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The evolution of an artist

Shelley Thompson is a Canadian actress turned writer-director and one of the featured directors at FIN this year.  

According to her Twitter bio, she is a “writer, filmmaker, actor, fierce mother, agnostic gambler, LGBTQ+ ally and warrior. All that and more.”  

However, all the labels aside, she says, “trying to encapsulate who you are seems to always be tongue and cheek. It’s really hard to sum up who you are because you are a different person in every day of your life.”   

From actress to director 

Born in Calgary, Thompson’s love of acting eventually moved her across the pond to England. She remembers the first time she ever visited, at 14 years old, on a school trip.  

“I just fell in love with it. I had always been a kid that was really interested in history ––not in an academic way, I just loved the stories.”  

Among her favourites was Shakespeare. “I was a bit wacky for a kid, but I did. I loved Shakespeare, I loved the stories, I loved the language, loved imagining that world he lived in. So going to England, weirdly, felt like coming home.”  

After she completed her education at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Thompson appeared on countless different stages, including London’s West End theatre and the Royal National Theatre. Later, she gained recognition in Canada as Barb Lahey on the television show Trailer Park Boys, appearing in all 13 seasons. 

However, acting slowly got less fun for her and it was getting harder for her to find roles as she got older, she says. So, she decided to try her hand at a career behind the camera.   

“I was finding [being on screen] easier to maintain. And I knew that eventually what I really wanted was to create. I wanted to write and direct,” she says.  

Dawn, Her Dad, and the Tractor 

Dawn, Her Dad, and the Tractor, Thompson’s first feature film, presents the audience with a dad trying to understand and repair his relationship with his transgender daughter. The film is a nuanced examination of subjects like the meaning of love and family.  

  “[People] need to be kind, and open to experiences that aren’t their own, and recognize that we’re not all the same,” Thompson says. Communities are built on people coming from different places, all working for the same goal: being loved, feeling safe, and having a community that respects them, she says.  

The screenplay for Dawn, Her Dad & the Tractor was the recipient of the 2018 Women In The Director’s Chair (WIDC) Feature Film Award. At the script stage, Dawn was one of 12 projects invited to the U.S. Writers Lab, an organization supported by Merryl Streep and Nicole Kidman that provides an intensive four-day script development session for women over 40 looking to break into filmmaking. The Lab selects 12 screenplays each year and invites their writers to work one-on-one with film industry leaders.  

On the making of the film Thompson says, “because of the subject matter, and because it was close to home, I wanted to make sure that I was respectful; that I had done my work, that I researched, that I talked to a lot of trans individuals and they had input on the project. For those things were really important to me.” 

Growing up and moving on 

“I am a different person now than when I was in my twenties, before I had a child, before I moved countries,” says Thompson. “All these things make you feel like: ‘I need to find who I am now, because now I’m not that person.’” 

Dawn, Her Dad & the Tractor can be streamed at the St John’s International Women’s Film Festival, taking place from Oct. 14-17. 

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