One of the primary reasons to rejoice in this Sunday’s return of CBC’s excellent family drama This Life is the beautifully nuanced work by series lead Torri Higginson. As terminally ill Natalie Lawson, the Burlington, Ont., native deftly shuffles through angst, defiance, hope and humour each week as her character faces the unknown. Her talents are put to great use in the show’s Season 2 premiere, “Stay Positive,” as Natalie takes part in a cancer drug trial that could extend her life and confronts her deadbeat ex-husband David (Louis Ferreira) about the custody of their kids.
During a phone interview from Montreal—where This Life had just wrapped production for the year—Higginson told us about Natalie’s Season 2 journey, the emotional toll of playing a dying character and her roles on Dark Matter and Inhuman Condition.
When we last saw Natalie in Season 1, she had chosen to take part in a clinical trial for an experimental drug treatment. How are things going for her at the beginning of Season 2?
Torri Higginson: We end Season 1 with her choosing to take part in a drug trial, which is interesting because when you’re part of a drug trial you don’t know if you’re getting the placebo or the drug. So we start the second season with her taking this drug not knowing but believing it’s doing her good. She chooses to actively be positive.
I think nowadays, especially with Google, once you’re given any diagnosis, you go online and you look at everything. I think she’s probably done a lot of reading. I think she’s been reading, going, ‘What can I do? What control do I have? I have no control over my body. The Western doctors, they are taking control of that, so the only thing I can control is my attitude. It’s the only thing I have control over.’ So we see her at the beginning of Season 2 really trying to embrace that fully and go, ‘OK, I will put all my energy into hope and into positivity and into fighting this with love as much as I can.’
Natalie’s ex-husband David showed up at the end of last season, and he will be a major presence in Season 2. How does Natalie deal with that?
I refer to him as the baby daddy, not the ex-husband. Because he hasn’t been there, he disappeared. And I love [showrunner] Joseph [Kay] so much, I love his writing so much, and bless him because he’s put up with me a lot. I would go up to him and say, ‘Ahhh! I don’t even want [David] in the show because he doesn’t deserve it. How can you leave your kids?’ I was so angry at [the character].
But I think for Natalie what’s interesting is that we don’t see her ever angry about her diagnosis. We see her scared, we see her hopeful, we see her sad, but we don’t see her angry. I think David is this great thing for her to use to express her anger over her cancer. She’s legitimately angry at him for choosing to come back now in this way, and yet she’s really got to juggle with, ‘Well, is my anger beneficial for the kids? What is the best thing for the kids?’ And that’s a journey she’s got to go on. You know, ‘If I’m not here, what is the best thing for them?’ But I think there is almost a therapeutic thing about allowing her anger to have a place to live and a place to land. And it’s him, which I think is completely justified.
Natalie’s relationship to her children is central to the show, and James Wotherspoon (Caleb), Stephanie Janusauskas (Emma) and Julia Scarlett Dan (Romy) give wonderful, believable performances. Tell me about working with them.
The actors are remarkable. Those kids, all three of them are superb actors. They amaze me. Stephanie and Julia, I have more scenes with them than I do James. And also because there’s that mother-daughter thing. It’s very easy. I feel a very deep relationship, especially with Julia. She’s the youngest, so she’s the one that Natalie is the most worried about. And Julia has this openness. She’s just this very grounded but very open, beautiful young woman, and she’s just like 12 years old. And she comes across as this wise sage who’s so honest. She’s very much like Romy in a lot of ways, I find. Very easy to connect with. I miss them when we’re not filming.
You have said that filming Season 1 was emotionally draining for you as an actor. Was shooting Season 2 just as difficult for you?
I actually had a similar curve in both Season 1 and Season 2. In the beginning of it, it’s a gift to be given a job that lets you meditate on mortality, and it gives you a closer relationship to gratitude. Because when you’re not filming and when you’re feeling tired, you just have to think, ‘Oh, my God, I could have cancer and I don’t. Oh, my God, I’m so grateful for everything I have.’ And that happened to me last season too. In the first block or two, I constantly felt gratitude and grace and lucky, and then by the end of the season—as you are having to act that every day and sit every day with that rushing through you—as a human you get tired.
By the end of the season, my skin gets very thin and I start having the same panics about ‘What is my life about?’ and ‘Have I done enough?’ and ‘What if I did die tomorrow?’ and ‘How have I justified taking up this space in my life?’ So, it gets it bit overwhelming.
I’m pretty shattered right now, I’ve gotta say. But, again, grateful. I feel [Natalie] has taught me so much over the last year. I get teary-eyed thinking about the end of the show, and this, as all things, will come to an end. For her, this character is going to come to an end in a different way than most shows. And I’m already very nostalgic about that.
This Life is shot in Montreal with a francophone crew, and you’ve been trying to learn French. How’s that going?
Well, I still feel embarrassingly bad at it, but the crew is very kind and very supportive, and they told me, ‘Oh, your French is so much better! Even from the beginning of this season. It’s so good.’ But I think they’re all just very, very kind and encouraging. [Laughs.] It’s not near as strong as I would like it to be.
I love when I have a day off and I’m able to just sort of walk the city. When there’s no one around me that I know, I’m much braver to try my French.
You also have a recurring role on Dark Matter. Was Commander Truffault supposed to have such a long arc?
No. They were actually going to kill her off. They asked me to do three episodes, and I said sure. We were shooting the second episode of the first season, and [showrunner] Joseph [Mallozzi] came and said, ‘Oh, you’re not going to be in the next episode because everyone in that episode is dying, and we decided not to kill you off.’ So I thought that’s kind of bittersweet. It’s a drag I’m not working next week, but yay, I’m not working next week because I’m staying alive. So it was a nice surprise because I’ve been killed off so many shows at this point in my career, I never expect anything past the day I’ve been hired for. It was lovely to be included as part of their season finale for the second season.
Truffault must be a nice change of pace for you.
She’s a fun character, I really like her. And I rarely get those kinds of characters. I usually get very big-hearted, good people. So it’s nice to play someone who’s sort of very mechanical and conniving and self-serving.
Things were looking pretty dire for Truffault and the Raza crew in the finale. Do you know if you’ll be back for Season 3?
I have no idea. For all I know, we blew up. [Laughs.]
You’re also in the web series InHuman Condition, which is a unique project. What was it like to film that?
We shot 35 episodes in five days. We shot six episodes a day. I was shooting about 40 pages of dialogue a day. I think I had a slight brain aneurysm during that process. I would sort of end every day in a fetal position, saying, ‘No more words, no more words.’ And I was amazed, when I saw what they did. Everyone was doing it for love, there was no money involved. The production looked better than I’ve seen a lot of stuff that had a really big budget.
Will there be a Season 2?
I know we all hope so. But we don’t know yet. Nobody ever knows anything until the camera’s rolling. Our gypsy lifestyle.
This Life airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC.