Toronto Film School’s Mercedes Cardella will get to see herself on the big screen for the first time when her latest project, Scarborough, begins its month-long screening run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox later this month.
Forced to skip the 11-time Canadian Screen Award-nominated film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) because it landed on the same week as her September 2021 wedding, Cardella said she plans to celebrate its upcoming theatrical release with friends and family.
“We did one of the virtual screenings at home during TIFF, but I haven’t experienced it on a big screen yet, so I am super excited to see it in a theatre with an audience, and popcorn, and the whole experience,” said Cardella, TFS’s Director of Curriculum Design.
Perhaps tops on Cardella’s guestlist for the occasion is her mother, who encouraged her Scarborough-born-and-raised daughter to participate in the passion project from the start – recognizing its story’s emotional resonance with her family’s own experience growing up in one of Toronto’s most richly diverse, yet often overlooked communities.
“Scarborough is home for me. It’s kind of the east-end sister that’s been forgotten, which is crazy because there’s so much beauty and multiculturalism that comes out of that community,” said Cardella, who grew up in Scarborough’s Malvern and Galloway communities.
“As a kid, it was always a kaleidoscope of people from different backgrounds and different religious beliefs in my classroom, all coming together and creating friendships that were truly like no other, just like in the film.
“So yeah, my mom is very proud. Since I told her about the project, in the beginning, she has always said something really big was going to come out of it – and she was right.”
Lauded by Variety magazine as giving “ground-breaking voice” to an ignored community, Scarborough is based on the likewise critically acclaimed 2017 novel of the same name by Catherine Hernandez, which tells the story of three low-income families struggling to endure within a system that’s set them up for failure.
The film directors, Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson focus in on three characters in the adaptation of Scarborough: Bing, a Filipino boy living under the shadow of his father’s abuse and mental illness; Sylvie, an Indigenous girl whose family struggles to find permanent housing; and Laura, afflicted by her parents’ neglect.
Cardella plays the supporting role of Ms. Finnegan, the trio’s teacher, whom she describes as a “passionate inner-city school educator” with a keen eye for identifying talent in her classroom.
Much like her character, Cardella, too, found herself drawn to Bing, in whose story she sees echoes of her own childhood.
“Bing, I think, feels that he’s kind of trapped in this system. He’s really smart, but he doesn’t want to leave his friends and skip ahead to the gifted program – and I experienced something very similar,” said Cardella, who studied musical theatre at Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts, before going on to pursue an undergraduate degree in Political Science and History at York University, followed by a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Toronto.
From there, despite her lifelong love of performance, Cardella went on to work in academia for three years as a university lecturer in Saudi Arabia.
“At that point, I wasn’t really ready to pursue a life in the creative arts. I think I was afraid. I thought I should think logically and go the university route and choose a career that was perhaps not so precarious in nature. And that’s how I got into education,” she explained.
“But even while I was in the Middle East teaching, I always found myself going back to acting. I always was using acting in the classroom as a technique to get students to open up and feel comfortable. Everything I really wanted to do, it always led back to acting – so I realized I had to give it a fair shot.”
Soon after, Cardella packed her bags and hopped on a plane back to Toronto to embark on a full-time career in acting and hasn’t looked back since.
In addition to her role in Scarborough, she also voiced a character in the Far Cry 6 video game, appeared in the TV series Paranormal Nightshift, short films One More Time and Int’maa, and the upcoming feature, The Intersection. And having just recently signed with a new agency, Noble Caplan Abrams, Cardella said she’s hopeful the string of auditions she’s been on lately will result in many more roles to come.
Not one to sit back and wait for acting gigs to come her way, however, Cardella also founded Magic Carpet Productions, a multi-platform production company with which she’s begun championing diverse narratives with an emphasis on social issues.
“Being biracial, I’m used to being placed in a certain box in terms of auditioning, so I think it’s important for people who are from multiple ethnicities to not conform to those boxes, but to start making their own boxes,” she said, noting that she’s currently developing a “juicy” TV show of her own.
“If you feel that there are no opportunities for you, start making your own opportunities – write your own shows, create your own work. There’s definitely a lack of representation, so, as a creative, it’s important that you’re staying creative – especially if you belong to a BIPOC community.”
In her role as Toronto Film School’s Director of Curriculum Design, Cardella said she has found a day job that “beautifully blends” her pursuit of a performance career with her background in education.
“I’m very much an educator, but I’m also a creative, so to be able to marry the two is a privilege – it’s honestly a dream come true,” she said.
“I’ve always believed that education comes first, and to be educated opens so many doors for you. The power of education can allow you to really cultivate a life for yourself.”
Scarborough will be screened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W., on the following dates and times:
Tickets can be purchased here.