Q&A: Sera-Lys McArthur of CW’s ‘Burden of Truth’

Actress Sera-Lys McArthur is a Nakota/Assiniboine and German-Canadian actress from Saskatchewan.

Sera-Lys McArthur, who portrays Kodie Chartrand on CW’s television drama Burden of Truth, is a Nakota/Assiniboine and German-Canadian actress from the prairies of Saskatchewan in western Canada.

The formally trained actress started her career back in the late 1990s and has since kept busy working in front of, and behind, the camera, including production work on the upcoming film project Kisksosimakan (Whistling).

Aside from season-three premiere of Burden of Truth on Thursday, May 21, that same day McArthur will also do a live play reading of Silent Quest on Facebook Live via the American Indian Community House page.

Native News Online chatted with the busy entertainer about her career and her Indigenous roots. Here’s what she had to say.

You’re Nakota/Assiniboine, how does that play into your life these days as an actress?
Well, I guess it plays into it quite a lot. Needless to say, these are very divided times and so I am constantly aware of many systemic and political issues facing Indigenous people throughout Turtle Island and other colonized regions. But it’s not all negative. There are actually a lot of awesome things happening, especially when it comes to the visibility of our people in modern media. I heard the actress Michelle Thrush say once, that as an Indigenous actor, you are also an activist. It’s true, and I’m glad I realized the position of being a role model for the community that comes with being a working actor. I started to see how important accurate representation in media is for our young people to have someone to relate to and look up to. 

Sera-Lys McArthur portrays Kodie Chartrand on CW’s television drama “Burden of Truth.”

While sometimes I wish I could play more roles that weren’t hinged on my ethnic background and were more just “regular people,” I am also a lot more fulfilled by the stories I tell which include elements of my culture in them. I was cast as a lead female character who spoke only Assiniboine in another miniseries called The Englishman’s Boy. I enlisted the help of my dad, who connected me with various elders and linguists and the director gave me license to pen my own lines and have them translated. The Nakota language is considered endangered. Nakota is how we refer to our language and people in Canada, in the United States we are known as Assiniboine. But the language is the same, with regional dialect variations. 

Accurately depicting our language in this project was very important for me and my community. It’s a kind of preservation, so I wanted to make sure I did the best job I could. When I have to learn other languages for my other Native roles, I approach them with the same kind of diligence, patience and attention to detail.

During the pandemic what have you been up to?
I am holed up in New York City with my significant other and my doggie these days. Times sure are intense, especially here. Generally, I am holding up very well. I am grateful to have my health and the means to support myself during these uncertain times. I am grateful to live in a neighborhood I love, that has many grocery store and pharmacy options within walking distance. We are also near Central Park, which has been a Godsend. I am saddened by the loss of two members of our First Nations Arts community here already. It’s really hard to believe they won’t be around anymore. While the shutdown is still on, it’s hard to let feelings be felt about anything, in case there are still more losses to come. I really hope there won’t be. New Yorkers are incredibly tough people, and it’s so inspiring to be surrounded by strong people during times like these.

You’re in NYC now, but you grew up in the small city of Regina, Saskatchewan in Canada. What do you recall most of that time of your life?
My favorite memories are from before I started school, when my mom and my brother and I lived with my grandparents in a small rural community. My cousins and I had a lot of freedom and we ran around in each other’s yards or into a small wooded area we called the “grassy road.” There were several friendly dogs with us at any given time and lots of imaginary scenarios. When we moved to the city, things were different and honestly, quite a lot harder. There was, and still is, a lot of racial prejudice in that region, which I had to deal with regularly. I always felt like I stuck out or didn’t belong. It sure was a relief when I discovered acting.

What was it that led you to discover acting?
The funny thing was, I didn’t really know that a person could be an actor as a career. I guess I thought you had to already live in Hollywood to be chosen for shows, or something. Certainly no one I knew or in my family was an actor. I took a kids’ modeling class at a local modeling agency, because my neighbor was taking it and it sounded fun. So then I was on their “roster,” and when a miniseries called Revenge of the Land came to film in my area — it was one of the very first productions to come to Saskatchewan — and they were looking for a 12-year-old mixed-blood Native girl to play a supporting role, the agency sent me in for an audition. Well, I guess I didn’t suck, and they hired me for my first acting job.

It was that experience on set that made me feel so special and happy, I wanted to keep doing it. I didn’t know how difficult a road it would be to pursue yet. There wasn’t a lot of work coming through in the following years, so I also started singing and dance training and performing in musicals, until I graduated high school and flew off to New York City. 

Outside of acting jobs, do you have time for much else these days?
I love horseback riding! But I don’t get to do it nearly enough because I usually live and work in cities. One day, I want to have my own horse and a ranch though. I love city life, too. It’s so fun and convenient. I’m very social, so I like to visit with my friends whenever I can. I love musicals and plays and I am very much missing the theatre right now. I love cats and dogs. I am a very committed dog-mom right now (laughs). Traveling is my other favorite thing to do. But obviously there isn’t any of that right now. I also practice Kung Fu. It’s my favorite of all the martial arts. It really adds so much to my life, even though I just do it on Zoom right now. It’s always a challenge not to kick any furniture. 

How would you describe your character on Burden of Truth?
I am a brand new cast addition for this newest season, season three. We filmed this past summer and fall in Manitoba, Canada. My character is named Kodie Chartrand and she is the childhood best friend of the lead character Joanna Chang, played by Kristin Kreuk (Smallville, Beauty & the Beast). Kodie and Joanna shared a close bond as preteens, but Joanna’s family abruptly moved away and the girls lost touch. Twenty-years later, they’re now back in each other’s lives and Kodie needs Joanna’s help in a battle for custody of her own children, whom she believes have been wrongfully apprehended. 

Kodie is a total spitfire! She is fun, funny, emotional, strong-willed, opinionated and resilient. She never stops standing up for what’s right and she’s a real fighter against injustice. She has a quick temper and when she is wrong, which is rare, she does that big, too. She loves her children fiercely. It was also really beautiful to portray such a deep female friendship bond on a TV show. Those kinds of relationships are rarely illuminated with such intensity in any stories that I’ve been a part of. It is refreshing. I hope the audience will think so too.

Looking back, what actor has inspired you the most over the years?
There are so many who have inspired me in many different ways, it’s difficult to choose. But for the sake of brevity, I’ll choose the one and only Tantoo Cardinal to focus on. Some of my earliest memories of any movies, with Natives in them, she is in. She is so resilient and committed. She has been navigating this industry through all its crazy ups and downs and representing Native North Americans in all sorts of stories. She always makes a lasting impression with her portrayals, even if she’s only playing a supporting role. 

Tantoo continues to grow and deepen her craft, even to this day. I’ve had the pleasure of working with her and getting to know her and cross paths with her in the community quite a bit. I’m very excited for her recent success on Stumptown. She is a trailblazer and has done so much for the visibility of our people in the media. I really believe that her success has helped Indigenous actresses in my generation have better roles and opportunities. I hope to follow her lead and make as much of an impact with my work. I want to help pave the way for even more Indigenous actors and storytellers in the younger generations that follow. 

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