Big Picture: Island-born Bomb Girl comes home

Don’t be surprised if you catch Ali Liebert doing the happy dance despite the tough emotional sledding she undergoes shooting The Devout here this month.

“If I’m crying my eyes out, I’m happy, as weird as that sounds,” said the Duncan-born actor during a break from filming writer-director Connor Gaston’s dramatic feature debut in East Sooke.

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“I love drama … but this isn’t an easy place for me to sit down.”

Liebert just earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination for her portrayal of lovelorn lesbian factory worker Betty McRae in Bomb Girls: Facing the Enemy, a 2014 TV movie inspired by Global’s period drama set in and around a Second World War munitions plant.

In Gaston’s crisis-of-faith drama, Liebert plays Jan, whose husband Darryl (Charlie Carrick) is convinced their terminally ill daughter Abigail (Olivia Martin) was an astronaut in a previous life. The film, which also stars Gabrielle Rose and Ryan McDonnell, was Gaston’s final project for a master of fine arts degree in the University of Victoria’s writing program.

“We go through overwhelming stages of grief and her husband has become unreliable,” said Liebert of her character. “His belief is putting stress on our relationship.”

The last time we saw the actor here was on screen at the 2014 Victoria Film Festival in Ben Ratner’s fine ensemble drama Down River. Best known for her performance as the sexy working woman struggling with her sexuality in Bomb Girls, Liebert has generated considerable heat with her “blond bombshell” image, yet her versatility has been showcased in dozens of films and TV shows.

Her Bomb Girls character, whose Rosie the Riveter pose became a fixture on billboards across the U.S., has gained a cult following.

Liebert’s other credits include roles in the CBS drama Harper’s Island, the sci-fi drama Lost Girl, and films including Sook-Yin Lee’s Year of the Carnivore with Will Sasso, Mike Clattenburg’s Afghan Luke, Carl Bessai’s Sisters and Brothers and as an ambitious New York-based comedy writer in Afterparty. The 2013 film Afterparty was the first feature from Sociable Films, the boutique production company mandated to “make movies sociably,” which Liebert co-founded with friends Nicholas Carella and Michelle Ouellet.

She has also guest-starred on shows such as The L Word and Psych and appears in CBC’s serialized western drama series Strange Empire.

While opportunity has knocked in Hollywood, Liebert is a big supporter of the Canadian independent film industry.

“That’s where I find the material that’s most interesting to me,” she said.

“I’ve never really played any types of roles based on the Hollywood mould. I’m interested in flawed characters, and I usually get the chance to play them in Canadian independent films more.”

Creating additional opportunities was partly why she formed Sociable Films, with projects including Paranormal Solutions Inc., a web series about the adventures of six hapless ghost-hunters.

“We’re continuing to put money back into the community and give our friends jobs,” Liebert said. “We didn’t just want to sit around and be idle. I’m not the type of person who just sits in a café hoping someone will notice me. I’m the person knocking down doors.”

Liebert first met Gaston when she was on the jury at the Whistler Film Festival, where his latest short was featured. Struck by his talent, she reconnected with him at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

“I’m kind of brassy and out there, so if I like people’s work, I just tell them,” she said. “I thought he was such a unique kid.”

One of the most rewarding aspects of collaborating on an indie, she said, is that everyone is taking a chance.

“You get to expand as an artist and not be in a preordained box,” said Liebert, a natural mimic and musical-theatre fan with a passion for Liza Minnelli.

The actor and former Frances Kelsey Secondary student caught the musical theatre bug after seeing Donny Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at age 10. Encouraged by her late mother to pursue her dreams, she enrolled at Victoria’s Canadian College of Performing Arts.

“I grew up listening to Barbra [Streisand] and Liza. They were my role models,” Liebert recalled. “My favourite movie was Funny Girl and then Cabaret.”

While growing up in Cowichan, Liebert dreamed of going to New York and Broadway. A film and television career seemed unattainable, however, until she attended CCPA.

“I had a teacher my last term, Jessica Van der Veen, and we did a screen scene and she gave me a lot of confidence,” she said. “She said: ‘Something about you sparkles.’ She made me believe I could do it.”

Although Bomb Girls was cancelled after two seasons, viewer interest has remained high since the bomb-building gals at Victory Munitions packed up their tools.

“I knew it was a special role, but I never could have predicted how popular she would become,” said Liebert. “It was such an honour and a privilege.”

Now that Bomb Girls is on Netflix, Liebert is hearing even more from fans of her character, who is attracted to co-worker Kate.

“I get messages on Twitter every single day from young women coming out,” she said. “They play Bomb Girls for their parents or grandparents. It’s so touching.”

Liebert said the role of Betty will always hold a special place in her heart.

“I’m trying to find the next role like that for myself,” she said. “They’re few and far between.”

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