When Jennifer Podemski approached Tonya Lee Williams at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) about playing a role in her first feature production, Williams willingly obliged.
They have been friends for over two decades and Podemski, who co-hosted an episode of CBC’s Wonderstruck at age 12, sat on the board of the Reel World Film Festival that Williams founded 13 years ago to showcase Canada’s diversity and provide a platform for visible minorities to display their artistic talent and in the process motivate audiences through film.
Williams plays the role of a social worker in Empire of Dirt that premiered at this year’s TIFF. The film opens in theatres on November 22.
“I was thrilled that Tonya accepted our offer to be in the film,” said Podemski who has some 35 film and television roles and two Gemini awards under her belt. “She’s a grounded and natural actor whose participation helped us achieve the strength and realism we were hoping for. I am forever grateful.”
A story about three generations of Native Canadian women who find history repeating itself, the 93-minute film follows a single mother in a cycle of poverty who, in an attempt to save her teenage daughter from the streets, returns home and reconciles with her own mother.
“The role I play is quite small, but the story is very powerful,” said Williams, a two-time Emmy nominated actress. “The whole impact of the story, I think, is going to play very well. It’s a great story for the Aboriginal community, but also a great story for any community because it talks about women without fathers and husbands and the communities where the men’s presence is absent and how that affects generations of children.”
The low-budget movie was shot in Toronto and Keswick and directed by Peter Stebbings who said he aligned himself with the project because he was drawn to the characters in the script which he found fresh and original.
“There have been many times over the course of the last three and a half years this project may not have happened,” he said. “Financing fell through and up until very recently, we weren’t sure if we had enough money to pull it off. From a career perspective, it sounds like career suicide, yet I really wanted to embrace the challenge of doing a low-budget film and play a little small ball.”
Williams heads to her Los Angeles home next week after spending the last few months travelling. She attended the Cannes and Zanzibar Film Festivals, represented The Young and the Restless at the Monte Carlo Televsion Festival and contracted an agent while in London this summer for nearly two months.
“I just took some time to explore and feel out what I wanted to do,” Williams said. “I like what they are doing in London, especially when it comes to older actors. Their projects always seem to be mature and very interesting and there is a part of me that will love to explore that as well. I was born there, so I can work in England.”
Crowned Miss Black Ontario in 1977 when she was 18, Williams landed small TV roles and worked in Canadian theatre for a few years before heading to Los Angeles 26 years ago in search of a major acting role. She is best known for her role as Dr. Olivia Hastings on the daytime drama, The Young and the Restless.
After leaving the show in 2005, Williams returned in 2008 and was part of the soap opera for another three years.
“I officially left two years ago because there really wasn’t any storylines for me,” she said. “I felt like they were bringing me on so the audience would feel good to see me. I would either be standing at someone’s wedding, or hanging around at a funeral or baby christening. There is only so much of that you can do without feeling it.”