My interview with Katherine Barrell (known widely as Kat Barrell) began at 10 pm on a Thursday night in Toronto. With my strong New Zealand accent and Skype between us, I thought communicating would be tough. As it turned out, it was one of the most fascinating conversations I have ever had.
Being a mutual fierce supporter and advocate for women, Kat talked passionately about her career, particularly the projects she is developing and her support for women’s stories. After an internet pinky promise to never steal each other’s movie ideas, we continued to chat for the next hour and a half.
After finishing high school, Kat made the decision to go to musical theater school to focus her studies equally on acting, singing, and dance. A few months later, her acting coach gave her a piece of advice that would alter her career path completely.
“Don't tell anyone I told you this, but I see a lot of promise in you. If you want to reach your full potential as an actor you’ll never do it here. Go focus solely on studying the craft of acting.”
Kat took that piece of advice and transferred to acclaimed George Brown Classical Theatre School in Toronto. Thanks to hard work, dedication, a sprinkling of luck and some good old fashioned guidance from a teacher, she is here today, making her mark on the world.
Kat now vacillates between acting, producing and directing.
She mentioned the moments when women have inspired her throughout her career.
“You know, I think I had a moment watching Catherine Reitman, the showrunner of Workin’ Moms. I watched her literally pass over her on-screen baby to take her real baby into her arms, all whilst giving notes to the cast, and that for me was such an empowered moment.
I am inspired by Sofia Coppola and her work on Marie Antoinette and the clear female lens that film passed through. Also watching Jennifer Lawrence rise through the industry over the past few years while retaining such strong integrity and sense of self – she seems like a pretty fantastic human.”
We both laughed at the fact that everyone, including us, wanted to be J.Law’s best friend. *Damn you Amy Schumer for getting there first*
I mentioned to Kat that Helen Hunt had been so inspiring for me over the years. She realized in her 40s and 50s that if she wanted to play interesting characters, she’d have to create them herself. As proof of this, she directed the final episode of Mad about You.
Helen Hunt’s reasons for directing were very similar to the reasons Kat formed her own production company, Kit Media.
“I was really tired of feeling so powerless as an actor, waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for someone else's approval and permission to do what I loved. [It] seemed a horrible career to lead. But when I was making my own movies it didn’t matter if a casting director liked me or not, or a producer wanted to hire me. I was going to do it anyway. I also realized that if I wasn't happy about the way women were being portrayed in the media I had no right to complain about it if I wasn’t willing to try to change it – and that meant I needed to get on the other side of the camera.”
Kat then talked about an actress that is my own inspiration, moon, and stars.
“…and Meryl Streep. I have idolized Meryl my whole life.”
What followed was a story of when Kat was in theater school. She was a little late one day and as she ran through the office area, she immediately felt this weird energy. She walked over to a gathering crowd. “Did you see her?” someone said. “Meryl Streep was just here taking a tour of the school.”
Missing Meryl by 45 seconds, Kat cried for the rest of the afternoon at rehearsal. She vowed, “if I ever get to meet Meryl, I am going to tell her that story.”
Kat and I bonded over our mutual Meryl adoration and tears that I too had shed over missing a Meryl appearance.
Then we talked about several short films Kat has created with her production company, including Cannonball, Issues, Mature Young Adults and Dissecting Gwen which she has recently both written and directed.
“The films I have been working on are very female-focused. I feel like I want to just keep doing things that are female-driven because that’s what I’m passionate about and it’s what I know. I don’t think I could tell a story that I am not somewhat connected to.
Also, every one of my films has a little magical realism quality to them. I’m not so interested in making movies about everyday life because I’m not interested in watching my everyday life. I’m really interested in ideas with some sort of magical element.
So women and magic – that’s my thing.”
It was intriguing and endearing to hear Kat’s humility when she talked about her work. She appeared reluctant to call herself a director.
“I think that you have to earn the title, I am not sure if I am there yet.”
When I asked Kat why she hadn’t done the whole “LA/New York thing” yet, her answer would make any Canadian weep with pride.
“I am really impressed with the things that my country is making right now and the things they are putting on TV. I love my country. I am a really proud Canadian and I love our culture.
Unfortunately, one of the greatest exports in my country is our talent. I think that’s such a shame and I believe we need to do everything we can to keep our talent here in Canada. And there are so many amazing incentives for female filmmakers. I would love to always have a home base here and fly back and forth. And with technology these days, it’s so easy.”
We jumped from film to television and talked about her role as police officer Nicole Haught in the Syfy channel hit, Wynonna Earp. Even though I am very familiar with the show, I almost called it “Wynonna Ryder” several times because that’s just where the brain goes. Luckily, I didn’t.
She explained how she transforms into the Wynonna Earp role of Nicole.
“I’m an outside-in actor. I become Nicole Haught when I put on her costume and when I wear her belt and boots. It does so much of the work for me, and it changes the way I walk and move through the world and immediately I feel like a different person. As an actor, I love going to costume fittings or picking props. Having any involvement in choosing the things that my character will interact with is a big part of my process but something I don’t always get much say in.”
When describing what Nicole means to her, Kat talked with such reverence about the fan-favorite character.
“Nicole has changed my life. This is my favorite experience that I have ever had as an actor because through Nicole, I Katherine, have been able to engage in so many of my big picture dreams and desires. Talking with you and meeting fans from all over the world has given me such a community. It’s through Nicole that I got all of this. So when I think about how much Nicole means to me, it’s absolutely the most monumental thing of my career.
It’s such a rare thing for an actor, you could go your whole career without reaching people on that level. And when I get these beautiful letters from fans about how much the character of Nicole means to them, it is so gratifying and so affirming that what I am doing is actually making a difference.”
It’s not just Kat that is grateful for the role. Fans from all over the world, particularly members of the LGBTQI community, have formed a loyal club of Nicole Haught fans or Nicole and Waverly fans - #WayHaught. Daily, they reach out to Kat on twitter and write fan mail.
A wee while ago, Kat posted a photo on Instagram of a pile of envelopes with stamps on them. I thought it was the fan mail that she had received. Instead, it was her responses to the fan mail. She didn’t tell me that. She never mentioned it at all. She only talked about what her fans had given her. If you ever want a lesson in humility and gratitude, that’s it right there.
After throwing love towards her fans, she threw it at the writers of Wynonna Earp.
“I am just a voice box for the amazing writing that’s happening and that’s who should be getting a lot of the credit. Because at the end of the day, it’s their ideas.”
Emily Andras is the crazy-talented showrunner behind Wynonna Earp. Emily has created the Nicole Haught character.
It was nearing the end of the conversation and as we were gravitating towards our goodbyes, Kat, once again, killed me with her kindness.
“How can I help? What more can I do because I feel what Narrative Muse is doing is so great.”
To me, taking an hour-and-a-half of her sleeping time was more than enough. It is because of artists like Kat, that Narrative Muse dedicates itself to celebrating women.
“I’m just trying so hard to do a good job and do the work justice,” she said.
As a writer, I draw my inspiration from so many different women in the world; the women in my family, my wonderful friends, the Narrative Muse community and of course the marvelous women of the screen. But now it's time to add someone else to that list of inspiring women. Her name is Kat Barrell and she is simply magical.
Feature photo by Jordan Probst and makeup by Ashley Dawn Szabadi