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Phillip Lewitski was on his way home from visiting family in Manitoba when he read writer-director Bretten Hannam’s screenplay for the powerful coming-of-age drama Wildhood.
Hannam tells the story of Link, an abused two-spirited teenager who goes on an impromptu road trip after learning his mother, who he had been told was dead, is alive. Link is struggling with his identity of him as he hits the road with his half-brother of him, partially to escape an abusive home and a white father who had told the lie about his mother of her and cut him off from her Mi’kmaw her heritage.
As an actor with Mohawk heritage on his mother’s side, Lewitski could relate to certain aspects of Link’s story. He was not struggling with his identity but had developed a deep curiosity about his Mohawk roots as a teenager. There was a certain irony to reading a script about a road trip while on a road trip. Granted, he was n’t searching for his mother from him. His mother of him was with him and they read the screenplay together, which brought them both to tears. Suddenly Link’s story, and Lewitski’s road trip to see his mother’s side of the family, took on an added resonance.
“I wasn’t going there for preparation or to ask questions or to seek guidance, we are actually just going to visit,” he says. “It just so happened once we finished our trip up, that’s when the script landed in my lap. It was beautiful.”
With theatrical releases in Toronto and Vancouver and a high-profile presence on the festival circuit, Wildhood became one of the year’s most compelling success stories in Canadian cinema. It has been nominated for six Canadian Screen Awards, including nods for best picture, best screenplay and best actor for Lewitski. It took Hannam a full decade to develop the film, which was shot in the beautiful Annapolis Valley along the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.
Lewitski gives a remarkable and complex performance, poignantly conveying Link’s hurt, fury and confusion as he confronts both casual and not-so-casual racism on the road and struggles to come to terms with both his sexuality and the awareness that his mother abandoned him to. an abusive father. Along the way, he encounters a handsome, two-spirit powwow dancer named Pasmay played by Joshua Odjick, who also earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination for best supporting actor. Pasmay has his own troubled past but also knows the Mi’kmaw language and culture. While Link is initially hostile, the two are attracted to each other and eventually fall in love and Link begins to investigate his roots from him.
It’s a multi-layered story. As Link learns about his mother’s story from him, it brings to light how our country’s history of cultural repression has been internalized by generations of Indigenous people. But Wildhood is not a history lesson, it’s a delicate and romantic road movie that often recalls Gus Van Sant’s trailblazing 1990s cult film My Own Private Idaho.
“That’s what I love about Bret’s writing is that it’s so subtle and not in-your-face,” Lewitski says. “Even the two-spirited aspect – the movie is not about that. It’s about so many things, so many layers. I think that’s why people are attracted to it.”
Producers were convinced Lewitski was right for the role after watching him in the short-lived 2020 CBC Gem series Utopian Falls. The futuristic sci-fi show was a curious hybrid, a dystopian tale aimed at the young adult crowd about a society where teens from various strata compete in a strange talent competition. Lewitski played Apollo, a musician who underwent a cultural awakening when discovering his Mohawk roots. At that point, it was the actor’s most substantial role for him. Perhaps more importantly, it sent him on his journey of cultural awakening. To prepare, he visited his grandmother in Manitoba to immerse himself in Mohawk culture and music.
Of mixed French, Ukrainian and Mohawk background, Lewitski grew up with seven siblings in northwest Calgary. The family was homeschooled and the arts were a huge part of his education, particularly music. Mohawk culture was never discouraged – he had Indigenous friends and went to a few powwows when growing up – but it was never on the forefront either.
Having graduated to bigger roles in bigger productions, the actor says he is increasingly aware of the importance of telling Indigenous stories. I have played a M’ikmaw warrior in the historical drama, Vikings. In the upcoming Second World War drama Masters of the Air, which has Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as executive producers, he will play real-life bombardier Lieut. Francis Harper, whose family was part of the Koyukuk Tribe in Alaska.
He is also part of the ensemble cast of the upcoming Bones of Crows miniseries, which tells the story of a Cree matriarch and residential school survivor who becomes a codetalker during the Second World War.
It was on the Vancouver set of that production where Lewitski spoke to a First Nations elder who told the young actor about his own experiences in the residential school system. It was a reminder of the important role artists can play in ensuring such stories survive, he says.
“He told me his entire experience,” Lewitski says. “That will stick with me for the rest of my life and I will do everything I can now moving forward to make sure nothing unjust like that ever happens to anyone around me because I have shared his story about him. Through art, through storytelling, we can hopefully impact people in that way so that history does not repeat itself.”
The Canadian Screen Awards air Sunday on CBC and CBC Gem. Wildhood is now available on video-on-demand.