“It’s 2024 and we only just saw Indigenous representation at the Oscars”: A Q&A with Little Bird creator Jennifer Podemski

“It’s 2024 and we only just saw Indigenous representation at the Oscars”: A Q&A with Little Bird creator Jennifer Podemski

The actor-turned-producer talks growing up in Toronto, filming in an apocalyptic Manitoba winter and working with Sixties Scoop survivors

Jennifer Podemski, creator of the Crave/APTN series Little Bird

Torontonian and Canadian screen veteran Jennifer Podemski has spent her career fighting for Indigenous creative control and autonomy in film and television. “I will never do anything ever again where I am the only Indigenous person on the team,” she says. “Up until Little Bird, that was often my reality.” The Crave/APTN series follows the story of Bezhig Little Bird, a five-year-old from Long Pine Reserve, in Saskatchewan, who is separated from her family during the Sixties Scoop and adopted by a Jewish family in Montreal. We spoke to Podemski about her multi-year odyssey to bring the show to life, its 19 Canadian Screen Award nominations and why she moved to Barrie.

First of all, I have to ask: Do you remember being on MTV Cribs?
I think I’m more famous for that episode than for most of the other things I’ve done.

It may be the only episode of Cribs with a Toronto Life reference. Are you still living in that North York bungalow?
I actually moved to Barrie after that house. My life is still very much in Toronto, though, because that’s where my family lives. But I moved to Barrie because I needed a better quality of life. I was born and raised in Toronto, in North York, until I was 40. I bought my first house in the same neighborhood that I was raised in, which is so weird.

What was it like growing up here?
Toronto is such a big part of my identity. One of the things I always talk about is going to Ledbury Park Elementary, at Bathurst and Wilson. I don’t know if it was just the school or the government at the time, but every teacher had an extracurricular arts program. I did dance, choir and visual art, and I travelled the city playing clarinet and recorder at old-age homes. My formative performing experience was when I joined a community theatre group at the Adath Israel synagogue at Bathurst and Wilson. I was the little outsider kid invited by a friend—I was Jewish, but I didn’t really fit in to Jewish circles. But I really thrived there.

You began your career as an actor but decided to become a producer after someone asked you to fill out a “hot sheet.” What exactly is a hot sheet?
In 1998, my sister Tamara got the part of Maureen in Rent on Broadway, and instead of congratulating her, the first thing I said was, “Can I come with you?” I had quit television and decided I couldn’t deal with the business anymore. So I was living on her couch and trying to find myself, kind of at rock bottom. Then I got this acting agent in New York, and she asked me to fill out a hot sheet. I don’t even know if it’s a real thing or if she invented it. But she was just like, “Find everything good that anyone’s ever said about you and put it all on one page with your picture in the middle.” 

So I was putting this thing together, and I just felt so disgusted. I just thought, This is the dumbest exercise. If that’s what acting is, I don’t want to be a part of it. I looked up at the sky, and I was like, “Creator, please tell me what I’m supposed to do.” I was angry and frustrated, and I wanted to create space. And that’s really the path I took. It doesn’t unfold in front of you—it appears as you move forward. 

Is that when you came back to Toronto to start your own production company?
After that, I was invited to host the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, and then I got offered a role in Riverdale. So I went back home and came out of hiding. I met with producer Laura Milliken and told her I wanted to open a production company, that I wanted to take over the industry and uplift Indigenous people and our communities. It just so happened that Melissa DiMarco, who had a show on late-night cable called Nite Life, was also on Riverdale. So at lunch we’d meet up and I’d say, “Okay, tell me how to make a budget. Tell me how to make a show.” And she started showing me the ropes.

Little Bird, the show you co-created with Hannah Moscovitch, is nominated for 19 Canadian Screen Awards this year. How does it feel?
I’m totally overwhelmed. I didn’t expect that kind of response. I’m extremely happy and so grateful. I feel like this is a very sweet end to a very devastating journey of creating and making this show. Satisfying—I think that’s the best word. My kids are 12 and 14, and they use that word a lot to describe ASMR.

Little Bird seems like something you’ve been preparing for your whole life. What do you consider the beginning of this journey?
Honestly, I think it started the day I was born, because on that day I was taken from my mother, who was a single native teen in Toronto. I was very lucky that she had a social worker who was about to retire, who said, “I’m not going to allow this to happen” and got me back from foster care. That planted the seeds for all of the things, good and bad, that would happen and inform my work as a storyteller.

The series isn’t a documentary, but it’s so transportive that it makes you feel like you’re stepping through time. How did you achieve that?
I created a role on this show called “cultural authenticity steward,” which was filled by my aunt Sharon Anaquod. My mother’s an Anaquod from the Muscowpetung First Nation, in Saskatchewan, and she came on board too. This story was originally going to take place there, but there’s no tax credit in Saskatchewan, so we went to Manitoba. Our production partner Tanya Brunel drove to communities there, and we followed the river, and we eventually landed on Sioux Valley, which is a very good replica of Muscowpetung.

Sharon vetted every single thing in the script for accuracy. The interior of the pink house was essentially designed by Sharon in collaboration with David Brisbin, our brilliant production designer. Everything in that house is authentic, from the threads in the carpet to the wallpaper. Sharon would get on Zoom with everybody and say, “Okay guys, we’re going to talk about the outhouse today,” or, “I’m going to show you an example of exactly how the paint comes off the side of the pink house.”

I heard shooting conditions in Manitoba weren’t the easiest.
If you talk to anybody from Manitoba, they’ll say that the winter of 2022 was the most apocalyptic winter in history. The whole province shut down for two days. It was terrible. Shooting during Covid was hard enough. It felt almost impossible to deal with those restrictions on the creative process. We did our best to keep our spirits up, but I can confirm that there were a lot of tears and a lot of fights that we felt like we lost.

Little Bird is Crave’s first entry into prestige TV. What was it like to lead that?
When you’re creating something in the realm of “premium television,” you’re really on a quest to create something that’s never been done before, and I think we achieved that. I have to acknowledge Jeremy Podeswa, whom we were very lucky to get and who came on board right away. Having worked on Game of Thrones and Six Feet Under, he’s at the forefront of that look and tone. It was really an exercise in reimagining a formula.

The story follows Bezhig Little Bird (Darla Contois), who is adopted by a Jewish family in Montreal and given the name Esther. How much of your life story ended up in hers?
So much about Esther is not my life, but the essence of who she is is very personal to me. Much of what is not personal to me relates to my mother. I had this picture of my mother in the 1980s where she’s wearing a blue dress—we made the dress that Esther wears at her engagement party as an ode to my mother.

Two of the other people who built this show with me, Jeremy Podeswa and Christina Fon, are children of Holocaust survivors. I’m a grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, and I wanted so badly for Esther’s adoptive mother, Golda (played by Lisa Edelstein), to be a manifestation of my grandfather Joseph, who passed away before we finished making this.

Esther’s relationships with her siblings, Niizh (Joshua Odjick), Dora (Imajyn Cardinal) and Leo (Braeden Clarke), really drive the show. Who inspired their stories?
Some of the most important people in this process were our story advisers, like Raven Sinclair, who is a Sixties Scoop survivor; Elaine Kicknosway, who runs the Sixties Scoop Network; and Nakuset, a Sixties Scoop survivor who was raised in Westmount, Montreal, by a Jewish family. 

Those sibling relationships were informed by their experiences—either reuniting with their siblings, never meeting their siblings or losing their siblings. It’s not a documentary, of course, but it’s inspired by the truth and love of the people who lived these experiences.

You’ve spent your whole career championing creative control and autonomy for Indigenous people in cinema and TV. Do you feel like you achieved that with this project?
The Montreal-based production company that co-produced the show, Rezolution Pictures, is Indigenous-owned. When we partnered with our other co-producer, Original Pictures, with the experience of someone as seasoned as Kim Todd, it was so important to maintain this creative autonomy through an Indigenous lens in terms of hiring, creation and storytelling.

It taught me a lot about the importance of Indigenous leadership, specifically with Indigenous stories, because we rely so heavily on community. Those relationships have to be built, nurtured and respected. We are accountable to those relationships in ways that non-Indigenous people aren’t, because we exist in our community forever. I take that role very seriously.

Back to awards season: How did you feel about Killers of the Flower Moon and Lily Gladstone’s Golden Globes win?
I was triggered by the film. I didn’t love that it centered a white guy when the story really belongs to Lily Gladstone’s character, Mollie Burkhart, because of what she did in real life: going to Washington, leading the investigation and essentially storming the castle. The fact that her story was sidelined was extremely upsetting. However, that was offset by Lily’s exquisite performance, by her strength, and by all of the people from the Osage Nation who came together to support the creation of the project. It’s 2024, and we only just saw Indigenous representation at the Academy Awards. It would have been nice to see Lily win an Oscar, but to me, we’ve already won because of that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.