Interview: Arwen Humphreys investigates Murdoch’s Margaret Brackenreid

It’s no mystery that Murdoch Mysteries fans are part of the reason Arwen Humphreys has gotten more screen time. Turns out Margaret Brackenreid is a favourite of watchers who made that point known to producers, who upped her initial three-line appearance into a recurring role on CBC’s Monday night period drama.

But what fans might not know about Humphreys is that she has a background in comedy, improv and has performed stand-up three times. We dug up that info, and some other scintillating facts, during a lengthy discussion with the Toronto native.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get on Murdoch Mysteries? Was it a casting call? How did it come about?
Arwen Humphreys : It was a casting call, and it was for a three-line role. My name at that point was just Mrs. Brackenreid and I’ll never forget those three lines: ‘Thomas?’ ‘Inside’ and ‘Come here boys and let your father be.’ That was the beginning. The scene was that she had discovered what she thought was a bomb and I thought about it a bit and realized that she’s the wife of a police inspector so there is no way that she’d freak out. I’m guessing that she’s been around a lot of stuff, so I figured she wouldn’t play it in a panicked way when Thomas came to the door. It would just be, ‘OK, come inside. It looks like we have something.’ I booked the role and was really excited because I’d been in and out of this industry for the last 20 years. Tom  [Craig] and I got to talking on the first day and I explained what I thought before going into the audition. He asked me what I thought her first name was and I hadn’t thought of anything. He said, ‘What about Margaret?’ I liked it, and in Season 2 they wanted to call her Levina, I think, and Tom went in and said, ‘No, no, no, her name is Margaret.’ And that’s what it’s been ever since.

What’s it been like being on this ride from three-line role to recurring?
It’s been amazing. Tom came down the following February and told me that the show had been renewed for a second season. They could have recast the role easily, but I think Shaftesbury and Tom have been my cheerleaders since Day 1. Then in the second season they gave me a couple of scenes and that was amazing. It’s been this slow built in a way because I didn’t know what they were going to give me every year. It wasn’t until Season 3 at Tom’s going away party when [then showrunner] Cal Coons told me they were thinking of a storyline where the Brackenreid’s son was kidnapped and that was the first time I was given a lot to do.

Between ‘Kung Fu Crabtree’ and the wedding episode … I really love how you’ve seen the passionate side of Margaret and her interests. I love any episode that gives you a glimpse into the Brackenreid history. Maureen Jennings told me that there is no Margaret Brackenreid in the books, so she’s strictly something that’s been created for the series.

And the fan support blows me away as well.

The fans are unbelievable. Anytime I’m on set I think there are different reasons as to why I’m there and one of them is the fans.

The fans are so passionate. What do they say to you on the street?
I don’t get recognized on the street because my hair is down and my energy is different. I’m more the sillier side of Margaret. I’ve actually walked through a group of fans and nobody recognized me until I was introduced. It’s a transformation for me when I go into hair and makeup. Once I have the whole getup on, I’m her. I love her strength and her heart and I love the relationship between her and Brackenreid. There is so much heart and love between them. It’s a real marriage. It’s a solid relationship.

The fans are unbelievable. They sent a petition to Shaftesbury to have me on more and I hear that they email them too. It’s so sweet and so lovely. Anytime I’m on set I think there are different reasons as to why I’m there and one of them is the fans.

Did you come up with your own backstory for Margaret?
Once we knew there was a Season 2, I worked extensively with a voice coach, Rae Ellen Bodie, and we sussed out the relationship and how it functioned. So I had a general idea. And the writers have definitely hinted at her past through things like her being arrested for gambling and that’s how she and Thomas met.

It must be fun when Margaret lets loose in a scene and play her less rigid.
My background is in comedy. I did a lot of improv, a lot of sketch and I did standup three times. That was in the late 90s and early 2000s. I was heavily involved in TheatreSports in Toronto. I did stuff with them and I did some stuff on the Second City main stage. I wasn’t part of the main stage troupe but I did perform on the stage, which was a thrill. The wedding rehearsal scene was a blast to shoot. As soon as I read that she hums the Wedding March I was at home rehearsing it and I did what you guys saw, the big flourishy thing. I did it so many times at home that I just did it on-set automatically and everybody burst out laughing. Yannick looked at me and said, ‘Now that’s funny!’ And I was like, ‘Woo!!’

Do you have any plans to go behind the camera and write, produce or direct?
I have friends who tell me that I should write, so if it was anything it would be that. I don’t know if it would be writing screenplays because I have no idea how to do that. I have a friend who keeps telling me, ‘I’m submitting something for this contest, you should too!’ And I hesitate.

Are you a student of TV? Do you like to watch it and analyze it or do you just like to sit and watch it?
While I’m watching it, I just like to take it in. But I love the craft of television writing and there is some really great stuff happening right now. I’m a binge watcher and pretty up to date with everything on television. Breaking Bad is a series you have to think about and I’ve never had a more satisfying ending with a series.

Orphan Black is crazy. [Murdoch‘s] Kristian Bruun is on it and my friend Natalie Lisinska was in it in Season 1 and I got so wrapped up in it that I was thinking of the call sheet and wondering who was first on it. And I’d decided it must be Rachel because I had totally forgotten that it was Tatiana Maslany in the roles!

Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.