Anne with an E’s Helen Johns explains Eliza Barry’s world

It would be easy to dismiss Eliza Barry as a stodgy mother who is holding her daughters back—Diana in particular—from their true potential. But actress Helen Johns, who portrays Eliza every Sunday on CBC’s Anne with an E, made me see the light. Eliza is the product of another generation, one of acting just so. She’s caught in two worlds, and is just trying to do her best.

We spoke to Johns about Eliza, and more, ahead of Sunday’s new episode of Anne with an E.

Did you audition for the role?
Helen Johns: I did. I was living in London at the time. I lived and worked in Canada for many years, but I was living in London at the time that the casting breakdown came out. I have a fantastic agent in Toronto and she sent me the details. I did what they call a self-tape in my spare bedroom. It was about 90 seconds long or something. It was very short and I thought, ‘I don’t know.’ It was a scene in which Mrs. Barry, my character, is trying to have a conversation with her husband and her daughter, Minnie May, is misbehaving. And the maid comes in and it’s all a bit frantic and that’s kind of a very similar feel to a lot of what I do in the show in general.

They were able to kind of encapsulate in that 90 seconds the way that they saw the character going. And so that tape then went to the casting director and then the casting director sent it to the head of our show, Moira Walley-Beckett. And she told me that she liked that there was a kind of undertone of something frantic about the way that I did the tape. So, there we go. That’s how it all panned out. I didn’t actually get to meet her until the first day of shooting, but it worked out for the best, thank goodness.

It’s been fascinating to see the way that Moira has taken L.M. Montgomery’s characters and really given a modern spin on them and kind of brought them up to date with some of the story angles.
HJ: After I was cast and before I saw the script, I read the novel. And she doesn’t encourage everyone to read the novels, but I picked it up because I was excited to be joining the show and I wanted to kind of know everything I could. And I was so struck when I picked up the novel at how contemporary it felt and how contemporary Anne felt. I’m still struck by that. I think that Moira has remained really true to the essence of the character and the situations that she keeps finding herself in. And then I love that we’re talking about things that are… I mean, in many cases they’re issues that people had to tackle in the actual period of the novels, but just would not discuss.

For instance, we talk about periods. And I’ve never in my life as a woman, certainly never in my life as a teenager, never did I see any kind of film or TV that talked about it. It’s like this secret and yet 50 per cent of the population experiences it for probably half their lifetime or there about. So, for me it just feels really obvious that people should talk about it. It doesn’t necessarily feel obvious to talk about it in a period show. But for me I think there’s something glorious about the fact that she has taken the story as the starting point and then applied the essence of the characters, choose the kinds of situations that young women and young people face today.

In Season 3, we have this really moving and I think very impressive First Nations story. And we know that the Mi’kmaq community existed in PEI at this time, but again, you don’t often read stories or see film and television that have the lives of a Caucasian community and the lives of a First Nations community given equal weight. You’re usually seeing goodies and baddies and The Last of the Mohicans and all those kind of things. Which is just not representative of what was really going on for teenagers, for instance. I think it’s really powerful. I really admire what she’s doing and I love being a part of it. My character, Eliza, isn’t one of the more modern-seeming characters. She represents the old ways.

In the first season we took a storyline straight out of the novel, which is me catching Diana and Anne having drunk the currant wine. But that exists now, that’s a contemporary issue, it just was ahead of its time in the sense that they weren’t 14-year-old girls getting drunk around the place. But I think that Moira’s doing an amazing job, so I’m all for it.

Mrs. Barry could be easily seen as a villain and is in a lot of ways a villain in the show, because Diana wants to grow and be take advantage of the things that this new world is offering to her. 
HJ: I think it’s just lovely to be part of the show and I think it’s nice to be somebody that brings a bit of push and pull to it. Because there is push and pull in a lot of places. There’s push and pull with Matthew and Marilla. And Mr. Phillips and even with Gilbert, but I think it’s nice to be bringing that kind of tension to things. I think one of the things that I find amusing about a British actor in North America is that you typically are tasked with playing a villain type. Or the stereotypes of being British is that we all are all the expressions, stiff upper lip, uptight. And so we’re often seen as either the professor, the high intellectual or someone who’s very difficult.

I try and take the moments that I can to bring some warmth to her as well. Moira’s been really good about writing for this character to show that actually the reason that she’s a little afraid of Anne’s influence on Diana is that there’s this broader context of the limitations on what life looks like for a young woman at the time. And she expresses in Season 2 some of the longing to have a voice for herself. She wants to be able to contribute to discussions about their family’s financial affairs and their family’s future. She has a vision of her daughter going to Paris to finishing school.

It’s just she’s very protective and she hasn’t had the Anne model laid out before her. There is no one that has gone before her in her life to say there is this alternative path. And I’ve been thinking so much about how Lucy Maud Montgomery was one of the women that set that path out in people’s imagination, way before most people were thinking about that for themself. So, yes, I think that Moira’s been good to me particularly in Season 2 about saying this is the wider context of why Mrs. Barry is behaving as she is. And I think in some ways, certainly season two with Mrs. Barry saying to her husband, ‘I just want us to communicate. I want us to be in this together.’ It’s the same thing that Anne is saying in a lot of ways about Anne’s life and Anne’s future. Wanting just to talk about things and to be involved, to be treated as an adult and to be able to stand up for what is right. So, I’ve been really kind of happy with the development of the character in that respect.

There are also moments of humour. 
HJ: It’s a lovely thing to be able to do, to bring levity to things. And we work with Ryan Kiera Armstrong who plays Minnie May. She’s such a gem to work with and she shows up on set with this fire and you know where she is all the time. And she gets these scripts that are like, ‘Minnie May is misbehaving in the carriage.’ And we have her leaning against the window pushing her tongue out against the glass. It’s just, it’s so fun to work with her and it is so fun to work with Jonathan Holmes who really I think is so smart with comedy.

I’ve done a lot of comedy in my career as well. When you give us an inch we take a mile every single time.

Now that Anne has wrapped, are you working on anything that you can talk about?
HJ: I’ve got a couple of projects that I was able to shoot at the same time, so I wasn’t able to do very much on them. But I was part of a new series called Mrs. America, which stars Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne, which is about the ratification of the equal rights amendment. And the struggle between the kind of the feminist support for the equal rights amendment versus the backlash of Phyllis Schlafly and the kind of anti-feminist movement. So, I think that’s a really interesting project. And I was directed on that by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck who directed Captain Marvel, so that was a really lovely experience.

I also worked on a movie called Charlotte, which is a Canadian produced, animated feature film about Charlotte Salomon, who was a German-Jewish woman painter in the period immediately preceeding the Second World War and then during the Second World War.

The pace of her work was very fast and so she was prolific in that moment. And I mean, you only need to look on Google to see that it didn’t end well. It’s a very moving story and I think it will be really interesting to see how the animation comes together with the fact that she was a painter herself. And I think there’s been a few movies of that kind recently. We’ve seen animated movies about Vincent van Gogh. So, I think it will be really interesting the art within the art as it were.

Anne with an E airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on CBC.

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