Taking on the role of an American soldier and hero is a daunting task for many actors to attempt. For actress Tammy Gillis, having the opportunity to depict such a courageous character was a hurdle worth jumping.
The newest installment of the Hallmark Signed, Sealed, Delivered series, Impossible Dream, is a story based on the true events of the Band of Sisters. The Band of Sisters is an all-female combat troop which fought alongside American and Afghan operations fighters during a time in which a ban on women in ground combat troops was in place. According to Gillis, this group of heroic women and her role specifically, telling the tragic story of 2nd Lt. Ashley White, was the inspiration for the film’s story, (created and executive-produced by Touched by an Angel’s Martha Williamson). However, despite booking one of the film’s lead roles, it wasn’t until Williamson detailed the story’s inspiration that Gillis truly felt the weight of what she was about to take on.
“[Williamson] came to me privately and shared the storyline for the second movie, Impossible Dream, with me,” the Manitoban actress discloses. “She talked about the Band of Sisters and gave some amazing insight into this incredible character. It was then I understood how special this story is and I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to get this story right.”
The latest installment focuses on an American soldier, and mother, who is captured while serving with her troop in Afghanistan. It is then up to The Postables, a group of workers from the U.S. Postal Service, to decode a letter detailing the captive soldier’s whereabouts.
While in preparation for the role, Gillis says she researched stories of prisoners of war (POWs), in addition to speaking with those who experienced battle first-hand. Her detailed research allowed her to truly know what being a soldier in that scenario was.
“[I was] watching documentaries about being in battle, learning about the training and experiences that the Band of Sisters went through,” Gillis says. “I talked to some friends that have previously served time in the military to hear their side of what it is like to be a soldier in the field, and what challenges they went through when they came home.”
During filming, the cast and crew worked up to 15-hour work days, bearing 40 degree Celsius temperatures, exhausting conditions for anyone to work in. But the most challenging aspect of making the film? For Gillis, she reveals it was the attempt to feel what the character felt, and still find bravery in some of the most unimaginable circumstances.
“It was hot and physically exhausting but I loved it, being an action hero,” she says. “The most challenging aspect was the emotional and mental side of it. Really falling into this character and finding the strength and courage to believe and continue on.”
When filming certain scenes in the movie, Gillis was able to experience only a portion of what real men and women in combat face every day. She says she believes fighting for one’s country is an act of bravery that while she respects, is not something she feels she could personally take on. However, she finds the women working towards equality on the battle field is something that should absolutely be admired.
“I still feel that anyone that puts their life on the line to protect our freedoms is an incredibly special and courageous person. The scene where we are rescuing the soldier in the middle of a gun fight was scary. Bullet’s whizzing past my head. I’ve never been in that position before. I’m not sure that I could do it. I think it’s absolutely incredible that women are working for the same opportunity to go into combat and to be a Ranger. I have tremendous respect for that.”
The ban on women in ground combat troops was only just lifted earlier this year. According to U.S. Defense Secretary, Ash Carter, ground combat positions (such as infantry and special operations units) are open to any woman who meets the standards of qualifications today.
“This means that as long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before. They’ll be able to drive tanks, give orders, lead infantry soldiers into combat,” Carter announced at a press conference earlier this month.
This decision was impacted by today’s social climate change, which sees a larger call-to-action for women to be given equal rights of their male counterparts. But perhaps the strongest impact was made by 2nd Lt. White. Gillis believes her story was not only inspiring for women everywhere, but is one that shaped the landscape for women in combat, as well as everyday society.
“I think that her story can change history. It has. It is amazing for people and especially for girls across the world to see women in such a powerful and courageous way. That it is okay to be feminine and to also be a warrior – that you can be both,” says Gillis.
Aside from a better perspective on the struggles of women’s equality, Gillis hopes audiences will walk away from this film feeling what she experienced after learning and telling the story.
“The human spirit is an amazing thing. If you believe and have faith, you can do anything,” she says.
This isn’t the only inspiring story we will be seeing from Gillis in the next few months. The Canadian actress also has a feature film titled Menorca delivering sometime in early 2016. The story sees Gillis portraying a character as what the film’s Twitter page calls, “A hedonistic soccer mom” as she “embarks on a strange journey of self discovery.”
The story follows Gillis’ character as she attempts to repair the relationship between her and her estranged son by bringing his pet rock back to Menorca, Spain. Despite the character’s flaws, Gillis revealed that her character is one in which many can relate to the heart of who she is.
“I hope that audiences will connect with the humanity of my character,” she says.
Gillis’ chatacter is a woman plagued by her own decisions at the expense of her relationship with her son. While this role is definitely heavier than most, it wasn’t a choice Gillis hesitated in making.
“I was really proud of John for writing such a powerful and dark female driven story. I connected to her sense of needing to feel alive, to feel important to someone or something,” she says.
While the film was shot in scenic Winnipeg, Manitoba and Menorca, Spain over the summer, the film’s director, John Barnard, made a point to say the project had a low-budget. And he preferred it that way.
“It’s the kind of film you’d never be able to make with a large budget because it’s such a strange and unusual story. By virtue of that uniqueness and the characters within, I think people will really connect with it,” Barnard says.
When it comes to a small-level production, telling stories with a lower budget can have an impact on the quality of the film. Gillis believes the film’s small budget was crucial to manifesting strong relationships between the entire cast and crew. This, she feels, aided her and the rest of the cast in delivering a genuine connection between the characters.
“The small budget really gave us the sense of being a family and connected us to one another. There were some really challenging scenes for me and the other actors and our set being so small and intimate gave us the security to really be truthful to the characters,” she says.
When asked of what she feels the importance of independent stories are, Gillis says lower-budget stories like these are some of the most impactful and memorable ones to tell, saying, “It is very important. If we don’t have independent films, we are going to miss out on a lot of important and beautiful stories being told.”
Gillis says the story will leave its viewers with a better understanding of human nature, and in turn, the ability to forgive.
“I hope they will understand that we are all human, we all have struggles, and if we work to overcome and right those things, we deserve forgiveness or at least a chance at forgiveness,” she says.
With 2015 almost over, it’s been one of the busiest for Gillis’ career. She started a webseries, The Support Group, which she not only stars in, but directs and executive-produces. The story follows a group of friends facing different challenges as they work together to save their support group. The series has been well-received so far, even having a feature story written on it for The Vancouver Sun. The first episode of the series premieres on January 6, 2016 on the YouTube channel, Beyond Theatre Productions.
She’s taken on film, television, and a web series. Based on her resumé, Gillis wears many hats in the field of entertainment. But what’s next for the star?
“I love telling good stories, wherever that takes me,” she smiles.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Impossible Dream premieres on the E! Network in Canada on December 13, 2015 at 6pm EST. Be sure to check your local listings.
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Keep an eye out for Gillis’ other projects, Menorca and The Support Group coming in 2016 by visiting her official website, Twitter, and Facebook! For more film credits and upcoming projects, stay in the loop and visit Tammy Gillis’ IMDb.