Special to ICT
Watch out for wild aunties on the town now that the acclaimed series “Reservation Dogs” has returned for a second season.
In addition to all-Native writers and producers and top actors Gary Farmer and Zach McClarnon, the new season of the hit FX show features a sister act in the form of siblings Tamara and Sarah Podemski, Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi, from Toronto.
Sarah is returning for a second season as Rita Smallhill, the mother of Bear Smallhill, played by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai. This season, she gets a visit from Bear’s aunt, played by real-life sister Tamara for three episodes.
The two have several scenes together and are excited about the sibling bond they bring to the roles.
“You're doing everything that's true to the script, but there is that freedom to play,” Tamara told ICT via a Zoom call. “That was the most enjoyable part of it. I could go in, and I could trust that she's got my back. We are in many terrific scenes together.”
Sarah spoke to ICT from Ontario, where she is shooting her next project.
“We're not playing sisters, but we're playing best friends,” she said. “You go in sometimes needing to have back stories with other characters and actors that you have never met, but it's a real gift when you can go in and have a back story that is an intimate relationship and that comes across on screen.”
It is not Tamara’s first work with Sterlin Harjo, the co-creator and executive producer of “Reservation Dogs.” She also had a leading role in his first film as a director, “Four Sheets to the Wind,” for which she won a special jury prize for acting at the Sundance Film Festival. She is currently playing Deputy Sheriff Joy on “Outer Range.”
Sarah also has worked with Harjo before. She won best supporting actress at the American Indian Film Festival for the film, “Mekko,” written and directed by Harjo. And she is currently featured in the SyFy comedy, “Resident Alien.”
Tamara’s character, Teenie, is Bear’s aunt on his father’s side.
“I was best friends with all their moms and we all grew up together,” Tamara explained. “Then I left for the city and this is me coming back.”
Teenie doesn’t stay with Bear and Rita, but hangs out with them in different scenes.
“She's not staying with me,” Sarah said. “She's got her own situation going on, and we have a great episode, which is aunties’ night out where we really get up to some shenanigans. It’s going to be really funny. I think everyone's going to be very, very happy and pleased to finally see some Native women and Native aunties [go] crazy.”
Tamara said the second season brings a new dynamic to the Native women on the show.
“The episodes that I got to be a part of a move toward increasing the woman's voice in the show,” Tamara said. “A new space has been created in Season Two. I feel very honored to be a part of that new wave that's coming forth. I also think that the representation of women in one of the episodes, where the aunties all hit the town and the casino – there's a representation that we have not seen of Indigenous women on the screen.”
Native women in film have “predominantly, historically been shown through a male White gaze, and the series was created by men,” Tamara said. “So that’s great that they're shifting. There's been this movement to try to counter the oversexualization of Native women … What we're really looking at is a more honest representation of free, sexual, Native women. And that I think is going to rock people's world.”
Sarah said the new season also provides growth for her character, Rita.
“This season is a really great season for Rita, because we get to see her having a bit more fun and getting back to herself,” Sarah said. “She's not just Bear's mom this season. She's remembering who she is as a woman. There's a few really great episodes, and one in particular where Rita really gets to shine.”
The character is no longer quite so worried about Bear, Sarah said.
“There's lots of socializing for her and having fun and getting in touch with her joy,” she said. “Being on the market again and putting herself first. I think Rita feels like Bear's taken care of, and he is a good kid and she's really proud of him … She feels like, ‘You know what? Let's get back to me and my social life and who I am, and what my wants and needs are.’”
Tamara and Sarah followed their older sister, Jennifer Podemski, into acting, growing up in Toronto with a Jewish father and a mother who is Saulteaux/Ojibwe/Anishinaabe, Leni Lenape, and Métis.
Jennifer and Tamara appeared together in the film, “Dance Me Outside,” (1994), and in the Canadian television series, “The Rez,” which aired from 1996-1998.
Jennifer, at 48, is the oldest of the three sisters. She is perhaps best known for her work in the 2013 film, “Empire of Dirt,” and the Canadian television series, “The Rez,” which aired 1996-1998.
She also played Willie Jack’s mom in two episodes of Season 1 of “Reservation Dogs.”
Jennifer’s first film role was in 1993 in the Canadian television film, “The Diviners,” and she appeared most recently in the 2020 drama, “Akilla’s Escape.” She also created the documentary series, “Future History,” and a television series, “Unsettled,” both for APTN, and co-produced the drama series, “Little Bird,” for Crave.
Tamara, at 45, is the middle sister. She is perhaps best known for her work in the Harjo film, “Four Sheets to the Wind,” which brought the special jury award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and an Independent Spirit Award in 2007 for best supporting female.
Her first film appearance was as “Little Margaret” in the film, “Dance Me Outside,” which also included her sister, Jennifer. She currently is playing Deputy Sheriff Joy on “Outer Range,” and has had a recurring role since 2019 on the Canadian television series, “Coroner,” for which she won a Canadian Screen Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series in 2021.
She also has won a Canadian Screen Award for best writing for her work on Jennifer’s documentary series, “Future History.”
Her most recent film appearance was in the Canadian drama, “Guest of Honour,” released in 2020.
Sarah, at 37, is the youngest of the three sisters.
She began performing at age 6, and has appeared in the popular series, “Goosebumps.” She also has appeared in “Bull,” on CBS, “Tin Star” on Amazon, and in the CBC series, “Coroner,” which also features her sister Tamara.
She won best supporting actress at the American Indian Film Festival for the film, “Mekko,” written and directed by Harjo. She also writes and produces with her husband, James Gadon, and is an artist whose work has been featured in various markets across North America, according to her biography on IMDB.com.
She is currently working on a documentary series with her husband.
‘On the same team’
The sister act brought a new dynamic to the set, both for the characters and for the actors, Sarah said.
“They have a little bit of a history, but they also have this really beautiful friendship and love for each other,” Sarah said. “And obviously that wasn't that hard to play. Just being able to have that connection with Tamara was so great. And there was so much laughter. It was a really fun time to work together.”
It also gave the sisters a new look at themselves.
“It was really amazing to have Tamara there and see her work ethic and how kind she is and funny and just generous,” Sarah said. “And it was great to see her shine like that – how to be an actor on set when you're already on the same team in real life.”
Sarah said she has not played many Indigenous characters, especially those created by Native writers who know that world. While “Reservation Dogs” has plenty of humor, it also touches on serious issues and situations.
“That's something that's so special about ‘Reservations Dogs’ is that you have Indigenous writers writing these characters,” Sarah said. “There's a really fully realized character there that gives you all those highs and lows. They have the lived experience, and they know these women. So when you step into the characters, it's familiar.”
With Jennifer’s prior appearance on “Reservation Dogs,” is it possible the sisters could share an episode? Or perhaps have a show of their own?
“Open to suggestions!” Tamara laughs. “Maybe we just have to do it ourselves.”
Lead photo: Real-life sisters Sarah Podemski, left, and Tamara Podemski, will share the screen on Season 2 of "Reservation Dogs," which premiered on Aug. 3, 2022. Sarah plays Rita Smallhill, the mother to Bear Smallhill, and Tamara is joining the show for three episodes to play his auntie, Teenie. (Photo courtesy of FX)