Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, Kanien'kehá:ka Mohawk, known for her work in Mohawk Girls, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, and now for her upcoming role as Sam Black Crow in American Gods, is geared to take her place as part of the ‘God Squad’ and spoke with Indian Country Today.
The first episode of the second season aired Sunday on the Starz Network.
American Gods is a television show based on the Neil Gaiman novel by the same name, Jacobs plays Sam Black Crow, a half-Cherokee two-spirit college student.
In an in-depth interview, Jacobs describes her perspective on Sam Black Crow, how she has prepared for the role and had long loved the book. She told her agent when the possibility arose, she wanted to be first in line to try out for the part. Though Jacobs is excited to be playing the role, she told Indian Country Today, how devastatingly, it almost didn’t happen.
Vincent Schilling: So, how're things been going since the announcement of your role as Sam Black Crow on American Gods?
Devery Jacobs: Things have been great. Things have been busy. It seems like all of the projects that I've been working on in the past two years and so are all coming out now. All at the same time. Pretty much all in the same month or like same 2 months, which is kind of wild. It's been a big year. It's been really awesome to be welcomed into the God Squad.
Vincent Schilling: I was reading a bit in the media about how much you really wanted to play the part of Sam Black Crow, and almost not being able to do the role. What’s the story?
Devery Jacobs: How it went was … well, first of all, I was a huge fan of the novel and of the character. I'm also college-aged. I'm also queer. The character was just me. I hounded my agent even before it was green-lit. I was like, "I know it's shooting in Toronto. Season 1 is approaching, you need to make sure I'm seen for Sam Black Crow." So I, and not so patiently, waited through Season 1 for the character. She didn't appear. Then, in Season 2, my agent had messaged me all in caps saying "The time has finally come!"
Vincent Schilling: What happened?
Devery Jacobs: I auditioned for it. I did another callback tape. Then I heard that I was their first choice, but I was working on another project. It came down to one day that conflicted and they couldn't make the dates work.
Vincent Schilling: One day? How did you feel about that?
Devery Jacobs: I was gutted. I was so heartbroken. I was like, "This is so wrong." They said that they had to move on to their second choice and they were going to make an offer. There was nothing I could do. I was reaching out to producer friends. I'm like, "This is the situation I'm in." I could not get out of it. There was nothing left for me to do. So the thought of me reaching out and writing a letter was essentially a swan song.
I had never written a letter to production before in the past, but I just wanted to thank them for casting me and told them that I don't take playing this character lightly. I'd explained how much I identified with her and how heartbroken I was that I wouldn't be able to have the opportunity to play her, but that I'll still be a fan of Neil Gaiman, and of the show, and the book, and of Sam Black Crow.
They had sent that message across the entire production office and even Neil Gaiman had read it. They were like, "Okay, if it's one day, we can figure this out. We're gonna make this work 'cause you are Sam Black Crow."
Vincent Schilling: So your Hail Mary pass worked.
Devery Jacobs: Oh my god! It was the biggest emotional rollercoaster I had gone through in my career.
Vincent Schilling: That’s quite a story.
Devery Jacobs: It sounds like it's made up for PR, but I swear to God, it happened. I could not make this up.
Vincent Schilling: And now you own that story.
Devery Jacobs: It was bananas.
Vincent Schilling: You say you identify this character. You say you're queer and a lot of people might jump into stereotype and say okay you are automatically two-spirit or that you're lesbian. What do you say to such commentary? How do you relate that to your character?
Devery Jacobs: There's a lot of labels jumping around. I feel like labels are more for other people than they are for myself. Because I'm just me and I am learning more about my queerness. I am in a relationship with my partner and there are more sides of myself than I had understood before. I'm being patient with myself in terms of how I identify and queer is kind of an umbrella term.
In terms of playing Sam Black Crow, she is Cherokee from the Cherokee Nation, and that was one of the different Indigenous nations that recognized two-spirit people. Being Kanien'kehá:ka, there really isn't a history of that.
I hadn't heard of two-spirit, so that's why I don't identify as two-spirit. Because I'm Kanien'kehá:ka, we didn't have that.
Vincent Schilling: Sam Black Crow from Neil Gaiman's novel is specifically Native. Gaiman said specifically he would honor that diversity.
Devery Jacobs: For sure. There are certain nuances that an actor should have, to me, they obviously have to cast an indigenous person. We are well over whitewashing, but it does bring so much more of an element.
Vincent Schilling: How did you work with this production to bring your character to life?
Devery Jacobs: We are very collaborative, me and the production, in terms of bringing Sam to life. Staying true to Gaiman's work, but also bringing my perspective and life experience. And explaining Sam as two-spirit was something that I've contributed to the character. That was some of the research that I had done. Because, as I said, two-spirit people are recognized within the Cherokee Nation and Sam is Cherokee. Also, much like in the book, she is half-Cherokee and is raised by her non-indigenous mother.
While it might not be my experience, I've witnessed communities, especially urban Indians and friends of mine, that gave me insight to incorporating some of those politics to put into the character — in terms of making her complex because there's no one way to be Native.
And so by combining all of these different elements of her being Cherokee, her being raised off the rez, her being raised by her non-indigenous mother, and not being so close with her Cherokee dad. She's screwed up on top of that. There's all these little nuances that can feed into the character who we might not normally see on screen.
Vincent Schilling: Can you elaborate on your comment, ‘There's no one way to be Native?’
Devery Jacobs: In film and TV, there's a history of misrepresentation, especially with the non-indigenous creed of behind the lens and then writing for the idea of what they think a Native person would be like. This is an incredible opportunity to be able to bring my voice, and experience, and perspective.
Vincent Schilling: You're doing all these things, but it is likely time-consuming, how do you stay connected?
Devery Jacobs: It's not without sacrifice. I miss my community and I miss my family profusely. In order to be where you want to be — to do the work that you're striving to do — means you can't always be in your community. That's been a hard thing. I'm just trying to balance my work. I’m feeling as though I'm representing my community — and I'm so proud to do it — but I also miss being in my community and a part of it in that way.
So, in terms of ways of trying to stay connected, because I'm living in Toronto primarily, but floating my time also between L.A., but luckily I found a Kanien'kehá:ka language class taught at the University at Toronto.
There's a lot of guilt. I'm not fluent. I'm trying to learn and so for me being in Toronto, finding that class was huge ... It was a big deal for me because I got to feel that sense of community even while I'm in the city. Exactly what I had said before, there's no one way to be Native. It doesn't make you any less Kanien'kehá:ka if you're trying to learn your language. If you're within the city, if you grew up on the rez and you're completely fluent, it's like showing these different sides. I think that's what having proper representation is actually about. It's not less seeing more brown faces in these roles, it's actually having our experiences influence the story that people are hearing from us.
Vincent Schilling: What last bit of words of advice you want to give to young kids before we head out?
Devery Jacobs: Some advice that I got that really helped me was when in acting is take the time to figure out what your voice and your perspective is. Stay true to that within your work because anybody can play the idea of something, but only you can bring your truth to the role.
That was something that really helped me. It's hard being out there. Being, a lot of the times, the only Native person in the room and feeling you should act a certain way. Staying true to your voice and perspective.
Vincent Schilling: Best of luck. I’ll be watching American Gods.
Devery Jacobs: Thanks. It's just the introduction to Sam Black Crow. If we get picked up for Season 3, then I'm supposed to be a regular. There's a lot of material in the book that they have to work on regarding Sam Black Crow. She's the biggest female character in the book.
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling