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‘Being Black is not the summation of who I am’ — Kudakwashe Rutendo is ready for what’s next

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It isn’t a secret, says Kudakwashe Rutendo, that “in the film industry, up until fairly recently, roles relegated to Black actors were either being the funny friend who had no depth, or the entire role was rooted in being other and rooted in trauma.”

Kudakwashe Rutendo is no ordinary 21-year-old. In fact, after speaking with the Calgary-born Toronto transplant, I’m convinced that behind the actor’s fresh face is a soul much older and wiser than her earthly years.

As we chatted over video call about her life since being named one of the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2023 Rising Stars, I got a quick glimpse into the day-to-day of the “Backspot” actor. When she’s not reviewing scripts for her next role, Rutendo is crocheting and sipping her favourite Earl Grey tea from Pippins on Queen Street East.

With an enviable book collection lining her apartment walls, not only does the former poet turned cheerleader have big ambitions for her future as an actor, she has made it a personal mission to have a library that could only be rivalled by someplace like the University of Toronto, where she is an undergraduate student. “I read somewhere — and I’m sure someone (can) fact check me — that if you have 1,000 books you can register officially as a library … That’s one of my goals in life.” (My fact check confirmed there’s no specific number to be designated as a library, but if there were she would be well on her way.)

In the interview, Rutendo opened up about her career, her upcoming book, and her hopes for the future as a big sister, an actor and a soon-to-be published author.

What would 10-year-old Kudakwashe have thought about being named as a TIFF Rising Star?

I think she would have been speechless. In my hometown, they have some arts awards and one year I was nominated. I ended up not getting it and I just remember (thinking), “It’s OK, maybe one day I’ll be able to get something like this in the future.” Now for the future thing that I get to be a TIFF Rising Star? TIFF is one of the biggest film festivals in the world! (This) all seemed so far away because I was growing up in a small town in Alberta (Fort McMurray) and it’s not like I had an endless vast supply of money to support me. I also have three sisters and all I want in life is for them to succeed as well. It didn’t really feel like it was possible. I think young me would be humbled.

I read recently that one of your dreams is to do a Marvel movie. Is that because action movies would bring the best of your two worlds — acting and sport — together?

I think now my answer has changed a bit just because I feel like the film world has changed so much, especially for people of colour. I remember watching “The Woman King” in theatres and, as a Black woman, that is the dream: to be able to do movies like that. There’s still a huge action component and, like, the badassery of it all is there, but when you’re seeing yourself you’re seeing Black culture represented in ways we have not seen it. It’s a paradigm shift. I think Marvel would be a fun dream for anyone, but there’s so many great independent productions that are going on as well that represent our community. So I think my answer has shifted a little to something that I feel really feeds directly into our culture because it is from our culture.

What draws you to a character when you’re picking potential roles?

Honestly, depth. I like to be surprised by someone’s motivations. Not all characters have that. You might have (a character) that comes off abrasive, but then you start getting the backstory of why they’re abrasive. I find those incredibly fulfilling to jump into. Also, I’m a knower, I love to know things, which is why one of the foremost things I look for is adaptations because I read a lot. So most of the roles that I’m emailing my team about are adaptations because I know the history. I feel a connection. So I guess you could chalk it down to two things. One is connection and feeling like I truly understand the character, but then the second one is that I just want to feel like they’re a fully rounded person.

Tell me more about the book you’re writing.

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This is my second book that I’ve written, but this is the one I want to publish. It follows a young, Black woman’s struggle with mental health issues, but it’s also speculative. There’s some magical aspects as well. I’m a huge ardent lover of poetry. So it’s kind of like a melding of poetry and prose, but it’s also telling this story of mental health and wanting to be “ fixed,” and knowing that you just don’t seem to be experiencing things the way that other people are. It was a daunting project, but I recently finished it and it’s been very fulfilling.

What do you see in the future for young Black girls who want to be actors? What, in your opinion, are changes in opportunities that you’ve seen?

I see a lot more three-dimensional characters. I think this isn’t a secret: in the film industry, up until fairly recently, roles relegated to Black actors were either being the funny friend who had no depth, or the entire role was rooted in being other and rooted in trauma. It’s hard to watch, because you cannot separate yourself from that if that’s the only media you see yourself in growing up. But it’s hard to want to play as well. And we, as people, deserve so much better than that. Now a lot more Black creators are getting into the room, or are creating our own art if we’re not getting into the room. What stems from that is three-dimensional art that’s not rooted in trauma. It’s those roles that really push us to the depths of our craft. Me being Black is something that 100 per cent impacts how I experience the world, but it’s not the summation of who I am. I want to see those kinds of roles. With all the changes happening, I really do see more of these amazing roles where we get to be people.

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