In 1919 more than 30,000 people brought Winnipeg, then Canada’s third-largest city, to a standstill for six weeks. It was a seminal point in labour relations in Canada, paving the way for reform and improved conditions for poor and immigrant workers.
Yet most Canadians couldn’t tell you anything about it.
It was news too to actor Hayley Sales, a Vancouver transplant who spent her childhood in the U.S. “But after my agent presented it, I got obsessed!” she says. The script was for Stand!, a Romeo and Juliet-style musical set against the Winnipeg strike. Sales plays Helen Armstrong, a real heroine of the era dubbed “the Wild Woman of the West” by the Canadian press. Armstrong championed the rights of women, immigrants and workers in arenas dominated by men, and was frequently jailed for her activism.
“She was a selfless, amazingly strong woman,” says Sales of her character, “she’s totally an inspiration.” A week before shooting began, Sales got married, she was tired and battling a terrible cold: she felt less than inspired. “But I remember thinking ‘you need to pull yourself together: this woman was amazing.’”
Stand! is a rarity in Canadian cinema: a dramatic musical. It has been a great few years for musicals (La La Land, The Greatest Showman) and musical biopics (Rocketman, Judy, Bohemian Rhapsody); why not a musical based on a piece of Canadian history, a film that could educate as well as entertain?
“It’s so current 100 years later,” Sales points out. Robert Adetuyi directs the film, which deals with such issues as a living wage, immigration, racism and classism, fake news and religious division. “We see the same problems over and over again, it’s part of the human condition.”
Appearing in a musical was a dream for Sales, a singer who released her first album at age 17. Her second album, Sunseed, charted in Canada, Japan and Australia, and earned her Best Mainstream Artist at the Canadian Radio Music Awards in 2008. “I came into this world singing,” she says, recalling that she would have a tantrum and wouldn’t stop until her two older brothers sang Sesame Street songs to her.
Mom was a dancer and a writer; back in the day, dad was a sound engineer for Miles Davis, wrote music for the Grateful Dead and performed with the Ramones. He later operated a studio out of their Washington DC home, where Sales grew up with a steady stream of artists and musicians coming and going. At age five she decided to be a movie star and singer. “I didn’t see them as two separate things. I didn’t see that I had to choose,” she says.
The family moved to Portland, where by sixth grade Sales was writing her own music and was a musical theatre veteran. She went to a private performing arts school, studying classical music and jazz, acting, filmmaking and dance, and graduated early at 16. By then she had set her sights on Los Angeles but the family had other ideas: they moved to a blueberry farm on Vancouver Island. “It was crazy,” she says. “I should be moving south, not north!” It was “incredibly lonely” initially for Sales; everyone her age was still in school. So she spent her time learning how to work the studio, making demos and mixing her own songs.
She did move to L.A., by herself at age 17. She worked in Las Vegas “singing Judy Garland for tons of money.” But Sales admits to being young and impressionable; she developed an eating disorder. And, tragically for a singer, she lost her voice for a year. She returned to the farm. “I went through a lot,” she admits. “I can’t sing, so who am I? I started writing, songs without singing them.”
She was signed to Universal and enjoyed success with her second album. Sales had just finished her third record for the company when there was a change in management. According to Sales, the same week they finished the album “everyone left.” The new guard decided not to release the album and didn’t allow Sales the rights to buy her songs back. “I had been with them since I was 17, and suddenly everything was all taken away… but I’ve got to believe it’s for the best, that I’m stronger from the experience.”
Unable to release any new material, Sales dove into acting, appearing on Supergirl, Supernatural on the CW network and a host of TV movies and series. She was in fellow Vancouverite Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool 2, as Josh Brolin’s wife. (Reynolds is, according to Sales, “one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with on set.”)
But being able to combine her two loves of singing and acting in Robert Adetuyi’s film was “a dream.” In one scene, Helen Armstrong rallies a crowd of strikers who take over a government building. “We were filming in this legislative building and it’s so vast, and I get to run around belting out this song … I was crying because it was so powerful.”
Is Sales anything like her character? “I strive to be, I hope to be,” says the actor, who trained with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership conference and says that playing the civil rights icon reawakened her social activism. “It’s almost like I played Helen and that passion of mine came back … that’s the beauty of acting when you step into someone’s shoes for a minute.” Her biggest hope for the film is that it inspires people who might not normally be politically active to get involved.
For now Sales is finding inspiration back on that blueberry farm, with her new husband and extended family, and putting the finishing touches on a new record. Music is right now but acting is never far behind. “I love them both. I don’t want to choose.” Twitter: @juliecfilm