In the mid-‘90s, Steven Cree Molison was on a path, of sorts. He was living in Prince George, B.C., working as a carpenter, among other things, and riding his motorcycle. He was a tough guy, in his late 30s, running with a tough crowd.
He’d had aspirations when he was younger of being an actor. When he was around 20 or so, he headed to Vancouver and tried working his way into Hollywood North — but nothing came of it, and he rolled back into real life, with a young family, and that tough crowd.
Then while out riding the highway one day — May 19, 1997 — his path crossed with a drunk driver, and as he says today, quietly sitting in a Yellowknife cafe: “Things changed.”
Molison was born in British Columbia to Metis parents, adopted when he was five months old and raised by white parents in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.
“I’m Metis, but I didn’t know that. I was adopted into a Caucasian family. Great, great people. My parents. I mean, I didn’t know them any other way. My brother was also adopted. He’s Status. So, we were just raised as two… idiots who ran around the territories.” He smiles nostalgically.
Molison, top centre, in Yellowknife with some pals when he was around 15 | Courtesy Steven Cree Molison
He’s in his late 50s now, a grandfather several times over. But he’s spent the summer working on his friend Trevor’s house down in Old Town, out there on the roof every day, with his son along for a bit of a bonding experience while they hang out with the old Old Town gang. He’s tanned, compact and toned by a summer of open-air carpentry.
“My father was a pilot and an aviation mechanic. We lived in Dawson City, then Watson Lake, then a place called Tungsten. And then we moved to Long Lake. Lived out there ‘til the snow came. I think it was ‘70 or ‘71. And then we moved up to 53rd St., into a basement. Then my dad bought a house for about 20 grand over on 56th St. I’d tell you the address but the people who live there now would start to cry, because of the price of houses now.” Molison lived here from the age of ten to the age of around 17, when, he says, “I found out there was a highway that led out of town, so I thought I’d check it out.”
Just before Molison shows up for our interview, I run into local filmmaker Kirsten Carthew. She has just finished directing her first feature, The Sun at Midnight. I tell her I’m meeting an actor who grew up here, a guy who has had bit parts in big movies ranging from Brokeback Mountain to 50 Shades of Grey, usually playing tough dudes and bikers. But she might know him better from the award-winning APTN series Blackstone, a warts-and-all political drama set on a First Nations community (and currently available on Netflix in Canada). His performance as complex strip-club entrepreneur Daryl Fraser got him three Leo nominations for Best Lead Performance by a Male in a Dramatic Series, and one win (in 2012). “Oh, that guy!” she says. “He’s really good.”
I invite her to stick around and say hello. Soon after Molison arrives the two are locked in an intense conversation about their mutual work, about independent movies and small crews, and Northern film. At one point, Molison pulls his sides — a section of a script he’s been given to read for an audition — out of his bag. The pages are deeply creased, after being folded and unfolded and worked over, and covered in scrawled notes in various colours of ink. He’s up for at least one sizable role in a pretty big premium cable show right now, and he’s still thinking about choices he made in his performance, earnestly bouncing ideas and reflections back at Carthew. The actor at work, finding his way into a role.
When he was 21, Molison started digging into his background. The birth of his own child had made him curious about who he was, where he came from.
“It’s funny. I was always in the Old Town. All my friends were from the Old Town. And still are. I’m in the Old Town now. It just really attracted me. And I never knew. And then I found my [birth] family. Just through having a child. I wanted to know about my health and history. I had gained custody of my daughter and I just wanted to know all about myself, and so I tracked down my family.
“It was interesting. It was a lot of… a big family, and lots of questions. It let me know who I was. It’s never bothered me. I mean, life’s just a roll of the dice, right? You can complain all you want but you gotta pick ‘em up and roll them. So, yeah, it was interesting that I found them, but still, it didn’t change who I was. It just reaffirmed how… why… It explained some things but it didn’t change anything. I’m Scottish and Cree. If I shave my hair and my beard I look like my mom. Otherwise I look like my father.”
He’s a chameleon. He shows me photos of his various incarnations over the years. A stout, amiable and completely unrecognizable fellow with a long black ponytail. A bushy-bearded Santa/biker astride his ride in the middle of the desert. A cragged, scary tough guy with a high-fade mohawk and a thousand-yard stare.
Molison, growing his beard out for a role recently | Photo courtesy Steven Cree Molison
The drunk driver hit hard. “Was in a coma,” Molison says, becoming extra laconic when describing its aftereffects. “Brain injury. Lost my speech. Broke a lot of bones. So, really, things came to a halt. The motorcycle life I was part of… I mean, I still ride, but… not as fast and as furious, let’s put it that way.”
The accident wiped Molison clean. “I lost everything and had to start my life over again,” he told the Prince George Citizen in 2012. He lost his marriage, his business, his house, his place in his motorcycle crew. He was left with a speech impediment, and with nothing much to hang on to except this piece of advice from his adoptive father: “My father always used to say ‘If you’re gonna fall, fall forward.’ So I kept getting up and going on.”
What Molison calls his “certain affiliation of motorcycle riders” had connections to the movie industry through the Teamsters, and when a Hollywood film called Reindeer Games, starring Ben Affleck, Gary Sinise and Charlize Theron, came to town in the late ‘90s, Molison “was hired to wash picture cars, because I had the brain injury and they wanted to keep me working.”
On the set, his old acting urges began to resurface. “The next thing you know I was driving people around and bodyguarding Gary Sinise. Just menial stuff. Then I was asked if I wanted to do a couple of stunts in the fight scenes. So I did that. And then Ben Affleck, we were talking and he said, ‘You gotta go to theatre school. It’ll help you with your speech impediment’ and he wrote me a letter of recommendation, which I still have.”
Armed with Affleck’s letter, Molison enrolled in Vancouver’s William B. Davis School of Acting, graduating two and a half years later, on May 19, 2001 — four years to the day — and four blocks — from his motorcycle accident.
Since then his career has slowly, steadily grown, from bit parts in big Hollywood films to his career highlight so far, his Leo-winning role in Blackstone.
“I’m still a carpenter,” Molison is quick to add, “and a struggling actor.” But Blackstone let him stretch out, and its tough take on Indigenous life and politics resonated with him:
“It was a very great opportunity to tell our stories. They touched a lot of current events, and what really made it sad was that a lot of these current events were current events when I was ten. And they’re still current events, 40 years later, 50 years later. It’s still the same struggle.
“The Northwest Territories is different — it’s like a hub up here. But in the rest of Canada there’s so many people out there that don’t really know what’s going on. You got social media now, which is a really nice lift, but Blackstone became that big campfire, if you will, and everybody started to realize this was happening on their rez. People got attached to Blackstone and said ‘Hey, that’s happening to us.’ All of a sudden the lines started connecting, and people realized it’s happening to everybody.
“A lot of folks in the Aboriginal community suffer quietly, you know. Because making a noise really doesn’t get you anywhere a lot of the time. And this isn’t just about Aboriginal people. This is happening in every city. But it made people realize that they’re not alone. It’s been a really good thing. I think it’ll go down in history as a positive show. It rips the scabs off a lot of old wounds, but sometimes it takes analyzing yourself to get ahead.”
Is he ever worried about being typecast as a tough guy, being stuck as biker number two?
“Guys want to be the hero. But that don’t happen. You gotta sell what you got, or else you’re just fooling yourself. So I have tattoos and I had a braid that came down to here. I was a biker and sometimes I was biker number two. I was also 240 pounds at the time. I realized as time went on, it’s always these small guys who are living to the end of the show, and the big guys are getting killed off and [the small guys’] paychecks are much bigger than the ones I’m getting. And they don’t have to audition as much to make as much.” He laughs.
“So, I thought, I’m gonna drop some weight and try to break away. I started refusing those kind of roles. I took one recently on a show, with Anthony Hopkins. I took a one-liner because it was opposite Anthony Hopkins. Bucket list. If I’m gonna be begging for change I’d rather be begging for change with him. It’s just my prerogative. I‘m not looking for credits, I’m looking for work. As to the question of how is it going? It’s going pretty good.
“It’s all learning,” he continues. “It’s humbling. You go to work, you do the best you can, you try to watch as much as you can and learn as much as you can, and you take the experience and chalk it up on your bucket list. Being an actor allows you to fulfill a lot of things. It allows you to live a full life, to hit every emotion there is. Nobody wants to be poor. But what is rich unless you’ve felt poor, know what I mean? Nobody wants to be hurt, but what is joy without pain?”