The first thing Djouliet Amara does when she gets home to Winnipeg is go for a walk.
She puts on her headphones and heads out for a stroll around the St. Vital neighbourhood she grew up in.
"I liked to go to my favourite swing set and just swing," she says, laughing.
"There’s a comforting sense of belonging when I come back... I kind of miss how homey Winnipeg feels; I miss the Prairie vibes."
The actress, fresh from wrapping up filming Apple TV’S The Big Door Prize in Atlanta, is back in town for a quick break before she has to jet off again, this time to Los Angeles.
Probably best known for her role as Corrine in CBC’s Canadian civil rights drama The Porter — she is heading to the States for the U.S. première of the series on BET+ — Amara’s latest gig is an ensemble comedy based on the bestselling novel of the same name by M.O. Walsh.
“There’s a comforting sense of belonging when I come back. . I kind of miss how homey Winnipeg feels; I miss the Prairie vibes.” – Djouliet Amara
In the series Amara plays Trina, the bright and sarcastic daughter of schoolteacher Dusty (Chris O’Dowd) and his wife, Cass (Gabrielle Dennis), whose lives are turned upside down when a magical machine promising to reveal the true potential of each resident appears in their small town.
It’s a part Amara almost missed out on, having decided not to audition for it at first.
"It was really funny because at first I said no. I thought, ‘There are so many talented half-Black American girls’ and I was so close to booking another job so I turned it down."
But then she discovered she hadn’t got the job she was after.
"My manager said ‘The Big Door Prize still wants to see you’ and I sent my audition in. I did a callback after Christmas, then a chemistry read and I ended up booking the thing. I was off to Atlanta," she says, sounding incredulous.
"I really loved working on it; we were pulling long days and I worked on it four months straight. It was such an awesome experience. It’s just crazy because this is the biggest role I have ever done."
While acting takes precedence these days it wasn’t always the case; Amara’s first foray into the performing arts was via dance, having started lessons at the age of seven.
"When we got our first house in Canada, around the corner from me there was a dance studio; that was my first introduction to the arts. Dance was my way to express myself — I was a very artistic kid. At that time my parents didn’t know anything about arts in Winnipeg and when I was a kid there was no way for me to pursue acting."
Her parents — Amara’s mother is Russian and her father is Sierra Leonean — moved to Canada from Russia when Amara was two, in hopes of providing a better life for their child. They are both very supportive of their daughter’s creative ambitions.
“Growing up, life was full of play and love, very uncomplicated. My parents were very young, so we were all kind of like growing up together. My family are very supportive; they are always there for me. I call them my rocks.” – Djouliet Amara
"I had refugee status when we got here and it took me until I was eight years old to be considered Canadian. Growing up, life was full of play and love, very uncomplicated. My parents were very young, so we were all kind of like growing up together. My family are very supportive; they are always there for me. I call them my rocks."
Her teacher at the neighbourhood dance school spotted the young Amara’s talent and encouraged her to take as many classes as possible.
Dancing led her to New York, where she was with the Alvin Ailey Dance School for five years before the acting bug bit and she’s been working non-stop as an actor for the last couple of years after making her debut in Spike Lee’s Tales From the Hood 3.
"I always felt the drive to succeed. It’s within me. Continuing to pursue the arts is a challenge but I consider it healing for myself," she says.
"Becoming these different characters — which are like little souls — and giving them this body to live in, I sometimes find myself doing things and acting in a way I may not agree with. But it teaches me about the world, makes me wonder why people act the way they do and that makes me less judgmental. It’s made me a better person because I’ve become more open-minded."
Amara prepares for roles by keeping a diary, jotting down little things about the character she will become. She also makes a playlist, choosing music she thinks the character likes and listens to.
"I just really become the character — I write what the character would be thinking and for every single character I become I create a playlist of what helps me become closer to them and become them."
Right now, though, she is just being herself, back home in her neighbourhood, enjoying her downtime with friends with whom she’s collaborating, spending quality time with her family… and watching reality TV.
“Everything about art makes me excited, the creative process, the fact that you’re making someone feel, the fact that you get to change people’s perspective… I can’t believe I get to do it.” – Djouliet Amara
"I’m talking to people I love, seeing my friends again, eating a burger and hanging out. I am obsessed with reality TV. The Ultimatum, 90 Day Fiancé, that’s all I want to do after I finish filming."
She’s happy where she is and grateful she gets to do something she loves.
"Everything about art makes me excited, the creative process, the fact that you’re making someone feel, the fact that you get to change people’s perspective… I can’t believe I get to do it.
"When I was a kid I used to watch these programs on Disney and then go to school and tell my friends to start a band. I was a very artistic kid, I wanted to be a singer, a dancer, a fashion designer, a makeup artist. I was always creative; I always thought, ‘It’s going to happen for me.’ "
And happen it has.