Before we announce the winners of the 2014 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.
We were already falling in love with Dr. Jerry Gordon on Remedy when a little show called Lungs showed up in the Tarragon Extra Space and solidified Brendan Gall as one of our new favourite actors (on screen, on stage, wherever). With not much set, no costume or lighting changes, and only his spectacular partner Lesley Faulkner to lean on, Brendan’s performance in Lungs was one of mesmerizing honesty, thrilling, relatable and full of natural comedy and emotional truth unlike anything we’d ever seen on stage. And he’s also adorable on Remedy.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I had a very good friend in public school who was into plays and I kind of did it because I felt like he was getting attention [laughs]. And then we both ended up going to an arts high school for drama. I think it was probably grade 11 when I admitted it out loud that I wanted to do it, but it was a pretty gradual slide out from a pretty young age.
What was the first role you ever got?
I believe I was the Littlest Pumpkin in grade three in the eponymous Littlest Pumpkin.
You’re also a celebrated playwright. How do the two professions inform each other?
A lot. And they kind of relieve each other too, because I kind of go crazy doing one thing for too long. Acting is very collaborative and very social a lot of the time, and writing is very lonely but you have a lot more control. As an actor you’re sort of, to greater or lesser degrees, you’re being moved around a little bit, you’re a piece in a larger game. And as a writer you’re making and destroying worlds, so it’s sort of a different thing, but it’s quite isolating. But I think I approach writing as an actor. I think about character more than I think about theme or a larger idea, for good or bad. I think about situations and interesting characters in those situations and how they get themselves out of them or further into them.
Do you have a favorite of the plays you’ve written?
I guess my last one, which is, hopefully, you know, how it should be. Wide Awake Hearts was special to me. And also special because Gina Wilkinson who directed it was a good friend and unfortunately passed away right afterwards, which was very, very difficult. So that moment in my life will always be pretty [pauses] I’ll remember it. It was a really amazing experience working in that room with Gina and with those four actors on that play. I don’t think it’s a perfect play by any stretch, but I really loved it.
You’ve done a fair amount of screen acting in addition to the stage. How do your experiences in that industry compare to the theatre?
They really scratch different itches. I remember one of the hardest things going into TV/film, which happened later for me, was the notion of rehearsal. You know, in the theatre, you think of rehearsal as a place to explore and try things and fail and you know, pursue things down a different line, and then you can abandon it and move on to something else. And in film, they say, ‘oh, let’s rehearse’ and it took me so long to figure out that ’let’s rehearse’ doesn’t mean we’ll try something and we can throw it away if we don’t like it. Rehearse means probably, unless it’s awful, this is what we’re going to shoot. So do what you want to do, have a plan going in. And, unless we say otherwise, that’s what we’re going to light for and that’s what we’re going to shoot for. You get to have a full arc in theatre, you go from A to Z every night, and have a live audience, you have immediate reaction to it. With film, you have a very competent, professional, but not super enthused crew, so you have no idea how you’re doing a lot of the time and you’re shooting in pieces, so you’re trying to keep track of a larger pictures, but you don’t get that immediate reaction or feeling like what you’re doing is right. You don’t know if what you’re doing is right until it’s assembled.
Tell us a little about your experience starring in the quintessentially Canadian Men with Brooms.
That was a really interesting experience. I had not seen that film when I got cast in the television show. Paul Mather, the showrunner, who was an amazing boss and a very funny writer, he came from Corner Gas, and I think he really wanted to reinvent the thing. Paul Gross, who was the star of the original movie, was the narrator on the series, but it was a completely different group of guys and I think it was trying to be too many things with too many people maybe. I thought it was very, very funny and the writers’ room was literally full of friends of mine, by accident. They were all hired before I was. And so the people were very, very, very funny people with sensibilities that I really liked, but I think a lot of people thought they were going to get something they didn’t get. CBC was not really doing comedies in that way, maybe; I don’t know. It was a really great experience; I loved the whole cast and I loved everybody and we can blame whatever we want, but we didn’t get renewed. So you know, it was a short, sweet, odd experience.
What would you say is your favorite experience you’ve had in film and TV so far?
That’s tough. I guess, when I was younger, we shot a movie that I wrote called Dakota over two weeks at the director’s apartment on Bathurst Street. We cast all of my friends from high school and theatre school and the crew was all of the director’s friends from film school at Humber. It was a little clinic that we put on for ourselves, basically to learn how to make something. So over the two weeks, we really [learn]; day 1 and day 15 were very, very different in terms of what we understood about what we were doing. There were a bunch of problems with that movie but it was a really phenomenal experience that taught me that you can make something and that you can make something that you’re proud of. It certainly wasn’t the one I made the most money on [laughs].
I have to confess to being a Remedy fan and, in particular, a Jerry fan.
Any chance we’ll be seeing more of you in season 2 (which premiered last Monday)?
I think there’s a pretty good chance. I shot a bunch, so unless they really weren’t happy with what I was doing, I should be in season 2 quite a bit [laughs].
That’s been a really amazing project to be a part of. It’s got shades of West Wing to it for me; there’s lots of words to wrap your brain around, and while you’re on the move. I’ve never played a doctor before and there’s lots of operating room scenes. It’s a very particular assignment as an actor that I’ve not had before which is really fun and really challenging. Most of the work I do is opposite Sarah Canning, who is just a phenomenal actress and she has an amazing work ethic.
You returned to Toronto Theatre in 2014 for Duncan McMillin’s two hander Lungs, which is what your My Theatre Award nomination is for. What attracted you to that role?
The short, pithy answer is that they offered it to me. Well, they didn’t offer it to me straight, I had to audition. But when I read the script, I was startled by how much of what was in there was stuff that I was going through in my immediate now. I was an even younger guy at that point, we had a kid who was under 2, and the play is really about a couple wrestling with whether or not to take their relationship forward and to have a child and whether or not they should do that, whether anyone in the world should do that, whether the world is any kind of a place that anyone should be brought into. My partner and I wrestle with those things a lot. We wrestled with it before we had our child and it’s a thing we still lose sleep over and think about a lot- what does the future hold for all of these kids and what kind of a world is it going to be?
And the writing. How they spoke. They’re characters that think fast, they speak fast, and the writing is very naturalized and broken up in a way that’s very, very satisfying once you learn it, but is a nightmare to learn. But it was so much fun, it was such a fun thing to attack and to attack with Lesley Faulkner, my fellow actor on stage. It’s a phenomenal piece of writing and so I just knew, at that level, regardless of what the conversation was between these two people on stage, the writing itself was just such an amazing thing to get to wield.
For this particular production, the direction was very simple and focused. Did you find that the lack of hullabaloo was freeing or did you feel like that was a lot of pressure shifted entirely onto you the actors?
Well, Weyni [Mengesha, the director] didn’t come in on day one like ‘it’s going to be simple and bare and it’s all going to be on you guys’. We found it in the room. I mean, Weyni had ideas about what she was interested in in the play but one of the scariest things for me was not being able to picture what the play would look like before we started, because the playwright is very clear that he doesn’t want props, he doesn’t want a set, and he doesn’t want mime. So you immediately know you’re in another sort of space that’s not completely literal, which is not unusual for theatre at all, but to my mind, this was a very extreme version of that at the end of the spectrum. So I was having trouble picturing what it would physically look like, how we would be interacting with each other and how we would be in relationship to the audience. What we landed on was something that felt very good and right- the only real thing on stage was each other, was Lesley and me. That’s, I think, a great metaphor, because they’re this remarkable couple that fights a lot, but also they kind of are the only thing in each other’s lives in sort of an amazing way. The play was more complicated in its blocking originally, and I think Weyni will admit that the process was really a paring down and stripping away process. We’d do these more complicated approaches to scenes and then Weyni would just take away, take away, take away, take away until you were left with something that was very, very simple and clean. So it was a real process.
What are some of the elements of you, as an actor, that affected the character in translation between page and stage?
I’m not sure. Certainly my character does less speaking than Lesley’s character, so I guess there’s something about- I don’t know if I brought it, but I certainly had to work on it while I was there- listening. How you play without the ball and how you are there in presence and engaged in moving the story forward without mugging, without taking away from the person you’re speaking with. To be active and participating when you’re not always the one talking, and to support what your acting partner’s doing. I certainly worry about that a lot. I don’t know whether I’m good at it or not but I worry about that a lot. Certainly I enjoy that challenge, so I think that was a maybe a big thing.
And the character had a sense of humour that appealed to me and felt familiar to me so hopefully that was a good fit.
Was there much interpretation of the original script going on or were you sort of presenting it as clearly as possible from what you found on the page?
I guess we were trying to represent and honour the playwright’s intentions as we understood them as best we could. I don’t think we were trying to reinvent the wheel. We weren’t trying to do like A Midsummer Night’s Dream underwater or something like that. We wanted to do the play this guy had written, because he’s written a really amazing play and there’s so much in there that you don’t need to put anything on top of it. It’s so rich and full and complicated already that just negotiation that landscape was plenty of work for us without having to put any take on it. Unless Weyni had a secret agenda, but I really don’t think she did. I think we were just wading through the language, trying to understand what was intended in order to fulfill it.
The transitions between time and space were marked just by a change in your posture or demeanor. Was it difficult to keep those moments fluid while transitioning clearly enough so the audience could follow you?
I think it’s one of the games that the piece plays- for the first little while, the audience might be a little bit behind and a little confused when those transitions happen in the blink of an eye. And you learn that game pretty quickly, I think, and then it kind of makes you complicit in this thing where you understand the rules of how this world operates and I think, once that happens, people are with you.
I like making those quick switches. Sometimes it’s about lying until it becomes true. You’re in the moment, you’re feeling a certain thing and then all of the sudden you’re required to be somewhere else in time and space in the next moment without any kind of signifier really other than a head turn or maybe not even that sometimes. And for a while that feels really, really wrong. But the great thing about theatre is how much repetition there is. Rehearsal is repetition and then when you’re in a nice long run like Tarragon gives you, where you have a month to do the play, you’re working it through in performance and so those grooves start to get deeper and deeper and feel more and more true then, by the end…
One of my favourite things about that show was those quick turns. It was so satisfying to feel facile in those moves and those turns.
Lungs, especially in this staging, leaves no room for a false or act-y note at all. How difficult was it to capture and maintain that sense of authenticity throughout the whole process?
You have nights you feel better about it and nights you feel worse. But for me, I think in some ways, the fact that everything is stripped away and that it is just you and your acting partner, it in some ways did make it easier to focus. There wasn’t much distraction. The Tarragon Extra Space is such a lovely, intimate space, so you’re not really too worried about projecting to the back of the room, because the back of the room’s only a couple feet away, so everyone’s in this thing together, you know? Everyone’s sort of leaned in and you can be pretty close to as real as you would be walking around.
Of course it’s still heightened because it’s still a play. It was an ongoing challenge and some nights I’d feel really great about a certain moment or a certain side of things but another side I would feel slipped away a bit and I would have to get it back. So it was this sort of constant struggle and I never felt like I won entirely. I was always proud of what we did because, what we were doing, the pursuit felt really honourable and I always felt like there was something real happening, and even those failures were real. I just loved the battle and I loved the dance of it.
The chemistry and the complexity of your relationship with Lesley Faulkner as your partner was fantastic. What was it like working with her on such an intimate piece?
She’s a great, and a great actor. I think this play could have been a nightmare if we didn’t get along because there’s so few people in collaboration. If you’re working on more of an ensemble piece, you can hide from dynamics that are less than desirable, but there’s nowhere to hide in this. We really knew that we had to deal directly with each other for a really long time and, luckily… Lesley was in Wide Awake Hearts so I knew already that she was a phenomenal actor and, from seeing her in rehearsal, I knew she was a great professional collaborator. There’s no real diva element to Lesley. And I think when you’re working with someone who’s so good, it makes you want to be your best. I always just felt like I needed to come as prepared as I could be because I knew Lesley would. It’s really fun when you get to play with someone who’s so amazing.
The short answer is, it was a dream. It was the best. It was so much fun. Even when we had our head in our hands, and no idea how we were going to do this play, or if we were going to be ready for opening night- which we felt like a lot in the middle of rehearsal and the first go round- I always loved my collaborators. I loved being in that room with those people. It was so, so incredible.
Did you have a favorite moment in the play?
Oh God. No, and honestly, I can’t even think about it like that. I can’t really pick out moments clearly because one thing goes into the next goes into the next. I always just think of the opening moment of the lights coming up and Lesley and I staring at each other in Ikea right after I ask this question of whether not we should have a baby. But the play kind of rips you through it. You hold on and get pulled through fifty years of this couple’s life. What was amazing about it was being given such an enormous and complete arc. It’s so rare that you get such a complete picture of a couple’s very complicated life, so that was the amazing thing.
There’s a million moments and they felt different night to night in really nuanced ways so I think my favourites would change.
Did things deepen or change at all coming back for the remount?
Absolutely. We didn’t have the fear we had the first time around. It was a proven commodity. We knew that people liked it and that we hadn’t screwed it up so badly. So the fear went away in the rehearsal time for the remount. You don’t get as much- that’s part of why the theatres program things for a second year, it costs them less, it’s less time, and they know there’s an audience there. But I think we were both a little worried about were all the words going to be there? Was all the work we did going to be there? Because it is a lot. But it is remarkable the kind of body memory that kicks in when you get up on your feet. We put our scripts away pretty quickly and were able to just wade back into it. You’ve got all this body memory of what you did, and a lot of it feels right and good. And occasionally you find some groove that you wore inadvertently; certainly I did, where I was like ‘why did I fall into that choice?’ and ‘that doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense’. It was this great opportunity to also reexamine things that you’d done and be able to kind of re-attack and make new choices that felt better or more interesting or truer. So it was completely a deepening. It was an opportunity, it was just more chances, more kicks at the can. It’s the kind of play I think an actor could do happily for a very, very long time because there’s so much in it, and you can go so deep with it. I think, if it went another time- which it’s not going to, I don’t think- there would be more to find. That’s kind of the great thing about it.
What are you up to now/what’s next?
I’m sort of in writing mode now. The second season of Remedy just finished shooting and that’s starting to air [Mondays at 9 on Global].
I don’t have any acting things directly in front of me, so I’m doing a lot of writing stuff. [I have] a lot of stuff in development, largely for television and film, which is always sort of a fun, terrifying game. There’s a little bit of money, but you also have no idea if it will actually get shot and show up on screen. So hopefully there’ll be a few things, but you never know [laughs].
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Just that I’ve been very, very honoured to be included in this list of amazing actors and it’s a really great thing you guys are doing. And I really appreciate you giving me another opportunity to talk about the play. I think I’m probably still in mourning about it, a little bit of sadness around that; it’s nice to have a post-mortem about it.