All posts by A.R. Wilson

A.R. Wilson has been interviewing actors, writers and musicians for over 20 years. In addition to TV-Eh, her work has appeared in Curve, ROCKRGRL, Sound On Sight and Digital Journal. A native of Detroit, she grew up watching Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant on CBC, which led to a lifelong love of Canadian television. Her perpetual New Year's resolution is to become fluent in French.

Jann Arden is unabashedly herself—sort of—on new CTV comedy Jann

When CTV hosted journalists on the Calgary set of its new comedy Jann in October, series star Jann Arden noted that she was just 17 days into her acting career. The Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter has oodles of experience in front of live crowds and has flashed her wicked wit on shows like The Social, but acting in front of a camera—and being No. 1 on the call sheet—is new. And nerve-wracking.

“I’m scared the entire time,” Arden admits during a press conference with the show’s cast and creators. “I think you have to do things in life that scare you.”

Showrunner Jennica Harper (Cardinal, Motive) confesses that she had last-second jitters about her star’s ability to crossover to television as well.

“We obviously were thrilled to be jumping into this project and also knew that it was going to live or die by Jann,” says Harper. “This is who people were going to be coming to see. And so on Day 1, there was sort of a moment where we were all like, ‘Oh, my god….”

“Can she f–king act?” Arden cuts in, causing the room to erupt in laughter.

Once everyone regains their composure, Harper continues, nodding toward Arden, “Then there was the answer, and it was ‘Oh, my god, she’s fantastic.’ It’s gonna be great.”

As that exchange proves, no one had anything to worry about. Arden has natural comedic timing, and as one of the day’s scenes—which journalists were invited to watch on monitors—later demonstrated, she also has impressive dramatic chops.

In Jann, which premieres on Wednesday, March 20, at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CTV, Arden plays a largely fictionalized version of herself. She’s a recording artist who, unlike the real-life Calgary native, is a bit of a has-been, forced to rent out her beautiful country house to Airbnb guests who are more famous than she is. Her sweet but hapless long-time manager Todd (Jason Blicker) is endlessly supportive and books her all the gigs he can, but the payments are inconsistent at best—unless you’re looking to stock up on cheese wheels.  

On the home front, younger, more responsible sister Max (Zoie Palmer) is raising three kids and caring for their mother Nora (Deborah Grover), but her surprise fourth pregnancy shakes things up and soon mom is moving in with Jann. Meanwhile, Jann’s ex-girlfriend (Sharon Taylor) is moving on with another woman, and a younger, hipper music manager (Elena Juatco) is trying to push Todd out of the picture and resurrect Jann’s career—situations that are skillfully mined for laughs and cringe-inducing moments of second-hand embarrassment throughout the season’s six-episode run.

Harper and series co-creator Leah Gauthier (Motive), who set up their writer’s room in Arden’s kitchen, readily acknowledge shows like Episodes and Curb Your Enthusiasm—where Matt LeBlanc and Larry David played extreme versions of themselves—were heavy influences. And fictional Jann is certainly a narcissist who seems allergic to introspection and good decision making. However, she has a good heart and always manages to remain likable.

“You’re still rooting for her even though she’s making the wrong decisions,” says Gauthier.

And Jann also has a softer centre than those aforementioned shows, which is most evident in the tender and realistic way it deals with Nora’s dementia. Arden’s real-life mother, Joan Richards, suffered from Alzheimer’s and passed away in December, just weeks after filming wrapped. Arden wrote about her mom’s struggle with the disease in her best-selling 2017 memoir Feeding My Mother, and some of those experiences appear in the series.

Following the press conference, Arden returns to set to film a scene with Grover that involves an increasingly confused Nora wandering out to the car to find her missing purse and Jann realizing that something may really be wrong with her mom. The pair performed the scene over and over and over again, some takes ending stoically and some ending with Jann in tears. It is here that Arden and fictional Jann seem to merge, and the moment is quietly devastating.

Part of the blending between real and fiction may be related to Grover’s resemblance to Arden’s mother.

“I think she felt I had the right feeling, a certain sensibility, and that seemed to work for her vision of her mom,” Grover says.

As for any emotional toll that filming such scenes may take on her, Arden is matter-of-fact about it.

“I don’t mind tackling the hard stuff,” she says. “That’s life. It’s not a beer commercial, you’re not running down the beach all the time.”

Besides, Arden says living with her mother’s disease made her a better person—something that one presumes might happen to fictional Jann as well.

“It’s a devastating disease, but I don’t think I’ve ever been a better version of myself because of my mom’s illness,” she says. “You know, she put me in a position where I got sober after a lot of years and didn’t hide behind a lot of stuff. I’ve changed so many things about my health and well-being and got out of a really shitty relationship that went on far too long. And I think it gives you a lot of bravery because my mom is like, ‘You gotta be where you are.’”

It also helps to be who you are.

“I’ve made a living being myself, and just being unique to myself,” Arden continues. “That’s how I’ve made my money. That’s as simple as it is. I’m not the best singer, I’m not the best actor, I’m not the best anything. I do what I do, and it’s indigenous to me. So yeah, it’s great for me to have people see that, to have women see someone like me on television that’s not 5’10” and 100 pounds. There are lots of scenes where I’m in f–king boxer shorts and my hair is in a weird ponytail and people laugh before I even open my mouth, and I’m like, ‘Well, that’s reassuring.’

“Just be yourself.”

Or a version of yourself.

Jann airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CTV.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.

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Coroner: Morwyn Brebner and Adrienne Mitchell preview the finale and look back on Season 1

When we last spoke with Coroner showrunner Morwyn Brebner and executive producer/lead director Adrienne Mitchell, the series had just premiered to solid numbers and the pair hoped they had a winner on their hands. Now, as the season finale approaches, they know the show is a bona fide hit and are rightfully proud of what the cast and crew accomplished during the first season.

“It’s the kind of show where everyone could really bring their artistry,” says Mitchell, on the line from icy Toronto. “And we call it the Collective—it’s the Coroner Collective. I don’t mean for it to sound cheesy, but it’s really true. It’s this continuum of people, and it’s just been a beautiful process.”

Brebner, enjoying warmer weather in New York, concurred, saying, “I’m happy to have made something that was made in a respectful way, which is actually kind of a huge thing. That feels like a milestone for me to have worked in a way where that was also a priority.”

After last week’s shocking penultimate episodewhich flashed up “To Be Continued…” just as Jenny (Serinda Swan) encountered the bloody corpse of former coroner Dr. Peterson (Michael Healey)we had to get Brebner and Mitchell on the phone to preview Monday’s big season finale, entitled “Bridges,” and provide their closing thoughts on Season 1.

Congratulations on a great first season. I was impressed with the way you were able to mix some big issues, including mental illness and police violence, into the season in such a natural, organic way. Was that hard to achieve?
Morwyn Brebner: I feel like it’s not hard in a sense because I think sometimes people think that tones are mutually exclusive, that a show is serious or a show is funny or whatever. I guess we’re really trying to be in the tone of life, which fluctuates between the two. So I feel like we’ve been able to find a good balance because we’ve kept ourselves open to that balance. I know in terms of the writing in the writer’s room—and also in terms of the beautiful visuals of the show—that we really have tried to be open, to not be set in a mode but to try and allow life into the show in a way that feels like life is. I feel like every show has sort of a range of tones and that you can move within that range and it can feel authentic, and we really have been striving for that.

Adrienne Mitchell: Also what really helps keep things from becoming too didactic or issue orientated is the very specific and personal take the characters have as they move through these scenarios and cases. I mean, the writers, Morwyn and the team, really can come up with it, and Seneca [Aaron], Episode 6 was something he wrote. There was just a very personal take, and he also comes from a West Indian background and could bring that to the story and Donovan McAvoy’s perspective, and I think it just gives it a reality and makes it more organic. That’s the thing, you can’t really separate it from the personal, and when you can’t separate it from the personal, it feels more organic. It doesn’t feel like just putting something on top of a story, the story’s infused with the characters.

And that’s why having a diverse writer’s room is so important, that authentic mix of perspectives.
AM: Exactly.

MB: The diversity of the writer’s room and the diversity of the cast were a huge strength for the show.

One of the season-long storylines has involved the mystery of the black dog and Jenny’s sister. In Episode 7, we learned that the dog may have killed Jenny’s sister … or maybe not. Will this all get explained in the finale?
M: I’m so spoiler averse, I’m going to let Adrienne answer.

A: Stayed tuned and watch Episode 8.  I can say we’re going to go back into that world and truth will be revealed.

I like the fact that you’re dealing with Jenny’s clouded memory of the events and then her father, who has dementia, is not really able to clarify the situation. It adds multiple layers to the mystery and demonstrates the unreliability of memory.
AM: That’s exactly it, that’s a very astute observation. That’s exactly what we’re working with. It’s interesting when things from your past are coming up, and your parent who was there, you don’t know if he is a reliable witness or not. The parent is experiencing dementia, so you have no one to confront in a way that you can usually confront. It’s challenging for her.

We also saw more of Gerald Henry Jones in Episode 7. Kudos on casting Rick Roberts in the role. He has kind of a gentle face, but he can also seem really sinister. Did you have him in mind for the part?
MB: Rick Roberts is an actor with incredible range and he’s so good in this part. We did have him in mind, actually, and he did audition, and it was just like a coup de foudre, it was like, he’s the guy.

AM: Yes, we have an amazing casting director, Lisa Parasyn, who understands our aesthetic and is also presenting us with people who are not the usual suspects for any role. It’s almost like this unspoken communication between us where you’re [at first] going, ‘Well, that’s not [who I had in mind],’ and then you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, yes.’ And she knows that we’re the type who will really respond to unusual ideas. So it’s this great bouncing off with her and Morwyn and me, and we get these really exciting casting results.

MB: I feel like Rick brings us a nice layer of nice guy/bad guy and you don’t know in what proportion and you don’t know in what way, and it’s really mysterious.

What can you hint about Jones in the finale? Will McAvoy and Townsend finally take him down?
AM: I can say he comes back, and it will be really compelling. How’s that? It’s an interesting episode because it harkens back to many of the themes that we’ve been building throughout the season. When Morwyn and I started doing this, we really had a desire to treat the whole thing like a feature film, something that’s novelistic and has those elements that run through but also has the cases. Everything is really beautifully intertwined, and I think the last episode will harken back to earlier themes and themes we’re developing in a way that I think will be really poignant and compelling for viewers.

MB: I find it really hard to talk about the show from the outside in a weird way. But I think, from the inside, the finale feels mysterious and correct and exciting and unexpected in the ways that we had hoped it would be.

You also surprised me by bringing back Dr. Peterson, and more, almost making me like him.
MB: Well, we love him as a foil to Jenny. We felt that they brought out interesting things in each other and he was such an interesting person to pair with her in really kind of a little bottle moment. He managed to really get inside her psychology and needle at her at a way that would bring stuff out. We really just loved them together, and that’s why we brought him back.

AM: And life is like this, you know? You can have a certain perspective on somebody, and it may not be the fulsome experience of that person. I love that the situation arises where these two have to show a different side of themselves to each other, and in doing that, they have a new appreciation for each other. And I think that’s really the way life is on some level.

MB: It is completely the way life is. I feel like you know people in different ways and people are themselves in different ways depending on the moment and circumstance. And there is an empathy and a sadness beneath him that’s really evident, and I think that Jenny sees as well. He’s also a person who is unable to overcome a barrier to his full expression of good self, and Jenny has a barrier in her that she is unable to overcome. They’re two people wrestling with that and trying to see each other as individuals over that divide of their own various limitations in the moment. And they do kind of find a sort of synergy together for a while—until it falls apart.

And, boy, did it fall apart. The episode ended with poor dead Dr. Peterson and the second cliffhanger of the season. What does his death mean for Jenny in the finale?
MB: All I can say is that it’s a satisfying ride and I hope that people will feel that it’s a satisfying ride.

AM: It’s going to be a really interesting journey, and things are going to hit you in a really unexpected way. It’s a great season end.

Looking back over the first season, what makes you the proudest?
AM: Wow, that’s a good question. I’m most proud of the creative collaboration between Morwyn, myself, and the team to realize the kind of hybrid way of telling a story, where there’s a really unique balance between personal and case with kind of a quirky sense of humour, yet it was done in a very cinematic way. Before shooting, there was a lot of discussion about tone and how to make it unified, because we’ve got weird bits of humour, we’ve got the personal, we’ve got the case, and there was—not inside our ranks, but outside of our ranks—there was nervousness that we were spending too much time on the personal stories and the personal stories might feel too outside what was happening in the case. But we all felt pretty strongly and stuck to our guns that it was going to work and that it was organic. And, you never know, but I think because Morwyn and I and the team were able to execute this vision, it all just gelled—and it works. It works. Some people might look at this and say, ‘Well, is [the outcome] that unique?’ But it is very unique in terms of all the elements. 

We decided when we got together that we weren’t going to get into a rut and keep doing the same thing, we were going to move and shift and change the way human beings do. And I’m just so proud of my work with Morwyn, so proud to have worked with her to bring all of that into a really beautiful alchemy. As a director, I’ve never been more able to execute my vision visually, through my [director of photography] Samy [Inayeh ] and Elisa [Suave], the production designer. To actually be able to achieve that in a ridiculous timeframe and a Canadian TV budget? I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished.

MB: I’m very proud of everyone’s work on the show. Everyone worked on it with incredible commitment, and everyone was an artist and brought their artistry to it on every level of the show. I’m proud to have made this show, and I’m proud that it was truly collaborative. And I’m proud to have made something that feels inclusive and diverse, proud to have made something that feels in the tone of life, and I’m so happy to have worked with Adrienne.

Coroner airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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Coroner: Roger Cross on McAvoy’s flaws and “rekindled” passion for the job

Roger Cross is no stranger to playing cops. Over his nearly 30-year career, he’s been cast as just about every type of police officer, detective and special agent imaginable. However, Detective Donovan McAvoy, his character on CBC’s Coroner, is a little bit different from the others.

“I think it’s his flaws [that set him apart],” says Cross. “You learn that he might have been married once or twice, and you learn that he kind of left his old neighbourhood. He tried helping, but, for him, it was like, ‘Well, some people don’t want the help. Why am I going to bash my head against a rock? I’ll leave it alone.’”

That situation was the focus of last week’s timely and poignant episode, “Confetti Heart,” in which coroner Jenny Cooper (Serinda Swan) led an inquest into a questionable police shooting involving McAvoy’s community. According to Cross, the events of the episode “allow [McAvoy’s] path to confront him, and when that happens, he’s like, ‘OK, you know what? Maybe the fight is worth it.'”

We called Cross in Los Angeles to learn what this change of attitude might mean for McAvoy going forward and to find out what’s coming up for him in Monday’s new episode, “The Suburbs,” and beyond.

First of all, it looks like Coroner is doing very well in Canada and the UK. How does it feel to be involved in another hit?
Roger Cross: It feels great. You know, you do these things in a bubble, and you do your best and you hope for the best. And the only thing you can control is your intent and what you do on the day, and then you put it out to the people and you see how they respond. All and all, the executives on down, everyone kept watching the dailies as it came along, and they all kept saying great things, and you’re like, ‘OK, that’s good, but let’s see when it gets out there what people really think.’ And it’s lived up to it. It’s a bona fide hit, so it’s great. It’s very fulfilling.

Episode 6 was very timely as well as being politically and emotionally charged. How did you feel about it?
RC: It was a very touching story because it delved into a child getting killed. And wrong or right, good or bad, a child is dead, and how do we prevent these sorts of things from happening again in the future? 

I think it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s like the old cliché, if you bury your head in the sand, it’s not going to make the world go away. So pretending that there aren’t these bad cops out there is not going to make things go away. Yes, people have this ideal where they’d like to think that our cops are here as protectors and that they’re here to take care of us and they’re here to enforce the law, it’s for the people and all that sort of thing. But the reality is there are some bad cops out there and some people who should not have badges. Just like with anything, there are some people who, when they have power, whether it be at work or as cops and things like that, they abuse it. And those are the people we need to get rid of and allow the good people to do their job. Because the good cops don’t want these people in there. They would rather these cops be gone as well. They make them all look bad, and then people start painting them with the same brush.

A funny story, I did a police ride-along when I was in Calgary doing a movie. And this cop and I went out on this ride-along, and they were selling t-shirts to raise money to buy a helicopter. I wanted to buy one of the t-shirts, but I only had large bills on me, and he was like, ‘Oh, let’s just stop somewhere and grab some change.’ We go to this hotel, and I won’t say the name of the hotel, but it was a very fancy hotel. We pull up in front of the lobby, and this cop and I get out of the car, talking and laughing, and we walk into the lobby—and the whole place went quiet. It was silent. We walked to the counter and I asked them to break down a $100 bill for me, and they did. But when we left, the cop was like, ‘That was really weird.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, but sometimes there are people who think it’s weird to see a black guy and a police officer getting along and talking.’ It shocked everyone. It was literally like out of a movie how quiet this big, busy hotel lobby went.

And this [police officer] was honestly a great guy. We talked about family, we talked about everything and we were getting along, and he said, ‘You know, now when some of these guys give me the side-eye and a dirty look as I drive by, I’ll understand it a little more. But it doesn’t make it right.’ And it’s true. Both sides are angry at each other, both sides have those misconceptions of each other, and mistrust is the biggest thing. But we both have to come together and say, OK we both have faults, but it doesn’t make doing the wrong thing right. So I think the episode was very timely, and it could be a conversation starter.

The other thing McAvoy has been dealing with is Jenny’s decision to re-open all those old coroner cases. Why isn’t he onboard with that decision?
RC: Because, for him, there might have been one or two things that were messed up, there may have been one or two cases where they didn’t handle it properly, but by and large, it was handled very well. And so what’s she’s done now, as we see in Episode 5, is people like this murderer [Gerald Henry Jones], he’s got money and now his lawyer is like, ‘Well, now you’ve called everything into question. I want all these things thrown out.’ Without this forensic evidence, criminals are going to walk free, and she’s allowing this to happen without even knowing what she’s doing. He’s like, ‘OK, we missed a few things.’ Because these cops handle a lot of cases, so yes, one or two will fall by the wayside. But what’s she’s done is just open a can of worms. The genie is out of the bottle and it will not go back in.

Why is the thought of Gerald Henry Jones getting out of prison so scary?
RC: Because he’s a sociopath and feels he has a right to kill these people who he thinks are less than human, less desirable to be around. And a guy like that, who is very smart and was almost impossible to put away—we barely found enough evidence to get him convicted on this one murder, much less this other series of murders which we know he did but cannot prove—if the evidence gets thrown out, this man is going to walk the streets. And you know he’s going to do this again. He’s going to find a way to quell his desires if you will.

What can we look forward to seeing from McAvoy over the last two episodes of the season? 
RC: I think you’ll see a rekindling of that younger detective that, when he came there, wanted to set things right. His fire gets rekindled, the passion that he had. Because he was calling it in a little sometimes. Just like with anything else you do for a while, you look at a [crime] scene and go, ‘Oh, that was a murder,’ or ‘That was a hanging.’ You make judgments based on your experience, and you dig past the surface if something doesn’t look right, but you’re not looking too hard for that. Whereas, when you first [get on the job], you’re like, ‘Oh, we gotta do this, and we gotta break it down, and we have to go through everything in detail, and then we’ll find out what happened.’ And he’ll get a rekindling of that—but his personal life won’t get better yet.

What would you like to see happen with McAvoy if there is a Season 2?
RC: Maybe straighten out his personal life a little bit. 

You’ve been in so many good TV series over the years. If you could bring one show back and continue the story, which one would you choose?
RC: Oh, that’s a tough one. But, you know, I loved Continuum. From top to bottom, everyone we worked with, it was like a family atmosphere there. And the Travis Verta character, he had so much more to do. He was a character who could just continue to grow and find his humanity. At a point, we saw that he’d lost a lot of his life and he’s learned things, and that story had a lot more to tell. And even 24 would be a blast to do again. That show was great and had so much potential. But if I had to choose only one, I’d probably say Continuum.

Coroner airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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Coroner: Tamara Podemski on Alison’s backstory and why landing the role was a “huge triumph” for her

Tamara Podemski has been an acclaimed multi-disciplinary performer for over 25 years, winning a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Acting for the film Four Sheets to the Wind, appearing in the Broadway cast of Rent and guest-starring in such TV shows as The Rez, Heartland and Cracked. But, despite her impressive resumé, she still has trouble getting into the audition room. Or, at least, she has trouble when the part in question is not specifically Indigenous.

“I think I can count on one hand how many times I’ve played a non-ethnic specific role, where it wasn’t in the character breakdown, where it wasn’t a very culturally specific subject matter,” says Podemski, who is of Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi descent, “and this is one of those opportunities.”

“This,” of course, refers to her scene-stealing turn as Alison Trent on CBC’s hit drama series Coroner.  As Jenny Cooper’s (Serinda Swan) assistant, Alison is passionately professional, fiercely protective of the coroner’s office and a just little bit quirky. She also happens to be Indigenous—a fact the show does not belabour.

And that’s just fine with Podemski.

“It doesn’t mean that I don’t get to represent myself and my community,” she says. “It just means that I get to be who I am.”

To help us get ready for Monday’s new episode, “Confetti Heart,” we gave Podemski a call to learn more about Alison, her first TV writing gig on APTN’s Future History (which airs its Season 1 finale Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET), and why she believes becoming a performer saved her life.

You and your two sisters, Jennifer Podemski and Sarah Podemski, all went into the entertainment business. Why do you think you were all drawn to the industry?
Tamara Podemski: My sisters and I had a traumatic childhood which resulted in my mother leaving our father to raise three girls on his own. We were always singing and dancing around the house, but during those difficult years, the world of make-believe allowed us to process and express what we were going through in a profound way. My father took us to every class, audition and rehearsal and worked his ass off so we could have every opportunity to perform and train. He knew it was helping us cause we were thriving. I believe the arts saved my life and I think it saved my sisters, too.

It never ceases to amaze me, the more I hear of how other artists came into their performing voice or found their voice as a performer, when you hear the stories that this grew out of, there is this consistent yearning for a place to express and move all the stuff that’s inside them. And so, forever, my belief is that the arts heal, the arts empower, and the arts allow you to connect with others. Trauma tends to be a very isolating experience, so if you can have this other thing that allows you to come out of yourself, I think it’s kind of the perfect remedy.

What was your audition process like for Coroner?
TP: Luckily, I was able to go into the room to audition. That is a real rarity these days. We’re in a time of self-tapes, which means actors are in their own home putting an audition on tape or going to an audition facility. Some people love that because you’re less anxious and you get to control the environment a little bit more. Me, on the other hand, I prefer being in the room, I think I thrive when I’m in the room because I have people to bounce off of, and this was a very specific scenario where I think I was really able to show my take on this woman.

It did start out as a self-tape that I did in my bedroom with my husband and I remember the way that I interpreted her—and you don’t have much to go on, you certainly don’t have the director or writer to guide you—it was really just based on my interpretation. And so that quirky very passionate about her work, kind of socially awkward not reading social cues very well, that was all my original interpretation of who Alison Trent was. And I remember my husband saying, ‘Wow, you might want to bring that down a bit,’ because I let the biggest version of her come out. But at least they saw something in that tape that allowed me to come into the room.

I didn’t realize she was as funny, like, when the laughs started coming from how she was—and I only speak about her in the third person because I really feel like she’s so different from me. Usually, I feel closer to some of my characters, but Alison is a force. I follow her. I don’t really tell her what to do or how to be. So in the room, we just had so much fun, and then the best thing is they asked me to do an improv with Serinda of coming to work on my first day and explaining to her what she needs to do to basically operate as the coroner on that first day of work, and I went off. And I feel like whatever I found in that moment was Alison from there on.

Alison is in M.R. Hall’s Coroner books. Did you check those out before filming?
TP: I didn’t read the book because I’d known that Alison is very different in the book, and when I heard that they’d really taken her and went in a different direction, I didn’t feel like that would inform what I was doing. I think if they were trying to bring that character to the screen and honour what that original idea was, I would’ve felt more inclined to do that. But, to me, it sounded like we were creating something new for her.

Also, I do have to say that it was not a culturally or ethnically specific role when I went in for it. The majority of my roles are Native women, and so—even though I knew that we weren’t going to touch on those storylines, or from what I’d read that far—I knew that I was bringing a storyline and a background that wouldn’t be in the books from the UK. So I had to come up with a backstory that really was from scratch. I needed to be informed through an Indigenous lens of why a woman would work in the coroner’s office, of what in her life led her to take that path of justice-seeking, of speaking for the dead. We’re just at a time of these really pivotal moments by coroners, by judges, these court rulings that either bring justice for families, or they don’t. And you can see the public uprising in response to these really critical decisions that are being made. So I felt like, OK, there’s a lot of stuff there that I can use for Alison, why she chose to work in a coroner’s office. And so that was another reason why I thought I need to place her in Toronto and place her as an Indigenous woman, and that wouldn’t have been in the books.

I take it that you’re speaking of the horrific history of murders and missing persons cases involving Indigenous women in Canada. 
TP: Yes.

Do you know if the series will address any of those stories in the future?
TP: I have no idea. But I know that it’s my responsibility to myself, to my community, to my character that I’ve created that she’s got to come from somewhere and she’s got to have a story. Somebody who chooses to work in justice and someone who chooses to be a public servant, there are certain paths that lead someone to that work. And when it is a highly controversial department to work in, when you know that it’s at odds with the people and the community that you represent, I think there are rich and great opportunities to delve into that. If we get a second season, that would be a great opportunity.

Showrunner Morwyn Brebner and executive producer/lead director Adrienne Mitchell have stated that they really wanted to accurately represent Toronto by having a diverse cast and writer’s room. How do you think the rest of Canadian TV is doing with that right now? 
TP: There are a couple of parts to the current climate of diversity onscreen. One is that, yeah, Canadian television is certainly more diverse. I do feel like 25 years ago, though, we had a lot of diversity on television. When we did The Rez, that was an entire Native cast on television, and North of 60 was an entire Native cast on television. It’s been a long time that I’ve been doing this, and it’s the same network, and I guess what I feel that I still have to fight for is, can I get into the room if it’s not a Native character?

So that’s why this job was a huge triumph for me as an ethnic actor—as casting breakdowns say, ‘All ethnicities welcome.’ I am still celebrating every time that I get to go into the room where I get to be the actor with 25 years experience, where I get to represent myself as a woman in the world, where I’m not like a quota checklist. So, that’s why this really stands out. I think I can count on one hand how many times I’ve played a non-ethnic specific role, where it wasn’t in the character breakdown, where it wasn’t a very culturally specific subject matter, and this is one of those opportunities.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t get to represent myself and my community. It just means that I get to be who I am. And that’s just a more realistic picture of who we are, especially as urban Indigenous people. We’re all around. We’re amongst you. 

We got to learn a bit more about Alison in Episode 5 when she was invited to Jenny’s for Thanksgiving. We learned she loves to bake and that she’s having her baby on her own.  Are we going to learn a lot more about her personal life this season?
TP: Yes, we’re going to learn more about her. I like how slowly we are let into her world because I think that that is part of her protection. If you think about her and Jenny, they just met four episodes earlier, and so trust has had to build up in that time, and they certainly have developed a working relationship that has been very respectful and beneficial and supportive, and now we see Alison letting her in a little bit. It’s not that she’s necessarily private, but it seems, for instance, when she meets Sabina [Jeananne Goosen], who is close with Jenny, you just see what happens when Alison feels safe and feels welcome and feels included. She feels very surprised by the [Thanksgiving dinner] invitation. Work is a place of duty and responsibility, she takes her job very seriously, so when it crosses into her personal world, she’s maybe slightly too enthusiastic about it. But I think it’s because she really does have a huge heart, I think it’s very indicative of where she’s at in her life, wanting to have a family of her own, and yet not really having the life that fits the picture that we’re told is the way that we’re meant to make families. And so I really love what happens in Episode 5 where we get to see her in her personal world and why she makes some decisions, and what I love most is the confidence and the courage behind the decisions.

I definitely picked up a romantic vibe between Alison and Sabina, who was very quick to offer her a ride home when she said she wasn’t feeling well. Was I right?
TP: Yes! Its hard for me to talk about, because I know what was shot, and I know what we all knew, but it’s always very different how much is revealed to the viewer and what comes across. But if that did come across, that’s great. Because that’s where it was going.

What can you preview about Episode 6?
TP: We get a lot more time with Alison. There’s still great drama and some crazy mysteries that are happening, but Episode 6 does let us into Alison’s personal relationships. Mostly, we’ve seen Alison in the work mode, and what happens with this mid-season shift into these more personal interactions with everybody—just going into Jenny’s home and seeing the family and work people all intermingling—that is a shift. I think it’s a beautiful move into the deeper level of the interpersonal connections between everyone.

You are also working on the APTN documentary series Future History with your sister, Jennifer. How is that going? 
TP: We just finished Season 2, and Season 1 is on the air right now. We were actually writing Season 2 while we were shooting Coroner, so I had to set up my trailer like a little production office and in between scenes, I would go and work on that. It wasn’t the most fun. It made for a very challenging time, but it’s been one of my favourite and most challenging jobs to write this documentary series. It has been a source of inspiration because I get to find and interview the participants that we feature on the show. Each episode has three what we call Rematriation Warriors, people who are reclaiming their Indigeneity, and through language, through policy, they are shifting the colonial narrative in Canada. So interviewing these people is pretty life-changing, to get the one-on-one experience. These are very difficult people to get on the phone, so I feel very blessed to have been the writer of this show. My sister did take a chance on me by giving me my first television writing gig. Thankfully, I delivered, so she brought me back for Season 2.

Coroner airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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Coroner: Ehren Kassam on his beard, the butterfly stroke and working with Serinda Swan

A beard almost stood in the way of Ehren Kassam landing the role of Jenny Cooper’s (Serinda Swan) son Ross on CBC’s crime drama Coroner. You see, Kassam is 21, and Ross was originally supposed to be 16.

“They were just a little skeptical about choosing me because I was a little bit older than the character they were going for,” says Kassam. “And they did want to cast it authentic.”

But, despite his status as a legal adult, he was called in for a  chemistry test with Swan and the results upended any reservations the show’s producers may have had.

“Serinda and I really clicked instantly, and Adrienne [Mitchell] the director, was there, too. We all sat and talked for like 15 minutes, and it was really just this natural, electric feeling, and we were all sort of like, ‘Shit, this is really going to be cool.'”

In the end, Ross’ age was inched up to 17 to accommodate Kassam’s scruff, and the former Degrassi: Next Class star was handed the part, which, he says, led to the “best filming experience of my life.”

Ahead of this Monday’s new Thanksgiving-themed episode, “All’s Well,” we gave Kassam a call to learn more about what makes Ross tick and what will be coming up for him in the second half of the season.

You said you had an ‘electric’ chemistry test with Serinda Swan. What was it like working with her throughout Season 1?
Ehren Kassam: I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better partner because she was the most focused actor I’ve ever worked with for sure. She knew exactly what was going on in every character’s head in every scene, and it was so cool and so inspiring to see that because she does take it as seriously as possible, and I really, really respected that. And we just really clicked. I don’t know how else to describe it. We really got along well. We were always joking around and had this really nice chemistry and really nice balance, and we could always sit and have an actual conversation and talk about the scene before doing them.

We would always sit down with [showrunner] Morwyn [Brebner] and Adrienne and sort of discuss wherever we wanted the scene to go, and it was kind of a new experience for me as well because, as a younger actor, you’re sort of used to just being kind of told what to do, and you’re not really given the liberty to experiment as much as you might want and as much as you might think, at least for Canadian network TV, where most of my experience has been. You kind of just get told, ‘This is your character, you’re the heartthrob teenager and play that as much as you can.’ So this was kind of cool because we really got to sit down and experiment with things and try out different things. And I never felt rushed, and I can safely say that it was the best filming experience of my life.

I was going to ask how being on Coroner compared with some of the other shows you’ve been on, such as Degrassi.
EK: Degrassi, don’t get me wrong, was fantastic and I met a lot of people who I’ll call best friends for a long time. It could have been that my character on Degrassi, I really was just the boyfriend to three different storylines for four years. So it was a great experience and a lot of fun, but I didn’t get that experimentation, getting to sort of try out things at my liberty, maybe because the scenes were never really about me then. So it’s interesting when you then switch to a show that has scenes that are focused on you and relying on you, that you are given the liberty to experiment at your will.

But there are pros and cons to both. I was definitely more stressed being on Coroner than I was on Degrassi. Because when I walked on the set of Degrassi, I always knew what I was doing for sure, and it was almost down to a science. Where on Coroner, I would walk in and I would have no idea where the scene would go. So it was definitely an interesting experience.

I understand that you had to learn to swim the butterfly stroke to play Ross.
EK: Yeah, within the first couple of months of casting, there was a little back and forth about, ‘Can you swim?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t do a competitive level stroke, but I can swim.’ So I ended up booking it, and they said they wanted me to learn how to do the butterfly stroke, and I said I could hopefully learn that, which was me confidently, casually saying that I could learn something that I knew nothing about. Because looking back, I definitely had no business doing that stroke. But I did learn it, and I actually went to the woman who taught me how to swim when I was a little kid. I went back to my hometown a couple times a week and had an hour-long lesson, and then I learned I had to get a full-body wax.

Oh, my. How did that go?
EK: I laid there for three hours, and it was not fun. I thought it might have been blown out of proportion, it can’t be that bad to undergo it. For maybe the first 45 minutes, I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t so bad.’ And then the next hour and a half, I remember being actually angry just wanting it to be over so bad. And then I thought she was done, and she said, ‘Now we have to do your other side.’ I was so upset. But I shouldn’t have to do it again, because I’m pretty sure Ross has quit the swim team forever.

Yes, Ross has been really struggling with his dad’s death, particularly after finding out that he gambled the family’s money away. Are things going to improve for him as the season progresses?
EK: One of my favourite things about the character was the opportunity to portray a real mental illness at that age. He had to go through so much and then he decides he’s going to quit school and you see that scene with Matteo in Episode 3, where Matteo is like, ‘When are you going to come back? I can’t bring your homework forever.’ And that’s a very clear indication that kids that age aren’t used to actually dealing with mental illness and knowing how to deal with somebody who is going through that. Because Matteo is like, ‘What do you mean? Why don’t you wanna come back?’ And Ross can’t even explain why he doesn’t want to come back. How do you put that into words? So that’s definitely a big scene that ends up playing out, and the way he then finds out how to deal with that—like meeting Liam in Episode 4 and deciding to work on the bridge with him—that’s a nice way that he ends up being able to cope with it. But that’s not the end of the unfortunate things that do happen to him, so he definitely also finds ways to deal with it that may be less orthodox.

When you say mental illness, do you mean Ross is suffering from depression, or is there something more going on with him?
EK: It’s primarily depression and a lot of anxiety that he goes through. The depression stems from the actual things that are happening to him, and then he develops this fear and overall anxiety about going to school and leaving the house. At the end of Episode 2 when he’s crying about how he can’t go back, that’s a real feeling of a simple task, which is going to school, and just not being able to do it.

It seems that hanging out with Liam is helping him a lot. What is it about Liam that he’s drawn to?
EK: It’s actually funny because in the read-through, the first scene where he goes to meet Liam in the woods, I think it was originally written as Liam was outside his house doing chin-ups shirtless and Ross walked in on him. And, the way the scene was written, a bunch of us really got the vibe that they were going to have a love triangle between Ross, his mom and Liam, and that wasn’t what happened at all. Éric Bruneau actually suggested that maybe he isn’t shirtlessly doing chin-ups because it just kind of gave a weird intimation to the scene that probably didn’t need to be there.

But I think in Liam, he finds that he doesn’t have to just go through the motions, he doesn’t have to go to school, he doesn’t have to swim if that’s not going to be working for him anymore and if that’s affecting his mental health. And he finds this really nice way to do this co-op with Liam and I think it helps him heal a lot. And I hesitate to say that it may have even given him an older male role model in his life that he might have been specifically craving at that moment because of his dad.

We only got to see Ross’ dad, David, in one scene before he died, but from just that one scene, it appeared that he was very hard on Ross. Is that the backstory in your head?
EK: A lot of the sadness that comes from Ross is the fact that he and his dad didn’t have a great relationship, is the read that I got. He wasn’t a mean and awful father, but he was definitely a stern, very focused, very strict father. And that opens up to a lot of feelings that he might want to talk about, like, ‘Hey, why are you being so hard on me?’ And then his dad just dies. And that’s interesting to me because when someone dies and you’re mad at them, or when somebody dies and maybe you’re not on the best terms with them. it’s a really hard thing to deal with because, as sad as you that they’re gone, obviously, those feelings that you had aren’t not real or not valid because the other person is gone. You’re still allowed to be angry at the person for the way that they treated you.

He had very real feelings of embarrassment and fear toward his father because his dad put so much pressure on him to be the best swim team member, and his dad was a surgeon and he really wanted Ross to follow in his footsteps, so there’s a lot of that and a lot of unspoken feelings that Ross is definitely feeling about his father. And it’s sad because he won’t ever get the closure that he wants. He can’t talk to his dad, he can’t have that conversation.

Ross and Matteo are very sweet. Will we be seeing more of them?
EK: Not as much as I wanted you to see. You do see him in a few really important moments to Ross, but you don’t get to see as much of the Ross and Matteo and Jenny hanging out and eating pizza kind of stuff. That scene was super cute and I really wanted to see more of that. But we do get a lot more plot development with Matteo and Ross, in terms of things happening to Ross, and Matteo is there helping him understand and cope with it.

Do you have a favourite episode or moment from Season 1?
EK: Honestly, the end of Episode 2 was probably the scene I was looking forward to the most, and then there’s another one in Episode 5 when we have Thanksgiving. Overall, I’m excited for people to see the relationship between Ross and Jenny grow and a lot more scenes with Nicholas Campbell, because he is a great grandfather and he is loads of fun to work with. He comes back in Episode 5, so you do get a lot more of him. I find that our scenes are so electric, and we have so much fun on camera together.

Coroner airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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