Graham Abbey is one of Canada’s foremost leading men, from TV screens to the movie theatre and, especially, on North America’s most prestigious classical stage: The Stratford Festival. He was Romeo, Prince Hal, Macbeth, Petruchio, Berowne, Aufidius and many others in between, leading up to 2013’s gleefully malicious Iago under the direction of Stratford’s director-du-jour Chris Abraham.
For our 95th and final entry into this year’s Nominee Interview Series, we called up Graham (a Best Actor nominee for his performance in Othello) and made him talk about getting catcalled by teenage girls while running around with his shirt off. We also asked him actual questions about Shakespeare and stuff.
My first question is always do you remember your first experience with theater.
[Laughs] Wow. My first one would be, I guess it’s not quite theater, I did a lot of the Kiwanis musical stuff as a kid. I entered in both the singing and the speech art categories, so I would perform poems and such, you know, in various churches for the Kiwanis Music Festival. So that was sort of my first recollection of performing. I do remember I auditioned for a production of Oliver that was going on in St. Catharines when I was a kid for the role of Tiny Tim, but I didn’t get it, because I didn’t look sickly enough, I guess. I remember that being the first disappointment. But beyond that it would be school plays, I guess. I did a play, I think in grade five called Peppercorn’s Magic, that was the first one I remember, when I was a singing king. [Laughs]. And shortly after that I was a child actor at Stratford, so I got to be in As You Like It with John Hirsch and then I did, the year before that, I did The Merry Wives of Windsor with Douglas Campbell as Falstaff.
How did you get involved with that as a kid?
I got involved in that through singing. I sang in the Stratford boy choir and John Hirsch approached Gordon Scott, the head of the choir, saying that he needed some young boys who could sing to play fairies, basically, in Merry Wives of Windsor. So I auditioned and got the role of I think Fairy Number Two or something.
What have been some of your favorite roles you’ve ever played?
Oh gosh. I would say, that one of the most thrilling things I got to do was play Prince Hal and Henry V all in one season. So I played Hal in Henry IV parts I and II and then played Henry V, so I got to play one character through three Shakespeare plays which is very, very rare and an amazing opportunity. So I would say that certainly stands out.
Are there any still on your wish list?
I would love to play Richard III. I have to work on my hump or something, but I love Richard III. I think it’s a great part.
You’ve played some of the great lovers, the heroes, the anti-heroes, and out and out villains. Do any of those come a little easier than the others?
[Laughs] I’m gonna give myself away now, but my answer is, strangely enough, I find the villains to be; it’s very bad. But I, I guess as I grow older, I find the villains; I don’t know why that is. I never would have leaned that way, but I guess as somebody that’s played a lot of ingénues maybe you get pent up rage or something that they need to get out and play the villain. But I like the mind games of the villains. I think sometimes you can dig a little deeper into their plots and twists, and so I like that challenge as an actor. The intellect of something like Iago is extraordinary to live in. Not that fun to live in, really, I had a very difficult time doing that through rehearsals. I was very disturbed, I guess is the word. And it was hard to ease into that, because you know, he goes at like a mile a minute and there’s no resolution for him, he just drives out into the night and keeps going. So it’s sort of a lonely place to exist for a year.
One of the major things about Iago is that he gives excuse after excuse for his villainy, but doesn’t ever really land on a definite conclusion. Did you have an idea in your head that grounded you of why he was doing what he was doing?
Well, of course that’s the great question that everyone sort of wants to know with Iago, and as an actor you have your own journey inside. And no one’s got a definitive answer because it’s such an amazing role, you can do it in different ways. For me, I think it very much is getting into the mindset of a sociopath and/or psychopath. I think the breadcrumbs are there, I think Shakespeare wrote an early model of what we now know as a psychopath. Somebody who has an inability to feel remorse. Researching a lot of psychopaths, watching interviews and stuff, a common trait is, as young men and women, they harm animals. And of course early in Othello you see Iago telling Rodrigo ‘drown cats and dogs’. It’s pretty much what Shakespeare was touching on five hundred years ago. So for me, I guess that was the starting point.
I think living inside him is a very different animal. The tricky part with Iago is where he comes to at the end. And that might be partly what you’re asking: did he achieve what he wanted to do? And, really, the answer for him is just in chaos.
There’s a horrible guy that did a lot of hits for the mafia called The Ice Man. And there’s an interview with him before he was executed. They talk to him about his life and his past and the lack of love in it. And he says, which is very much Iago, “because I didn’t have much love in my life, the only thing that I feasted on was hate”. And the interviewer said, “In what way?” “It allowed me to put my right foot in front of my left.” And that really is Iago. One step at a time. He’s just driven by hate and revenge and ambition and it snowballs into something horrible at the end.
In a lineup of Iagos throughout history, what do you think made yours unique?
I think all Iagos are bound to be different, obviously, because different actors. I think what made mine unique, and what makes them all unique, is the very, very intimate relationship with Othello. Just like you can’t separate a Romeo and a Juliet, I think they’re very much a pair in this production. And I think, in my opinion, when these productions go wrong is when you get an imbalance between those two. When you get an Othello that sort of takes the center stage and Iago fades to the background or, vice versa, you get a sort of mustache-twisting Iago and Othello basically in the back. I think what Dion [Johnstone] and I found was an amazing balance. And when that balance is there, you really watch a love story in a strange way. It does go horribly wrong, but you’re watching a real partnership- two relatively young soldiers, duelling it out. So I think that’s what I was most proud of, I think was that bond.
What was it like working with Dion?
Horrible. [Laughs]. No, from day one, we really… I mean, Dion and I knew each other for years. I’m a big fan of his; he came really prepared and we just dove in, just with both feet, and along with Chris, who allowed us to be brave with it. I think we were allowed to play. We allowed each other to play, he allowed it, and it was a very good ride. And, in live theater that’s all you really count on, that you’re out there with reliable people who will play with you.
What would you say is the most important conversation you had with Chris about Iago?
God, we had so many. We’re both quite nerdy Shakespeare people, so we would talk for hours when the room would clear, and I’d phone him at night about something that was bugging my head. So we had so many. I think, later in the rehearsals, I said to Chris, I had this sort of epiphany, we went so deep in the psychology of this play, I said, “I get it, I get it, it’s just here’s my question: Do you think Iago wins?” And he got all excited and was like, “that’s it! We did it. That’s the crux of it”. I don’t even know what it means anymore, but I remember we had that conversation. And somebody, a female in the room, said you guys are just being men. Worrying about who wins and loses.
Do you think he wins?
Well that’s the question, isn’t it? I mean, I think he does. Just as a performer can’t leave a piece of music unresolved, I found a note in the silence at the end of the play that for me was a note of victory. And really, as he stands there, it can be quite emotional. When we had our first audience, I couldn’t control it, I just burst into tears when the play was done. I couldn’t stop crying, it was very weird. But as you stand over that bed in our production and see three bodies there, I think he’s quite pleased with himself. The only thing that struck me well into the run is there’s one body he missed. And that’s Cassio, who’s still alive on the bed. So that was my inner sort of dialogue: “I got three out of four”. Morbid. So I guess that’s a win. Seventy five percent.
On the flip side of coin, you also returned to a play you did earlier in your career in The Three Musketeers. Was there any nostalgia in ushering in a new D’Artagnan?
That play- I love the story, and I love the world. That particular script needs some editing, to be polite. It needs to be brought into the modern age. It’s hard, it was of a time, at Stratford, so it’s interesting to test it out against a new audience. And we tried to go quite legit with it, which I think is an interesting choice. When I did it the last time, it was so different. It was silly and we had, you know, whoopee cushions and comedy caps and I was fighting with sausages and it was just so crazy. And then this world was quite legit, it was just such a different world. The only thing I felt was old. [Laughs] Because I went from the young Musketeer to the old one. It feels like just within a few years. Somebody reminded me it was actually twelve years, which is awful.
The day I happened to see the Three Musketeers was the day Luke Humphrey was out for some reason-
Oh my God, right.
– and it was the understudy [Andrew Robinson]’s first time on stage.
It’s a crazy role to go on for. Like, even crazier than Hamlet, I think. It’s just, you don’t stop. You don’t try to think, it’s just nuts. I applaud him. He had a great time, and it was just the once. What was that like in the audience?
It was remarkable. He made a whole whack of mistakes, but there was something endearing about it. That was what I wanted to ask you about- the way that you, Mike Shara and Jonathan Goad sort of took him under your wing. It was a little bit thematic, almost. There was a moment when he stepped on Mike’s line and Mike just went “Eh, whatever”, and just kept going.
I know. And we were bad. We probably should have our equity cards revoked- Mike and Jon and I, we just got a bit silly with that show. It was weird, I guess because that show, I think, wants to live somewhere in the middle. When we did it last time, I think that was the right direction to be really campy and silly with it. So it sometimes feels a bit reigned in because you don’t have the words in that script to really give it meaning. So you play it better when you send it up, so we tried as the show went on to get a bit more sent up, I suppose.
There was a night, it was my favourite moment from last year; all my panto-ing things came up. I was doing the drunk scene with D’Artagnan, where Athos is telling this horribly long miserable story about his life. And in the middle of the story, when I took a break, just a breath, a kid from the back of the audience just does this big like, [yawn], it was this huge yawn. I just immediately turn my head toward the kid where it came from and put my arms up and the audience just lost it. I couldn’t get it back. It was the perfect timing. So that was a good moment.
You mentioned your panto experience. Is it refreshing to hang up your serious actor hat and just get to play around a little bit?
I love the panto. I‘ve done it a few times now. But I’m sort of a ham. When I was a kid, that was the stuff I loved to do, sort of silly improv stuff. So the panto is when you can really play with an audience and go off their feedback and stuff. It’s exhilarating. It’s really, really fun. I’m hoping we get to do a bit of that because Tim Carroll, who’s doing King John, is very much into original practices with shows. But as part of that you really have a big interplay with the audience so I’m hoping to get to do a bit more of that up in Stratford land. But I love the panto.
When you did the James Bond panto, the performance I saw, there was this kid that you brought up on stage who refused every single instruction.
Oh my God. Yeah, yeah,yeah. I remember.
It got so bad that, at one point, you collapsed on the ground laughing.
I totally remember that kid! No one wants that job because you have to read the kids. There were different jobs you had to do and I was offering the kid like every job, and he didn’t want to do any of it. And of course it can go south quickly because, if the kid starts to panic and cry, it’s just a nightmare. [Laughs] I had fun interacting with the kids in that bit. That was pretty good.
Between your seasons in Stratford and your pantomimes, you’ve done a lot of film and television work. What have been some of your most interesting experiences in that industry?
Well obviously the three years on the Border. I loved being part of that team and with those people for three years was a great time. I loved working with Sarah Polley doing Take this Waltz, that was really memorable.
You were Sarah Silverman’s husband, right?
Yeah, that’s right. I was hanging out with Sarah, who would crack me up constantly. I remember the first day on that, because Sarah wanted sort of improv-y stuff with the family. So she was like, “I just want to get some funny bits, so let’s get Graham, and Sarah Silverman and Seth Rogan on the couch and you guys just ad lib some funny dialogue”. I’m like “you have to be kidding me. You’re putting me with the two funniest people in Hollywood, basically”. So I totally froze. I was just a smiling idiot because I didn’t want to interfere with their comedy. So that was a bit daunting. But fun.
Then, going back to Stratford, when I saw Cymbeline in 2012, there was a gaggle of teenage girls who went crazy every single time you came on the stage.
You know, I’ve never got that. I don’t think they could guess my age.
Very important multiple choice question: being considered a dreamboat, is it a) embarrassing, b) distracting, or c) awesome?
[Laughs] Well, if we’re going with the premise that I’m considered a dreamboat. Well, okay, you know, when I was a young lad, playing D’Artagnan, running around with my shirt off, you sort of get it, because those kids were sort of your age. Cymbeline was a bit- there were lots of us running around with our shirts off, so it was sort of the show for women to come and see. I would say it’s probably all of the above. I’d be lying if I didn’t say when people seem to get excited about that, it’s exhilarating. But it can be slightly distracting, I guess. It’s hard when you’re trying to do serious Shakespeare with your shirt off and you sort of hear murmurs going through. Especially since you don’t know what they’re murmuring about. You’re like, oh my God, are they like, “look at that guy, put your shirt back on!” Muffin top or something. [Laughs].
You married fellow Stratford actor Michelle Giroux in 2008. Have you been able to play off each other much? Do you have a favourite memory of working with her?
We did Love’s Labour’s Lost together. We knew each other before that, but that was our first time playing opposite each other. Actually, we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well with Helena and Lysander, but he’s sort of under the love juice, so Berowne and Rosaline was really our only time playing opposite each other. I mean, obviously we riff in our personal life well, but I think it’s probably good. I think sometimes with husbands and wives trying to play opposite each other, it can get frustrating, I guess. We send each other to each other’s shows and gives notes and stuff, it’s nice to have an eye out there. But I think if we’re playing with each other in a play, the sparks might fly in the wrong way.
Who are some of your favorite people to work with?
I loved working with Chris Abraham. He and I got along very well. I’m back this year working with Tom McCamus, who I love and shared a dressing with. He was with me in Cymbeline, so that’ll be exciting again. And Seana McKenna, who we did a bunch of stuff together, but we haven’t worked together for years, so King John will be an exciting reunion. I’m looking forward to playing with those guys.
Speaking of King John, tell us a bit about the productions you’re doing this year.
The other one is Christina, The Girl King. It’s a new play at the studio about the Swedish queen who abdicated. It’s a very, very interesting piece with Jenny Young playing the lead. We did a workshop on it a few months ago. It’s quite a good story. I play sort of a crazy count, who, once again I think I’m running around with my shirt off. But he’s more comedic. He’s trying to get the queen to fall in love with him, who isn’t interested in him at all. So that’s at the studio.
And then King John is at the Patterson and it’s Tim Carroll directing. I don’t know this for sure, but the word is we’re setting the Patterson up like the Black Friar theatre, which was Shakespeare’s winter theatre. Which means it’s basically lit by candlelight, which will be really cool, I think. So I don’t know how they’re going to do that, but that’s the plan. Of course it’s original practices, as Tim calls them, which is very much adhering to the verse of the play and the costumes as well, being as original as we can be. It’s a great play, King John, and the Patterson is a wonderful stage, so it’s a wonderful combination.
Had you ever done that play before? It’s one of the more obscure ones.
I’ve never done it. I saw it, Stratford did it, I want to say about ten years ago, and I saw it, but I’ve never been in it. That was the only time I’d seen it.
Do you try and see everything in the season?
I do, and I did last year, I believe. I don’t think I missed any.
Did you have any favourites?
From last year? I loved Fiddler. I thought it was beautiful. I loved Blithe Spirit [play #1 starring Michelle Giroux], but I’m biased. I loved Merchant [play #2 starring Michelle Giroux]. Not because my wife was in it; I thought they were really exceptional productions. So I would say those three stood out.
What have you been up to in the off season?
I did an episode of a new hospital drama called Remedy which is on Global right now.
And I’m in the midst right now of shooting a film right now, a Hallmark film for Christmas with Sergio Di Zio from Flashpoint, who’s an old buddy and Jessalyn Gilsig from Glee and she’s on Vikings now, I guess. So I’ve been holed up in Hamilton doing the film, which is sort of cool. And then I also recorded Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version. Which took a lot of hours. I want to say like eighty or ninety hours. It’s a massive book and a difficult one, but we put it on tape for audible.com.
And I’m prepping for what I’m hoping will be the first show of my company I’m starting next winter- Groundling, to do Shakespeare here in the city. We’re very close to announcing what space we’ll be doing it in, which is really cool. I’ve been looking for awhile for a found space, like a non-theatre space. And I think we’ve got a pretty neat one. So we’ll go public once we get the deal signed. Just a bit of a winter turn for all the Stratford actors and some actors here in the city.
Can you tell us what your first show is? Or is that under wraps?
Well, it may change, but I’m really wanting to do Winter’s Tale so that’s the one I’m really gearing towards. It may change based on the space. But I’m hoping Winter’s Tale is still it. I love that play. I always have. In a cheesy sort of way, I think it’s an interesting way to kick off the winter Shakespeare company with The Winter’s Tale. [Laughs]. But I just love that play. I think it’s a great story and I’m always trying to balance stuff that’s a couple years away from Stratford. Stratford hasn’t done it in a little bit, so I think it would be a good one to do.
Would you be playing Leontes?
My goal is to direct it, at least the first one. I love Leontes, I’d love to play him one day, but I think my goal on this first outing is to direct. I think it’d be weird to stick myself in the lead in my own company show.
That’s why you have a company.
[Laughs]. I think eventually it’ll just be me in a one man show. But I think I’ll try my hand at the director side of things to start.