Bell Media

Tara Spencer-Nairn shakes off Corner Gas with Saving Hope

For six seasons and one major motion picture, Tara Spencer-Nairn played beleaguered small-town cop Karen Pelly on the wildly successful Corner Gas. And while she’s forever grateful for the experience of starring in a beloved Canadian television series and will cherish it forever, she’s been champing at the bit to play something different.

Janice Fenn is that character. Unlike the perky, sarcastic Karen, Janice is a drug addict who comes to the aid of Taylor, a 12-year-old who checks into Hope Zion on Thursday night following a motocross accident. What follows in “Heart of Stone” is harrowing and heartbreaking … exactly what Spencer-Nairn has been looking for.

Janice Fenn is definitely not Constable Karen.
Tara Spencer-Nairn: Right?! I was pretty excited about this.

Janice is the type of person Karen would try to arrest.
As soon as I got the breakdown I knew it was something I wanted to do and that I needed to do. I love Corner Gas and everything it has done for my and I’ll be forever grateful, but I feel like I’m constantly having to remind people that I’m not just a comedian and that I’m not a comedian. This was a real departure and something that I could really sink my teeth into. It was dirty and gritty. And I’m at this point in my life, with two kids, where it fits. It’s funny, I was telling my agent, ‘There’s no way I can’t get this role because I haven’t slept in days and I look like shit. I’m perfect! They don’t have to do anything, they don’t even have to put makeup on me.’

After Corner Gas and taking a break to have kids, I really wanted to come back and do something I’ve never done before. I think that’s what’s great about these Canadian shows; there are these great little characters that come along that we all get to drop in and play.

Although you appreciate it, do you feel as though Corner Gas caused you to be pigeon-holed?
Absolutely. It’s weird, because if you look back at how my career started, it’s not very funny. New Waterford Girl was funny, but in a very different way. And again, I love Corner Gas and everyone involved and if I could do a Corner Gas movie every two years, I’d be there. But I do kind of feel like I’m constantly fighting to get into rooms and show people I’m more than just Karen Pelly. And because of the success of Corner Gas, it’s been really hard for all of us to break out of those roles.

“We’re fighting pretty hard to not have strong characters, but good characters, interesting characters and characters reflective of who we are that don’t just support another male character.”

OK, let’s talk about Saving Hope and this role of Janice. She’s a tough character to play because she’s a drug addict, and therefore a little hard to viewers to like. Is it hard to portray a somewhat unlikeable character?

Well, I never thought of her as unlikeable. It was interesting working with David Wellington—the director for this episode—I trusted in him 100 percent. We really wanted to make sure we didn’t play into any stereotypes and the way the character was originally written was more of a stereotype. He really went back and fought hard to make sure she wasn’t dressed in a miniskirt. In a way, I felt sorry for her and I wanted to help her and make her better. Her choices, from the outside, look truly horrible but when you walk a mile in those shoes it’s horribly sad and heartbreaking.

Having two kids of your own, was it easy to tap into the emotions the role calls for?
Yeah, you have to go there. Having kids has become, truly, a blessing for my career because I now have a depth that I couldn’t have imagined before I had kids.

The storyline is open-ended; will you be back?
I don’t know, but let’s make that happen! I watch Saving Hope and I’ve never seen a character like her on the show. I applaud them for creating a character like this and for allowing the character to be a woman. As women, we’re fighting pretty hard to not have strong characters, but good characters, interesting characters and characters reflective of who we are that don’t just support another male character.

Are female characters getting more interesting and reflective? 
I think we’re talking about it, but I don’t think it’s getting better. I hope that talking about it is the first step. I’m in my mid- to late-30s and as an actor I do feel like I should be busier than I am. I feel like there should be more roles for me out there and it kind of breaks my heart every morning when I get up and it’s, ‘Nope, not today.’ It’s nice that it’s a big topic in Hollywood and I hope the ripple effect will happen.

Is writing, directing and producing your own projects the next step in that journey for you?
It’s something that I’m working on, yeah. At first I was like, ‘I’m just going to do this, no problem!’ And now that I’m in it, it’s ‘Wow, this is really hard!’ The stuff that I want to write isn’t necessarily network TV and as you know this industry is in flux with pick and pay. There aren’t a lot of cable shows being made in Canada. But, at the same time, I appreciate conventional network and a show like Saving Hope who create characters like Janice, but that isn’t the type of show that I want to create.

What kind of show do you want to make?
I want to make the kind of show everyone wants to make. You look at a Nurse Jackie or an Orphan Black … gritty and dirty and real. I’m not interested in being earnest.

Saving Hope airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CTV.