Free Issue! Try Saltscapes Magazine before you buy. Download Now

Juanita Peters on always being ready for the next thing

On my way to interview Juanita Peters, I was worried. Peters is the executive director of the Africville Museum in Halifax, but she is also a director of documentaries, plays, feature films and episodic television (including episodes of CBC’s Diggstown), as well as being an actor and a playwright. Oh, and she’s been a radio and television personality, too. Her 2021 feature film directing debut, 8:37 Rebirth, has won eight awards plus been a finalist for four Screen Nova Scotia awards, including best feature film. Where would I even start? And how was I going to fit the conversation into an article that doesn’t fill the whole magazine?

Peters was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, but her family moved to Toronto when she was two. They stayed there until her teens, when they came to Nova Scotia, moving to her mother’s hometown of Weymouth Falls. She started her radio career while still in school and spent a decade in New Brunswick working in radio and In 1996, she came to Halifax for three weeks, decided she liked it—and she’s still here.

I spoke to Peters at the museum, housed in a replica of Africville’s Seaview Baptist Church. We sat, not in her office, but right in the museum space itself, surrounded by its exhibits.  

I was always writing. I wrote skits when I was nine or 10 years old, and by the time I was 13, I was putting on shows, and I was able to convince my family members to be in them. By the time I was 18, everyone had abandoned me, so I wound up playing all the parts.

Around 1980, I got an audition on radio and wound up securing a Burger King commercial. And I was like, “Wow! You get paid!” I think it was $25. That went a long way in 1980. I entered the radio and television broadcast course at NSCC in Kentville. I started there in September, and got a full-time job at AVR, the radio station, in November. So I would go to classes in the morning, and leave on my lunch break, because I had to be at the radio station from one until six. And then when I wrapped out at six, I would go to my eight-to-11 job at Burger King, and my roommate would bring me my homework there.

Photo Bruce Murray, Visionfire

My friends would say, “gee, if I had a job at a radio station, I wouldn’t be working at Burger King.” But I never, ever wanted to worry about bills. Any job that came my way, I never said no.

I pitched a weekly magazine show to the local cable TV station, and they said yeah. They didn’t pay anyone, but because I wasn’t getting paid, I had the freedom to experiment, and I had so much fun. I’d take my vacation and shoot the whole year of that series—which I still do today! I work a full-time job and then I take my vacation and go shoot Diggstown or shoot my film. But all year long I’m writing.

Eventually, I got work at CBC in Saint John and Fredericton, but in 1995 I was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, which commonly affects the lungs—which is where it attacked me first. I was very, very tired. By the time I got dressed in the morning to go to work, I needed to go back to bed. My face would change from one part of the day to the next, and the audience noticed that, and people actually asked, “What’s wrong with your face?” I’m not kidding. I lost my hair, and I thought, I can actually do something else. When you’re on the air, you have to be there every day, and I just couldn’t do it.

I just wanted to get on with stuff. So, I moved to Halifax. I pitched myself at the Holiday Inn, which is now the Atlantica, I was there for three weeks, and I was like, wow, I really like Halifax. I bought a house and moved up, and I thought, well, I’ve got enough savings, I’ll write. But for three years, nobody bought a darn thing I wrote. Not one thing! 

My child was seven when I moved here. I did a lot of stuff in the arts, but I also did piecework. I cleaned out student apartments for a friend’s company. We’d clean, we’d paint. I did everything and anything I could. You take whatever you can get, and you go OK, there’s February taken care of, there’s March taken care of, and you go home and you write some more, and hope that it goes somewhere. Keeping the hope alive: that’s the hard part, right?

Film production here was enormous at the time. I shlugged around on a number of commercial productions.

I did everything but catering, because I can’t cook. It was great. Well, it wasn’t so great in the beginning, because I wasn’t used to doing that kind of manual labour, so I was exhausted. But I got to understand what everybody in a production did. And I think it made me a better boss, because now, whenever I ask someone to do something, whether it’s on a film set or here at the or in the theatre, I have a better understanding.

I’ve learned the language of how to invite people to talk about the things that might be complicated in their job. They may not want to tell you, “I’m not so sure about that, Juanita,” because they may feel they’ll look incompetent. But I’ve learned the language, I think, that allows people to open that door. I love it when people come with great ideas. 

One day, I flipped through the phone book, and I saw this thing called Filmworks. I called, and I’m like, “Hi, what do you do there?” And John Dunsworth said, “Can you act?” And I said, “Yes, yes I can.” And he said, “Come on down.” It was like that. I had never auditioned for a film before in my life. It started a great relationship with John and with Filmworks, his casting agency.

I didn’t get that part, but I started getting calls, and within three months I got a role. Then I started getting calls all the time. I started getting all kinds of doctor roles. Within three years, I was getting so many roles, I was listed as one of the top performers in the province.

I eventually did get an agent, named Gloria, and she said, “Don’t get too big on yourself. Here’s the actor’s life: ‘We need Juanita Peters, she’s good.’ And then in 10 years it’s, ‘We need a Juanita Peters.’ And in 25 years it’s, ‘Who’s Juanita Peters?’” 

Acting, like everything, is a job. If you’re serious about it, you have to do things to perfect that craft. And for me, the best actor is someone who can find a piece of that character in them.selves. When I look at a script, I try to find out who that person is, based on people that I know.

8:37 Rebirth is my first feature film, and I was shaking in my shoes. But I bring people who are the very best around me. People who know a whole lot more about their fields than I do. If you had asked me eight years ago, I would have said I hate directing. Because I had always directed documentaries, and for me the writing of the documentary was far more fun than filming it, because those characters don’t always do what you want them to do! In documentary, you really have to follow life, and a lot of the unthinkable happens, and you have to regroup and reshape it. When you walk into these rooms on a show like Diggstown, there’s so much happening, so fast. And I stepped into it in the middle of the pandemic. I’m going to have to shoot pieces of else’s episode because they’re in isolation, or an actor who only has one scene has to leave before their episode’s director is out of isolation, so I’ll have to shoot that. Your head is spinning and you’re trying to keep track of things—but I loved every minute of it.

I can hear my mother being so disap.pointed. Because in my mother’s world, you would have a job, and you would stick to that for your whole life. And if you didn’t, it meant there was something wrong. So, when I’d leave radio or leave TV news, she’d say, “Oh my gosh, why would you?” And I’d say, “Mom, it was really fun, but I need to do something else now.”

I’ve never said no to anything, you know? I’m working on a graphic novel right now, with a number of young people, with the idea of putting out a series. I’m almost 60 now, and there’s still lots of fun stuff out there.

People look at me and say, “You do so many different things.” But for me, they’re all one thing. They’re all story. The stories just take on different incarnations.”  

Other Stories You May Enjoy

A shift in emphasis

Well into the 20th century, many Canadian school children were taught a course in British history. I remember very well sitting in a grade three classroom. Above my desk on one wall hung a chart...

She writes it our way

Meaghan Smith sings the story of your life

Bred in the Bone?

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.”