PEMBROKE — The character Jana Mashonee portrays in her small-screen debut doesn’t stray all that far from the Grammy-nominated songwriter and Pembroke native’s actual life.
Mashonee plays aspiring singer Abi Whitecloud. Over the course of the film, Whitecloud goes from being a struggling chanteuse in a small southern town to performing at a crowded venue with an entourage of backup dancers writhing behind her.
The film could pass as a biopic if you squint hard enough — and take out all of the blood-thirsty dinosaurs.
Released in June, “The Dinosaur Experiment” is a straight-to-video schlock-fest that pits Mashonee and a rag-tag band of B-movie archetypes against a murderous pack of velociraptors.
The velociraptors were genetically engineered by a disgruntled farmer, in case you were wondering.
Mashonee admits the film is “silly” and feels that “The Dinosaur Experiment” could sit comfortably alongside such modern camp successes as “Snakes on a Plane” and “Sharknado.”
“I never intended for this to be my Oscar-winning role,” she said jokingly. “I read the script and knew that this was going to be a kooky movie.”
Trouble on the set
Mashonee, who is a member of the Lumbee Tribe, was approached to star in “The Dinosaur Experiment” by the film’s original director, Dan Bishop.
“He was looking for an ethnic female. He liked my look and found out I was Native, so that was added into the character’s backstory,” she said. “I didn’t have to go though an audition. We just met and I got lucky.”
Despite having little experience in front of a camera, Mashonee, 34, was eager to take a stab at acting and saw the film as an opportunity to draw more attention to her music.
“I was happy that the director took a chance on me,” she said. “I wanted to get into acting but didn’t want to start out as an extra … . I liked that It was a contemporary role for a Native person and I didn’t want to be stereotyped. My image and my music are about two worlds. I have my culture, but I live in the modern world just like anybody else.”
But in the modern world, things don’t always follow a script.
Production stalled twice during “The Dinosaur Experiment’s” three-year development cycle. The $3.5 million film went over budget and Bishop was replaced by Russian Director Michael Beberashvili, causing principal photography to move from Texas to St. Petersburg, Russia.
“As far as the script goes, they were rewriting things as we went along. It was a little disconcerting and unnerving,” Mashonee said. “During the beginning of the shooting, they thought about the movie as being more of a comedy thing, but it eventually turned into a horror thing and got campy and ridiculous.”
According to Mashonee, the film was destined for cult status from the moment prolific B-movie actor Lorenzo Lamas joined the cast.
“He’s done some silly stuff, and he’ll admit that himself, but he was a perfect fit,” she said of the former “Renegade” star who has recently become a go-to for straight-to-video science fiction films like “Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus.”
The finished film sat on the shelf for a couple of years before being released in Europe and Asia as “Raptor Ranch” in 2012. “Raptor Ranch” was the film’s working title during early development, and its quiet release overseas under a different name took Mashonee by surprise.
“They didn’t tell me; I just happened to see my name on Amazon and was like ‘what is this?’” she said. “I honestly took to the first name much better. I think they really wanted people to know it was a dinosaur movie and were worried that people would see the other name and think it’s about birds, but I think people are smarter than that.”
“The Dinosaur Experiment” was finally released in North America last month, when it was added to Redbox kiosks across the country. On July 15, the film was made available through Hulu and in Walmart stores.
Mashonee said she plans to continue acting and has already received a few television offers based on her work in “The Dinosaur Experiment.”
But even if she never lands that “Oscar-winning role,” Mashonee already has one walk across a red carpet under her belt.
Ahead of the Curb
Mashonee signed a contract with Nashville’s Curb Records while working toward her degree in Psychology at Davidson College.
After releasing a string of moderately successful singles, she decided to part ways with Curb when label executives insisted on marketing her as a Latino artist.
Mashonee set the record straight in 2006, when she released a concept album entitled “American Indian Story.” The album, which finds Mashonee fully embracing her Lumbee heritage, was nominated for the Best Native American Music Album Grammy.
The singer described attending the annual awards ceremony in 2007.
“That was one of the highlights of my life,” she said. “I’m looking around and seeing these people that I idolize and I’m in the same company. I walked the red carpet and did interviews with E! It was a pretty awesome experience and I don’t want that to be the last time I get to go.”
Since her Grammy appearance, Mashonee has adapted “American Indian Story” into a book, co-headlined a show with Sarah McLachlan at Carnegie Hall, and established a foundation that helps American Indian and Aboriginal students secure college scholarships.
Mashonee, whose parents, Jim and Olean Sampson, still live in Pembroke, is currently putting the finishing touches on her fifth full-length release. She hopes to have a single out by the end of the year and plans to have the album, which is currently untitled, ready to ship by early 2015.
“I’m really excited about the new album and hopes it gets some recognition,” she said. “I worked really hard on it and I’m really proud of it.”
Though she’s not necessarily proud of her first foray into acting, Mashonee said she isn’t exactly ashamed of “The Dinosaur Experiment” either.
“I think that, with movies in general, if you’re entertained that’s what matters most,” she said. “I think it’s entertaining and fun to watch. I also think that people just like dinosaur movies. This is a genre where people like it, no matter what.”