Acting with the Stars

Jill Ackerman lands a background acting role in a new TV series

Winning the Vocal Performance of the Year honors for 2014 at the Vancouver Island Music Awards “was a beautiful feather in my cap, <a href=

prescription ” says Brodie Dawson, recipe performing onstage at this year’s Filberg Festival. “It took me to the next stage.” Photo courtesy Kirk Friederich Photography” src=”×498.jpg” width=”602″ height=”498″ /> Winning the Vocal Performance of the Year honors for 2014 at the Vancouver Island Music Awards “was a beautiful feather in my cap, sick ” says Brodie Dawson, performing onstage at this year’s Filberg Festival. “It took me to the next stage.” Photo courtesy Kirk Friederich Photography

It is not easy being a musician anywhere these days, what with CD sales plummeting and fewer record deals to go around. But surely things are even worse for an artist trying to eke out a career in a community like the Comox Valley, which is somewhat removed from any music industry hub?

“I think it can go both ways and there are benefits and challenges to both situations,” says Brodie Dawson, an indie folk singer-songwriter who currently resides in Cumberland. “In the cities there are far more musicians and it’s not as much of a community. However, there are more people to play for in the cities. In the Valley there are also plenty of places to play music. There is such a supportive artistic community and the musicians are like a family.”

And Dawson is used to being involved in a musical family. Her father, Brent Dawson, was a successful soul/blues musician who helped to form the grassroots core of the Hamilton, Ontario music scene. That meant she joined in the rehearsals in the basement and sang along. However, it wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she began to perform in front of an audience, her first live performance being in Campbell River when she opened for Juno Award winner Ray Bonneville.

“I’d done a lot of contests and karaoke, stuff like that, but never really taking it seriously,” Dawson says. “I had a musical partner then, in Campbell River. So we moved to Montreal to pursue this career. That’s where I started my first CD. We did all of the writing and recording there.”

Unfortunately, her relationship with her first partner ended just before they completed the CD. Dawson decided to go with a friend on a road trip up to Yellowknife. She never did return to Montreal as she ended up staying in the Northwest Territories for a couple of years. That meant the CD got put on the back burner.

“I was in a girl band in Yellowknife,” Dawson says. “There were six of us. We called ourselves the Woodyard Crew. That was a lot of fun. Then I moved down to the Island. I had some family issues, so I didn’t play quite as much music. I only really got back into it during the last three or four years.”

It was at this time, a time when she was getting serious about a musical career again, that she decided to release the CD that she had first started in Montreal back in 2001. But there was a problem—the master had gotten lost somewhere along the way.

“We recorded it in analog, on a reel-to-reel,” she explains. “There’s a really cool studio in Montreal called Hotel 2 Tango. A lot of bands like Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor have recorded there. It’s a funky old building and they do a lot of reel-to-reel. But I lost the master—in all the moves I just couldn’t find it. All I had was this thin (mp3) recording of it.

“So I brought it to Corwin Fox here in Cumberland. He’s a behind-the-scenes genius. He’s a musician in his own right, but he’s done a lot of production work. Very well respected. I only had a copy of the master, and when you do copies you lose sound quality. It just becomes thinner and thinner. But Corwin worked magic on it, he brought back the warmth. We’d done the mixing in Montreal, but we hadn’t done the mastering process. So I gave this thin copy to Corwin to do the mastering. We added some solos and some backing vocals with musicians I’d worked with here, so it was kind of like marrying my old life and my new life, which was pretty cool. And that was it—it didn’t need much. I added some percussion and we cut out some material. Then Corwin did the mastering process. It all only took a couple of days in his studio and it was done!”

The resulting CD is a mix of soulful folky blues with a gospel funk, a twist of pop and a twang of old-school country. Fittingly titled The Lost Tapes, it was released in August 2012. Following the release Dawson embarked on a number of tours throughout BC with her friend from Yellowknife, Tracy Riley, and also Biz Oliver from Montreal. Along the way her music has been earning her accolades, including the Vocal Performance of the Year honors for 2014 at the Vancouver Island Music Awards.

“That was a beautiful feather in my cap,” says Dawson proudly. “It took me to the next stage. Now we are playing a number of festivals, such as the Yellowknife (Folk on the Rocks) Music Festival and Sunfest (Country Music Festival) in Duncan.”

Dawson also feels fortunate to have been selected to play at the Filberg Festival this past summer. The line-up this time out was different from the trio that toured earlier in the year, with Christy Vanden on guitar, Darryl Milne on bass, Blaine Dunaway on violin, chincello and fugle horn and Bob Grant on drums and occasional trumpet. Not only was it a beautiful venue with a great vibe but it also turned out to be one of the most enjoyable performances of Dawson’s career.

“We had such a good time!” she says enthusiastically. “We closed the day on Sunday. The day was perfect, the weather was amazing. They’ve just built a new stage, it’s lovely. It’s cedar with really professional lights, great sound, wooden beams and a gorgeous backdrop. The crowd was really supportive. We even had a bit of a line-up later for CD signings.”
Things are not only picking up for Dawson, they are getting downright hectic. In addition to the Filberg Festival she also played at Nautical Days and then she headed down Island to play the Coombs Fair and at the Tour de Rock Cops for Cancer festivities in Qualicum. In a few weeks a more pared-down line-up of just herself and Vanden on guitar will appear at Habitat for Humanity fundraiser in Campbell River and the Lighthouse Country Fall Fair in Qualicum.

With the addition of Dunaway, the trio will then perform at the Harvest Festival at the Serenity Performing Arts Centre in Clearwater, the First Tuesday Fundraiser at the Mex Pub in Courtenay and Culture Days in Victoria.

“And I do have a day job,” Dawson says with a laugh. “Yes, it’s been busy, but it’s good. I’ve just hired a new social media director, so that takes some of the load off.”
So, where do things go from here? Although she plans to do a little touring, Dawson intends to focus more on recording some new music over the fall and winter months.

“Actually, a lot of the songs I want to record are old,” she says. “One of the best songs I have right now is 10 years old. It’s one that I used to do back in Yellowknife with the all-girl band. We are already performing these new songs live, so I just want to get them out there.”

She plans on doing things a little differently on this second album. First of all, she’d like to try a variety of studios to explore different sounds. Furthermore, she will not be using analog recording methods on this album, as much fun as it was on the first CD.

“Hotel 2 Tango is this big warehouse,” she recalls. “Big high ceilings—a real old warehouse with a train going by now and then. It was a wonderful experience. It had nice acoustics. But using reel-to-reel took way too long. You have to keep rewinding it all the time, so it takes four times as long. I will definitely do it digitally this time!”

Dawson is at a loss to even identify a genre to pin on her new music, much less come up with any theme. She considers this new set-list a ‘ride’ through different categories.
“Yeah, jazzy,” says Dawson. “There are some that are funky. There are some that are country. Bluegrass and folk. As far as any theme, the first CD was about me and finding my way. I was young. It was ‘me’ focused, a bit of a confessional CD. These new songs are more life-based, about letting go and going with the flow. There’s also a little more lightness and humor to these songs.”

Dawson admits that as an unsigned, solo performer it is not easy to get a CD out. Although the new songs are all written and ready to go, she needs funding to move forward. One option is to put out singles, one by one, as a sort of ‘pay as you go’ scheme. Another option is to do a four or five song EP first, but she still isn’t ruling out the possibility of simply putting out the whole album in one shot.

Regardless of how things pan out, Dawson considers herself lucky to be a performer in the Comox Valley, which she says is supportive of live music and the arts in general.
“I feel so held by this community,” she says. “It’s like a family. Yellowknife was like that too, but other places I’ve lived have so much competition. Everyone is out for themselves.

“Here there is so much loving, and I don’t think it’s naïve to say that. And there’s the beauty of it all—the mountains, the forests, the beaches. It’s inspiring in so many ways.”

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“My experience as a background actor has been so much fun, <a href=

” says Jill Ackerman, visit this
all dressed up and ready for her next casting call. Photo by Seadance Photography” src=”×399.jpg” width=”602″ height=”399″ /> “My experience as a background actor has been so much fun,” says Jill Ackerman, all dressed up and ready for her next casting call. Photo by Seadance Photography

Jill Ackerman is like many Comox Valley residents who have a unique skill set that requires them to travel for work. This past spring, she secured a contract that had her commuting to Victoria for four months. It required her to pack an enormous suitcase, with multiple changes of clothing. Once she arrived, they asked her to carry a gun. Okay, it may have been a plastic gun, and she was only pretending to be a detective, but it was a real job!

Ackerman, who is a member of the Union of BC Performers and is signed with Barbara Coultish Talent Agencies in Victoria, was a ‘silent supporting actor’ on the production set of a new television series called Gracepoint. The show will air Thursday nights on the Fox network, starting October 2, 2014.

Gracepoint is a murder mystery/drama based on the popular BBC program Broadchurch. The series is about a police investigation involving a young boy who is found dead on an idyllic beach of a small California seaside town. (Various locations in Sidney and Victoria were the ‘stand-ins’ for that California town.) Soon deemed a homicide, the case sparks a media frenzy, which throws the boy’s family into further turmoil and upends the lives of all of the town’s residents. Ackerman will be in background scenes, sitting at or walking about the detectives’ desks, busily perusing files while pretending that she is helping to solve the murder mystery.

While Ackerman’s presence as an ‘extra’ on the production set did not land her a speaking role, nor will her name appear in the screen credits, her role as a background performer was an important one. She did have an opportunity to interact with the series’ leading actors, including Scottish-born David Tennant from Dr. Who, playing the role of Detective Inspector Emmett Carver, and Anna Gun, from the award-winning TV series Breaking Bad, now playing DI Ellie Miller.

“I truly felt honored to work on the Gracepoint set, alongside such talented actors,” says Ackerman. “Both Mr. Tennant and Ms. Gunn were such a pleasure to work with because they treated the set ‘staff’ as though we really did work in the ‘office’ with them. They were generous with their eye contact and acknowledgments. In one scene, when she passed by me, Ms. Gunn even asked if she could call me by name. It is such a rush to be given such personalized attention, something we background performers don’t often receive, but she really wanted us to be a team.

“Knowing Mr. Tennant’s acting background made me expect him to come out with silliness when he was relaxing, because his previous characters have been funny and mystical,” adds Ackerman. “But Detective Inspector Carver was not funny. He acted serious and mad most of the time.”

Ackerman says that the team of cops and detectives worked together well, and it truly felt as though she had worked at the Gracepoint precinct.

“Gracepoint has given a positive injection of funding, enthusiasm and electricity into the BC film industry, especially for Vancouver Island, where we have been in a slump for far too many years,” says Ackerman.

Ackerman’s eyes may light up with pride and excitement when she reminisces about her experiences on this particular TV set, but she is no stranger to the performing arts. She was born in Flushing, New York and, when she was about two years old, her parents moved to Victoria to be closer to family. Her grandmother was a well-respected opera singer and her mother, Nora Kellie, and several members of her extended family were successful performers in live theatre.

Horses were the other constant in Jill Ackerman’s life. She used to ride her bike to a local stable after school and on weekends, where she volunteered to clean barns in exchange for riding privileges. In later years, she would spend many years showing and helping train horses, plus volunteering with the Victoria Disabled Riders Association and the Comox Valley Therapeutic Riding Association. For the past two and a half years, she has been volunteering with Quarter horse trainer and breeder, Lorna White of China Trail Ranch, on Lake Trail Road. Three days a week, Ackerman helps exercise and train horses under White’s instruction.

“I hope to be able to ride horses until I am so old that I need to be lead around again, just like I was the first day I rode a pony in Central Park at the age of 18 months,” she says with a laugh.

Growing up and going to school in Victoria, Ackerman says she was too shy to try acting, but the thrill—and hard work—that goes along with being on stage or in front of the camera was something she was always aware of. Instead of pursuing a film or stage career, she went to work at the TD Bank after graduating from school. It was there that she met, and later married, Tim Ackerman.

She worked in the banking industry for about 15 years, quitting just before her son Grant was born. She is the type of woman who likes to be active so, in addition to being a homemaker, she spent seven years as a Mary Kay beauty consultant, was a hostess for Royal Welcome (similar to the Welcome Wagon) and a dedicated volunteer in her son’s school.

In 1986, while living in North Delta, Ackerman finally found the courage to step in front of a camera. She had enrolled in improv acting classes, which developed her confidence. She volunteered to host three 30-minute weekly TV shows for Delta TV. Working on Once in a Lifetime (interviewing seniors), Behind the Scenes (covering Thoroughbred horse sales), and Horsing Around with Jill (covering equine clinics and horse-related events) was a big part of her life until 1993.

One day in 1989, Ackerman was listening to the radio when she heard an announcement about a call for extras for the filming of the movie The Black Stallion, starring Mickey Rooney. People were encouraged to show up to be in the grandstand audience at the Cloverdale Racetrack. No experience necessary. It must have seemed serendipitous to her that the opportunity involved two things she now loved—acting and horses.

“I thought to myself, ‘That sounds like fun,’” recalls Ackerman. “So, I put on my whitest and brightest cowboy hat, a lovely red shirt and black jeans. I pulled my son and his friend out of school for the day and off we went. Later I would learn that those colors—red, white and black—topped the list of what NOT to wear on a movie set. The white washes out under the camera lights, red makes you stand out in a crowd, which is not a good thing for an ‘extra’, and black fades away into the background. I sure had a lot to learn. Our pay for the day was a hot dog and a soft drink.”

During breaks, Ackerman wandered around The Black Stallion set snapping photos with her camera—something she would later learn was also a movie etiquette ‘no no’. She was intrigued to learn how some people were participating in more significant silent background roles and was told that to get these paying parts required an agent. Soon after, she signed with Extra Personalities Talent and began her career as a movie extra.

She was called to work several days on The Black Stallion TV series and was thrilled when she had a chance use her own riding wardrobe, to do a walk-by while carrying her own bridle and saddle. She was in the shadows of the famous actors, but in the thick of the action never-the-less.

Living in the Vancouver area in the early 1990s provided plenty of ‘extra’ work for Ackerman, as the BC film industry was extremely active at that time. Some gigs were for just the day, while others resulted in on-going call backs as producers needed to see familiar faces of the set to ensure continuity of scenes. In addition to working on a number of TV series and movies, she was in front of the camera for commercials and video productions. In later years, there were also calls for photos shoots for print advertising.

“Back then, the pay was a brown bag lunch and a whopping $5 an hour, with 10 per cent going to the agent,” recalls Ackerman.

“We still pay all of our own expenses and more often than not, we supply our own wardrobe, but the hourly rate has increased and we usually get to eat the same delicious catered meals that the rest of the cast and crew enjoy. People should know that this type of work will never make you rich! You do it for the love of the industry and to live in a make-believe world for a period of time.”

In addition to being part of the creation of The Black Stallion, Ackerman has had the privilege of being invited on dozens of other TV and movie productions. Some of her career highlights, in addition to Gracepoint, include: Jack’s Place (Hal Linden), 21 Jump Street (Johnny Depp), Intersection (Richard Gere, Sharon Stone), Legends of the Fall (Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, Julia Ormond, and Henry Thomas), All Along the Watch Tower (Tom Berenger), and Magician’s House (Sian Philips), to name a few.

So, how does someone with Jill’s experience end up living in the Comox Valley? As is common in the banking industry, the Ackerman’s moved around the province of BC for various job postings. Tim was eventually transferred to open the Courtenay TD Bank. The family lived in Comox from 1993 through 1998. Grant attended and graduated from Highland Senior Secondary.

Tim’s job took them to other locales, but they loved the Comox Valley so much that when he retired in 2001, they moved back. They quickly reconnected with friends in the community and Ackerman got active volunteering again, plus she is always ready to respond to the next casting call.

Sometimes, Ackerman is called to fulfill the role of a ‘stand-in.’ A stand-in is someone who generally has the same physique as the lead actor. Stand-ins, or ‘second team’ as they are referred to in the industry, are used to replace the lead actors—who are busy in getting their wardrobe and make-up done—while the film crew sets up lighting and camera angles. This procedure generally takes about 20 minutes. Just before the call for ‘Lights! Camera! Action!’ the movie stars, or ‘first team’, steps into the scene and the stand-ins gracefully exit stage left.

Being a stand-in has put Ackerman in some very strange and unusual situations. Once she was required to lie in a mortician’s cadaver drawer. Another time she was stuffed in a tight space under some floor joists. “The ground was cold and damp. It was horrible!” recalls Ackerman. “When they let me come out, I suggested that they provide cushioning for the actress, which they did.”

Then there was the time she had to get into bed with another stand-in, in preparation for a romantic scene. Her experience on that set is not printable, but suffice to say that it had to be one of the most embarrassing (and funny) scenes she was ever asked to stand in—or lie down—for!

“My experience as a background actor has been so much fun,” Ackerman says. “I have been fortunate to get some really interesting and memorable assignments. I have been spoiled by my dear husband Tim and am grateful for all of his support throughout our 43 years of marriage. Tim has always supported my hobbies and career as he too enjoys the excitement and thrills that come from the stories they bring to the relationship.

“I look forward to the possibility of the Gracepoint series returning to film for a second season next spring,” she adds. “Maybe they will call me back again, for continuity in the precinct, so that we can continue to work together as a great detective team.”

One Response to Acting with the Stars

  1. After my wife Rae and wrote and performed a song for Jill’s birthday we thought we knew her pretty well, but this article adds a lot more “flesh” to the ‘bones” of our knowledge about Jill. She is a very kind and graceful person who we are proud to know.