Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My TV Awards, we’re proud to present the My TV Nominee Interview Series.
The best new drama of the 2011-2012 TV season was ABC’s grossly underrated period drama Pan Am (I, sadly, speak in past tense because season one is over and chances for season two are slim). It was beautifully shot, exellently written and, traumatically underapreciated. But more than anything, it was well acted. One of the best members of the terrific Pan Am ensemble was Best Supporting Actress nominee Karine Vanasse, the beautiful French-Canadian talent who gave life to the graceful Colette Valois, who took the time to answer a few of our questions about the show, her work as an actor/producer in 2 languages and many different countries.
Thanks for taking the time to do an interview.
No problem, it’s an honour to see my name there. It’s my pleasure.
How did you first get into acting?
I started acting when I was probably around 10. I was doing a speech contest, a lip-sync contest when I was younger and I did some interviews because I was winning all these contests. And finally the host referred me to one of her friends who had an extra agency. So I did a little bit of work as an extra when I was 10/11. Then I auditioned, I did a few commercials, then when I was 13 I auditioned for my first movie- it was more of a test than anything else, my new agents wanted to test that I could really act and not just do only commercials- so I went to the audition, and I got it. I was really lucky, I think, to have the chance to start in movies. Not that TV’s no good, but for young actors, when you have a lead in a movie at such a young age the director takes so much time with you, to direct you really really well- you don’t have to talk a lot, you just have to be really present in front of the camera. So I think that was a really good school for me.
You’ve done a lot of work in the Quebec film industry, is Pan Am your first major English role?
Yeah it is. You’re right, I’ve been mostly working in Quebec, in French. I’ve been really lucky, working in good stuff, producing my own movies in my early twenties. Pan Am was my first try for an American production- before that, I was too scared or not confident enough that with my accent I could find something, so Colette was the perfect character. Obviously she’s French, so I didn’t have to care that much about my accent- I had to change it because I’m French-Canadian, not French-European, but that was really easy for me because I work also in French- but it was just the perfect part.
How did you land the job?
I started working with an agent here in Canada who was covering more the English side of all the productions. I think Thomas Schlamme and all the producers were looking for a French-speaking actress in LA, then in New York and they were just starting to expand their search a little bit. I was doing a play here in Montreal and this was really the first big audition my agent sent me to. So the morning after the premiere of the play, I went to audition, without really hoping anything, just hoping maybe the casting director would notice me, even if it was a taped audition. And a few days later I had to go to New York to do some screen tests, and it was really fast, actually. I wasn’t expecting it. Quebec is quite a small industry, even if we produce lots of TV and movies, so, as I said, I was really scared that in the States I would get lost- there’s so many actors coming from all over the world, trying to get lucky in the States- so I think it’s really about being lucky; talent is one thing but we’re so many that, it sounds cliche, but I think it’s timing- if you have the chance to have a really good part for your first part, that’s a really good thing.
One of the best episodes of the show so far was when you flew to Berlin. In a 60s show about Americans it can be easy to forget how recent WWII was, but not for Colette- who grew up in Nazi-occupied France. What was it like to shoot her breakdown?
It was surprising for me to read the script because somehow I thought that by being the foreigner of the group, I don’t know, I was so happy with my character, Colette was so optimistic, and from what I read in the pilot I always anticipated her to be the happy-go-lucky one. Finally, when that episode arrived, it was like “oh, woah, there’s another side to Colette that I didn’t expect at all” which made it even more interesting to play her. It was really interesting. Alex Graves directed that episode; I remember him reminding me to keep smiling when I was either singing or doing the last scene when Colette breaks down, still trying to cover what’s really underneath. So I think it was really interesting, I felt really lucky to have those scenes. And I think it’s always good when you, either on TV or in movies, when you have the chance to do some things that people can relate to. I’ve received messages and when people talk to me about those scenes, some of them have family who left the war or who have some history with the war, and they say “my wife could really relate so much to Colette because of her dad…” or whatever. So I heard all these stories from people who had their own stories from World War II. It’s always interesting when people can relate and it makes it real.
A major conceit of the show is that it takes place all over the world. Do you recreate most of those places in LA? How do you do that?
We shoot in Brooklyn, actually. All around New York City there are these big mansions- I didn’t expect that, at all, really- so we have the chance to visit many of them and recreate Berlin, Rome, Paris… they were created in the Upper East Side, I think, which is amazing to see. When they did Jakarta, also was quite impressive; Haiti by throwing palm trees to make a forest so that when you watch the episode you think you’re in an exotic country but, no, it was somewhere close to Long Island. These departments were doing a really amazing job. And it was interesting to shoot in New York, too, because New York was one of the main Pan Am hubs so it gives a certain energy to look at the MetLife building and think that it was the Pan Am building back then.
Dean and Colette struck up something as early as episode two then seemed to get distracted for a couple of episodes before coming back to each other. What’s going on there?
Well, it’s been really interesting to see how the viewers wanted them to be together so early, we didn’t see that coming at all. For Colette, it was a difficult relationship, and I think for Dean as well. When Bridget came back, I was on Twitter reading all the reactions from viewers, and of course when she showed up everyone knew that that would make their relationship much more difficult. But hopefully Colette stops fearing being the second one and not the chosen one and Dean will be able to show her that he loves her and is there for her. But they’re not quite there yet.
How’s the [1960s] period been treating you? Are you loving the style or is it an annoying amount of up-keep?
We stopped shooting a while ago and of course it’s really comfortable to come back to my 2012 clothes but, at the same time, there’s something about the clothes, you feel so feminine all the time and it makes you move a certain way- it brings you back automatically to the 60s and to something really poised. It made it easier for all the girls to fall back into the 60s. Even as we had to think about how a woman behaved back then, I think that the clothing helped a great deal to go back there. I loved it. And every episode, when we would have our fitting with Anne Crabtree, the costume designer, she would say “oh, I found something that’s so Colette, or so Kate. I found it on Ebay, look at this!” and it was always really exciting to see what she found, to see her help us create these characters. Because we were 4 lead women, it was really important for her and for all of us to make it really distinctive- this is Maggie, this is her style- even with the hair and makeup people, it was the same thing; “how can we, without making it too much of a cliche, how can we make each of them really unique and different in their own way?”, so they helped a lot.
Do you have a favourite moment from the show or a favourite episode?
You mentioned Berlin- I also remember Maggie (Christina Ricci) having her storyline with Kennedy. I loved the episodes where all the characters had something really strong going on. The Haiti episode was also one that I really enjoyed; we were all together, aiming in the same direction, “we have to save this man, we have to find a doctor, we have to find some medicine, we have to take off eventually and leave this place”. All the characters were together. So I mostly enjoyed these episodes.
I’m still holding out hope for a second season. What do you think the chances are of that happening?
I don’t know. I’m in the same position as you. We all keep our fingers crossed. It would be interesting to come back for a second season for many reasons; during the first season we established “okay, this is the base of the character” now where can we go from here? And we’ve seen how the viewers reacted. I think, during the first season of a show, the show tries to go in different directions and try to find its personality. Most of the time it’s during the second season that a show really comes together and becomes stronger. So I hope that we can experience that with Pan Am.
Going back to some of your film work, tell me about French Immersion– it’s in the Bon Cop, Bad Cop tradition of bilingualism, right?
Yeah, it was. It came out in Canada earlier this year. As you said, the Bon Cop, Bad Cop comparison is a good one- you throw francophone and anglophone together and try to make fun of the situation and all the cliches we’ve been talking about for a decade now.
I also have a movie, I don’t know if it will come out in the States, but it’s a movie called I’m Yours that’s starting its run at all the film festivals and everything, and it’s coming out in Canada in March, I think. I shot that with Rossif Sutherland (one of Donald Sutherland’s sons). It’s really beautiful; a small budget movie but a really really nice one. So, hopefully, if Pan Am comes back, which would be amazing, between now and then I’ll be able to do one or two movies, because I think it would be really great. It’s so interesting to go from a big production like Pan Am to something a little smaller, with a smaller crew and a closer relationship with the director. So, we’ll see.
Do you have any dream projects you’d like to work on or someone you’d like to work with someday?
There are many people I’d love to work with: Jim Sheridan, Sam Mendes- directors who really like to work and you can feel it in their movies, who love to work with actors and develop something really strong with them- Darren Aronofsky, of course. But if I look more at types of characters, I’d love, eventually, and I’ve never had a chance to do it, but I’d love to portray somebody who really existed; that would be amazing, to try and really invent something based on what I read and what the writers created, try to portray somebody and be as true as possible to who that person was. Maybe one day that will happen. I’d love to have to train physically, also, for a character. I did a movie last summer in France which was more of an action-type movie. I really like to be involved physically- to run, to jump, to do some stunts. That was really the first time I’d had to do that, and I really enjoyed myself. So maybe that type of opportunity will show up again.
Did you get to do any of that history-based character or action stuff in films like Polytechnique [about the 1989 Montreal Massacre“] or October 1970 [about the FLQ crisis]?
You’re right, but in Polytechnique, when we were preparing the film, we met with many different women and we didn’t want my character to be just one of these women- we based her on two or three of them. To play someone who is really based on only one person… I did it a little bit in a TV movie based on Marie Antoinette’s life for French television but it was so mythical; I mean, Marie Antoinette, there are so many stories we hear about her, it became this huge character who’s almost not even real now. So it was interesting to find something, like little details which would take her away from the historical character that she is now. But if I could portray someone who’s more in the contemporary period… but Polytechnique was a good start to that.
If you could pick one definitive moment in your career up to this point, what would it be?
Polytechnique was probably the most important period of my career. I went from this child actress to a more mature actress. I wasn’t supposed to play in it at first, I was only going to be a producer- it was my desire at first to do a movie based on that event and I was really involved in the process. So, to do a movie for 5 years, then when the movie came out, it could have been the end of my career and I would have been fine with it. It was such a meaningful experience and I’m really proud of that film.
Do you have any other projects you’re working on right now?
Right now I’m auditioning a lot, so we’ll see. I have the chance to be auditioning in Europe and Canada as well as the States so we’ll see in which language I’ll get to play this year. But it’s really exciting. And, as I said, since we’re waiting for Pan Am, we can’t really book anything for this summer or next fall, so all the actors are trying to find something for this [spring]. But it’s interesting to see, when you play a certain type of character, like Colette- the parts that people tend to offer me now are a little bit different than the parts I would have been offered before, so it’s fun to see.
How so, are you getting a lot of period pieces?
No, it’s mostly lighter. I think I was mostly known in Quebec for the drama work I had done, I was known as a dramatic actress- not that Colette doesn’t have any depth, as we discussed earlier it’s about having this light then the dark character at times. I think that people sense something different, something that could be a little lighter in the type of acting that I do. So, it’s good, if I could do a comedy eventually that would be fun.