Interview with Sabryn Rock

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Treating people better than the USA has isn’t the self-justifying argument you think it is. Prairie Porter Inc. / Sienna Films Porter Inc.

Regina-born actress cast in new CBC show the Porter

The accomplished Regina-born actress Sabryn Rock has scored a major role as Gwen Barnes in CBC/BET+’s upcoming show the Porter, premiering on February 21 at 9 p.m. Rock has recently appeared in numerous notable TV shows, such as Departure (2021), Black Mirror (2017), and the Girlfriend Experience (2016). She is also a distinguished stage performer, with recent roles in Fun Home, the Last Wife, Passing Strange, and productions of a few of Shakespeare’s plays.

It’s thrilling for Rock to be a part of a significant project such as the Porter, particularly because of what and who the work is about. “Obviously, it’s a pretty special project,” she says. “We’re making history by creating the show.” She notes that she has never seen “anything” like the Porter, especially coming out of Canada: “a show that kind of told Black stories and had a Black cast [and] creative team. The fact that everyone [involved] is a part of the Black diaspora […] that’s been an experience I’ve never had before, even in Toronto… Projects like this, that mean so much, don’t come along very often, and so I’m just counting myself really lucky I got to be a part of it.”

Rock says that it has been incredible “getting to work with [her] peers and people [she’s] admired on the scene for so many years.” One of her most important connections on set has been “Charles Officer, who is one of the directors and [executive] producers. He and I have kind of been circling around each other in our careers. I’ve never actually gotten to work with him, [though] I’ve auditioned for him a bunch of times […] I found out he really went to bat for me to get the role I got […] Just to have somebody of his esteem and experience to be championing me is just huge, like, very flattering […] I didn’t even know he knew who I was, so the fact that he was really fighting for me to get the role is like, a highlight of my career.”

“Funny story: I actually found out I got the role while I was in labour,” Rock says with a laugh. “So, I was going into labour, and my agent kept calling [and] I kind of knew that there was maybe something on the horizon, but I hadn’t gotten an actual offer yet […] Obviously, I did not answer the phone because I was… preoccupied… but the next day in the hospital, holding my son, I check my voicemail, and my agent was like ‘You got the role!’”

It was “crazy” to be only a few hours post-partum and know that she would have to be filming for the Porter in just a few months, but the birth of her son connected her to her character in unexpected ways. She says she didn’t originally connect with Gwen. “I was like ‘this character is very conservative, she’s very religious,’ and those are just two things that I am not,” Rock says. “The really interesting thing about Gwen is she’s super complex and I feel like the first season […] only scratches the surface about how many secrets and interesting parts to her there are. But one of the biggest aspects of what she wants is a child – she’s trying to get pregnant and has lost a baby and that’s the number one thing she and her spouse want.”

“That was like, a huge connector for me. I’d just had a baby and [had been] doing research about getting pregnant and being pregnant, obviously, and like, miscarriages and all that stuff. It was all on my mind. So, that was a surprising connection I didn’t totally anticipate. And that was kind of my way into her.”

“She’s also, as I mentioned – no spoilers – but she’s not all you think she is. She kind of comes across as this pious, conservative, religious woman, [but] she actually has a surprising liberal side to her that will come out as the series goes on. That too also really spoke to me and I was like, what a cool kind of secret to play. Because really, she’s portrayed in a certain way but then underneath there’s way more complexity going on than what she puts forward. And I like to think of myself as a complex person,” Rock says with a laugh. “So, I feel like we connected on a few different levels… I actually do identify with her in a big way.”

Additionally, “navigating the healthcare system as Sabryn, being a pregnant woman, and the fact that [Gwen] is a Black Cross nurse and a nurse of colour… that in itself was an interesting parallel,” Rock says, “having just gone through the system and not actually being cared for by many people of colour. And then having [Gwen] being one of the pioneers of nursing – even though Black women weren’t trained as actual nurses until the fifties, I believe.”

Rock hopes that viewers “look into the history of train porters, but also Black Cross nurses and the United Negro Improvement Association” outside of watching the show. She admits she didn’t know much about the history before the project. “I’m very ashamed to say I knew nothing about Black porters,” Rock says. “I knew what porters were, kind of, but I didn’t realize there was such a huge population of Black porters within Canada […] it was like a different version of slavery. Like, the insane amount of work and low pay, like three day stretches on trains, being treated terribly, obviously, racist, racist treatment […] That’s a big part of Canadian history I had very little knowledge about.”

“I hope that people watching it will look into these pioneers […] like, they’re the backbone of the railway system in Canada […] Also, Black Cross Nurses: a huge, huge part of taking care of Black communities in Canada. And even though they weren’t officially trained as medical nurses, they were taking care of Black communities in Canada and educating Black communities and teaching them about hygiene and health and being midwives. Like, they kind of did everything and weren’t honoured for that in the way that you know, probably, white medical professionals might have been… I hope people just are interested in the history and look into it and educate themselves because I found it really fascinating. And I never learned about any of that in school and I don’t think people are teaching it.”

More importantly, Rock hopes that people don’t just “watch it on February 21and [think] ‘oh, it’s Black History Month, so I should look into it!’ And March 1 comes, and they forget about all the history or don’t have any other keen interest in looking into things outside of February.” Her “hope is that [interest] permeates throughout the year and not just one month out of the year.”

When asked what she would recommend to help young folks get started in their acting career, Rock says to “take advantage of anything there is to offer.” She notes the opportunities she had, like high school drama and being on the winning team at the Canadian Improv Games in Ottawa one year. There are plenty of opportunities to be found even in a small city like Regina! “If your school has a drama program; if your university is doing plays, audition if you’re interested. Not even necessarily for acting but like getting experience on sets, or on student films, or on crews.”

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