By Diane Wild
At the Banff World Television Festival, actor Peter Keleghan (18 to Life) related the upside and the downside of being a Canadian actor.
Shooting a pilot in LA years ago, he was working with en executive producer who became a “mother figure,” as he said. She would ask about his family – he and his wife were expecting a child – and his new life in Hollywood. When it came time for the producers to decide if they’d pay the small fee to extend his contract while waiting for the pilot to be picked up, his agent was told they decided against it because “we heard from him personally about the auditions he’s going for and he’s not really close to anything, so we don’t think we’re going to lose him.”
“I was blown away that she used the information from me against me,” Keleghan said at the festival panel on Homegrown Canadian Talent.
“When I tell my American friends this story, they all say to me, ‘What are you, f***ing stupid? You don’t tell a producer your business.’ And my Canadian friends say to me, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s dreadful!’ And that to me is the difference between America and Canada, and that’s why I came back to this country.”
After the national pride applause and laughter had died down, Keleghan shared a national-pride-squashing anecdote.
After being recognized by a fan in his home country, another woman approached him to say, “Oh, you’re an actor? What have I seen you in?”
“Well, I don’t know,” he recalled telling her. “The Red Green Show? No. The Newsroom? No. Oh, Made in Canada? And she replied: ‘That’s the problem isn’t it? It’s made in Canada.'”
In our interview after the panel, where we talked about the state of the Canadian television industry, Keleghan turned the tables on me, asking: “Think of Jim Carrey or Mike Meyers. What would your mindset be if they came back to this country and starred in a sitcom or a movie?”
“That their career was on a downslide,” I replied.
“Exactly. That’s the perception. Because we don’t think enough of what we have money-wise or culture-wise.”
“When I did Cheers or Seinfeld or Murphy Brown I had to jump over exponentially more people to get that job. And that’s impressive. It’s our psyche; our litmus test is the United States. If I stay here I’m a Canadian star. If I go to the States and become Eric McCormack (another speaker on the Homegrown Talent panel), I’m an American star. And this star who stayed in Canada is less valuable than the American star.”
“I want to work in a place where I want to live, and I don’t want to live any place but this country,” Keleghan emphasized before saying his agent thought he was crazy for going back to Canada after landing guest roles in those big American sitcoms. “We take that for granted so much. I want to live in a place where I can actually trust the people I believe are my friends.”
And yet, there’s the downside: “I did five films last year. I think the total number of people who saw those films was 10,000, maybe.”
“In every country, they’ll look at Angelina Jolie and James Bond over anything they’ve got. It’s the better toothpaste, it’s the better widget. Our niche is what needs to be found.”
We spoke before his CBC show 18 to Life was picked up by The CW, but he pointed out that show “isn’t stamped with beavers and moose” and yet has what he feels is a Canadian sensibility.
“In the US, the strength is set up, joke, set up, joke. The problem is if you try to do the same thing here it will fail, because we can’t afford 15 really funny minds feeding jokes in the writers room and on set.”
“Steve Smith (The Red Green Show) had the right idea. He said give me enough money to make a TV show, but not enough to care what I’m doing.”
“We don’t have enough money to do what the Americans do, so let’s do what we do very well, which is dark, observational satire. It works gangbusters. If I’ve had success in this business it’s because I’ve played into that.”
With a second season renewal and US broadcaster pickup, 18 to Life has been another success. Keleghan partly credits stars Michael Seater and Stacey Farber, “two really bright young star actors we haven’t lost yet to the United States. We have Degrassi that created Stacey and Life With Derek that created Michael. We’re creating a whole new generation of actors, which is really great.”
After making his name playing a string of not-very-bright characters, Keleghan plays Seater’s judge father. However, “He’s still very intellectual challenged from my point of view because he’s very, very, very conservative. He’s very right wing. And right wing is very challenging to me. But the more self righteous and pompous he is, the funnier I find him.”
Keleghan is currently creating a one-hour drama with his father-in-law, Gordon Pinsent, called Crime on His Hands. Pinsent plays a grizzled detective-turned-novelist living “like a complete anachronism” on Toronto Island, with Keleghan as his former partner and currently “not-quite-complete transsexual.”
Pinsent told me recently that CBC has since passed on the show, but it’s still in development with the hope of another broadcaster picking it up.
As an actor who chooses to work in Canada and a producer spearheading projects such as Crime On His Hands, or his planned Inside The Actors Studio-like show, Keleghan is doing more than just talk about strengthening the Canadian television industry.
“If we don’t allow our own talent to thrive, we will lose our heritage, our common touchstones, our Gordon Pinsents, our reality, our sensibilities,” he told me. “We will just become this common ooze of homogenized culture.”
Stay tuned for part two of our interview, where Keleghan talks about solutions for improving the Canadian television industry.