For the past 6 or 7 years, I’ve consistently called the Shaw Festival my favourite acting company in Canada. Former artistic director Jackie Maxwell spent her years at the helm assembling an unparalleled stable of talent but they were somewhat insular, rarely rotating out for a season somewhere else or even picking up much Toronto work in the off-season. All this to explain how it’s possible that Wade Bogert-O’Brien became one of my favourite actors anywhere while remaining something of a stranger to Toronto audiences. For the past nine years, you had to make the drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake if you wanted to see one of his performances- literally every single one of them excellent, marked with immediacy and vulnerability that can’t be taught. He’s nominated this year for his final performance with the Shaw (Outstanding Supporting Actor as the Dauphin in Saint Joan) as he finally makes his way to Toronto full time. If you’re one of the people who’s never seen Wade before, I’m a little annoyed with you for not going to the Shaw (oh the things that you missed!) but I’m so jealous that you get to discover him for the first time, he’s really something special.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
No, my parents took us pretty young. So I can’t remember the very first thing I saw. But we went a fair amount in Edmonton. We lived in Edmonton till I was like ten. We used to go to this theatre called Stage Polaris, [which] we had a subscription to.
They did weird, obscure musicals, for some reason. There’s this one called Baker Street about Sherlock Holmes, and there’s a movie called Cheaper by the Dozen, there’s a whole musical of that, and one of The Three Musketeers. The Secret Garden is the one that I remember that’s probably the bigger name, and they did Anne of Green Gables. They’d do a full season of musicals, and some of them were very obscure I recall.
I feel like the experience I remember where I was really excited by a play first was later on in Ottawa. We saw this community theatre production of West Side Story that I really loved. My parents had a copy of the film soundtrack on vinyl, and I would go into the basement and try to do the Jerome Robbins choreography. I’m the worst dancer of all time, so I never really successfully pulled off any of those moves, but for weeks after seeing it, I would go and listen to the record in the basement. That was exciting, to me, seeing that production of West Side Story.
How’d you get involved with the Shaw Festival?
I auditioned twice. My first year out of school, I auditioned in the fall once, and they didn’t hire me. Then the next year – it’s a bit of a crazy story because I had done the Banff Citadel program. On the night before my last performance, me and James MacDonald and another friend of ours were walking home from the show. We’d just done Pride and Prejudice, and I saw this fight, and we stopped to try and intervene, and James and I got stabbed by this young kid.
We both went to the hospital, obviously. I was really lucky. It was essentially a superficial wound that got stitched up, and then I went home at like 4 am and woke up probably four hours later, because we had to rehearse, because James couldn’t do the show. I don’t know why I decided to do Pride and Prejudice with a stab wound, but I did. Anyway, I went and we rehearsed these scene changes and stuff that we had to do without James. Then I did the show, and then I talked to the police, and I went to see James in the hospital. Then I went home to where I was staying and slept for like 14 hours, and then I got up and went to the airport, flew home to Toronto. My parents were living in Toronto at that point, and they picked me up and dropped me off at home. Went to sleep again.
My agent woke me up not knowing what had happened. I didn’t tell her, which was a bit dumb – but anyway, she called. She was like, “Hey, can you audition for the Shaw Festival tomorrow morning?” and I was like, “Yes!” Pride and Prejudice was part of the Banff Citadel thing, and luckily we’d been working on monologues, so I just had two monologues that I knew that were in the mandate period. I worked on them all day, and went to sleep, and went to audition.
It was just Jackie [Maxwell, former artistic director of the Shaw Festival] in the room. I did my pieces, and she was like, “God, great! Good job, have a seat.” I remember her saying like, “I’m auditioning a lot of people today who are just back from this Banff Citadel thing and everyone seems like they’re coming down with something,” and I was like, “It’s funny you say that.”
Then I just launched into the whole thing. I just told her the whole story from start to finish, probably in a lot of detail. But she was one of the first people I told. It was just like, “I have to tell this thing.” It is one of those things I think we all have had – hopefully not something as extreme as that- but when you have those experiences, I feel like whenever anyone is like, “How are you?”, you just vomit the whole thing. For me, for that week, when anyone would be like, “Hey, how are you doing?” I’d be like, “I just got stabbed!”
I just remember sitting in this chair, and I was in this big rehearsal hall with Jackie alone, and I was like, “I should not be telling this person this. She’s going to think I’m the type of person who gets into knife fights.” I think she was concerned for me, but in my imagination, it was like, “She thinks I’m a loose cannon.” But I just couldn’t stop saying it. She was really nice to me, and then I left, and thought, “Oh, shouldn’t have told that story.” But I got the job.
That was my experience auditioning for the Shaw Festival. I hope I will never have an audition where I’m in that circumstance again, but I was really lucky to get that gig, and it’s a great place for me to be for so long. It was strange. Kind of an intense audition. I’m glad I didn’t terrify Jackie out of hiring me. [laughs]
Wow. That’s quite the story.
I wouldn’t recommend that method of getting a job.
In your time at the Festival, what were some of your favourite roles and productions?
Oh, God. The Divine was really cool to do, because we workshopped that for a couple of years. I’ve never done that. That’s the only time I’ve done a new play, and it was cool because I did probably three or four workshops of it over the few years before that.
Interestingly, until the last workshop, I was always reading the role that Ben Sanders played, and I thought I’d be cast in that role. Then in the last workshop, I read the role I ended up playing. I was disappointed- I got cast in that role, and I was like, “Oh, that’s great, but I kind of had my heart set on the other role.” But then [it was] one of those things where I’m so glad that I played the role that I did. Even though in my mind I was a better fit for the role Ben played, I can’t imagine if we had done the opposite, in a funny way. I’m really glad that I got to play that role, because it really pushed me in some ways. I’d never done a role like that before, and it was really great to get to do that. That was a really cool and exciting experience, because you also don’t know if it’s gonna work at all, because it’s brand new. It was really exciting that it got such a great response.
This past year, I loved doing [Saint] Joan. Not that I didn’t want to play that role, but it wasn’t on my list. It wasn’t one of the ones where I was like, “I want to play the Dauphin.” Not that I didn’t think it was a good fit, but it didn’t occur to me that I would be considered for that role. It was really fun to work on the play, and it was really fun to run. It was a real pleasure playing that role, partly because I hadn’t imagined myself doing it. I’ve noticed that the roles that sometimes you don’t expect to be cast in, or you don’t even want sometimes – those can sometimes be the most rewarding to play. I don’t know if it’s just because your expectations are lower or whatever, but sometimes when you’re like, “This is the role I really wanna play, and I’m gonna knock it out of the park,” it never quite feels satisfying. It doesn’t surprise you.
When I read the play Our Betters, I was like “Eh”. I didn’t really see myself in that part. I didn’t feel like it was a great part, and then when I did it, I just totally fell in love with the role, and the play. Again, at the time, I had my eyes set on something else that season that I thought that I wanted. But I’m so glad that they cast me in that role because it ended up surprising me.
Especially in a place like [the Shaw Festival]- the season gets announced, and you go, “These are the roles that I wanna play.” With those roles, sometimes you get them, and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes, I’ve found that the years where I haven’t got the roles that I maybe had my eye on have been some of the most exciting years for me. I was lucky enough that those roles ended up being really interesting roles as well but it’s cool to sometimes play the thing that you didn’t think that you were gonna get cast as, or you didn’t see yourself in. Even in hindsight, you’re like, “Actually, that role is a much better fit for me”.
Do you often find that your ideas of yourself and where you fit are in contrast to how casting directors see you?
Not necessarily. I think at this point, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what my hit is. In hindsight, you do go, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense that I was cast in that role.” I don’t know that I was surprised to get those roles that I did. It was more that I wanted other roles more, and you learn too that that’s not always the best thing. When you get those roles, the pressure of having really wanted it can get in your way, whereas sometimes it can be exciting to discover something, to fall in love with a role, or to fall in love with a play during the process.
This is actually your fourth nomination. What stands out in your memory about French Without Tears and Candida? (You’ve already talked about The Divine).
Oh, they were both great. Candida was cool because it was the first time I’d ever played a substantial role at the Shaw Festival. It was terrifying, but I had a lot of support. There was the rest of the cast, and our director, and also just the company. I felt very supported in that role, but that’s probably the most terrified I’ve ever been, and the most nervous I’ve been rehearsing a play, because you feel all this pressure. “I have to prove myself with this one role. This is like my shot.”
But it was fun to run in, and our director Tadeusz Bradecki just said this really great thing to me. He had to leave during previews because he’s Polish and lives in Poland, and he had to go home. Running this role for six months- we probably did it like 130 times, or something crazy, because that was the 50th season so they were trying to run all the Shaw a lot, thinking that people would really want to see the Shaw plays in the 50th season- [Tadeusz] said, “Running this play is theatre school. And you’re just not done. Don’t feel like you can’t keep improving, and keep working on it.”
That was a really good lesson to learn, to be like, “Okay. I have 130 times to try and get this right.” It doesn’t have to be perfect when we open, even. You’re not done opening night, or the first preview. It’s not cooked. You can still keep trying to follow that path of making it better. It was a beautiful play, and I really loved that play. It was really exciting and fun to work on.
French Without Tears was great, too. It was cool to do, because all of us were in our 20’s, and then Michael Ball. It was just such a fun group to work with, and Michael’s the classiest person you’ll ever meet in your life. Kate [Lynch], the director, was great. It was just a fun show, and a great group of people to work with.
You mentioned that the role of the Dauphin in Saint Joan, which is what you’re nominated for this year, didn’t initially appeal to you. As you started to get into it, how did that change, and what was it about the role that ultimately worked for you?
If I’m honest, one of the reasons it didn’t appeal to me was, you read it and you’re like, “This isn’t Joan. I’m not playing Joan. This isn’t like the big role.”
But you were never gonna play Joan.
[laughs] Yeah, I know. But for me, in my sort of vanity and arrogance, you go, “Well, I wanna play Dunois, because that’s clearly the male lead of the play!” I don’t think I was quite so uppity about it, alone in my room. Also, I think it was partly my age, just having turned 30 and feeling like, “I don’t want to play the 19-year-olds anymore. The young roles.” The Dauphin is 26 in the play, but I had been really lucky in getting all these great, young leads, up to that. It started feeling like, “I’ve got to stop playing 19. I’ve got to stop playing 21.” And in my imagination, the next step was like, “I want to play Dunois.” One of those more manly roles. And even though the Dauphin is not super young – he’s a grown man and he has children – it felt like a younger role.
I wasn’t disappointed to be cast. I was excited to be going back, but it wasn’t like, “Oh, this is the most exciting role that I can be playing.” But I just fell in love with the character. And I fell in love with the play. I’d liked the play before, and I love Shaw. I just loved playing the role. It was so much fun. I think partly because I wasn’t expecting it to be as fun as it was. But I love that character’s perspective on life. In a play about a woman who has this genius- [a play] about this extraordinary person- I love that there’s a person who makes a very plausible argument for not being extraordinary, and for not doing anything, and for being lazy and mediocre. [laughs] I love that he makes not a bad argument, at least for him, not wanting to do anything.
The way we rehearsed it was really fun, because Tim [Carroll, director] likes to play all these games, and Sara [Topham, Joan] really takes that on, and was a good quarterback. She’s worked with Tim a lot, obviously, and really dove into those games and the spirit of playfulness. So it was really a pleasure to run the play, and to do that scene. The scene felt different every day, and it felt very alive. I ended up finding it surprisingly vulnerable and emotional for that character.
It’s definitely in the top two or three things I’ve done, just playing that role. You always expect that the time you’re playing the title role, that you get the last bow, is the one that you love the most. But in my experience, the times you get to play those roles, it’s sometimes not as rewarding for me, for some reason.
Talk to us a little bit about Tim Carroll and his directing style, and how it compares to other people you’ve worked with.
Normally what you do is you kind of just do it. You just block the play. So you go into the hall on the first day, and you read the play, and for the first week, if you don’t have that much time, then really the first couple of days, you sit at the table and talk about the play, depending on who’s directing. Some directors just love to stay at the table for a really long time, so if you’re working with Peter Hinton, you may stay at the table for two weeks, because he wants to talk about all this background and research. But normally, what you do is start at the top, and decide vaguely how you’re gonna do it. You block it, and you start to make choices, and then hopefully you have time to go through the whole thing two or three times throughout the process, so that you can refine that, or change it if you feel like it doesn’t work.
With Tim, I don’t even think we read the play. We read the play a lot, but I don’t know that we did a table read. First of all, he made us play a few warm-up drama games. At the Shaw Festival, there’s often maybe 50 people watching you in your first read, which can be really challenging, because you feel a lot of pressure. “It’s my first day. I don’t know how to do this yet.” Instead, he made all of the donors and everyone in the room play these warm-up drama games with us, which was great. That standing in a circle, clapping stuff.
The first couple of times we did this was with everyone in the room who was coming to watch the first day. A lot of donors, and volunteers. Everyone sat around in this circle. I think the first day, we weren’t reading our own parts. So there would be people in the middle reading the characters, standing in the middle of a circle. Everyone’s sitting around in chairs. You would say a line, and before every line, you would turn to anyone sitting around in the circle and say, “What should I say next?” And that person would try and come up with a prediction of what that character might say next, or a good thing for that character to say. Then you would listen to this suggestion, and then think about it, and then say the actual line.
So [Tim] made the whole room play that, and then everyone went away, and we continued. The whole process was a lot of games in that vein. It’s always with the text, but it’s always focusing on some different aspect of acting. Sometimes it’s like that, where you’re getting some sort of suggestion from the other people in the room who aren’t participating in the scene. Either a prediction or a reaction to what you just said. For instance, you repeat a phrase before every line. You go, “You don’t understand,” and then you say your line. Not the whole line, but a unit of the line, so you’d go, “You don’t understand”,”I don’t want to be brave”, or whatever, “You see?” Then you’d go through the whole thing going “You don’t understand,” a bit of your text, “You see?” It’s sort of obvious that the purpose of that is to focus on trying to convince the other person of something, and also trying to find the clarity of each unit. A lot of stuff like that, and also some physical stuff,
The process is really fun, and often, for a lot of it, all of us were in the room and involved in rehearsing every scene. So it was great. [Tim] says this funny thing about blocking: that blocking is really easy, and it’s overrated how hard staging the play is, so we can figure that out in the last few days. And it’s true.
There were obviously some movement aspects of that production. All the stuff in the boxes, and the ending where we all walked in a certain way. We choreographed that stuff, and rehearsed that stuff in the hall. But as far as where we’re standing in the scenes, we didn’t really block it until right before tech, where we hit the stage. Even then, I think we were meant to understand that there was some freedom within that. But it was blocked. Eventually, [Tim] was like, “I like it when you did that. So stand here when you say that, and then go over here.”
We did block it, but not until the very end. Which was terrifying but, for me, the process really worked. I felt very free, and playful during the run, and like I was listening better than I often do. Which for me can be a real challenge, in a six-month run, to keep that focus of being really responsive and present. Also, frankly, Sara’s commitment to keeping that up through the run really helped me, because she was my main scene partner.
The interesting thing is that you wouldn’t come and see that play and be like, “They’re changing everything every night.” It seemed the same. But to us, to me, particularly with that scene with Sara and I, it felt very different. Like I’m crossing my arms in a different way. But to me, it felt very present and very alive and very different every night, which was nice.
How did the update of the period setting affect the Dauphin’s story?
Well, I think the design was contemporary costume but I don’t think the play was set in contemporary times, in our version of it. The design decided not to do medieval costumes, but in the world of the play, it has to be then. So I don’t think it had a huge effect that I wasn’t wearing the tights and a bonnet.
I really liked the design. Tim said a really smart thing about it – I’m going to horribly paraphase this – they would make decisions and be like, “I don’t know why, but it feels like the right thing.” All the boxes, and at the end, where we’re all coming out of the box, you just see two boxes off in the distance, hovering in nothingness. Things like that. I don’t know what that means, but it felt very right. Which is a tricky thing to do, because if it’s just totally random, then it just feels vague and nowhere, but I do feel like there was this strange specificity to the design.
I know that Judith [Bowden, designer] and Tim did a lot of research into designs of this avant-garde design of the 20’s, when the play was written. They wanted it to be influenced by the design of the time. It worked very well, and for me, there was nothing in the design or the contemporary dress that in any way interfered with what I was saying, or what my character was saying or doing. It didn’t contradict that, or didn’t force me to do some sort of imaginative leap. So I don’t feel that my performance would’ve been drastically changed if I was wearing a medieval costume, because that’s not what the play is about, really.
Also, it’s set there. I’m still the king of France when the English are trying to take over. Again, I’m going to paraphrase this horribly, but Tim was like, “Don’t let the reality of who your character was in real life interfere with the story of the play. You’re playing the version of this person in this play.” For instance, Cauchon, and the Inquisitor, and all these people that Shaw really, really wanted to defend in his preface, and his version of the play. Not that he thought that it was a great thing that they’d murdered Joan, but he thought that they were not as terrible people. If you actually read about them historically, you’re like “Oh, no, they were pretty bad.” But those weren’t the characters that Graeme [Somerville] and Jim [Mezon] were playing. The characters that they were playing, that Shaw wrote, had the best intentions.
Shaw writes this great thing in the preface. I think there’s a general truth to this – that the play’s a tragedy, and that in a tragedy, everyone has the best intentions. Everyone’s at their best, and everyone’s right, and if Joan hadn’t been burnt out of righteousness, and people thinking they were doing the right thing, then her story would be no more relevant than an earthquake. It would be no more worthy of dramatic representation than seeing someone die in an accidental fire. It’s in the preface. I’m explaining it horribly. [laughs]
What were you hoping audiences would take away from the show?
I don’t know that I think that they need to take anything specific away, other than that I hope they enjoyed watching it, and that they engaged with the piece. To me, the play is about how regular people deal with extraordinary people, with people of genius, and how difficult it is for us to recognize their genius, and accept it. But I don’t know how important it is for me as an actor that people take a specific message away from a play. Even in a Shaw play, which he described his plays as intensely and deliberately didactic. As an actor, I don’t know that I am disappointed when people don’t leave the play with the message that Shaw’s trying to get across.
I don’t have specific expectations or a strong desire for a specific thing the audience takes from any play I do, other than I hope they – enjoy is maybe the wrong word, because sometimes you’re doing something that’s not meant to be super entertaining in the same way. It’s not meant to be delightful. But most of the time, I hope that they do enjoy it, and are engaged with the piece the whole time, and aren’t bored, and leave invigorated and thinking about something. But it doesn’t matter to me. I used to wish really strongly, especially when doing these Shaw plays, that people would get it. But I let go of that, because you realize people are going to take what they’re going to take, and as long as they’re engaged with the piece and enjoy it, that’s good, I think.
I need to talk to you about accents, because I’ve heard you be British so often that your Canadian accent sounds unfamiliar. Is that something that comes naturally to you, and where do you start when you’re handed a new role that is going to require an accent?
Virtually everything I’ve done has been with an accent. The Divine wasn’t with an accent, and in Joan I didn’t do an accent. I was American in Our Betters. And I think that’s it. Even the small amount of film and TV, I’ve done two things- one was with an Irish accent, and one was with an English accent.
Did you do Reign?
I did Reign, and I did Frontier. So for whatever reason, that seems to be my hit.
Whenever I do a play without an accent, particularly without a British accent, at first it’s a bit strange, because I’m not used to hearing my own voice come out of my mouth onstage. It is a challenge. I’m just so used to doing the standard sort of RP, almost every role I’ve ever done has been with that accent. [laughs]
Just for my growth as an actor, it would be great to try doing some more roles without it. I’m used to it now. I think I’m pretty good at it. The Shaw Fest was a great place to do it, because you have so much support in terms of speech coaches, and dialect coaching. I’m pretty confident with that accent, and I’m just used to that being the accent I use when I’m acting, which is very strange.
I’m working on a Scottish accent now. I’m gonna do Chariots of Fire in London, and I’m finding it really challenging. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it very well. I may have a terrible Scottish accent in that show. Knock on wood I’ll figure it out. But that’s been really strange, because I’ve never done it in a show before. It’s a fun thing to do a new accent, but it can be challenging.
Speaking of doing things in an accent, you just finished a run in Charles III. How did the history that’s happened since the play was written affect how you approached Prince Harry?
Well, one of the interesting things about researching that role was how quickly and drastically the public image of Harry has changed in our imaginations. When this play was written in 2014, he was still seen as a bit of a fuckup. People liked him, but it was like, “Oh, that’s the guy who goes to Vegas, drinks too much and pictures of him naked come out.” He was still the fuckup of the family.
Over those two, three years, his public image has been transformed completely. Now he is an inspiring philanthropist. People gush about how inspiring he is when he goes on these talk shows, and he’s done all this stuff about mental health and the Invictus games. He’s much more involved in the charitable causes as a philanthropist and has very successfully been rebranded.
When you hear him in interviews, he obviously has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about how he was seen before, and doesn’t feel that it was fair or accurate. That’s understandable, given that he was born into this crazy amount of public scrutiny when he was a child, which is very unique and very strange. But probably neither version of that is fully accurate. He’s probably somewhere in between. I think part of the fun of a play like Charles III, is obviously for the audience being like, “How accurate is this? How alike are these two people?” But I think part of the fun is also the opposite: how different is this from what I expect, or how I imagine it?
Playing that role was fun, because we decided in our production we weren’t gonna do impressions. I wasn’t gonna actually try and imitate his voice. and I wasn’t going to have the beard, or cut my hair exactly like his. Part of the fun became like, “How close is this to me, and how much of myself can I bring to this? How much of my physicality and my own personality can I bring to this role?” Because we’re seeing him in private moments, when the cameras aren’t on. Part of the fun can be imagining, what is he like when he’s just with his girlfriend, or hanging around the house, or just talking to his brother? Maybe that’s a bit like I am. So that became fun.
Also, it often feels that when you start with a role, it feels obscured, or that you’re very disconnected from the role. But in rehearsing, you’re like, “I kind of understand that,” or “I can sympathize with that aspect of this character”. With the example of Harry, there are moments where everyone feels trapped by their family, and there are moments when everyone feels that they can’t lead the life that they wish they could, for whatever reason. So I think that feeling of being lost or trapped is something that he’s really experiencing in that play. There’s moments in my life where I’ve felt that way, and I can understand that feeling. So that was fun to discover through the process, which I think is the same as most roles that I end up playing. There are parts of the role that you feel that you don’t really get, but as you rehearse it, you’re like, “Oh yeah. We all can imagine what that’s like.”
You mentioned Chariots of Fire. What else are you working on now, or what’s coming up next for you?
Just Chariots of Fire. Then in May, I have nothing booked, so I’ll be facing the great abyss, which is exciting.
I’ve never actually spent the summer in Toronto. I did once, right after theatre school. I lived one summer in Toronto since I moved here when I was 17. I haven’t been able to go camping, or actually go to see stuff at Stratford, so I’m really looking forward to that. I’ll probably be waiting tables, and hopefully book some work, which is terrifying, but also exciting to be leaving the Shaw Festival after nine years. I feel really lucky to have had such a great run there, and I love it. I’m so happy to have had that opportunity, but I’m also excited to try something new, to try and see if I can work it out. To see if I can do a play without an English accent.