Toronto actress on playing Jesse Owens’ wife in Race, her Degrassi roots and the rise of the 6ix

Actress Shanice Banton sees the parallels between her latest film, Race, and the current racial and cultural tensions in the world. With politicians spreading fear and hate, police killings and shootings, and genocides across the globe, it’s easy to see the similarities between 1936, when the movie was set, and 2016.

Banton, a native of Toronto’s Scarborough community, is fresh off the release of the Stephen Hopkins film about American Olympian Jesse Owens, which hit theatres in February. Starring as Ruth Solomon Owens, the devoted and supportive wife of the American track star (played by fellow Scarborough actor, Stephan James), Banton displays her growth as an actress and adds her name to a growing list of young Canadian talent ready to make some noise.

“I saw one of my high school teachers, a couple months ago and he didn’t know about [Race] and we were talking for a bit,” shares an introspective Banton over the phone. “I hadn’t seen him since literally high school and he wished me some really good stuff. That felt good because I hadn’t seen him in so long and to see where I last left him to where I am now that was pretty awesome.”

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I think that whenever you go and read something or see something that has to do with racism and such, no matter what nationality you are, you can relate to that.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR IMPACT ON THE MOVIE AND HOW YOU FEEL THE MOVIE IMPACTS SOCIETY IN 2016?

Race is very impactful for society; especially right now because I feel like, right now, we’re looking for this hero, with everything going on in the world. I think it was nice for the audience to see a movie that was very inspiring and just heartwarming – just a great story that was well overdue to be told and so that everyone can see that kind of story right now. I think it was just very inspiring; we needed it at the time, especially during Black History Month.

WE TALK ABOUT BLACK PEOPLE UNITING AND CELEBRATING A PART OF THEIR HISTORY, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER CULTURES AND OTHER RACES?

Oh definitely, I think that whenever you go and read something or see something that has to do with racism and such, no matter what nationality you are, you can relate to that. I don’t think it’s singled out to Black people at all. Every race could attach to that and relate to that sort of thing.

WE SAY THAT TORONTO IS A VERY MULTICULTURAL CITY. GROWING UP IN SCARBOROUGH, ONE OF THE CITY’S MOST CULTURALLY DIVERSE AREAS, HAS RACE EVER BEEN AN ISSUE FOR YOU?

Umm, (pauses), no. I don’t like to single myself out. I’m a Black woman, I’m a Black actress, but I try not to look at it like that. I’m just this person. If you think like that then it limits what you’re able to do. I’ve never really felt like that at all.

I’m a Black woman, I’m a Black actress, but I try not to look at it like that. I’m just this person. If you think like that then it limits what you’re able to do.

THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF TALK OVER THE LAST FEW MONTHS ABOUT #OSCARSSOWHITE AND A LACK OF DIVERSITY IN FILM, FILMMAKERS OR PEOPLE BEING REPRESENTED IN FILM AND TELEVISION. DO YOU HAVE ANY THOUGHTS ABOUT THAT?

I just feel like for some people it’s a bigger issue and for others, it’s not, but you know everyone should be able to get a chance, in any career, or anything you’re doing; you shouldn’t be limited. So if there are people who feel that way then having a discussion, getting it talked about, shining a light on it, is always the first step.

A LOT OF PEOPLE KNOW YOU FOR YOUR TIME SPENT ON THE TV SHOW DEGRASSI. AS YOU PURSUE OTHER ROLES DO YOU FIND THAT YOU STILL GET TIED TO THAT TEENAGE PERSONA?

Well here’s the thing, I still look really young so how you look at a certain time in your life will reflect what type of roles you’re able to get. I did Degrassi for a long time, so for a long time I felt like I was playing that teenage, fresh face, but I think that the opportunities are there.

DO YOU FIND YOURSELF DRAWN TO CERTAIN TYPES OF ROLES?

I don’t want to say I’m drawn to a type of role, but I’m more drawn to a genre. I really like dramatic art, I would love to do comedy and all those other things, but I kind of started in dramatic art and I find that’s where I work best.

I’m really proud to be in Toronto and working here. I know a lot of stuff is going to be shooting here this summer and that’s just great, it’s a proud feeling.

WOULD THAT INTEREST HAVE TO DO WITH YOUR TRAINING OR TIME AT WEXFORD COLLEGIATE SCHOOL FOR THE ARTS IN SCARBOROUGH?

I think it has a little bit to do with that, because when I first started acting and realizing that I liked it, it started with that genre and there was something that connected me to being able to relieve those sorts of emotions. Being in really serious plays in high school, I think that’s where some of it, a percentage of it, comes from.

THE WORLD IS STARTING TO RECOGNIZE AND SEE THE POTENTIAL AND TALENT THAT’S IN TORONTO. ARE YOU SEEING YOUR FRIENDS GETTING MORE OPPORTUNITIES? IS THAT SOMETHING YOU’RE PROUD OF?

It’s really awesome; there are a lot of actors getting a lot more shine. You see Stephan (who plays Jesse Owens in Race), he’s also from Toronto. Then you have Shamier Anderson as well, also from the city, and also in the movie, also doing really great things. I’m seeing some of my music friends are getting really good shine right now, so yeah! I’m really proud to be in Toronto and working here. I know a lot of stuff is going to be shooting here this summer and that’s just great, it’s a proud feeling.

IT’S BEEN AN INCREDIBLE RIDE FOR STEPHAN, CAN YOU TALK ABOUT HIS GROWTH AND THE SUCCESS HE’S HAVING.

It really is a ride for him; it really is a wave. He is a very humble guy; he is really dedicated to his work and his craft – he takes it seriously. It’s just great for him because he takes it so seriously; he really deserves to be having that journey.

Photos supplied courtesy of Shanice Banton & Noble Caplan Abrams Talent agency