There’s nothing quite like the sound of Indigenous laughter, especially when it’s shared in our own communities. Taietsarón:sere ‘Tai’ Leclaire (Kanien’kehá:ka and Mi’kmaq) is among the creatives who are speaking about topics close to the Indigenous community in a way that we can laugh about them, such as with his directorial debut: “Headdress.” Dealing with an issue known quite well to many of us, having to educate ignorant and disrespectful people, Tai seeks to tell this story in a new and inventive way for native audiences. We sat down to speak with the burgeoning director on his latest project and how it came to be.
Growing up on the Kahnawà:ke reservation, Tai discovered their love of making people laugh at a young age, taking part in a community theater program where he played a “rezzed-out” version of the Grinch. When they were 13, they joined a small filmmaking club where he and other kids would create their own home movies, both of those serving as an initial inspiration to enter the entertainment industry. Later on, between working a 9-5 job, Tai made his way into the comedy scene in New York, which was when he started to blend his cultural background with his performances.
“My favorite character I ever wrote was called ‘Native American Shaman,’ who is a very stereotypical Hollywood native shaman. He deals primarily with white ghosts and having to kick white ghosts out of white people’s homes and trying to tell everyone that there are seven layers of white hell.”
It was this performance that landed Tai an interview that eventually got him involved in writing for and acting in Rutherford Falls. He considers his time on the show as a whole to be “an education I couldn’t pay for,” learning from both veterans in the industry and newcomers like himself. Being able to work on a native-centric story around other natives was also life-changing for Tai, reflecting on how there was nothing like it even just a few years ago.
It was during his time in the Sundance Native Lab Fellowship when Tai began work on his short film, a project he’s had in mind for years. “’Headdress’ is a surrealist comedy about a native person coming across a non-native person wearing a headdress at a music festival, which I’m sure a lot of native people have experienced to some degree. My character retreats into their head to get advice from the various versions of themselves to figure out what to say to this person….There’s professional Tai, which is the main character, queer Tai, goth Tai, bougie Tai, traditional Tai, and future Tai.”
Despite this being their first time at the helm of a project like this, Tai found that their experience with photography and their time on Rutherford Falls aided them in the process.
“The amount going into just prepping a four-day shoot was really…oh my gosh. Making a movie is 95% answering emails, and no one likes to talk about that. Luckily, I love pre-production, I love creative production, and I really do love that process.”
While they originally planned to film the entirety of the film back on his reservation, he ended up splitting locations between New York and the Pechanga reservation and especially enjoyed filming in that environment. Still, in the midst of post-production, Tai looks forward to seeing how Indigenous audiences respond, hoping that, above all, they laugh.
“I think native audiences are going to see a lot of themselves in the story only because it’s something we’ve all dealt with before. I think there’s space and permission to be weird and funny about it at the same time.”
Tai is currently aiming for a 2023 release of his short film, having entered it in several film festivals with a future screening planned to be held on his reservation and ultimately releasing it on YouTube. You can learn more about him on Instagram and Twitter at @tai_leclaire.