Cara Gee on the Indigenous pride and digital dog in ‘The Call of the Wild’

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TORONTO — Canadian actress Cara Gee was living in Los Angeles for only about a month in 2018 when she landed the “dreamiest” project.

It was the Disney film “The Call of the Wild,” starring Harrison Ford as a grieving outdoorsman who bonds with a burly dog in the Canadian Yukon during the Gold Rush of the 1890s.

The Calgary-born Gee, who is Ojibwe and grew up in Bobcaygeon, Ont., was filled with pride at the chance to play a powerful Indigenous character who leads a dog-sled team in a “blockbuster narrative” featuring her home country.

There was just one hitch: The protagonist pooch wasn’t real, and Gee was going to have to act opposite a man who was on all fours playing the St. Bernard/Farm Collie mix.

That person was Terry Notary, a former Cirque de Soleil performer whose realistic dog-like movements on set were later animated into the canine character Buck.

“When I got the part and found out that I was going to have to be looking a grown man in the face pretending he was a dog, I was like, ‘Well, it’s going to be a huge challenge,'” Gee said with a laugh in a recent phone interview.

“But Terry made it so easy. He’s such a convincing performer, and he committed 100 per cent to that. You could look him in the eye and he was the dog.”

In theatres Thursday, “The Call of the Wild” is based on Jack London’s 1903 short adventure novel, which has already had several screen adaptations.

Oscar-nominated animated filmmaker Chris Sanders directed the screenplay by Michael Green.

Gee plays Francoise, who works with Buck as she leads a Canadian mail-delivery dog-sled team with pal Perrault, played by French star Omar Sy.

“It is very powerful to be a part of something of this scale,” said Gee, who is also known for her role as Camina Drummer on the Amazon Prime Video sci-fi drama “The Expanse.”

“It’s definitely not lost on me. I’m from Bobcaygeon, Ontario, you know?” she continued with a laugh.

“It’s a really wild dream that I’m living right now.”

The comical duo of Francoise and Perrault were originally French-Canadian men in London’s story.

Gee is excited for young audiences to see the characters reimagined in a way that brings more representation.

“I think it’s so beautiful and I’m so proud, especially after watching the Oscars,” said Gee, referring to filmmaker Taika Waititi trumpeting his Indigenous roots in his Oscar acceptance speech for the “Jojo Rabbit” adapted screenplay.

“Being an Indigenous performer, it does feel like the world is full of possibilities right now,” Gee said.

Gee had an extensive list of stage and screen credits before moving to L.A., including the role of a single First Nations mother in the 2013 drama “Empire of Dirt,” for which she earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination.

Her theatre work includes an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad.”

For the role of Francoise, Gee asked producers to hire a woman who is Tlingit from the Yukon to be her cultural adviser by phone. The adviser’s grandmother was a dog sledder like Francoise, around the 1920s and ’30s.

“It was really important to me to learn about that culture and to honour and respect that, and to portray it with accuracy — of course, given that this is also fantasy,” said Gee, who also worked with a former Navy Seal to get her scuba diving certification for an underwater scene in the film.

The digitally created dogs weren’t the only movie magic on set.

Gee said they didn’t actually shoot in the Canadian Yukon but rather in Southern California.

The area was blanketed in fake snow and cast members wore vests filled with cold water under their layers of clothing to keep their body temperature cool in the heat. Gee shot her sledding scenes with Sy in a studio.

“Nothing was real! Everything is CG — everything,” Gee laughed.

“It’s so funny, because when I booked it I was like, ‘All right, getting ready for the winter again, here we go.’ And then they were like, ‘No, we’re shooting it in Santa Clarita in the desert.'”

Despite not filming in Canada, Gee still felt at home with a Canuck staple: Pure maple syrup. She said she brought it to set for a pancake-eating scene that was ultimately cut from the film.

“I was like, ‘What if they don’t have real maple syrup on set?’ And I brought this litre of real maple syrup,” Gee said.

“It was like the most Canadian moment ever. I was like Beyonce with hot sauce in my bag, except it was maple syrup.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press