The late American director Robert Altman was once quoted as saying 75 percent of directing...is casting. In other words, get the right performer for a role and you're more than half way to a good film.
In Canadian film and TV -- an industry where high audience numbers tend to be rare -- being a "star" can be a hard-to-define concept. Some actors seem to land lead role after lead role, without much indication they've built up much audience recognition. Other actors don't seem to get a lot of great roles but, looking at internet message boards, do seem to have a fandom...just not among the people who do the casting. Other actors may have a fervent fandom...but it's not a very big one. As someone who has watched a lot of Canadian programs over the years, I've developed a lot of interest and appreciation for Canadian actors. I've sometimes grumbled in my essays about the way imported actors are brought up to star in Canadian productions, and though part of my frustration is simply patriotic...the truth is it's partly because there are Canadian actors I would love to see in lead roles and are stuck playing supporting roles to imported actors.
A catalyst for my musing on all this was the new Showcase crime series, King, starring Amy Price-Francis -- and specifically some of the initial press reaction.
At TV, Eh?, a website covering Canadian TV, on a podcast component of the site the two commentators (presumably experts on Canadian TV) remarked they had no idea who Amy Price-Francis was. In a couple of other articles about the series, Price-Francis was identified merely with a recurring role in some US cable series starring David Duchovny (which may or may not have ever aired in Canada -- I don't know).
And that was funny. Because hearing Amy Price-Francis was starring in King actually got me interested -- the most excited I'd been about any new Canadian series. I didn't know much about King, but I did know I'd be tuning in because it stars Amy Price-Francis (okay, I'd be tuning in 'cause I try to give Canadian series a chance, but you know what I mean).
Actually, Price-Francis is an odd performer, in that when I first started seeing her in things...I often had trouble recognizing her from role to role. Not even because she was a chameleon, looking radically different in different roles...I just found it hard to recognize her. Which would seem to be a criticism. Except...I also kept liking her in the things I saw her in, each time thinking, hey, who's this talented, charismatic -- and, yes, beautiful -- actress? Of course, soon I was recognizing her, and I still liked her, and she seemed to be getting fast tracked to stardom in a Canadian biz which isn't always quick to promote stars. Within a few short years she had graduated from secondary leads in series like Tracker and Train 48, to full fledge star of Snakes & Ladder and Rumours -- unfortunately, none of these were successful. Then Price-Francis headed south and kind of fell off my radar, though I still enjoyed her performances when I occasionally saw her (such as the small, recurring role of the "annoying fake virgin" in "Life Unexpected" -- a character description which itself is just hilarious). And now she's back on Canadian TV, and I'm pumped.
So, it was an interesting demonstration of the vagaries and illusiveness of fame that Price-Francis could boast an array of Canadian TV roles under her belt...and yet even those who seem to make their business commenting on Canadian entertainment didn't know who she was, or identified her mainly with a few episodes of a US cable series.
I don't like to post an opinion on a TV series after only one episode. We've all seen series that start out well...then lose their way quickly. Or series that start out weakly, but gradually find their legs, their rhythm, and emerge as an enduring hit. So with the caveat of saying I've only seen the one episode, let me say that pilot episode of King...was seriously, freakin' good. It was sure footed, energetic, it deftly mixed humour and dark drama, and as a whodunit/puzzle it played fair with the clues so that the twists didn't seem tacked on...and even if you can maybe spot where the clues are taking you, it's only a few minutes before the characters make the same leap (as opposed to a mystery where you've figured it out by the first commercial break). They manage to convince us the heroine really is smarter and more intuitive than those around her...without making everyone else seem too dumb.
Amy Price-Francis plays the newly appointed head of a Major Crimes Task Force -- supposedly the team that comes in when the existing investigators are stumped (think of it as not so much a Cold Squad, as a lukewarm and cooling squad). A squad that, therefore, kind of ruffles feathers just by its very existence...and King (Price-Francis' character) ruffles some feathers in the squad itself when she is parachuted in by the chief, who feels the current task force leader (played by Alan Van Sprang) isn't getting the job done.
The pilot plot involved a kidnapped kid. It was the same idea as in the pilot of Endgame witch premiered just a few weeks earlier, but it was maybe a better fit for King than Endgame -- kidnapped kids being, I'd argue, a questionable topic for an "entertainment" show. But they managed to juggle the gritty (recognizing it might have been a molester) with the mystery, the procedural, the soap opera, and the humour. The story was well paced, the mystery-suspense slickly plotted, with a hint of topicality. And possibly even a Flashpoint-like liberal spin on the conservative cop genre -- the heroes didn't beat up any suspects, and King herself reminds the squad their first priority is to rescue the girl...not catch bad guys. The cast overall was good, from the regulars to nice guest turns from Zoie Palmer and Joel Keller and others. It could be manipulatively hokey...but in a good way (the scene with King at the fertility clinic, when the other patients realize who she is). Alan Van Sprang was particularly strong as the cranky co-investigator -- the scene where he is interrogating his chief suspect, a creepy paedophile, and realizes not only that he's been on the wrong trail, but has been played by his suspect, and he just kind of...deflates, was a nice, understated bit of acting. Kudos should probably be handed to the director, Clark Johnson -- himself also an actor that I've long been a fan of.
But at the heart of King...is Amy Price-Francis. She didn't just inhabit the role -- she infused it. She didn't just play her scenes...she took command of them. There are a surprisingly lot of Canadian series airing right now, ones that are all decent to really good, all boasting strong, capable casts. But there can be a difference between a good actor...and a star. Shawn Doyle in Endgame, High Dillon and Enrico Colantoni in Flashpoint, Craig Olejnik in The Listener, Anna Silk in Lost Girl...all these are actors who are good in their parts, and perfectly satisfying as the leads. But my reaction to Price-Francis is she didn't just play the "lead" character...she was the star. Partly that is a credit to the writing -- while not a flamboyant character (ala Doyle in Endgame) King herself was nonetheless interesting, and fun...the very self-confidence of the character making her command the scenes, yet given a human vulnerability (breaking down emotionally in the washroom when she thinks she's alone). But a lot of it was Price-Francis herself, not just having the chops to play the shifts in tone from witty bi-play to drama, and to convey the sense of a character who can ride herd over a squad room without losing her compassion...but also that simple thing we call charisma.
And that's something American TV counts on, actors who not only can play their part...but are kind of bigger than their part.
Yet what does all that mean? We all like to believe that such concepts as "charisma" -- as well as "talent", even "sex appeal" -- are objective and universal. But they aren't. Every actor has their fans. Scour the internet and you can find message boards dedicated to all sorts of obscure performers who people are insisting is the most talented, most charismatic, most good looking actor ever! And the rest of us will go: who? them? seriously???
Craig Olejnik, of The Listener, certainly has a acquired a large female fanbase (judging by some comments on the internet). And I think Olejnik is a perfectly solid, perfectly capable actor. But given the limits of the character, I also don't really think he's doing anything exceptional with the part, either. He's skating up to the blue line, but he's not charging over it. And I don't really have an opinion about the blueness of his eyes or anything. That isn't a criticism of Olejnik -- as I say, he's a solid actor, and if he gets subsequent leading parts (as I'm sure he will) I will have no problem with that.
What's funny about charisma is it can sometimes be spontaneous -- a new face just rivets your eyes onto the screen. And sometimes it comes from familiarity -- you subconsciously respond to the actor with whom you're already familiar from some previous production. I went into King with a predisposition toward Amy Price-Francis based on earlier things I'd seen her in...yet other commentators, as mentioned above, barely seemed to know who she was.
And all this kick started me thinking about the notion of actors in Canadian film and TV. It used to be claimed that the problem in Canada was that stars weren't nurtured by the industry, that even if an actor had a break out role in one program...there was little effort to follow that up with another good role, forcing the actors to drift south to Hollywood. There was probably some truth to this...but also a lot a fallacy. The fact is, there were always situations of actors getting a succession of leading roles, or an actor in one successful program being jumped into the lead in the next vehicle (in the 1960s, Ted Follows was a co-star in Wojeck...then made the star of McQueen). More likely it was a reflection of the fact that few of those stars were really "stars", in the sense of having really connected with an audience, so was there any point in continuing to promote them, when maybe that fresh faced actor at the audition might be a star-in-waiting (basically the casting dilemma of going with a known quantity, or picking what's behind door number 3)?
Yet most of the leads in the current crop of Canadian TV series have past lead roles in their resume -- Flashpoint's Hugh Dillon has Durham County, Republic of Doyle's Alan Hawco has Above and Beyond, Sanctuary's Amanda Tapping has StarGate. Interestingly even Lost Girl's Anna Silk, a relatively obscure actress, nonetheless had made a splash (at least with critics) guest starring in an episode of Being Erica as a seductive lesbian...so it seems unlikely that had no influence on her being cast as a seductive, bi-sexual heroine.
Some people will criticize the biz for the way it promotes, then discards, actors, never giving someone the chance to really be a star. Others will criticize the industry for being an incestuous club where the same core actors are given plum role after plum role...without ever having a hit, or any indication that the audience actually responds to them.
If you've studied the biz long enough, you'll notice little periods where certain actors seem to be promoted as stars -- little windows of a few years where they land a handful of starring roles...only to then be dropped back into obscurity. Often the connection being a particular network or production company, maybe hoping the actor in question will be the horse that wins them the derby. Remember when Aidan Devine was starring in major network movies like Net Worth and Dieppe? Or Vincent Walsh with Shattered City, Hemingway vs. Callaghan and others? Sometimes it could be argued such actors maybe didn't have the necessary charisma to front a major vehicle to begin with, other times, maybe they were unfairly blamed for poor ratings. The funny thing is, I've grown to like -- and respect -- Devine much more as a sturdy supporting player and character actor than I did as a lead. While Walsh I think maybe deserves a couple more kicks at centre stage.
The sad truth is there are more good actors than good roles -- true even in Hollywood where one can equally point to actors we'd love to see in a good role in a good production, but are generally stuck playing second fiddle. But it's maybe even worse in Canada, where productions are few, good productions even fewer, and lead roles still often go to imported Hollywood actors. Things are actually changing, at least when it comes to TV series -- maybe quite a bit. Maybe the success of Flashpoint and its like has proven that Canadian actors in a Canadian setting can win an audience, both here and abroad. As mentioned, there have been a number of Canadian made series premiering in the last year (many in just the last few months) -- populist, mainstream, series -- all starring Canadians when just a few years ago, it would've been assumed the lead role(s) would be reserved for an imported actor. There are still some like that -- the new spy series XIII features British actor Stuart Townsend, and big international mini-series like The Tudors and Pillars of the Earth certainly stick to the Old School casting rules, and strive to keep the Canadian actors in their place.
As a longtime observer of Canadian film and TV, there a lot of actors out there I'd like to see get better roles...sometimes instead of the actors who do get the roles. Or actors where even I can't say if they deserve better roles in better vehicles...but would sure like to see them given a shot, because I think they just might. What's funny about The Listener is that on some of the message boards there will be discussions about the series' two lady cops, played first by Lisa Marcos, then by Lauren Lee Smith -- about who was more talented, who was "hotter", etc. But me, I'd love to see co-star Mylene Dinh-Robic given more to do -- she's the one I'm watching (well, not that I watch The Listener regularly).
What can be kind of frustrating -- and sad -- is how little attention is given to actors in Canadian productions. I can't list the number of times I've seen press releases and newspaper articles about some in-production TV series, or some soon to be released movie, and they'll tell you everything you'd want to know about it -- right down to the production companies involved ('cause nothing excites an audiences' enthusiasm like knowing the financing partners behind a production). But often what doesn't get mentioned, as if irrelevant, is who's going to be in it! And when reviewers review movies, there's very little sense that they give the actors much thought -- I mean, when reviewing even bad American movies, critics will still often spare a sentence or two to compliment an actor who has risen above the material, or whom the reviewer feels deserves better. The few times reviews of Canadian productions do spare a few words for the cast, it's usually in the case of some actor who has a few Hollywood roles under his belt -- as if the reviewer felt he should mention him, 'cause he's been in "legitimate" films -- or else because he's a part of the Canadian entertainment establishment. But even then...the compliments can feel a bit like dogma, like it's expected...rather than genuine appreciation for an actor's talent.
The fact is, after years of having maintained this site, I'm falling behind in my viewing -- life, yes, but also simply enthusiasm eroding my ability to keep up as much as I used to. Whereas I used to watch any and everything I could, I tend more to be selective -- or at least, prioritize. The Canadian film or TV series that interests me will be moved to the head of the review que over the ones that don't. And one of those things that can tip the balance is the actors -- knowing an actor I like (or am curious to see what they can do given the chance) will pique my interest.
As I say: I was genuinely looking forward to seeing King because I was genuinely looking forward to seeing Amy Price-Francis back on Canadian TV.
Now, the thing is there are always new actors rising up through the ranks, new stars waiting to be discovered. Failing to nurture stars is bad...but failing to provide spots for unknowns to make their splash is equally bad.
Strangely in Canada the business seems to be hived off into rival colonies, bees very rarely allowed to cross to another hive. Actors who appear in populist sci-fi dramas are ignored by the mainstream biz...and vice versa. Actors in a successful TV series don't get that TV movie lead, let alone a theatrical vehicle. Price-Francis has a number of Canadian TV series under her belt, on different networks from different production companies, indicating various people think she has the goods. Yet never to my knowledge has she been cast as the lead in a TV movie, or a theatrical film.
Even geography plays a part. Unlike the US, where movies and TV are basically centralized in Hollywood, in Canada the business is spread out among various rival metropolises, all vying to be Canada's "Hollywood North" and where people in one city don't necessarily know -- or even care -- what people in other cities are doing. French-Canadian movie stars are unknown in English Canada...and vice versa. Vancouver filmmakers often seem only vaguely aware of Toronto productions, and the disinterest is reciprocated.
Nor is there a given that an actor should crossover, that with a lead series role under his belt he should immediately be featured in a motion picture. Hollywood has plenty of examples of actors with major TV fandom failing to ignite a movie going audience, and vice versa. At the same time, at least there is a recognition factor. Paul Gross parleyed his success on TV's Due South into a position as arguably English-Canada's biggest domestic "star". His feature films may not be financial juggernauts...but they get noticed, and do tend to perform better than a lot of other Canadian movies. Yet he is the exception.
At the same time, as I keep repeating, Canadian film and TV has also had the reverse problem -- the same actors getting the big roles when, you know, maybe it's time to get someone new. I won't say who -- I'm here to praise actors, not to bury them -- but it can get frustrating when, with so few Canadian productions in the work compared to the talent available, you notice certain performers cropping up again and again...performers who might not be bad, but just don't really jazz you up knowing they're in it. Ironically, the very ignorance in the biz, where Canadian filmmakers don't watch other Canadian productions, can be a culprit -- I know of at least one director who admitted she cast the lead in her movie based, in part, on the actor's impressive resume of past roles, rather than having seen the actor actually perform those roles -- and midway through filming, realized the actor was completely wrong for the part! Something she would've known if she had actually seen those earlier performances.
But, as I say, there's nothing objective about it. Even as I lament the lack of support or enthusiasm for actors -- I can be just as Grinch-like. There are Canadian actors who will be handed a lead role, who critics will rave about, who will have message boards afire with fans extolling their brilliance...and I'll just go, "yawn". I'm sure some people would even say that about Amy Price-Francis...
But I'm the one posting this essay. And as far as I'm concerned, the pilot episode of King was very good...but Amy Price-Francis made it great.
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
Apr. 22, 2011
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