18 March 2018
Most people know Noah Reid as a screen actor. He scored his first film credit in 1996 and has shown up in pretty much every major Canadian television show in the last two decades (and a few American ones). These days he’s on Schitt’s Creek as Daniel Levy’s love interest Patrick (for my money the best storyline the show’s ever done, but that’s just me). He’s also a musician; his cover of “Simply the Best” is still charting after appearing on Schitt’s Creek three weeks ago. But I know him as a theatre actor- Toronto’s most recent Hamlet and a consistent standout in the Coal Mine’s stacked company of players. He’s nominated this year for Outstanding Supporting Actor in Annie Baker’s The Aliens, a performance I haven’t stopped talking about since it happened in September. Usually cast as the sweet-faced nice guy, Noah completely transformed to play Jasper, self-proclaimed “white trash” full of potential and spite. I just started thinking about it again and now I’m too distracted to finish this paragraph; that show, especially Noah’s Jasper, really was something else.
Let’s start with Schitt’s Creek. Your big episode with the song and everything aired last week, and it’s on the iTunes charts. Tell us a little bit about your time as Patrick thus far, and working with Daniel Levy to develop that relationship.
It’s been a bit of a dream, really. When I was going out to audition for the show, I wasn’t sure how much longevity there was in that relationship. You’re just going as an actor to an audition. “I don’t know what this is gonna be.”
But knowing the track record of the show and seeing a couple of seasons, I was like, “I gotta make this one count.” And it just felt super, super lucky to have landed in the company of the people on the show. The part has just been so much fun to do, and to develop that relationship with Dan – I think it’s a really nuanced relationship in the writing. There’s a lot of play in there for us as actors, who sort of push each other’s buttons, and ride the wave of how comfortable we are with each other, and to play with in that. And I feel that it’s written with a lot of love in it.
The relationship is one [where] they have a sort of innate understanding of each other, and it’s been a lot of fun to play this character of Patrick, who’s open to a new experience, and a new kind of relationship for him. It’s been such a privilege to play that part. The song is a thing that Dan just had an instinct, an idea about. He loved the song, and wrote it in, and somehow summoned up enough trust to let me take it, and run with it, and it’s been incredibly rewarding.
Were you excited to bring the music side of your career into that gig?
Yeah! Music and acting have always been linked to me, and I started acting as a kid. I did musicals and stuff, and then worked away from that and started writing my own music. So over the past several years, there have been a number of projects for music and acting that have really found their way together in a nice way, and this is probably the pinnacle of that.
I think the way that the music is approached within the narrative and the scene really works. That doesn’t always happen, but in this situation, I think it was teased in the right way. I think Dan had a notion that I could sing and play, and wanted to use that, but he and the writers didn’t go for the typical moment, per se. I think it’s nicely woven into the narrative, and that, for me, allows me to just be still, acting and playing intention. Playing the scene, as opposed to “Okay, now I’m an actor, okay, now I’m a singer.” To be able to ride that line a little bit is really fun.
Tell us a little bit about the specific single, “Simply the Best” (listen to it here), and how that arrangement developed.
I read the script for that episode right before our read-through. We read through all the episodes before we start shooting, and I saw Dan at the read-through and was like, “Oh, you’re gonna make me sing, huh?” And he was like [laughs] “Yeah.” I was like, “Okay.”
He’s like, “How do you want to do this? Do you want assistance in coming up with an arrangement?” And I was like, “I kind of wanna have a crack at it, and then see how we do.” So I took it away for probably about a month, and just started playing around with it, and finally sort of came up with what it ended up being in the show.
I remember having a lot of difficulty finding the right tone, the right tempo, the right key, the right drive to it – I feel like it’s a pop ballad. In Tina Turner’s world, it’s a pop ballad, so it has an inherent drive to it. And I wanted to keep that alive, and not make it too slow, not make it too sappy, but have it be emotionally relevant, because I think that one of the things that drew Dan to the song, and one of the things he’s said repeatedly, is the lyrics to that song get overlooked a lot. And I think a lot of pop ballads in that era do, because they’re so danceable that you don’t necessarily listen to them word for word. But the lyrics in the song are so evocative. They’re so beautiful, and they carry so much emotion in them that I think we really wanted to highlight that. So eventually [Dan] was like, “Okay, You’ve had enough time, can I see something of what you’re thinking?”
I think I sent him an iPhone recording of it that I did. I recorded it like nine times in my bedroom, and it ended up being the first one that I sent him. And I didn’t hear back from him for several hours. I was like, “Oh my God. I’m fired. I’ve been fired.” Coming up with worst-case scenarios in my head. Then later on he called me in, or texted me to let me know that I wasn’t fired, and that he was pretty happy about it.
Apparently he’d been playing that iPhone memo to everyone on the set, so it was great- by the time we got to recording or shooting it, I felt pretty comfortable with it. I enjoyed the element of surprise; a lot of people were like, “I didn’t know you could sing, I didn’t know you could play.” And I’m like, “Yeah. Right. Good.” [laughs]
Backing up a little bit, my standard opening question for theatre nominees is always, “Can you remember your first experience with theatre?”
We went to the theatre all the time. My parents are visual artists, and the theatre was always a thing that we did as a family. I think probably the earliest memory of theatre I can remember is going to see Midsummer Night’s Dream in High Park. Brian Tree was playing Bottom, and I thought he was the funniest. I just laughed so hard. He had the ass’s head on and I just thought that was the funniest thing in the world.
I got involved in the theatre when I was about 6. I wanted to perform. I wasn’t happy just to watch. I think I was much more performative then than I am now, in a way. The theatre’s always held a magical quality to me, and certainly as a kid, Shakespeare was like a fun, almost puzzle. It exercises your brain in a way that as a kid, listening to it, you know that you’re not getting all of it, but it’s fun anyway. It’s like people are speaking a different language that you can kind of understand. And it’s so visual and enthralling. That’s probably the earliest that I can think of.
You’ve actually been nominated for an award from our site before, in 2015, for Creditors. What stands out in your memory about that production?
Well, that was the Coal Mine’s first season, I think. It was the last production of their first season. I saw the production of The Motherf**ker with the Hat on opening night. I can’t remember if Ted [Dykstra, artistic curator] had approached me about Creditors first or not, but I remember sitting in that room, in their original space, and going, “This is cool.” To see intense subject matter masterfully performed in that close proximity was really exciting, and certainly that carried over to the experience of performing in there. When the audience discovered something, you can feel it. You can feel every breath that the audience takes. You know where they’re at in the story.
That was a play that I wasn’t aware of until Ted and Diana [Bently, artistic producer] sent it my way, and I knew I wanted to do it. It was such a masterful and nasty piece of writing.
Working with director Rae Ellen Bodie, it was tough to allow myself to be as weak as that character was. It was like I didn’t want him to be such a loser, but eventually I sort of found that that was the strength in his character – his weakness. So that was a fun thing to play. [Hardee T. Lineham] and Liisa Repo-Martell were so amazing. To do small cast shows like a three-hander like that, you become really close as a unit. You rely on each other in a really intense way, and I love that show.
This year, you’re nominated for The Aliens. Jasper seemed like a really against-type part for you. What attracted you to that character and Annie Baker’s script?
Ted Dykstra brought it to myself and Will Greenblatt, who’s an old friend of mine. Ted knew both of us from before, from theatre school, and he’s known Will since he was a kid. And he knew that we had a close friendship, and a musical history together, and he said, “I think I have a play for you guys.”
We read it, and we both thought we were Jasper, which I think is hilarious, because he’s a typical cool guy, right? And we both wanted to be that guy. We read it, and Ted was like, “Maybe we can just read this through, and we’ll see.”
I was drawn to Jasper because I don’t often get to play that part, and I think a lot of my career has been spent playing an underdog. I think in the theatre, particularly, you get to stretch yourself outside of type. Maybe a little more than you get to do onscreen. I was just curious to play around with that, the notion of a sort of strength and weakness balance, but in Jasper’s case, projecting a lot of strength, and having a lot of weakness underneath, and turmoil.
I loved the structure of the writing of that play, where the audience doesn’t anticipate his untimely demise in any way, and people are still looking for him throughout the rest of the play, including the rest of the characters onstage. People are still hopeful that he’s coming back. I love the notion that if it worked properly, that he would be present throughout the entire show, even though I wouldn’t be, as the actor. I wouldn’t be physically there. I’d be downstairs in the dressing room, watching playoff baseball. [laughs]
But I loved that show, and to get to do that with Will, a really old and good close friend of mine – it was incredible. Max [Haynes], who came onto the project, just blew everyone away, and we had a ridiculous little tight-knit group. In this case, I think I was the oldest of our group, which was probably a first for me, and very cool, in a different way, to be in a group of young guys like that. I’ve never had an experience like that before.
You’re juggling a bunch of really tricky issues with that play – depression, genius, addiction that’s not actually brought up but has to be there in order to make sense of the second part. How did you approach dealing with all of those really dramatic things, but also keeping that naturalism that’s so important in Baker’s work?
I think the naturalism is in the writing, and something that I certainly was focusing on – and I imagine the other guys too, to a certain extent – just getting out of the way of what she’s doing as the writer in that play, because it’s all there, if you follow her path of breadcrumbs. Things like the addiction you mentioned – it’s not really present as a topic for Jasper, so much as it is for KJ. But that’s sort of where it is there for Jasper. His reaction to KJ’s potential addiction issues, and his response to that, and those little clues and hints that we started to find in the behaviours, and the notion that a guy like Jasper would think that he could handle things that a guy like KJ couldn’t handle. And sort of a control dynamic there, that a lot of male relationships have, I think.
Fun probably isn’t the right word. It was strange to be exploring those dynamics as openly as we were, because these are of course things that- in my circle of friends and artists- these are topics and things that we’re dealing with constantly. I certainly have friends who deal with addiction and substance problems all the time, and with notions of not being good enough, or being too good for your surroundings, or all of these things were very close-to-home. We had a lot personally to draw on, which hopefully made it feel immediate.
I think the audience got to witness the play through Max’s character, through the younger guy Shelmerdine, who just is there, wants to be a part of this thing, and [it’s] sort of new to him.
I also love the way that that play is structured. It’s so slow. There’s so much breath and silence that we really had to trust. Mitchell Cushman, who directed the play, was always encouraging us to trust the silences and not have them be passive silences. But there’s stuff happening, they’re alive, and I think in a space that small, you can really feel when that’s working, and when it’s not. When you’re losing people, and when they’re with you, when they’re on the edge of their seat wondering what’s gonna happen next. You can really feel it, so that was sometimes really rewarding, and sometimes not. [laughs]
How’d your friends and family like the bleached blond look?
That was my idea. I just wanted to push around and do something. I had some time, I knew I didn’t have to look respectable for anything else, and I felt I hadn’t had the opportunity to do a lot of physical transformational stuff, and I just had an instinct about him sort of being somewhere between Kurt Cobain and Eminem. Trying to emulate that kind of look, that kind of feel.
Also, tattoos became a part of my pre-show ritual. I would draw on stick and poke tattoos- things I’d seen on people, and every tattoo got to have its little meaning, and genesis. That stuff was a lot of fun to play with, I think. I just wanted to switch it up a little bit. I knew that if I were to come out as Noah, as Jasper, that wouldn’t have hit in the same way it did. But my friends and family were supportive. My girlfriend actually administered the first round of blond.
That’s love right there.
She was into it until she saw what it looked like, and then she was like, “Okay. How long was this happening for?” [laughs] I did get pulled over by the cops a couple of times, and I felt like the blond hair had something to do with it.
You just looked like trouble.
Did you have a favourite moment in The Aliens?
At the end of the first act, it’s my last moment in the play- fireworks are going off, and it’s the only moment, really, where all three of us onstage are a cohesive unit. We feel like there’s possibility for them to be good friends and lean on each other in a nice way. There’s a moment of vulnerability where Jasper asks the kid if he has any friends, and he says, “No, not really”.
And there was just a moment that we worked straight in between us where Will’s character KJ is just dancing around with the sparklers, and Max’s character is watching me, and I catch him watching me, and he looks away. There was just something in that that was so true of these kind of age-specific male relationships, and the notion of cool, and the notion of belonging and fitting in. It just all comes together in that one moment, and tragically, that’s the last moment that we have together. I loved that, and I think actually the guys Will and Max had to carry a lot of emotional stuff throughout the run of the show that I didn’t have to, because I was dead. I sort of realized this halfway through the run, that they were dealing with the loss of somebody, and I wasn’t. I was sort of freed. [laughs] Watching my playoff baseball on my phone. But that moment resonated with me. It still does.
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
I don’t know. I feel like the responses I got from people about the show, that it really stayed with people. And not everybody. I don’t think you can expect a response from any audience. That’s not their job. Your job is to feed them, and how they respond is up to them, of course. But I love the notion that it really hung around with people, and that ideas that are brought up in the show stuck with them- characters and little interpersonal moments just stay with them.
In this time, certainly- with Me Too, and Time’s Up, and all of that- there is something relevant, I think, about the way that men interact with each other. Particularly straight male relationships. Friendship relationships. It’s really bound. There’s not a lot of expressive freedom within a lot of these friendships, and I think seeing that sort of play out and having moments like the sun bursting through the clouds, you see or feel something that’s true and real and there’s an emotional connection, and then it’s gone, and we’re back to everybody wearing a mask. That’s something that I hoped to illuminate a little bit.
We have to talk about that crazy Hamlet at Tarragon.
[laughs] Crazy Hamlet’s a good title.
I think it was technically titled Hamlet with a line through.
Yes. Anti-Hamlet. [laughs]
What was your first reaction when you heard the rock concert concept?
Oh, I don’t know. I feel like you can push Shakespeare any way. You can really stretch it, and it holds its form. Like anyone, probably, I was like, “Okay. Interested to see where this goes.”
At the time, we were doing workshops of it, and I was doing Horatio. The microphones were really an interesting thing, because Richard [Rose, director]’s thing was that there would be microphones at all times. We were trying to figure out the rules of engagement. Was some stuff going to be off-mic, was anything gonna be, or were the microphones for the entire thing, were they for soliloquies?
It felt very experimental. We’d throw stuff at the wall in rehearsal and be like, “What about this? How does this work? What if we go over here?” The physicality was totally different – removed a big chunk of your body’s ability to express things, so how do you rechannel that? And the music evolving as it did was pretty cool, too. I feel like we could have worked on that production for ten years, and it would have changed and shifted all the time. Like the sea. [laughs] It felt like a crazy idea, but it also felt like it really illuminated the text in certain places, the shape of the story.
Even in performance, there were nights where we were like, “Okay. We’re not all tight right now. We’re not all together right now, and that will have an effect on how an audience sees it.” And some nights, when we were on as a band, it really cooked, and you could feel that, too. It was a very cool experience to do it that way.
I’m glad that we didn’t do a regular Hamlet. It felt appropriate somehow that we were taking those risks and pushing the envelope a little bit, and it being different. I can’t think of a 30-year-old Hamlet, ever. I think it’s a little different if he’s young. I think if you lose your dad when you’re 30, it’s different than if you lose your dad at 45, just by the nature of where you are in your life. So there were things about that production that I loved experimenting with, and it’s fun when you jump off like that. You have a pretty good shot at having something that’s alive, and breathing, and therefore exciting.
What are you working on now, or next?
That’s a good question. I’m trying to get back in the recording studio and make another album. Music is obviously a thing that keeps coming around in my world, and as an actor, you don’t always have control over the conversations you’re a part of, or the message, or the medium, or any of that stuff. You sort of go, “I hope I can be helpful here,” but it’s not often your creation. So I’m trying to write more music, and record more music, and put it out. Just seeing what happens.