Jacqueline Samuda on the working actor’s life
Jacqueline Samuda never had any doubt that she wanted to be an actor.
She knew it when she was three years old and watched a Shirley Temple film with her seven siblings. She doesn’t remember much about the movie, except for Temple’s smiling face and the profound yearning to act and sing and dance that suddenly swelled within her.
That feeling lingered, then took hold. Samuda pursued acting, through secondary school and post-secondary and beyond, into a career that’s spanned genres, decades, and cities, and earned her a Leo Award, a Women in Film Spotlight Award, and a fan following for her work as the ruthless Goa'uld System Lord Nirrti on Stargate SG-1.
Acting was Samuda’s calling; of this, there was never any doubt.
What doubt Samuda had reared itself in other places: during key moments when she stood at a precipice and had to decide whether she’d turn back or take the leap.
“There were times where I was essentially offered opportunities and I was shy about grabbing them, and it made me falter,” says the Vancouver-based actress.
Samuda shares these reflections near the tale-end end of an hour-long interview conducted over several pots of tea in Kitsilano.
She does so to answer a question that I often use to close my interviews with artists who’ve been in the industry more than a few years: If you could go back in time to give some advice to a younger version of yourself, what would you say?
Not saying anything to your younger self is an option, too – but Samuda is adamant that she wouldn’t take that particular option. She has advice to give, and it relates to her dances with doubt.
“I wish I’d had older me to put my arm around my shoulder and say, ‘Just go grab it, it’s being held out to you, don’t hesitate, just grab it, now; you won’t look greedy, you won’t look needy,’” she says. “I’ve put the brakes on at the wrong times a couple of times. I’ve stood in my own way.”
Samuda delivers these words emphatically, and then she smiles.
“That’s why I like to live in the place where, ‘Do I like my life? Am I happy to be who I am?’ The answer to those is yes.”
Samuda exudes confidence, curiosity, joy, and wit. They’re traits she’s relied upon throughout her life, which began in Ottawa and – thanks to her father’s career in academia – took her all over the map: from Vancouver to Palo Alto, from Princeton to Kingston, Ontario.
It was in Kingston where Samuda started acting in plays (The Matchmaker and Jesus Christ Superstar), and from where she departed to go to York University to study acting – but only once she’d managed to convince her dad that this was the path she had to take.
“At the time, my dad thought he could say no because I was 17,” recalls Samuda, smiling wryly. “I had to say to my parents, ‘I’d rather suffer as an actor than have a job that might seem more comfortable but I wouldn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.’”
After York, Samuda apprenticed at the venerable Shaw Festival and spent a couple years in Toronto (during which time she logged her first on-camera role, in Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts: “I was doing a scene that was very contained, but I knew that were I on stage, someone would be laughing, and no one was laughing because of course we’re on set, they can’t laugh, and once they called cut, they laughed, and I thought, ‘So this is how it’s done’”) before heading south to Los Angeles.
“I went down to LA because I was working quite steadily in Toronto and I felt like I was at a level where I needed a change, but since then, I’ve been able to advise people that it’s not really the place to go before you’re invited,” says Samuda, who ultimately spent eight years in the City of Angels. “But I loved living in LA. I loved the climate. I loved gardening. I loved writing. It was very civilized. It was like a retreat, but it didn’t do much for my career. I came back to Canada to do my jobs.”
Samuda – who’d had a theatre company while in Toronto, and wrote and directed plays – drove up to Vancouver to participate in a Praxis screenwriting workshop at the behest of a friend. It didn’t take her long to figure out that Vancouver was where she wanted to put down roots.
“It’s the one place where I wasn’t overwhelmed by the industry, where I could find my husband, get married, have children, and still be working in the industry,” says Samuda. “It felt right.”
Samuda’s first time on a Vancouver set was Stargate SG-1. “It was the best possible experience, because it felt like coming home,” says Samuda. “I went into the costume department, and it was like a big-scale theatre costume department. You had all the cutters and the designers and the sewers and [costume designer] Christina McQuarrie, the genius that she is, showing me the sketches, and it was like being at Shaw. It felt so familiar to me. There was also that feeling of everyone’s happy to be here, everyone’s showing up, and of course, the actors: Amanda and RDA and Teryl, they’re all amazing, welcoming, grounded human beings.”
It’s been years since Samuda last donned those impressive Nirrti threads – and in the interim, she wracked up credits on a long list of Vancouver productions, including Arrow, Supernatural, and The L Word, and won a Leo Award for her work in Ties That Bind– but she’s still regularly called upon to discuss her time as Nirrti at Stargate conventions around the world.
Samuda describes her first convention appearance – in Blackpool, England – as a “peak experience, because I was told when I arrived that I was a surprise guest, and that I was going to be introduced by climbing out of a sarcophagus that was going to be pushed through a Stargate with smoke and lights and the lid of the sarcophagus was going to be pulled off and two Jaffa were going to pull me out. I climbed into the coffin with a live mic, and because it was my first convention, I was thinking, ‘No one’s going to know who I am’ – but they did, because they love the show, so I stood up and everyone was happy that I was there. It was really cool.”
The most common question Samuda gets at conventions is this: Is it more fun to play a good guy or a bad guy?
“I always say it’s more fun to play bad guys, because the subtext is always in play,” she says. “Bad guys always think they’re doing the right thing – at least, that’s where I depart from. It’s like, ‘Well, I have an agenda and I’m willing to work very hard and do all kinds of things even though some of them might be considered anti-social.’”
While Samuda would love to write again (“I’m just so cynical right now because of the political climate and everything else that there’s something that’s stopping me going back to writing”), her days are consumed with her family and being a journeyman actor – and she’s satisfied with the life she’s built.
“We’re working actors here [in Vancouver], and I love my work and I’m never going to change it,” says Samuda. “I think of acting as food, and some meals are incredible meals that nourish me and they’re unforgettable, and others are snacks. They’re still feeding me, I still love them, but I’m not necessarily going to have the same experience and I’m not going to carry it with me. I appreciate each thing for what it is, and sometimes I like making the day go better because I know I’m professional, so I can take something that the most challenging thing about it is it’s a complicated, long paragraph, and I know I can do it without stumbling, and everyone’s going to go home on time, and so I like that. I’ve been doing this forever, and I can do that crazy paragraph that might be scary for some, and I enjoy it.”
In 2018, Samuda appeared in Chesapeake Shores and Santa’s Boots. Follow @JSamuda for the latest updates.
Top image by Dennys Ilic