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From the Downtown Eastside to DiCaprio

Duane Howard left a life of substance abuse for acting and self-empowerment
Duane Howard
Duane Howard plays the role of an Indigenous trapper in the film The Sun at Midnight, which screens at Vancity Theatre April 2 and 4.

Duane Howard has travelled to the ends of the earth, all in the name of bear attacks.

That type of man-versus-nature confrontation has been central to his acting career over the last three years and plays out in his latest film, The Sun at Midnight, which screens April 2 and 4 at Vancity Theatre.

Howard played the role of Arikara leader Elk Dog in the 2015 Oscar-winning film The Revenant, which featured a hyper-realistic bear attack scene involving Leonardo DiCaprio.

Howard was due to head to southern Argentina to finish his final scenes for The Revenant when he auditioned via Skype for his role in The Sun at Midnight. His upcoming gig would see him starring as a trapper in Northern B.C. who ends up getting attacked by a bear.

“I don’t what it is about me and bears in these last few movies, but The Revenant was great experience for me as an actor and I was glad I got that role,” he told the Courier.

The overlap between shooting The Revenant and The Sun at Midnight presented challenges, specifically in the way of a 35-hour commute from one end of the earth to the other.

Howard flew from southern Argentina to Yellowknife and immediately began shooting the film, which is set between the subarctic community of Fort McPherson, N.W.T. and Dawson City, Yukon.

Released in September 2016, the film’s plot follows a 16-year-old girl named Lia who is sent to live with her grandmother in Fort McPherson after the death of her mother. A city girl by choice and upbringing, Lia runs away in the hopes of making it to Dawson City, and by extension, escaping from isolation.

She gets lost along the way and runs into Howard’s character, a solitary trapper named Alfred who’s reeling from the recent death of his wife. A loner by choice, Alfred fills his days looking for an elusive heard of caribou.

Despite being together in the film for a matter days, life-changing bonds are made: both are grieving, both are searching and both are growing. When Alfred is mauled by a bear, Lia is the one to intervene and save his life.

“There is a lot of teaching happening between us; I’m like a father figure for her,” said Howard, 54. “Our relationship is about me putting the onus on her and having her take responsibility over her life.”

Off the screen, Howard is a case study in taking responsibility. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol by his early teens, living on the Downtown Eastside. He got sober at 23 and went on to become a substance abuse counsellor and a motivational speaker.

“My body was giving out and I couldn’t do anything anymore,” Howard said. “It was literally a realization that drinking and drugging was too much. I turned around and walked away from it. I have an understanding of how life is in that community. It’s full circle, because I came to a point in my life where I wanted to give back.”

The Sun at Midnight screens April 2, 4:30 p.m. and April 4, noon as part of the Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth. Details at 2017.r2rfestival.org.

jkurucz@vancourier.com

@JohnKurucz