In Wildhood, two-spirit Mi’kmaw teenager Link, played by Phillip Lewitski, is just beginning to discover his sexuality, when his volatile home life goes off the rails. Finding out that his supposedly dead mother may be alive, he escapes his rural, trailer park home and abusive father to go on a journey to find her. Traveling across Mi’kma’ki with his younger half-brother by his side, Link ends up finding community, love, and a sense of identity.
Director Bretten Hannam’s sophomore feature, for which Lewitski received TIFF’s annual Rising Star Award, tackles the struggles of growing up without a sense of self while navigating ethnicity, race, sexuality and culture.
Lewitski, who grew up in a household of seven siblings, drew on his unique background to connect to the character. Coming from French, Ukrainian and Mohawk ancestry, the Canadian-born actor plays the piano and violin, and took up drums as a means to connect to his indigenous roots. At 19, he published his first book, Inside My Head, in which he documented his teen years in hopes of normalizing the tumultuous nature of youth. Below, the young actor, who also stars on Hulu’s Utopia Falls, talks reading the script on a road trip with his mom, losing 25 pounds for the role, and seeing roses even in the ugly stuff.
LEO: Tell us about Wildhood:
Phillip Lewitski: Wildhood is such a special piece to me. It’s a coming-of-age story about self-discovery, family, friends and love. It explores all the pain and joy and heartbreak that comes with growing up. It shows how the dark things in life are just openings for all the light that life is ready to show you. Sometimes seeing someone else’s experience can help lighten the weight of the things you are going through. Wildhood is such an important story for young people to see, to free them.
What drew you to the role?
When I was sent the script, I was on a road trip with my mother. We ended up reading the whole thing on the drive. It was actually the first time we had ever read a screenplay together. By the end and throughout, we were both in tears. That was when I knew I had to tell this story.
Did you have to learn any new skills or do any specific training for the role?
In talks with the director Bretten Hannam, we decided that the character Link needed to be quite skinny. I ended up losing about 25 pounds before we started shooting. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It was weirdly helpful though because it gave me that similar feeling of struggle that Link was going through.
Walk us through that process.
I worked closely with a nutritionist for about four months and then floated off on my own once we went to camera. I wanted to work alone because I was internally growing a lot through this process and, sometimes, I must be a lone wolf for it to work.
What has been your favorite part of working on the film?
Everything and everyone who was there with me. I felt so safe and supported every day. Each person who was on that set was hand-picked, and I found that to be so helpful— especially when trying to create something of such sensitive matter. Having such open, vulnerable spirits around was a gift that I’ll never forget.
Most challenging part?
Telling a story that was so close to the director’s heart. I just wanted to bring honor to them and everyone involved.
What will you remember about the making of this project?
A very special moment me and the director shared when we wrapped. I sat with Brett and gave Link back and Brett accepted it with open arms, and we cried and laughed and celebrated our journey together.
Who did you most lean on during this time?
My mother. She wasn’t there with me physically, but I felt her with me the whole time.
Do you have any hobbies that help keep you sane?
I was homeschooled most of my life and fell in love with instruments at a young age. I love playing the piano, drums and violin. I also love to write down some of the things that are going on in my life. I just puke all my thoughts on paper, and when I do, it helps me to see the roses—even in the ugly stuff.
Who is your role model in your industry and why?
I fall in love with artists who open themselves up fully and are free in exactly who they are. Those are the ones I look up to.
CHECK OUT PHILLIP
As Lt. Francis Harper in Apple TV’s Masters of the Air
As Link in Bretten Hannam’s Wildhood
As Apollo 4 in Hulu’s Uptopia Falls
As We’jitu in Amazon Prime’s Vikings