Emerging Film Production Company Breaks Away from Typical Role Casting

Tiny Arms Productions Strives to Create Space for Diverse Actors

Tiny Arms Production’s crew shot around NDG last Saturday. Photos Shannon Carranco

Tiny Arms Productions is an emerging production company that focuses on writing roles for women from diverse cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations.

The company was founded by Annie Yao and Nathalie Darbyson in the summer of 2016.

After graduating from McGill University with a Bachelors of Science, Yao realized she still pined to work in the arts scene. She performed in a few low-budget Montreal theatre and film productions, but not much else.

That’s when Yao and Darbyson founded Tiny Arms Productions to create a space for actors who don’t find many opportunities.

For their newest production, a short film called “It’s Carla Your Agent,” Yao and Darbyson shot in Notre-Dame-de-Grace. Last Saturday, at 10 a.m. sharp, a team of 13 people filled a small living room with sound booms, high tech camera equipment, make-up kits and coffeemakers.

Written by Darbyson and Yao, it’s a slice of life about a queer actress and her constant struggle auditioning in Montreal. The short is a comedy overall, but the duo also wanted to address some of the realities of life.

“Our preference is for comedy because it’s the most fun to do, in our opinion,” Yao said. “We tend to love watching comedy, too. We also like to experiment with mixed genres.”

“Like in life, dramatic things happen, sad things happen, funny things happen,” she said.

Darbyson and Yao are both part of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists. Since their budget is so low, they had to apply for “It’s Carla” to be a Member Initiated Project—otherwise known as a MIP—which allows ACTRA members to work on co-op projects for little to no compensation.

“Right now this [project] is completely funded out of our pockets,” Yao said. “We are looking for grants for our next productions. There are a lot of grants right now that are supporting women filmmakers, young filmmakers and minorities.”

Until then, Yao and Darbyson will struggle to afford to pay the majority of their crew and actors. Most of the people who worked on the project last weekend were there for work experience, and out of commitment to the company’s mandate.

Yao and Darbyson started Tiny Arms Productions because both women wanted to write original roles for people who aren’t often cast, either because of their cultural background and gender.

“We want to hire any minorities—not necessarily just culturally,” Yao said. “There are so many amazing actors out there that are just not cast.”

For the last several years, Yao, a first generation Taiwanese Canadian, has had trouble getting work in Montreal.

“I’ve literally been told from casting directors that I was great, and that they were really excited about auditioning me. But in the end, I wasn’t cast because they were looking for a white girl […] That’s something you hate to hear,” Yao said.

Actors of any background are going to have insecurities—that’s to be expected. Wondering whether you’re not the right height, or not the right size, or even fit enough for a role is one thing, but “then to be told that you’re not being cast because your skin colour is different, that really sucks.”

The main character in “It’s Carla Your Agent,” played by Yao, also has a girlfriend, but that’s not a main focus in the narrative.

“We’re not making the whole story be about a gay couple, because the story is not about their relationship. This is her life,” Yao said.

“There are so many amazing actors out there that are just not cast.“— Annie Yao

Conversely, Darbyson and Yao found it challenging to fulfill their mandate. There seemed to be a lack of culturally diverse actors interested in, or even aware, of the project. According to Yao, 80 to 90 per cent of those who showed up to the first casting call were mostly white; “Hollywood pretty actors.”

Darbyson and Yao sent over 100 messages to actors and agents in Montreal in search of people to fill the roles. Yao explained that because the film is an MIP, they were limited to casting union actors.

According to Randy Duniz, public relations officer for ACTRA, the Montreal community accounts for 3,000 of the national 22,000 members. However, if someone isn’t an ACTRA member, they can’t work on a MIP production.

ACTRA steward Serena Gelinas said that the organization has made exceptions for other projects that have run into this challenge in the past. “The idea is that when you’re doing a union project, you are accessing union people,” she said.

ACTRA’s Montreal branch recently created a diversity committee. Its mandate is to promote diversity and inclusivity in the industry, explained Duniz. ACTRA does not ask its members to self-identify. Duniz said that ACTRA was not in a position to share statistics from an optional survey from the Montreal community, as “it did not accurately reflect the situation.”

Finally, Yao and Darbyson’s film ended up with only 50 per cent non-white actors.

The other component of Tiny Arms’ mandate is writing roles for women. The female characters in “It’s Carla Your Agent” are distinctly developed, and have well-rounded narratives. Yao explained this isn’t something that we’re used to seeing.

“Women [tend to] play these really crappy roles. It’s so hard for a girl to get a cool role,” she said. Yao and Darbyson made a point to create female characters that they would be happy to see on screens.

Over the summer, Yao saw a production of Julius Caesar. While that may seem ordinary, it wasn’t—the play had an all-female cast. “It just fucking blew my mind. There’s just something so different about seeing women play these roles. The dynamic is different. Their subtleties are different.”

With files from Ocean DeRouchie.