Vinessa Antoine remembers her last trip to Trinidad and Tobago.
She was 13 years old and visited for Christmas with her parents and brother.
“Till to this day it is the most memorable Christmas of my life,” she says. “We didn’t have gifts and Santa Claus and all of that, it was so much family and music and food. To me, that is what Christmas is.”
Antoine is a Canadian actress. The daughter of Tobagonian parents, Michael and Yolande Antoine, she is the first black person to ever play a lead role in a drama on Canadian television.
She portrays the character Marcie Diggs on the CBC drama Diggstown, a role that earned her a nomination for Best Actress in a Drama Series at the 9th Canadian Screen Awards this year.
Diggstown is a series that follows Diggs, a corporate lawyer who, according to the show’s description, reconsiders her priorities after a tragedy in her family following a malicious prosecution.
Prior to Diggstown, Antoine starred in the CBC series Being Erica and the popular American soap General Hospital where she played the original Jordan Ashford, becoming the first black woman to have her name in the opening credits.
Speaking to Loop News via Zoom during one of her days off from filming for the third season of Diggstown, Antoine says in the first season of the show she put an enormous amount of pressure on herself because of her pioneering casting.
“I just took it on myself that I have to represent all of the women, all of the black women, all the black experience…this is gonna open up the doors for so many more, I can’t fail, this has to be amazing. What ended up happening, God stepped in and brought me back down to reality and just showed me at the end of the day, you can only do your piece in this, you step into the character and bring the best you can bring and don’t worry about representing for the whole black experience, you are representing for one woman in the world at this point in time,” she says.
Antoine says her character plays against the typical stereotype of the super-strong, tough black woman.
“She errs a little more on the kinder side…she is very vulnerable and quite emotional and takes things to heart. She will give it back if it is thrown at her but her first choice to deal with people isn’t to come for them, she comes from a place of kindness. I hadn’t seen that a lot on television with black women. This character starts off surfing, she is a surfer, I hadn’t seen a lot of black women in the water.”
As the daughter of immigrants, Antoine, who was born in Toronto, says there is an awareness among first-generation Canadians that success is important based on the knowledge of how much their parents struggled to leave their homes and make a life there.
“On one hand you want to assimilate and be a regular Canadian like everyone else but on the other hand you don’t have the luxury of letting yourself go and you have to keep your eyes on the prize and be excellent,” she says.
Antoine’s parents migrated to Canada in the last 70s. They both left Tobago to live in Trinidad before migrating.
She said growing up in a Trinbagonian household it was strict but there was love.
“It helped me stay focused and have a level of respect for my parents and they really set in my head at a young age I could do anything I set my mind to,” she recalls.
She says her dad was a photographer and always pushed for her to be artistic. He taught her pan and made her costumes for Caribana, Toronto’s annual Carnival.
Asked if her parents supported her ambition of being an actor, Antoine says while she studied ballet from the age of four and was always performing she didn’t think they thought being in the arts would be a career choice.
In fact, Antoine reveals that six months into college, she dropped out, leaving her expensive books in the courtyard hopefully for someone who needed them to find.
Her parents were not aware of her actions and it wasn’t until her mother inquired about mid-term exams that she tearfully confessed she gave up college and wanted to go to New York to dance.
“She was vex, of course, and she asked what are you going to do? She said I will pay for your school but I am not paying for anything else. I said I had a plan and I was blessed and lucky enough for them to believe in the plan,” she says.
Antoine auditioned for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre in New York and was accepted. In order to finance her move, she signed up with a modelling agency and got jobs appearing in commercials. She also worked in retail.
In New York, she continued doing plays as well and transitioned into acting, which she had experience doing as a teen in theatre.
Her parents are fully supportive of her choice today as she makes her name in the world of television.
Asked about her plans outside of Diggstown, Antoine reveals that she is developing a show which will work more on once filming for her series is finished.
Antoine looks forward to returning to T&T this Christmas and hopefully if there is a Carnival next year, she plans to stay on for that. It will be her first experience of a T&T Carnival.
Diggstown is expected to air on Fox soon after the US Network acquired Seasons one and two in January.