Women of a Certain Age
I was inspired by the words of Catherine O’Hara upon accepting her 2020 Emmy Award: “I will forever be grateful… for the opportunity to play a woman of a certain age, my age, who gets to fully be herself.”
As I approach middle age, I am a woman facing a time of reckoning. My world is changing. My entire existence and sense of self is shifting. It is all happening very fast; I struggle to embrace a new identity entirely foreign to me.
To help me navigate this new identity, I decided to reach out to nine ACTRA members from across Canada and ask them to share their stories, wisdom and experience with us. To inspire and tell us what it means to them to be a woman of a certain age.
Collaborating with these nine women has been an incredible experience. I consider myself fortunate and blessed to have connected with them on such a personal level.
My deepest thanks to Nancy Sorel, Arlene Duncan, Wendi Smallwood, Carol Gay Bell, Shelley Thompson, BJ Harrison, Kate Hurman, Tina Lameman and Ranee Leefor sharing what it means to them to be a woman of a certain age.
Carol Gay Bell
This Regina-born Order of Canada recipient has enjoyed an interesting and successful career in the media and the arts. Carol Gay Bell has been a producer, director, announcer, actor, commentator, reporter and was the first female and first Saskatchewan director of Musical Variety for CBC Television in Saskatchewan as well as the first jazz DJ in Canada. Carol joined ACTRA in the 1960s and is one of ACTRA Saskatchewan’s first 50 members.
Being a woman of “any age” has its challenges. Back in the days when I was in the media, some of the things I heard were: “Who wants to listen to a woman on the air?” and “We’ve never had a girl in the newsroom.”
For many, being a woman “of a certain age” equates to being “over the hill.” We cringe at the first grey hair, the first lines in our face, the age spots that suddenly appear. We wonder “who wants to look at this old face on screen?”
My wise mother always said If I wanted to succeed in a man’s world, I would have to be twice as smart, work twice as hard and be twice as good at my job…which I have always tried to do!
Be grateful for people who have great expectations of you. You will reach for the stars.
Arlene Duncan is a singer and award-winning stage, screen and voice actor. Notable credits include roles in Degrassi: Next Generation, Franklin the Turtle, Little Mosque on the Prairie and, most recently, Diggstown.
The industry often fails to see “women of a certain age” as whole and valuable persons with a wide range of emotions and experiences. There are similar challenges to being BIPOC: being confined to a particular look or limited to certain stories or stereotypes.
I am fortunate my career has helped me grow as an artist and increase visibility for people who look like me, creating a place for them and their stories on stage and screen.
Believe in yourself and your talent. Surround yourself with people who uplift you, know your personal limitations and continuously upgrade your skills. Never give up. When I started in this industry, there were obvious limits to how far the careers of women of colour could go. Over the years, those limits have lessened but there is still a long way to go.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, BJ Harrison now calls Vancouver, B.C. “home.” BJ initially got involved in the industry in the early ‘90s as a “stage mom” before later being approached by a Casting Director… and the rest is history! Since then, BJ’s film career has been full and profound and she has amassed at least 120 film credits to her name.
Being “a woman of a certain age” seldom crosses my mind in relation to my work. I have worked more as I have aged. I find the challenges encountered as a woman in the film industry are the same as those in life. My advice is to persevere through those challenges. Constantly work on your craft. Also, understand the business side of our industry.
I’m a woman of colour and older, both of which I see as a benefit. I see myself as a woman of a certain SAGE, not age.
Kate Hurman has lived in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton – and Australia – and now calls Ottawa her home. Over the course of her 30-year career, Kate has worked extensively across Canada in theatre, radio, film and television as an actor, director, voice artist, dramaturg and writer. In addition to her work in the arts sector, Kate also works with young adults with Autism as a Behavioural Therapist and Social Intercessor.
For me, the term ‘a woman of a certain age’ seems to equate a women’s worth in relation to one’s childbearing years. To this I say: It took me 59 years to get here and I earned every one of those years – scars, wrinkles and grey hairs! They are the cumulative nature of my story. I will not allow the fact that I am ‘living’ make my story any less important.
I have encountered casting couches, self-advocacy being viewed as being “difficult,” invisibility, structurally imposed difficulty enforcing professional boundaries, and both personally experienced and witnessed female actors body-shamed and humiliated by male directors.
You are an artist hired to do a job. Know yourself, know your boundaries, and do not be afraid to let both be known to others. Speak your mind and speak out loud.
Born on the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Alberta and now residing in Edmonton, Tina Lameman is known for her role as “Ma Ma Oo” on Monkey Beach for which she won the 2020 American Indian Film Festival Best Supporting Actress and 2020 Red Nation Film Festival Best Actress Awards. She also played “Josie” on the APTN series, Mixed Blessings, for which she won the 2008 Best Actress Rosie Award.
As a young actor who was Native and also Black, I didn’t quite fit into the ‘Hollywood’ ideal of what a Native woman is supposed to look like… even though I was born and raised on a First Nation and the daughter of a Chief. I didn’t get a lot of the roles for which I auditioned.
One thing that has always stuck with me was a comment from my acting instructor when I was in the Theatre Arts program at MacEwan University in the late ‘80s. I had actually decided to drop out and my acting teacher said, “I wish you would stay… you’re the one who’s gonna make it.” It was the first positive comment I had ever received about my acting. His comment was not lost on me and I eventually did return to acting as a single mom in the early ‘90s. Overall, the experience taught me all you need is that one positive line of encouragement… no matter your age.
For me, as a person of colour, I think it is actually getting better for me as I get older. I enjoy playing grandmother roles because… I am one. I can bring that wealth of knowledge and humour to the characters I play.
Being “a woman of a certain age” means you are not a young, sexy woman, but you are definitely a smarter and more professional woman who knows her craft.
Born in Brooklyn, NY, Ranee Lee is now a Canadian citizen and Montreal resident. Ranee’s acting career has ranged from voicework in several animation productions, to playing the Choirmaster in Bad Santa 2, to portraying Billie Holiday on stage, a role that earned her the Dora Mavor Moore Award. Ranee is also an accomplished jazz musician and recipient of a 2010 Juno Award.
Women of a certain age bear a wealth of experience and creative reliability that has been tested, worked, and honed over the years. We are who we are and whether roles are bountiful or not, we can only be who we are.
I am a woman of a certain age and colour, none of which I allow to be strikes against me or to determine my worth. I learn through teaching and teach by experience. That is my greatest strength. The rest is stamina and a warrior attitude. I can do this, I must, and I will!
Wendi Smallwood is a St. John’s-based writer, director, producer and actor. She currently serves as an ACTRA National Councillor and ACTRA Newfoundland/Labrador Branch Councillor.
I have been working in film since 1980 and auditioning as ‘a woman of certain age’ since my 35th birthday. Roles for women of ‘a certain age’ are limited with many of us vying for them. With roles few and far between, I sometimes feel invisible. In TV series’ towns, it seems like all the women over 40 have either died or moved ‘round the bay’.
It was a joy to play sexy, saucy and nasty as the Devil in The Devil and Ms. Jones. In Kerri MacDonald’s short film, Mum’s the Word, it was a hoot to romp through a seduction scene where I mistook my son for the local pharmacist on whom I had a crush.
Keep submitting for roles for your age, but if you look and feel younger then submit for those as well. Don’t be defeated by comments like: “I think you might be a little old for that role.” Find likeminded female filmmakers who are producing female-centred stories and support and work with them.
Nancy Sorel is an award-winning performer known for her roles as Marm McGoldrick in The Pinkertons and Clara Fine in Less Than Kind (for which she won an ACTRA Award, two Canadian Comedy Awards and a Canadian Screen Award Nomination). Most recently she won the 2021 ACTRA Manitoba Award for Outstanding Female Performance in a Short Film for her work in Platypus. Originally from Massachusetts, Nancy’s early career brought her to New York where she worked primarily in stage before moving to Los Angeles to star in the NBC daytime series Generations. Nancy eventually moved to Manitoba, which she now calls her home.
I aspire to one day play a woman who is completely and fully in her own power and unapologetically present on screen. Female and powerful. Older and beautiful. Strong and vulnerable.
It is interesting how invisible one can become upon showing up on set as a woman of a certain age. Doing good work and being professional isn’t enough for a woman in this industry. There is still the expectation to smile, be pleasant, and to not stand up for yourself or risk being labelled “difficult.” This really needs to change.
We are making steps towards equality. With more projects being written and directed by women, the roles will be there… it is starting to happen and I am ready.
I hope we will all stop referring to ourselves as “Actresses”. You’re an Actor. “Ess” implies “Less”. You will become what you call yourself. People will treat you the way you teach them to. Do the work. Show up twice as prepared as you know your male co-star will be. Pass on roles you feel won’t bring the message to the world that, “This woman matters”. You matter. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel that you don’t. If you don’t believe me, just ask your doctoress… I mean doctor! 😉
This Trailer Park Boys star calls Nova Scotia her “forever home.” Award-winning writer and director Shelley Thompson had a banner year in 2018 after taking home Best Short and Best Actress awards at the Atlantic International Film Festival, an Outstanding Performance ACTRA Award from the ACTRA Maritimes, and the Feature Film Award from Women in the Director’s Chair. Since then, Shelley has been busy using the proceeds from the Feature Film Award to shoot her debut feature film (which she also wrote), Dawn, Her Dad & The Tractor in Nova Scotia.
Aging in this business is not for the faint of heart. For my generation, you can be sure you have become a ‘woman of a certain age’ the moment you realize you’re not going to be cast as a character with romantic possibilities, or that no director will be asking you to take your clothes off.
Fortunately, this definition of a “woman of a certain age” is fading. Society and our industry are finally starting to recognize the full lives that deserve celebrating: women who have complex and varied experiences; who have supported families, friends and strangers through hardship and pain while growing in the process.
We’re here to build a world of art that speaks to people and moves them. The more we have experienced, learned and shared ourselves, the more interesting humans and better actors we will become.
Kalyn Bomback has been acting in the film industry for 25 years and has been a member of ACTRA for just about as long. She sits on the Executive of ACTRA Manitoba, chairs the ACTRA Manitoba Women’s Committee and is a member of the ACTRA National Women’s Committee.