Threads of Power

Carmen Thompson weaves equity, respect and authenticity into every costume she designs for film and TV.

Threads of Power - YAM Sept/Oct 2023 Style Issue

BY DAVID LENNAM | PHOTO BY: JEFFREY BOSDET

It might be going too far to suggest Johnny Depp is the reason costume designer Carmen Thompson got into film and TV, but a 13-year-old Thompson, smitten with the budding 21 Jump Street star, convinced her mom to let her work as a background performer on the made-in-Vancouver series. And those brief appearances got her up close to Depp. Really close.

“I had a crush on Johnny and I had this friendship bracelet that I had made and it took forever,” she recalls. “I was sitting right behind him in one scene. I said, ‘I made you a bracelet’ and then he stuck out his wrist with all the other bracelets — you know Johnny Depp, he’s got 12 bracelets on each arm — and he said, ‘Go ahead, put it on.’ So I tied on my friendship bracelet to his wrist and he wore it for that episode.”

It was an early foray into a career in costume design that had her building her resumé with six-and-a-half years in Hollywood and, since 2014, steady gigs in Victoria. She’s won two CAFTCAD (Canadian Alliance of Film and Television Costume Arts and Design) Awards and is a double Leo Award (for the B.C. film and television industry) nominee this year.

The fortysomething Thompson, who is Ditidaht/Kyuquot/Coast Salish Nations, is one of Canada’s leading Indigenous costume designers. That we add “Indigenous” to “costume designer” might insinuate a qualifier is needed. Thompson wears it like a badge of honour.

“I am the first one and I have to hold that and there’s probably 5,000 costume designers out there. There’s only one Indigenous costume designer and I’d much rather have that title than just be a costume designer,” she says.

Thompson explains that, while in Los Angeles learning the craft, she was known as a costume designer who was Indigenous. That shifted when she came home to Victoria, where  her first job was on the mini-series 1491: The Untold Story of the Americas Before Columbus.

“I felt the realness of it all — taking that power of Indigenous costume designer.”

Spirit Power 

Thompson talks about her uniqueness. Her cultural roots. Her standing has empowered her in an unofficial role as on-set liaison, allowing her knowledge of First Nations customs and traditions to inform producers how to tackle certain issues, scenes and even conflicts.

Shooting Bones of Crows, which dramatizes the grim history of residential schools, she was approached by two of the producers urging her to “get the kids dirty” for a scene.

“And I’m like, ‘No.’ ”

There was some back and forth with various producers until she was asked to explain, which she did. It wasn’t enough.

“So I pulled out my phone and called my Uncle Charlie, dad’s brother, and put him on speakerphone. ‘I have the producers and director here. Just wanted to ask you: How dirty did you get in your residential school uniform?’ He laughed and then he told them why. He was like, ‘Niece, niece, listen to this. This is what I’m going to finish with. Cleanliness is next to godliness is what they would yell at us and punish us with and hit us with while they were beating us up when we got dirty. So no, we did not get dirty.’ ”

Victoria costume designer Ken Shapkin, who shares a Leo nomination with Thompson for Why Can’t My Life Be a Rom-Com?, calls her a rising star, a champion and role model, particularly for her work on Indigenous productions.

On set for Bones of Crows, for instance, Thompson could be found sitting cross-legged on the floor with the young cast, explaining the sensitivities around scenes exposing the harsh realities of the residential school system.

Thompson admits that role is more than she anticipated. “If you claim Indigenous that means the umbrella of Indigeneity, and if your story has Indigeneity — and I know there’s something wrong — I have to say something, because I’m holding Indigenous as my title,” she says.

That almost wasn’t the case. Thompson was raised by her mother “as colonized as possible” in an effort to shield her from the racism and the legacy of residential schools and all that it spawned. “I was the most non-Indigenous-raised Indigenous person,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know I was native until I was 12.”

Until her mid-teens, Thompson was estranged from her father, the renowned Nuu-chah-nulth carver and painter Art Thompson. His arrival in her life was a crash course in an unknown culture.

“When I met dad, dad was full-swing dancing, potlatching, making masks … and I knew nothing, so I sponged it. He brought me to anything and everything I could go to. I completely dove into [our] culture. To be immersed in the culture with someone like that, you don’t just learn how to dance, you learn how to DANCE.”

Her father was a residential school survivor and a man deeply immersed in what she calls “spirit power.”

Asked what kind of an influence he had, she replies, “Everything.”

Telling her own stories 

Between costuming gigs, Thompson is writing, developing her own scripts on projects that are based on West Coast Indigenous culture.

One is a romantic love story, an Indigenous story with a Victoria twist. The other, grittier. About her father and the residential school and the effects that are carried through generations.

“It’s about time there’s some Indigeneity in normal filmmaking,” she says. “Flipping the coin on the negative to the positive. Talking about why there’s fridges and stuff in the front yard and why there’s alcoholism — all of it.”

It’s time for her to tell her stories.

“What ribbons I’m intertwining in Indigeneity — the culture, the cleansing, the smudging, the alcoholism, the residential school … holy, it’s a lot.”

“She’s a true warrior,” says Shapkin. “A voice for female Indigenous filmmakers and the community as a whole, advocating for equity and respect.”

Thompson says the work she’s been doing up until now has prepared her.

“Not knowing I was native until I was 12. All these little things, the little tiny ‘Lego blocks’ I’ve built. That’s why I know I can do a really good job.”