An aboriginal lead character in a mainstream TV show that doesn't focus exclusively on aboriginal issues? Is it possible?
Yes, apparently it is. Arctic Air, CBC's new one-hour adventure series, which takes flight tonight (January 10 at 9 p.m.), is a rare thing indeed.
And who is the actor lucky enough to snag that role? Why it's Manitoba-born Adam Beach, best known for his roles in movies like Smoke Signals and Flags of Our Fathers. The good-looking, congenial Beach portrays Bobby Martin, a Vancouver venture capitalist who returns home to Yellowknife, where he struggles to keep a maverick airline running.
"It so happens that Bobby is of Dene ancestry," the laidback Beach told the Straight in an interview at the CBC Vancouver offices. "He speaks his language. But there's no need to fill in the obvious. So it's more focussed on character development, personal relationships…."
Creston, B.C.–born costar Pascale Hutton, who plays pilot Krista Ivarson (and both Bobby's childhood friend and romantic interest), added that "it's a part of who he is and it's a part of what our show is but it's not what defines his character or our show."
Hutton went into detail about the history and context of the two characters.
"Our fathers started an airline, Arctic Air, and so we kinda grew up in the airline together and in that world. And then he went away and our show and the story start with him returning. And really it's about him rediscovering his roots and through coming back to the north and coming back to the airline and all these people who have known him since he was little. So he's facing his past, and how does he incorporate who he is today with who he was when he was there, and also then our expectations and preconceived notions of who this guy was with who he is now."
Notably, Hutton's character is also progressive: she's a woman toughing it out in a male-dominated field and a harsh environment. "The character is…very strong, independent, forthright, no nonsense," she said. "She had definitely grown up in this world of men, and I think it's caused her to become even stronger and even more forthright and assertive. She sets her standards very, very high, and I think she has no patience for people who don't meet those standards either…. She's no damsel in distress, that's for sure."
Beach gave an example of how resourceful she is, even when it comes to romance. "There's an episode where she's going on a date in the woods," he said, "and she's the one who's cutting the logs and lugging everything around. And the guy is just like, 'Oh, I don't want to go out there.' "
With shoots in the Northwest Territories, Beach said it was inevitable that environmental themes became part of the storylines. "When you get there, it's like, you can't help but know that the land is greater than you. So that's an obvious thing to look at and share, and know that we have to protect this."
Hutton added that the environment informs almost everything that people do up there. "It is a bit of a conflict when you have…this immense land that you can see that is bigger than you but is also wealthy with resources. The juxtaposition of those two forces obviously bring environmental issues to the forefront of everything up there, like all businesses, all peoples' livelihood."
Hutton hopes it will provide Canadians a glimpse of a part of their own country they might be unfamiliar with. "It's truly, truly unlike anywhere else in Canada. And hopefully, it'll be this great opportunity for Canadians to see this part of the country that most people wouldn't travel to, wouldn't visit."
Both Beach and Hutton use the word "beautiful" countless times when the two are talking about the scenery in the Northwest Territories. But they were equally fascinated by the population there. Hutton says it's a misconception that it's only First Nations and Caucasian people living there.
"We noticed when we were up in Yellowknife, it's a really diverse, eclectic mix of people who are drawn to the north and stay up there and make their living there and set up roots there," Hutton said. "So it's this wealth of diversity and interesting stories and interesting characters that our show is able to mine."
Other characters on the show include the flirtatious Candi, played by Leah Gibson (who developed a real-life romance with Beach after the two met on the production); Indian flight school graduate Dev Panwar, played by Stephen Lobo (Little Mosque on the Prairie); Nova Scotian gearhead Cece Cooper, played by Tim Webber (North of 60); and former U.S. Air Force pilot Shontal Hicks, played by Kandyse Mcclure (Cole).
Both Beach and Hutton love the fact that it's a Canadian show. "This show has the potential to reach a lot of smaller communities and people across Canada in a way that a lot of American shows and American movies don't," Hutton said.
Arctic Air airs on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC, starting tonight (January 10).
You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.