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From environmental science to sci-fi thrillers: U of T student makes feature film debut

Alexis Whelan, a second-year student pursuing a degree in environmental science at U of T Mississauga, has been acting since age nine and has already appeared in several short films (photo by Yasmeen Alkoka courtesy of the Medium)

Alexis Whelan, a student at University of Toronto Mississauga, will make her feature film debut in Level 16, a dystopian science fiction thriller by Canadian director and independent filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy. 

Level 16, set for release March 1, follows the story of Vivien (Katie Douglas), Sophia (Celina Martin), and several other orphaned girls, including Whelan’s character. They live in the mysterious Vestalis Academy. At Vestalis, the girls are taught four key virtues: obedience, cleanliness, patience and humility in order to become “perfect” adoptees for wealthy families – or so they say.

This is Whelan’s first role in a feature film. She describes the experience as “really exciting” but confesses she became “a little nervous” when the film started to gain traction.

“Now everyone is going to watch me for the first time and I hope they like what they see,” she says.

Whelan, a second-year student pursuing a degree in environmental science, describes her character as “super complex.” Motivated by a desire to be popular, Ava is not afraid to step on people’s toes to get to the top of the social ladder, but as Whelan explains, “she is still human and has feelings.”

Whelan’s favourite thing about being a part of Level 16 was working with the predominantly female cast. “We formed this kind of sisterhood,” she says.

As for working with award-winning director Esterhazy, Whelan says, “She was approachable and accommodating. She set the bar pretty high for any director that I work with in the future. I hope they’re on her level.”

When filming began, Whelan had just started her first year at U of T Mississauga. Despite having a demanding filming schedule and taking five courses, she is proud to have successfully completed her courses. She feels strongly about having something to fall back on if her acting career doesn’t go in the direction she envisions. Whelan is also passionate about the environment and hopes fame will give her a platform to advocate for environmental issues.

Daughter to an Egyptian mother and a Scottish father, Whelan began acting at age nine, appearing in a 2013  television show produced by none other than Steven Spielberg – Lucky 7. Since then, Whelan has appeared in several commercials, including ones for Sirius XM and Rogers Communications Inc., as well as several short films.

When asked about her future plans and whether she intends to move to an acting hub like Los Angeles or New York, Whelan says she would prefer to land a role in a national network show – although she added she’s open to the idea of working in the United States because it could catapult her career.

“I really like Canada,” she says. “I don’t think I would want to live in the U.S. long-term.”