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Using television for social change and enlightenment

30 Dec 2021

An interview with actress Shailene Garnett from CBC Television's legal drama, Diggstown. We delve into season 3, which explores a changed post-COVID society and the injustices threatening the lives of racialized communities.

The first Canadian drama series to feature a Black Canadian woman as its lead character, CBC Television's legal series, Diggstown, stars Vinessa Antoine as Marcie Diggs, a lawyer who leaves her high-powered corporate job to work for a legal aid clinic in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia after her aunt commits suicide.

In this podcast episode, we speak with Canadian actress and filmmaker Shailene Garnett, who plays the role of Iris Beals, a social worker, on Diggstown.

Born and raised in MontrealQuebec, Garnett worked in an elementary school as a teacher's assistant prior to beginning her career as an actress.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ Apart from starring in CBC's Diggstown, she's known for her work in the long-running CBC series Murdoch Mysteries – where she plays the role of Nomi Johnston. She can also be seen in the Freeform series Shadowhunters, and the Netflix series Between. She has also appeared in the feature films The Dirties and Best Man Holiday. 

The third season, which recently completed its run from October 6 to November 24, 2021, explores how the world has changed in a post-COVID society. From exacerbating the chasm between the rich and the poor to diving deep into the injustices threatening the lives of racialized communities.

Since the airing of the first season back in March of 2019, Diggstown has not shied away from tackling issues that are not often spoken about publicly and using television for "social change and enlightenment," as the show's creator, Showrunner, and Executive Producer, Floyd Kane, explained.


Show notes

Diggstown - CBC

Stream Diggstown on CBC Gem

Diggstown on social media

Shailene Garnett on social media


Show transcript 

[00:02:16.910] - AfroToronto

I'd like to just go back to the Genesis a bit of it, and just tell me how you got involved with acting. I know you were a teacher previously but was it something that, as a kid, you always wanted to do?
[00:02:28.280] - Shailene Garnett

Oh, my gosh. Yes. When I was three years old, I told my mom I wanted to be an actor. It was something I always just wanted to do. I think innately. It's just I had to overcome the hurdles of being incredibly shy.

[00:02:42.130] - AfroToronto

Okay. All right.

[00:02:43.170] - Shailene Garnett

So once I got past that, I kind of figured it out.

[00:02:46.710] - AfroToronto

Yeah. So what is it like to ... obviously, you're Canadian but live in LA. So you're doing shows in Canada. So how do you manage all this travelling and all that? 

[00:02:59.950] - Shailene Garnett

It was fine. It was fine for a while. I travelled a lot. My friends used to call me Carmen San Diego. It wasn't: hey, how are you? It was: hey, where are you?

[00:03:09.980] - AfroToronto

Where are you, right.

[00:03:10.900] - Shailene Garnett

Yeah. So I was totally fine and used to it. My family is from the US as well. So I always went back and forth at any given time—regarding for work or not. So it was fun. It was always a new adventure, a new opportunity. I loved flying.

[00:03:26.470] - AfroToronto

Tell me about working with the show Diggstown. Growing up in Canada, I know we had Street Legal—giving up my age here. So now it's great to see a Black lead character and more of a diverse cast to show this kind of legal drama on TV, in Canadian TV. So, tell me about this aspect of having this kind of exposure for multicultural artists on the big screen.

[00:03:58.070] - Shailene Garnett

Well, I say all the time that I don't think there's a show like this out, and I love the fact that, first of all, let me start from Floyd, the showrunner, creator and writer. He is impeccable, and I've never been on a show where I feel so loved and embraced and heard as an actor. And he very much takes the time [not only] to get to know us, but also to incorporate our input. Any ideas we have for the characters or storylines, whatever, which is, like, hugely valuable. But also, in addition to that, we are telling stories that we haven't heard before to this capacity. 

[00:04:44.510] - Shailene Garnett

What moves me the most when I have friends or other actors come on the show, talking so highly or speaking so highly about the show and saying, I get to play this story like, this is my story. And then I finally get to be a part of it. And across the spectrum, you have so many people who see themselves in a way that they haven't before.

[00:05:03.560] - AfroToronto

Tell me a bit about your character. I know that you're working in a legal aid office. You get to deal with different types of personalities, and maybe your character can be easy to take and hard to take at other times. So, tell me about playing that character.

[00:05:21.530] - Shailene Garnett

I think Iris is fun. She's a lot of fun to play, and her character is pretty adaptable to any situation. But now that she's grown over the last three seasons, she knows what she really stands for, and she can fight for that—in a way that she hasn't been able to in previous seasons. But also, I like to use the word sassy in that I had a lot of fun with the attitude, cut-eye, you know a lot of that back talk. She really stands her ground now that she's more comfortable in her role.

[00:06:01.850] - AfroToronto

Okay. I know that the latest season delves a lot into the pandemic. So tell me about how you personally have dealt with the pandemic and how this may have been reflected on the show? Any similarities that you found?

[00:06:19.250] - Shailene Garnett

Okay. Well, I think this goes across the board where we all kind of found our bubbles.

[00:06:25.910] - AfroToronto

Yeah.

[00:06:27.050] - Shailene Garnett

I was actually really fortunate in that I was on Murdoch [Mysteries], and Murdoch was, to my understanding, the first show that came back. So I was very fortunate to jump right back into it. I don't want to say we were the guinea pigs. But we were testing out the protocols from the jump. So I got to see the transition of how we started versus what we ended up with, at least with other productions that I went onto.

[00:06:52.230] - Shailene Garnett

But in the story, [it was] a similar situation where we're all just ready and eager to get back to work. We found our bubbles, Iris found her hub, and we explored the dynamics of what that means. And what else? So shooting was fine, as Shailen, shooting was fine; it was great. We were totally safe. A lot of protocols were put into place. That was fine. And shooting during this pandemic, I didn't have the luxury of flying back and forth like I normally do. But it was great because most of us were living in very close proximity, like in the same apartment complex.

[00:07:34.500] - Shailene Garnett

So we had each other. And that was a lifesaver for me.

[00:07:39.310] - AfroToronto

Yeah.

[00:07:40.530] - Shailene Garnett

And in the show, some of the cases that we talk about are the complications that come up from COVID. It's interesting. It's very relatable this year, and the show completely levelled up. If you've never watched the show, you can start from season 3. And you will not be disappointed. You will not be lost. We kind of had our own reintroduction because we took so much time off.

[00:09:18.690] - AfroToronto

Tell me about the chemistry between the different cast members, as far as how you vibe with them and how, as a team, you [put] this together.

[00:09:32.050] - Shailene Garnett

As a cast and not the characters? Well, as a cast, I feel incredibly lucky because we genuinely like each other. We're actually friends. And I think part of that comes with: (A) having three seasons together to grow and to get to connect, (B) being in such a beautiful part of Canada together, which is not home to any of us. Currently, we all live everywhere else. But also too, during the lockdowns that we've experienced, we've spent a lot more time, and on any given day, you could find any combination of us hanging out, dinners, walks, exercising.

[00:10:11.130] - Shailene Garnett

Honestly, I feel really lucky to be a part of this team.

[00:10:14.150] - AfroToronto

Yeah. And it's interesting, as you mentioned, the series is filmed on location in Nova Scotia in the historically Black communities of North and East Preston. So that's definitely significant to show. First of all, [that] there is a Black presence there—a long time Black presence there. And also the importance of telling the story of that community. So have you had any feedback from the local residents about the presence of the show and how they're being portrayed?

[00:10:45.210] - Shailene Garnett

Absolutely. Oh, my gosh, absolutely. I find the community, like Preston, East and North Preston, the people who come on to set, whether it's actors, background crew, whatever, they're hugely responsive to the show. And I think it's because this is the first time they've actually seen themselves represented in this way. I would say pretty ... I don't want to say authentically, but, like, pretty close to being authentic. And what's also great is that some of the names incorporated in the show are names of families from Preston. So I'm a Beales; I met a Diggs; I met the Diggs family. It's really special to have people come up to you, and you see how excited they are just to be a part of this because it's about them. It's about their community. And we're not speaking about them negatively.

[00:11:37.990] - AfroToronto

Yeah.

[00:11:39.750] - Shailene Garnett

It's really special. It's really cool. I think we have the most support or feedback from them.

[00:11:45.410] - AfroToronto

Okay. This is great. Yeah. That's really important because, as we say, representation is everything and you might find young people who want to become lawyers or social workers.

[00:11:55.230] - Shailene Garnett

Absolutely.

[00:11:57.830] - Shailene Garnett

There are two things, we have been reaching out to, or at least I've been having conversations like, hey, just to get the accent just to get some of the cultural references. I'm from the Caribbean background, right? Which is different than being from an African Scotian background. And as much as I can relate, I also want to make sure I have as much of the nuances that I can get. I do want to do a really great job representing. But what's great about Diggtownhe, the second part, is there seems to be a lot of community outreach.

[00:12:31.990] - Shailene Garnett

So not only are we portraying people from Preston, we're actually including them in our project and also giving back and including them in those extracurriculars, which is like, yeah, such a great show.

[00:12:45.630] - AfroToronto

Yeah. This is great. So speaking about working with young people in the community, tell me about your background as a teacher, and then how much of that have you been able to transfer over to your acting career and as far as understanding how people feel and dealing with people?

[00:13:07.570] - Shailene Garnett

Okay. So I have a pretty extensive background in early childhood development, and I would say behavioural development as well. So what I started off doing was teaching English as a second language. I was living in the Eastern townships of Quebec working out there, and I stopped because I got scouted for acting. So I put that on hold. And I worked on my acting career, and eventually, I found opportunities where I've been able to coach. And I found my niche with children, like young actors. So, how that's been translating is over the last three seasons, I had this spark of an idea that has been brewing, and finally coming to fruition at the end of October, which is I've put together this workshop.

[00:13:56.930] - Shailene Garnett

The working title is Elevate, and it's going to be a pilot program, but we're bringing a workshop to Nova Scotia to develop the roster of local diverse talent.

[00:14:09.260] - AfroToronto

Good.

[00:14:09.740] - Shailene Garnett

In 2015, with the tax credit cut out of the film tax credit cut, the industry was completely decimated. So here's an opportunity now where I want to introduce, and these are, like, nonactors who have dabbled in the industry because we're really running out of local talent to pull from. And I want to develop them and just give them a taste of what this is. Right? And so this is in conjunction with other initiatives where we want to have ultimately a big hub where we can just support talent.

[00:14:41.510] - AfroToronto

Okay. All right.

[00:14:42.530] - Shailene Garnett

In that regard, I've been back at it and teaching again.

[00:14:45.920] - AfroToronto

Okay. So for some of the people who might be listening to this and want to go into acting and become a working actor. What are your suggestions or tips as far as being a working actor? Obviously, there's a lot of discipline involved, especially while you're working both in Canada and the US. But I know that perhaps maybe it's more challenging if you're Canadian as far as there's more of a diversity of ... We might do some voiceover acting, we might do some film and some TV just to make enough of a living to work as an actor. So, tell me a bit about the work behind the goes into being a working actor?

[00:15:27.730] - Shailene Garnett

How to be a working actor? I think you touched upon it. I think it just comes with dedication and discipline and committing. The biggest thing you have to do is just commit to the role. But in terms of actually moving, anybody can commit to the work, but in terms of actually moving forward, it's a business. And I think you need to look at it as such because there is the lovely creative side of it. But there has to be strategy and planning and business involved. So when it comes to being a working actor, I would say reach out to anybody you can within the industry just to start picking their brain because we all have such a different journey and a different experience and different advice to offer.

[00:16:10.030] - Shailene Garnett

And you kind of collect your own pool of your own recipe of what's going to work for you.

[00:16:15.410] - AfroToronto

Yeah, okay.

[00:16:17.350] - Shailene Garnett

When opportunities present themselves, I totally recommend volunteering reaching, reaching out to student films, just getting experience and working your way up.

[00:16:29.990] - AfroToronto

Okay. So tell me about some of the other shows you've been working on. I know we spoke a bit about Murdoch Mysteries and Amazon's Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan and other projects you've been involved in. Give us an idea.

[00:16:44.110] - Shailene Garnett

So Jack Ryan was pretty cool. Jack Ryan was cool because I got to live in Morocco for a month and a half.

[00:16:49.830] - AfroToronto

Oh, nice.

[00:16:52.270] - Shailene Garnett

So that was amazing. And I met some pretty cool friends that I'm still in touch with, like now. But that was super easy. We wake up at a five-star hotel, go to work, get dirt put on us. I was part of a group, as a hostage, that was ... whatever. So it was fine. It was more of, like the experience in that, which I totally cherish. But I will say Murdoch, and I've said this before, and I'll continue to say it. Murdoch holds a very special place in my heart.

[00:17:17.240] - Shailene Garnett

And I'll tell you why. So growing up with my grandparents in Montreal, we never had cable. We had CBC. So I grew up on CBC. And when I booked Murdoch, it was the first and only show that I could call my grandma and say, hey, I booked Murdoch, and she knew what I was talking about. She knew the show. She was able to engage in a conversation with me about my character and the storyline. She got to see me. And that was so special. Oh, God, I love that show.

[00:17:49.790] - Shailene Garnett

I love that show and the costumes, everything. So that holds a special place in my heart. And then Jack Ryan, The Moodys, Shadowhuntershat—that was a while ago. That was a lot of fun. That was my first major recurring role.

[00:18:08.670] - AfroToronto

Okay.

[00:18:09.520] - Shailene Garnett

And I love the book. So that was just like a dream come true.

[00:18:15.250] - AfroToronto

What was it like, the feeling of having your first acting role?

[00:18:21.710] - Shailene Garnett

Oh my God! I cried. Crying is being modest. I was sobbing. When I got the call because I went through so many auditions to get that particular role. And I auditioned for it two separate times because it was a movie first.

[00:18:38.410] - AfroToronto

Okay.

[00:18:38.920] - Shailene Garnett

And the movie then got cancelled. It was just such a roller coast to get that role. And I got the call that I booked the role, and I called, my mom sobbing, just like sobbing. And she's like: oh my gosh, what's wrong? What are you saying? I'm like, I booked the role! And she's like oh, I mean, great. That's great. Okay, calm down. So that was special. It's like, listen, when you are after something your entire life, since I was three, these milestones, which might be like whatever to somebody else. It's a big deal.

[00:19:17.470] - Shailene Garnett

It's a big deal. And Diggstown is one of those milestones for me. It's a big deal show. And on top of it being a big deal, it's like, it's something you're so connected to on other fronts. This is my first series regular role, but on top of that, the relationships that have come out of it, the stories that are being told, the feedback that we're getting. It's a very special project.

[00:19:47.450] - AfroToronto

Yeah. I thought about the idea of just being on a Canadian show, like the meaning of being on a Canadian or US show. What are some of the differences? Because I know your parents are from the US, but you also were born here, and you grew up here as well. So, tell me about the difference between working here in Canada and the US. Does it mean different things to you?

[00:20:13.690] - Shailene Garnett

It's a great question. So what's cool about working in the US. My family is both my mom's from Canada, my dad's from the US.

[00:20:21.440] - AfroToronto

Okay.

[00:20:22.100] - Shailene Garnett

So, I have family in both places. And just growing up in Canada, I didn't have the opportunity to see my US family as often. So it's really special when they hear I'm an actor, but they can never see my work because it's always aired in Canada and geoblocked in the US. But I was able to bring some family on set with me, like, they can really see what I do. So that's been special, but also too. The main difference, in my opinion, is specifically when it comes to, like, broadcasting is the eyes that are put onto the show.

[00:20:54.610] - Shailene Garnett

So when it comes to Diggsown, it's really special being in Nova Scotia shooting up there; it's beautiful. The only thing is, I would love for it to get more exposure in the US because it's such a great show that needs to have eyes on it. You know what I mean?

[00:21:12.440] - AfroToronto

For sure.

[00:21:12.890] - Shailene Garnett

Like, you don't want these gems just to go kind of like left under the rug. You want people to see it, talk about it, and really experience what we poured our hearts and souls into.

[00:21:22.350] - AfroToronto

Exactly. Yeah. Hopefully ... I mean, I've heard of Americans who saw shows like Degrassi, and they still talk about years later.

[00:21:34.330] - Shailene Garnett

It was a big deal out here. It was a big deal out here.

[00:21:40.510] - AfroToronto

There's 'nuff Canadian actors in the US; the Canadian story needs to be told as well.

[00:21:46.450] - Shailene Garnett

I find, too, that I hate to say this, but I feel like we almost get more validation once the US sees us.

[00:21:55.600] - AfroToronto

Exactly.

[00:21:56.490] - Shailene Garnett

And I hate that that's the case. Maybe it's just because there are more people out here. I don't know. But having work or being in the US has its value. But also having roots in Canada is just, I think, something that's a given.

[00:22:12.680] - AfroToronto

Yeah, for sure. And Canadian tell our stories authentically, like the Preston neighbourhood and on the ground and doing that. And also ... there's some Black people I speak to in the US that don't even know there that many Black people in Canada.

[00:22:28.930] - Shailene Garnett

I know, I know! It's crazy.

[00:22:33.850] - Shailene Garnett

Look, and I say this, and I'm like, super embarrassed about it. But before the Book of Negroes, CBC did the Book of Negroes. Before the Book of Negroes, honestly, I did not realize how massive the Black population in Nova Scotia was. I didn't know that. You know what I mean? Like, my history came from a different way. I didn't learn the Black history that I should have.

[00:22:57.090] - AfroToronto

Yes.

[00:22:58.070] - Shailene Garnett

So ... getting Diggsown and being on Diggstown is like I'm asking questions every season, and I'm learning more and more and more. And it's like if I didn't know this and I was born and raised in Canada, you know what I mean? How many people don't know this as well? 

[00:23:15.130] - AfroToronto

Yeah. Because I had a conversation earlier in a previous podcast episode when I talked about Black History Month and how it coincides with the same month as the US. And my guest was saying it should have been a different month. Because we find that, at least when I was growing up, it was a lot of Martin Luther King and US history. And it's only recently, like with books like Afua Cooper's Angelique and as you mentioned the different books and movies that have come out, television series, that are really opening up a lot of people's eyes to the reality and the history of the African-Canadian presence.

[00:23:59.330] - AfroToronto

That's why I think it's only important here, but it's important for the world to see it. So hopefully, that will come more and more as the years go by.

[00:24:08.250] - Shailene Garnett

You know, if I had a say in Canadian curriculum, I honestly wish that we could have Black History Month, but extend it. Why can't we have a year-long curriculum? I feel like there's just so much that you can't cover in a month, especially the shortest month of the year. Let's just make it ongoing; there's so much we can learn. And it's like, I don't know. You just really have to take it upon yourself to educate. There's just so much out there that we just don't know.

[00:24:45.020] - AfroToronto

Yeah. Exactly. So, fingers crossed things will get better.

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