EXCLUSIVE: Toronto-based, Indigenous Trans actress Kiley May on her first major movie role in “IT: Chapter Two”
Perched atop the worldwide box office sits Pennywise the Killer Clown, a horror genre phenomenon and star of the biggest horror movie franchise of all time – cue maniacal clown laugh! With a 3-hour running time and a controversial opening scene, It: Chapter Two received mixed reviews upon its opening, but despite IT’s shortcomings, this cinematic funhouse of terror (directed by Andy Muschietti) is chock-full of Torontonian backdrops, scenery and talent.
For Toronto-based actress Kiley May (CBC’s Coroner), the IT sequel marks her big-screen debut! May’s role as a Native American woman (from the fictitious “Shokopiwah” tribe) may be small, but it’s a prominent aspect of the movie’s plot and it helps vividly showcase Canada’s continuous contributions to major motion pictures. Not to mention, May is originally from the Six Nations Reserve, so her involvement in IT: Chapter Two is a shining example of organic Native and Trans representation in blockbuster movies.
We caught up with Kiley May for an exclusive interview where she tells us all about her time on the IT: Chapter Two set, what it means to represent her communities in the biggest horror franchise of all time, and whether or not she’s afraid of clowns!
Joey Viola (The Buzz): It must’ve been very exciting to see yourself up on the big screen in your first-ever movie role! What was it like working with director Andy Muschietti and what are some things you will always remember from your time on set?
Kiley May: It was absolutely thrilling to see myself in a movie on the big screen for the first time. I actually got emotional and cried a bit when I saw my name roll up on the screen in the end credits. I was with my agent, who has also become a friend. She was sitting beside me and when my name came on screen she said, “You did it, girl. You did it.” And it just hit me right then how far I’ve come and everything I’ve been through, and an overwhelming sense that I made it. And that I can do it. I felt accomplished and proud of myself.
Being in this movie was a big deal for me because I have long loved the horror genre. I remember a story where some family members told me they knew there was something unusual about me because as a small child I loved watching the 1990 IT movie. And my mom is a big Stephen King fan and was always reading his books growing up. I can still picture her copy of the IT book and how its cover scared me but also fascinated me. My family loves scary movies and the 2001 remake of IT, so my mom and everyone were so pumped when I got the audition and got cast in IT: Chapter Two.
Andy Muschietti is so awesome, I adore him. I was actually already a fan of his work because I loved his debut film, Mama. I love horror generally and was really impressed with his version of IT. It was spectacular. And I really liked his personality based on interviews I’ve seen of him. So I was blown away when I got to work with him. He actually just followed me on Instagram and liked some of my pics and I pretty much lost my mind a little.
And working with Andy Muschietti was a blast because he is fun and things kept changing as we filmed. For instance, I auditioned with a single line and it was supposed to be in this cave scene. Then when I got to set in the studio and on location in Port Hope, it became a forest scene. The nation of Indigenous people were first scripted as the real Passamaquoddy nation who are connected to Maine but was later turned into the fictionalized Shokopiwah nation.
Joey Viola (The Buzz): IT: Chapter Two now holds the record for “the second-biggest horror movie opening of all time.” Why do you think this movie franchise entices so many people?
Kiley May: Well, it is partly because of the talent and brilliance of Andy, but probably more so because of the legend that is Stephen King. His success and following, as well as the legacy of the 1990 made-for-TV movie IT and Tim Curry turning Pennywise into a horror icon… I think it is all of those factors. Andy having a deep love for the story written by Stephen King, his unique adapted vision, masterful execution, plus the star power of the ensemble cast. And likely the relatable human elements of the film exploring our inner fears and the themes of childhood, friendship, family and trauma that is universal. A lot of people can connect with that on an emotional level, which maybe isn’t something that a lot of horror or slasher films can do. Really, I feel people just love a good film adaptation, especially one as popular and iconic as IT.
Joey Viola (The Buzz): You’re credited as “Shokopiwah woman” in the credits of the film; how do you think IT: Chapter Two fairs with the representation of minority communities like the Indigenous and LGBTQ+ communities?
Kiley May: IT: Chapter Two does well with representation. There are Indigenous actors playing Indigenous characters, including Peter George Commanda, Billy Merasty, Lisa Cromarty, Tamara Podemsky, and Kevin Allan Hess, who is also from my hometown rez, Six Nations. Then there is the exploration of gayness, like the scene at the beginning where a gay couple is assaulted. Although it’s painful to watch, it was actually in the book and was inspired by a real event in Stephen King’s hometown when he was younger.
As a queer and transgender person, I am personally tired of seeing queer and transgender characters being assaulted and victimized. Yet, events like these still happen every day and it is still something we are experiencing collectively and is an important matter we still need to discuss and work through. So it’s a depiction of reality and part of the theme of fears and the evil of hateful people that are explored in the movie.
That gay character was portrayed by Xavier Dolan, who is an out gay actor, writer and director. So that’s awesome. And I believe there is this subtext in the movie of certain characters’ sexualities being explored or questioned below the surface. You’ll have to see the movie to know what I’m talking about. Plus I am in it, a transgender and Indigenous actor. I also identify as two-spirit. So there’s that as well, in terms of representation. Although my character was not written as trans, she was just written as a woman. I don’t even think they knew I was trans when they cast me and worked with me. It never came up. It just so happens I am.
Joey Viola (The Buzz): What is your fondest memory from filming your scenes?
Kiley May: Aside from experiencing Andy Muschietti’s directing and meeting Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, it was working with Isaiah Mustafa on a scene that’s not in the movie. It was when Mike Hanlon’s character goes to see the Shokopiwah people and they do a ceremony where he takes this Indigenous medicinal tea and has a spiritual and hallucinogenic vision. And the scene becomes hallucinogenic or psychedelic in terms of visuals. While he is in this state, my character becomes creepy and let’s just say Pennywise becomes involved. It was technically difficult because Isaiah and I were sitting on this moving dolly panel thing on a track going forward and backwards, all the while this dome set piece we were in was spinning around and around. It made us both dizzy and feel kind of sick, but it was weirdly a lot of fun. Particularly since I got to be creepy and scary. I’ve never done anything like that. I really hope that scene is put into the director’s cut because it’s truly nutso and visually dizzying and amusing. And it’s scary.
Joey Viola (The Buzz): We have to ask, are you afraid of clowns?
Kiley May: No. I actually used to like clowns as a child. I remember these clowns came to my school when I was a kid and I was really into it. I thought I wanted to be a clown when I grew up, but that changed quickly. Or maybe not, considering I’ve taken some clown classes in theatre school and still want to develop a clown routine. I guess I’m just weird like that. I’m always down to clown.
Joey Viola (The Buzz): Lastly, what was it like to attend the IT: Chapter Two movie premiere in Toronto, Canada, and what kind of movie/TV roles are you hoping to step into in the future?
Kiley May: It was an honour to be invited to the private advance screening at Scotiabank Theatre. I got to see it a week before it was publicly released. That was cool. Andy and Barbara [Muschietti] were there, as well as some local Toronto talent and crew who worked on the film. It was quite an experience being in a movie theatre filled with people who were in and who worked on the movie. People pointed at the screen, whispered and clapped when they saw themselves or scenes they worked on, including me. Some laughed at different parts, and I knew they were laughing at things that happened behind the scenes that we will never know about. There was definitely a film family-ish insider dynamic going on. It was this shared collective experience and that was wonderful.
I am so optimistic and excited about my future in the film industry. Not just as an actor but as a writer, director and producer. As an actor, I would love to be in lead roles as Indigenous characters who are thriving, strong and empowered. And the same with transgender characters. I want to play transgender characters who are in no way victims but are instead resilient warriors, independent, fulfilled and successful. Or just ordinary and mediocre.
I don’t want to be limited to playing roles that are transgender or Indigenous. I’d love to play characters whose story arc has nothing to do with them being Indigenous or transgender, but it just so happens that they are. Characters who go on an incredible journey and are changed because of it and change others around them so that they are never the same.
I always envision myself playing strong badass warrior type female characters, like Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road. Or to be a superhero or comic book villain. I’d really love to do more horror. I admire Anya Taylor-Joy’s career and her project choices. I have so many hopes and ideas, which is why I am going to write my own stories and create my own opportunities for proper and accurate representation. I would love to someday write direct and act in my own horror film. I am writing now actually, working on a script about my experience living in a haunted house. And a major dream I have is to work with Andy Muschietti again someday and who knows, maybe have him direct me in a lead role for a horror film that I wrote. I’m always dreaming.
IT: Chapter Two is in theatres now!
Photo credit of Kiley May headshots Hayley Andoff
About the Author
Joey Viola is the Co-Founder of MoJo Toronto and an LGBTQ community leader who utilizes his passion and flair for the art of writing by bringing a fresh perspective in reviewing entertainment and advocating for equality, tolerance, and social/political justice.