A second-year environmental sciences student at UTM, Alexis Whelan makes her debut in the feature film Level 16, a movie that questions femininity and highlights the oppression women struggle with in the face of chaos. The movie has been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale and will premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival this month.

Whelan remembers herself as an “overly-dramatic child” with theatrical tendencies looming in every which way. “I was always the class clown, everyone laughed at me, in a good way! I’ve just always wanted to entertain, but I didn’t necessarily want to do anything with it. I was just having fun doing it.”

In Level 16, Whelan plays Ava, who she describes as a “complex” character. She tells me: “You’ll like her at times, you’ll hate her at times, and so she may not be your favourite—but I like her.”

She explains to me that the film is run by females, with the exception of a couple of major roles played by males. “The director, Danishka Esterhazy, prides herself on creating female dominated movies, which have done super well.”

Whelan has starred in numerous commercials, including ones by Sirius XM and Rogers. She also had a role in Steven Spielberg’s Lucky 7—which she describes with great enthusiasm but sadly tells me it was cancelled in short order. “That was depressing,” she tells me. “I was like Steven, where are you?”

This project, however, seems to be going in a much better direction. Already premiered in Brooklyn, Berlin, and San Antonio, Whelan is excited for what the film will continue to bring to the big screen—and to the viewer’s attention.

“We are a bunch of girls who are orphans, who have been collected at a young age. We’re never allowed to go outside in this academy where we are being conditioned with feminine values and cleanliness and virtues that we have to live by. [We are] being convinced that all of this is going to contribute to us being adopted by elite families, which is not the case.”

Although happy with her role as Ava, Whelan reveals that this wasn’t the role she had auditioned for originally. However, the secondary role she received worked out well in her favour.

“I didn’t defer my semester—I was going to but I didn’t. If I got the main role I would have had to because I would have had to be there everyday. The audition process was actually one of the best I’ve ever [been through]. I didn’t mean to but I cried. Being emotional finally pays off. [There was] something about this role, I just really wanted it. The plot got me—it made sense.”

Although trying to become an A-List actor and graduating with a good degree is something Whelan is striving for, balancing both at the same time poses its challenges. She explains that if she can’t get her work done in time or if she’s not on top of it right away, she experiences tough anxiety.

“It’s definitely all about the mindset because […] it was pretty stressful, I’m not going to lie to you. There was one day where my mom dropped me back off at campus because I was staying on residence—she dropped me off at 7:00 because I finished at 6:00 and then I had an exam at 2:00.”

In regard to her acting training, theatre school at the academic level has not been in her plan—and all for the right reasons. I ask her whether or not she’s considered UTM’s TDS program, or any university acting school for that matter.

She considers this carefully, and then tells me, “Everyone’s going to hate me for this—I actually don’t like theatre. I’m not the biggest fan of theatre. I will watch it, and there are some good plays and some good musicals—but it’s not my favourite. I think theatre is a little too over-exaggerated for me. I like the discipline of film. Film and theatre people, you wouldn’t think, are so drastically different.”

Whelan plans on making a living off of her talent, but not without something to rely on first. “Am I trying to make a career out of [acting]? Yes, but U of T is really my plan B that I’m having to do on the side, because once I’m done here, I can work all year round if I want to. I need something to fall back on, for sure—I mean, I’m not in Hollywood yet. A bachelor’s in science wouldn’t hurt.”

Level 16 premiers at VIFF on September 30.

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