We’ve been following the career of Anishinaabe-Ashkenazi actor Sarah Podemski since she was just a kid, spooking us with scary stories in beloved thriller Goosebumps.
Since that time, Sarah has moved through every genre and shined on all major networks. Moccasin Flats (APTN), Flashpoint (CTV), Murdoch Mysteries (CBC), Flashpoint (CTV), Between (Netflix) are just some of the hit shows she’s graced, while also crossing into film with festival favourite Empire of Dirt. Right now, she’s captivating sci-fi fans worldwide as level-headed Kayla in the popular new dramatic comedy series Resident Alien (SYFY).
Throughout her career, Sarah has consistently challenged the industry when it comes to Indigenous representation on screen. Like her older sisters Tamara and Jennifer Podemski, Sarah is a fierce advocate for creating more opportunities for Indigenous actors to support the abundance of narratives.
A true creative multi-hyphenate, when Sarah isn’t acting she’s working on her business Totem Designs, creating beautiful dream catchers that give back to her Indigenous communities.
You’ve been acting since you were a little kid. What’s a piece of advice that has always helped guide your journey?
I don’t know if anyone actually said this to me, or if I just realized it at a young age, but I always knew not to take the industry too seriously. I saw so many people be so affected by results, and work, and booking jobs. I was able to take a break for high school, and got to live a normal teenage life, working normal jobs, being myself, and developing naturally.
When I came back to work in my 20’s, I had experience, and a knowledge that there is a whole world out there, it’s not just the insulated film world. To be able to relate to people, and have lived experience brings great humility when working in an industry that is obsessed with recognition and accolades.
You’ve shared that “recreating the Indigenous narrative” plays a very important role in your work. How do you go about doing this? How does this mission direct your choices?
Lots of uncomfortable conversations. I have learned so much from my community this past year, seeing voices being elevated in a way I have never seen before. I felt like people were finally speaking about issues I had been fighting so hard to talk about within this industry for so many years, and I finally felt seen.
When you are an Indigenous person in any space, you have to take on so much more. Things you don’t get paid for. You are a cultural consultant, and educator, a mediator, and a bridge. It has changed the way I chose projects, and who I give my time to for sure. I have so much more insight, and way better boundaries than I ever have, and my main priority is working with people who understand the challenges and aren’t afraid to do the work. We all gotta do the work to make equity and equality a real concept in the workplace, and that starts with us as individuals, and having those difficult conversations, with friends, family, and colleagues.
What has been a challenge in your career that has forced you to grow, or get out of your comfort zone?
Something I only recently realized in the last few years, is why I wanted to get into this industry to begin with. I never felt connected to most actors, and I never felt like I was working enough, or taking enough classes, or taking it seriously enough, dieting enough…And then I realized, I am an actor because of representation.
Yes, I love acting, and I have had a great career, but I have always worked in order to bring representation to the screen. I never yearned for fame, and recognition, or worried about awards, or networking, I always felt a bit of an outsider in that way. I am actually a very private person, and don’t like attention at all!
Recently I have pushed myself to be more of a presence, participate in social media and publicity, because it is such a powerful tool to spread awareness and amplify issues I think are important for the community. It’s been a challenge for me, because as a white passing Indigenous/Jewish woman, I don’t want to centre myself, but I also want to acknowledge the platform I do have, and use it to push representation forward. So it’s a balancing act on how to use the mic, and also how to pass it!
What are you enjoying most about SYFY?
I am loving the response to Resident Alien, you never know as an actor how something is going to turn out. It can feel good making something, and you can believe in it, and it can fail so badly. So having a project that was so great to work on, and having it resonate with people is such a treat! Sci-fi fans are so dedicated, and supportive, it’s such a great genre to be a part of. I am secretly hoping I can be on the show for many seasons so I can fulfill a lifelong dream of going to Comic Con! Pending Covid, of course!
What’s your advice to emerging actors questioning whether or not they can make it in this business?
I feel like I finally have the tools and experience to answer this question after being in the industry for 25 years! Have a great full life. This industry is hard, and it can take you down, the rejection, the power struggle, the feelings of inadequacy. If you can feel confident, and have something to look forward to in your life that doesn’t depend on booking that role, it will be a much easier ride. And that can be so many things, a full social life with a great support system, a side hustle that brings you joy, hobbies that fulfill you and make you feel talented and smart. Things that make you feel seen and appreciated.
As soon as I shifted focus and began focusing on my business, and creating other projects, a lot of opportunities came my way. It had taken the pressure off of needing one thing to survive financially, and it helped me feel confident in other aspects of my life, so when the rejections came, they were much easier to handle. And there will always be rejections, no matter how famous or successful you are! Then when you book work, it’s such a lovely surprise, and when that job is done, you are still looking forward to getting back to your life! The pressure and stress of having to look for another job, and feeling desperate, is way less present when you have a great life to return to after a project is finished.
Can you briefly share the story behind Totem Designs, and what you’ve loved most about that project? What’s a philosophy or mantra that’s been helping you lately?
I created Totem Designs
when I noticed too many non-Indigenous people appropriating our art and culture. I told myself, I can actually do something, instead of complaining about it to anyone who will listen! I applied for the One of a Kind Winter Show in 2019 in Toronto, and when I was accepted, I started to build a brand and business and I made over 400 dreamcatchers! I was one of five Indigenous artists, out of over 800 artisans. The show was such a great success, and I had so many conversations with people, and realized this was a platform to change the narrative on our communities and our culture. It opened my eyes that this was a great way to re-educate and point people in the right direction of where to find resources and the importance of supporting Indigenous artists!
Lately I have been reminding myself to stay true to my Indigeneity as an artist. Don’t work with the intention of profits, work with the intention of healing and giving medicine to each person who purchases a piece. I am in service to bringing healing and beauty to people. This is a gift I was given, and I don’t want to exploit it, or make myself crazy, and tired over trying to fill orders. During the holidays, I was filling so many orders, and I was starting to wholesale, and I was making custom pieces, I was so spent, and pushing myself too hard to deliver, and I had to remember what I set out to do. It was a good reminder that I won’t be able to please everyone. But I can make sure that each piece I do make is made with focus, intention, and joy.
You and your sisters are all extremely well known in the arts. What was it in your childhood, in your opinion, that really inspired all of you to move in this direction?
We all talk about this, and I think we have a bunch of different thoughts on how it happened! My eldest sister Jen, was the first to start performing and I think we all just naturally fell into it. My dad put us in every class imaginable, skating, skiing, visual arts, dance, acting, and we just naturally gravitated to the arts! Tamara and I went to Claude Watson School for the Arts, and Jen went to Earl Haig, so it was also helpful we had the resources to explore our talents at school.
We also had an incredibly supportive family. It was never questioned if we could do this as a career, so I was never scared to say, “Hey, I wanna go to theatre school,” or “I’m going to start a career as an actor and dancer!”And it was so much more helpful that Jen had success at a young age, because then we could say, see, Jen did it, we can do it!
What’s been bringing you joy lately?
The Sun!! And the warmer weather! My husband and I try to get our 10,000 steps in everyday, so we go on these long walks, and each listen to our podcasts, sometimes we talk, or just walk in silence. It’s one thing I’ll take with me in the post Covid world, walking and listening to the birds, and just enjoying the scenery. I find myself sitting in the sun, and enjoying the really simple things you can do to recharge, that don’t cost anything. It changes my whole mood, and I feel refreshed and ready to get to work. Also, I am loving the Headspace series on Netflix. I pop it on when I need a quick mediation, I love the visuals, and it can calm me right down in a stressful moment.