Big screen victory for NWT: Fort Smith teen chosen for lead of The Lesser Blessed film

Big screen victory for NWT: Fort Smith teen chosen for lead of The Lesser Blessed film
Joel Evans.

It was the last minute of the last day of auditions in the last town of the casting hunt when director Anita Doran spotted Fort Smith’s Joel Evans chatting with friends in the hall of PWK High School.

Doran, along with casting director Jason Knight, had been on a week-long search for “Larry Sole,” the character that would bring alive the film adaptation of Fort Smith author Richard Van Camp’s first novel, The Lesser Blessed.

How perfect, then, that they should find their “northern gem” in the very town that the novel’s fictional Fort Simmer is based on.

“I had the immediate gut feeling that he is it,” said Doran about seeing Evans for the first time. “We pulled him out of his math test and into audition and he just ignited the words and gave the text such succulent life, I was irrevocably convinced we found our man.”

It did not take long before Evans, a 16 year-old with no prior acting experience, had joined the cast and crew in northern Ontario to begin shooting as the lead role with co-stars Benjamin Bratt and the Twilight saga’s Kiowa Gordon, among others.

“It felt awesome” to be selected, Evans told The Journal in a phone interview during a rare free moment in his busy production schedule. “I felt like jumping for joy and everything like that.”

In mid-November he and his father, Maurice, packed up and headed to Toronto for him to meet his co-stars and start working on the character he was to play.

Now already halfway through filming, which is scheduled to end December 20, Evans may be the only teenager to express how much he loves having to get up early to go to work all day.

“I think I enjoy the working a lot,” he said. “It’s really fun doing the acting stuff.”

Evans is ‘Larry to a tee’: author Van Camp

Despite the sometimes uncomfortable nature of the film’s content – dealing with the realities of adolescent sexuality and serious undertones of childhood sexual abuse – Evans said he has found fight scene choreography more difficult than the important task of showing Larry’s pain.

“I do see some resemblances between myself (and Larry). Not really the troubled past, but some certain characterizations,” he said. “I just read the book and tried to put myself as much into the character that I read as much as possible. I just try to feel what he’s been feeling. It’s almost like it’s not really acting. It’s like being the character or something.”

So far, whatever Evans is doing seems to be working.

“A lot of the actors have asked me if this was my first project or my first time doing any acting or anything,” he said. “They sound almost surprised when I say it was. Some of them have even said that it’s really hard to tell it’s my first time and that I’m a natural or something.”

Even Van Camp, the story’s author, cannot believe the resemblances.

“Joel is Larry Sole to a tee – in voice, grace and innocence,” he told The Journal in an e-mail. “To think that he was one year-old when the novel came out and to know he’s a Fort Smither is the perfect victory for the NWT in terms of representation for the big screen. I’m so proud of him.”

Most supportive, said Evans, has been Doran herself.

“I’m just going to keep doing what she tells me,” said Evans with a chuckle. “That seems to be working so far, so I’ll just keep doing that.”

Sticking to the story

“When Anita introduced me to Richard’s book, I was completely awestruck by its unrelenting raw storytelling,” said award-winning producer Christina Piovesan of First Generation Films. “It is both a completely universal coming of age narrative, and a cutting edge story about a specific culture that hasn’t been depicted in film. Anita’s own outsider experience and visceral and poetic visual style are going to give it so much power – it is exciting for me to be in this creative mix.”

It took six years for Piovesan, the award-winning producer of Amreeka and The Whistleblower, to secure the final funding for a shoot in northern Ontario. After raising $2.2 million, the company was only $250,000 short to film in the Northwest Territories – Van Camp’s dream.

But the territorial government was either unable or unwilling to meet their appeal. Finally the Ontario government stepped in with $500,000.

Van Camp said it is a dream come true to see the film finally being realized.

“After seeing for myself how focused the actors are and to feel the great spirit on set – this is my biggest dream come true so far!” he said. “I was on set for a few days around Sudbury and was blown away by everything. There are no words to describe seeing my work come to life with trailers, actors, drivers, set designers, caterers, casting agents – you name it!”

Evans, who is not permitted to see any of the film until after the shoot is finished, said he cannot wait to see the film in its entirety.

“I think it’s going to be awesome, I can’t wait to watch it,” he said. “It really stays true to the spirit of the book, the script, I’d say.”

The Lesser Blessed film is set to be released in the summer of 2012.

Despite the 6:00 a.m. wake ups and numerous takes that contribute to his sometimes 13-hour days on the job, Evans said the entire experience so far has been a lot of fun.

“There has been some hard work, but other than that it’s been like summer camp or something like that,” he laughed.

But while Evans may be walking on sunshine, the story of Larry Sole is anything but campy. The groundbreaking northern novel delves into issues of abuse, teenage recklessness, bullying and addictions to depict what it is to be a young Aboriginal man in modern day North America.

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