Not many performers can claim that their career choice comes from "a sense of justice." But when Tantoo Cardinal says it, she speaks from the heart.
"I got into acting through my political involvement," explains the actress, a Canadian native of Cree and Metis descent, who has made it her mission to portray indigenous people in a contemporary, realistic light. And her role as Sue Lynn Blackbird on ABC's Stumptown, she says, fits squarely with that goal.
Blackbird, the owner of a tribal casino, forges an unlikely alliance with Dex Parios (Cobie Smulders) when she offers the troubled Marine–turned–private eye a sleuthing job to help her pay off gambling debts.
"I've played a lot of strong characters, but Sue Lynn is different because as a businesswoman, her empowerment is right up front," Cardinal says. "She's tough, she's been around the world and she's a leader in her community — but she's also the CEO of her own company, and you get to see her in her element."
Cardinal has been in her element since landing her first role in a TV docudrama at age 21. Since then, she has amassed more than 120 television and film credits. Compared with her early gigs on TV Westerns, stepping into nuanced, multilayered characters on such shows as A&E's Longmire and Netflix's Godless has been, she says, "just a different world. For so long, we were invisible or were just historical characters. All that is in the midst of change."
The actress credits Stumptown executive producer Greg Rucka — whose graphic novel series of the same name is the basis for the series — with making Sue Lynn a role worth waiting for. And as for working with Smulders, "It's just been fabulous," Cardinal says. "She's such a respectful, solid human being who approaches her work with integrity."
While looking forward to season two, Cardinal has been working on a one-woman show based on her life. And she remains excited about indigenous artists coming into their own. "There's lots of interesting work emerging from our communities," she says. "We're moving in the right direction."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2020