Fort McMurray-raised actress Kudakwashe Rutendo one of TIFF's Rising Stars

Kudakwashe Rutendo discusses her upbringing and goals after being named a Rising Star at the Toronto International Film Festival

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Good things are happening lately for Kudakwashe Rutendo. The Toronto-based actress has made multiple lists of upcoming Canadian actresses to watch and was declared a Rising Star by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Rutendo was featured at this year’s festival in the film “Backspot,” directed by D.W. Waterson. The drama also stars Devery Jacobs, Evan Rachel Wood and Shannyn Sossamon. Elliot Page is executive producer.

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Toronto is home now for Rutendo, but she credits her recent success—she found an agent in 2020, weeks before COVID-19 restrictions ground film and TV productions to a halt—to her upbringing in Fort McMurray. She was born in Calgary and moved to Fort McMurray when she was three. It’s where she stayed until she graduated from Holy Trinity High School.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How does it feel to be considered a TIFF Rising Star and an upcoming actress to watch?

I feel very excited to be working. I got my first agent in 2020 and booked my first movie in 2021. That allowed me to join the acting union as an apprentice and I got my full membership in 2022. I booked Backspot in early 2023 and it’s been my biggest role to date. It’s really crazy to me this all happened in three years.

When I first started, I kept entries to see where I’m at in life. One of my first ones is this seemed impossible because I was from this small town, I had no connections, my parents weren’t rich. It’s a saturated industry in Toronto and I had no idea how to stick out. Now I reflect back on where I’ve come from and being seen as a rising star is such a huge honour.

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How did you get into acting?

My mom put me in everything growing up, from skating to dance. In Grade 2 I remember I was asked if I wanted to do a poetry competition at the Oil Sands Rotary Music Festival. I performed the poem and took home a silver. The next year I did it again and got another silver. It was motivating me to get better at this.

I know parents like seeing their kids perform but I remember everyone seemed so happy to watch me perform and it was so fun. I kept doing it and never stopped. It just became part of my identity.

I continued competing in the festival at different levels. I also did my Royal Conservatory exams. The requirements get harder as you progress. I did mime, Shakespearian monologues, I wrote a speech, recited a prose excerpt… that’s when it felt like acting. I felt like I was commanding the stage and becoming the character. That’s when I decided ‘this is what I want to do with my life.’

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I went to Holy Trinity and I was in drama and school plays every year from Grades 7 until I graduated. Prior to that I was competing in the festival. I studied under vocal teachers at Parr Academy for Vocal Arts in Fort McMurray during elementary school.

I took acting classes when I got to Toronto. I attend the University of Toronto but I don’t study acting, I study English, philosophy and classics.

When I signed my agent in March 2020, it was just before agents stopped accepting submissions. I was incredibly fortunate. Before that it was incredibly difficult to begin with and especially during COVID-19 it was almost impossible. It was just a series of good luck and God’s grace. Everything was just working in my favour at that time.

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Kudakwashe Rutendo
Kudakwashe Rutendo. Image by Christopher Shikanai

TIFF had lots of buzz for Backspot. What can you tell me about the movie?

It’s a sports film that explores the dedication and grit of athletes, particularly cheerleaders. I play Amanda and it follows her and her friend Riley (Devery Jacobs). They’re on a mid-level cheer team and it they are given the opportunity to rise to a team of a completely different calibre. They’re pushed to their limits and it puts a lot of tension on their relationship as they confront what they’re willing to do to be praised.

What was it like working with the cast?

Oh my goodness it was absolutely phenomenal. Devery Jacobs, Evan Rachel Wood, Shannyn Sossamon and Wendy Crewson are also are also in the film. It felt like where they’re at is so unattainable but they were so humble and sweet to work with. Every single one of them was amazing and supportive of me. It was wonderful and I honestly can’t complain.

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What’s next for your career?

I want to keep acting as much as possible. It’s a lovely career. I’m also a writer. I just finished my second book right now and i’m working to get that published. I like to sing and make music so I ave my eye on tat. toronto is a lovely city for indulging in your most wild artistic dreams and i’ve been fortunate to know a lot of people in those areas.

The book is fiction. It’s set in toronto. i struggled a lot when i moved to toronto. it can be very isolating and lonely. It can be very isolating and very lonely. The main character is a ballerina, and it’s following her journey trying to do that.

A part of writing for me is I love poetry. I’ve done so many workshops with so many phenomenal Canadian writers. I’ve been so blessed to work under. So it was me really indulging my writing craft and writing a book that integrated poems but also price.

Any advice for aspiring performers living in small cities and rural areas?

You are the only person who will bet on yourself. You have to do it and advocate for yourself. You have to go above and beyond because no one else is going to. Take yourself and your craft seriously. You can’t guarantee that you’re going to be discovered or noticed, but good people will see your work and people will see your craft and your dedication and there is no world where people seeing those things foes bad for you.

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