An accomplished Toronto-based actress/producer with multiple short films and television appearances to her name, Emily Piggford can most recently be seen in web series That’s My DJ as Meagan, an adventurous event promoter with a complicated love life. We recently caught up with Emily to talk about her career, future projects, and what’s in the cards for TMDJ. Check out the interview below, and don’t forget to follow her on Twitter!
How did you originally become involved with “That’s My DJ,” and what made you interested in producing it as well as being an actor?
Becoming involved in “That’s My DJ” was very serendipitous. A friend of mine from UVic (Kendra Terpenning, a terrific costume designer) was “TMDJ” director/creator D.W.’s co-worker at the time and happened to be there when D.W. discovered that, due to a scheduling conflict, she’d lost the actress meant to play Meagan. Apparently, Kendra was like, “Wait!…”, pulled up my IMDb, and said, “This is who you should cast.” (laughs). D.W. watched my episodes of “Hemlock Grove,” set up a meeting, and here we are!
I was blown away by and am still so grateful for her trust in me. That same trust was extended when D.W. invited me to produce seasons 2 and 3. I cared about the series and people involved so much that I was absolutely down to do more work behind the scenes. Also, I thought I might be a good producer because I love puzzles and find joy in being organized and thorough, so I was excited by the prospect of helping everything run smoothly and within budget etc. But oh my goodness… I respected producers before I knew the breadth of their responsibilities, but now my respect is just through the roof. It is a huge and hugely important job. D.W. let me transition from producer to actor when it came time to shoot and I’m thankful for that and the team of people who were there to help the shoots run as well as they did.
Meagan’s so complex and interesting; what was the evolution of her role like? Did she start out as a more ambiguous character that you fleshed out as the show went on, or was there already a lot in mind for her when season 1 was written and filmed?
Meagan felt like a fresh canvas in many ways when I first stepped into her, which was both liberating and a little nerve-wracking because I didn’t want to get her wrong. But her initial elusiveness actually makes sense, in a way, because that’s how she is perceived through Simon’s eyes; he never really gets to know her. The decision to make Meagan the lead of season 2 (and to continue to alternate protagonists) was an idea that suddenly hit D.W. after the release of season 1. It’s an exciting way to portray even more aspects of Toronto’s EDM world and simply to get into greater depth with other character storylines. So Meagan’s evolution took a significant leap from the first to the second season, which was not anticipated from the get-go, but felt so right when it clicked.
On that note, was it always the plan for Meagan to be the one person we follow in every season? How did that decision happen?
It was not the initial game plan, but followed very naturally because D.W. and I honestly loved working together so much that we became inspired to flesh out Meagan together. And as Meagan matures from party girl to professional promoter, we follow her deeper into the woods of that industry, which allows us to meet other characters, like Jade Hassouné’s character Sam, a music producer and her co-worker/friend. So Meagan became the key that opens the other doors.
I’m just curious — are we ever going to learn more about Meagan and Cory’s history/present/future? There’s a very “on-again-off-again” vibe with them. Similarly, will there ever be a season getting into Hannah’s nuances more?
With this structure of rotating the protagonist, it’s totally possible that we could see characters like Cory and Hannah from another angle. As it stands, the way they pass through Meagan’s life is reflective of those relationships we experience in real life, where we have a fling or brief but profound connection with someone and we either drift apart, get ripped apart, or have to walk away. One thing I feel “TMDJ” ultimately does is encourage us to be brave in the face of change or loss and to consciously move in the direction of what (and who) makes us our best self. So, in that regard, it’s possible we may never see Cory or Hannah again, because they’ve served their purpose, no longer fitting with the person Meagan is becoming. BUT, to play devil’s advocate (laughs), there are two sides to every story and while we may root for Meagan and watch as people like Cory or Hannah slip away, it could be very exciting and certainly humanizing to see where they go or where they came from and what sort of impact Meagan has had on their lives… So, we’ll see!
As you’ve pointed out, “TMDJ” is such a diverse show, and with a female showrunner in a field that’s usually considered a boys’ club. Did you approach the series with that aspect of it in mind? What’s your opinion re: representation on big and small screens alike?
When I first signed onto “TMDJ,” I didn’t really give a second thought to the fact that it was being created, directed and produced by a woman. It was impressive in its own right because of how driven D.W. is, but the fact that D.W. is a woman doing all these things seemed so natural, I didn’t perceive it as the relatively unique thing that it is. Since shooting season 1, I’ve become much more aware of the need for increased representation of women on and off screen and I am proud to be a part of a project that succeeds at diverse, female inclusion. A shift is definitely happening and I am happy to be more and more conscious of it so that I can actively contribute to a positive movement in the film industry (and the world) towards gender equality. Soon it will be as natural as it deserves to be, but right now, conscious efforts, it seems, are still necessary. We are seeing some impressive examples of female representation on and off stages and screens, which is SO fun and important. (P.S. go see “Ghostbusters.”)
You’ve been a part of multiple short films and TV shows. How do those projects compare to working on a web series?
The main difference I’ve found between working on independent projects versus those made for the mainstream are how much help and time I have to develop characters. On projects like “That’s My DJ” or Slater Jewell-Kemker’s short film “Still,” co-starring Giacomo Gianniotti, we had rehearsals with our directors, we had discussions about our characters, and contributed to re-writes. With the larger series I’ve been on, such as “Hemlock,” “Lost Girl,” or
“Spun Out,” I found I did the majority of my character development during the audition process. So there’s this challenge of remembering and maintaining the character I built often weeks ago when I eventually get to set. I’ve learned in those situations, to come in being prepared to throw down a character that is 100% built and do it confidently, but also be prepared to quickly change my character choices, sometimes drastically, through rewrites or revelations on set. For “TMDJ” and the short films I’ve been involved in, I often get to flesh out my character with the director and my co-stars in rehearsals so that once we get to set, I am able to simply exist and play within that character. BOTH processes are fun and full of surprises for me.
Tell us about voice acting!! Has that been a completely new experience? Are you interested in pursuing it more?
I want do more voice acting! I love playing around with my voice and I love the prospect of collaborating in a new way to build a character. My experience so far has been on Denver Jackson’s animated short film, “Cloudrise,” which is screening at the San Diego Comic-Con International Film Festival on July 23rd! In preparing to record for “Cloudrise,” I found myself a bit conflicted between taking my voice to an elevated place, or keeping my performance more naturalistic. What resulted is a bit of both. I guess that’s pretty true to life. But I would love to develop my voice acting abilities more and have the opportunity to play in both extremes: to mask my voice, taking it in wacky directions, and also deliver simple, natural, vocal performances. I often think of the vocal performances in Hayao Miyazaki’s films, which tend towards naturalism, in both Japanese and English. I really enjoy the sincerity of that and the way it can ground these wonderfully-fantastical, visually-intricate stories.
What has your path as an actress been like, particularly as a mixed-race person? Any lessons to share with artists and creatives just getting started?
I grew up so Westernized that for most of my life, I failed to consider that others might perceive me differently. When the “Charlie’s Angels” movies came out, I didn’t immediately identify with Lucy Liu’s character, I identified with Cameron Diaz’s character because we’re both bubbly and like to dance, and then later with Drew Barrymore’s character because we’re both Pisces. Meanwhile, people were saying how much I looked like Lucy Liu. I love and am grateful for both my Japanese and my British heritage and there has definitely been traditional representation of both in my upbringing, but I have never felt ultimately defined by the fact that I appear Asian.
This has shifted in the last few years of working professionally in such visual mediums as film and theater. I am becoming increasingly aware of the history of actors and characters that look like me, the POC, the “visible minorities.” I am also aware that many of the old structures and stereotypes persist today. Given the current standards, it is less likely that I will play a lead role in a mainstream piece, unless my ethnicity is somehow paramount to the story. But I also wonder sometimes if I do not read as “ethnic enough” for those roles, being mixed.
My advice for anyone is to be aware of your privilege and how it can serve you and others, but also how you can work against it to evolve away from the expectations of your appearance. I have the privilege of being able to play Asian characters based on my appearance and experiences and I am proud to represent! I am also eager to continue to create work that defies stereotypes, where actors and creators can secure work based on their talent, regardless of race, gender identify, sexual orientation, ability or body type. We can do better to represent the variety of the human race in a healthy, positive way. I’m grateful for the many projects and people that are spearheading this evolution. My advice to any artists getting started is to jump in and continue in that vein; to be conscious, inclusive, respectful, to be innovative with your art and regard it as the vehicle for change that it is, as much as it is for entertainment, also to see this responsibility not as a chore, but as an inviting opportunity for creativity.
Since we know season three of “TMDJ” is about Sam, can you tell us anything about where Meagan will be at in his storyline, or what she’ll be doing?
Sam was there as a rock of loyalty and love for Meagan in season 2. In season 3, it’s Meagan’s turn to be a voice of reason for Sam. We see her picking up the pieces of herself post-Hannah—she’s a little guarded or distracted—but she loves Sam and her friends so much and, in spite of her own baggage and healing, she doesn’t want to see them hurt. I think that some of the heartache she’s gone through in season 2 brings her to more of a “tough love” approach, though, in season 3.
Any other projects or news you can talk about?
Ohhhh, yessss, I’m so excited about this: I’m in the new season of CBC and Rhombus Media’s “Michael: Everyday,” which is due out in the first half of 2017! It was shot in Ottawa over the last couple of months, production just wrapped. Don McKellar is back directing, Bob Martin and Matt Watts are back as the leads and they were all ridiculously lovely, fun and inspiring to work with. I highly recommend watching season 1 to those who haven’t!! It’s all on the CBC website. Very funny and sincere performances, clever writing, and it showcases mental health in this terrific way, for one thing, by simply showcasing it at all. I’m so proud to be a part of the series and to have worked with such awesome people. And I friggin’ love my character.
Lastly, since our site is “Talk Nerdy With Us,” what do you have fun being a nerd about?
AH! Movies, just movies in general. I’m also a nerd for the environment. I wanna save the planet and love learning about green innovations! One of my favorite series of books is Margaret Atwood’s “MaddAddam” trilogy. I studied the first book, “Oryx and Crake” in grade eleven and since then, I’ve wanted to adapt it for the screen and play Oryx. Two years ago I learned that Darren Aronofsky was adapting the trilogy for an HBO miniseries and my heart simultaneously sank and exploded. It’s the best news—that it will be adapted for the screen, because I want as many people to be familiar with it as possible, and also that Aronofsky is at the helm because… it’s Darren Aronofsky– and it’s such a great match!! One night, after about a year of debate, I hand wrote him a letter by candlelight, put it in an envelope with my headshot and résumé and put my demo and some short films I starred in on a flashdrive to mail to him. (laughs).
I woke up the next day and learned that David Bowie had passed away. That hit me way harder than I thought it would. One thing I felt, with ferocity, was that we should do all we can to reach our maximum potential and to reach out to others. I mailed the parcel that day and have heard nothing, as expected, really, I can only imagine what Mr. Aronofksy must be inundated with on an hourly basis. I’ve let it sit for now. I’m not usually one to push or play with fate. I go with the flow so much. I actually feel gratification and relief for simply having sent it and I will always feel a connection with Oryx whether or not I get to play her. SO, obviously, I’m a pretty big nerd for the “MaddAddam” trilogy. Also “Supernatural,” “Star Wars,” Disney, Pixar, Studio Ghibli, I’m still a fangirl for “Hemlock Grove.” Also ‘hey! dw’, D.W.’s DJ alter ego. People should come to Toronto just for her monthly event, Home Brew. Seriously. S’all I’m gonna say.