous people, especially Indigenous youth. We are at this moment in Indigenous film where we’re beginning to see a beautiful diversity within communities so there’s no longer a monolithic idea of who or what an Indigenous person is. I’m excited to see what happens in the next couple years. 

Blood Quantum is available to stream now on Shudder. The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open is available to stream now on Netflix

by Shea Vassar

Shea Vassar is currently studying film at Hunter College in New York City. When not exploring themes of female experience in cinema, she likes to cheer on the Oklahoma City Thunder (a basketball team) and not talk about herself in the third person. Her favorite films are Mulholland DriveSingin’ in the RainThe Love Witch, and The Lure. You can follow her on Twitter @justsheavassar.

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