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, and Sound On Sight. 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.

This Life showrunner Joseph Kay breaks down the Season 2 premiere

Spoiler warning: Do not read this article until you have watched This Life’s Season 2 premiere, “Stay Positive.”

CBC drama This Life kicked off its second season Sunday night with “Stay Postive,” an episode that delivered equal parts hope and angst. While Natalie (Torri Higginson) was relieved to experience side effects that could indicate she’s receiving the real drug over a placebo in her drug trial, she was also blindsided by a contentious meeting with her ex-husband David (Louis Ferreira) over their children’s future. Meanwhile, Matthew (Rick Roberts) grew closer to his son but struggled with his separation from Nicole (Marianne Farley), and Maggie (Lauren Lee Smith) made living arrangements with her new friend Raza (Hamza Haq)—a move that may or may not bring more stability to her life.

Throughout Season 2, we’ll be chatting with This Life writers about the major themes and plot points of each episode. This week, series showrunner Joseph Kay joins us to break down the premiere—which he penned—and provide some behind-the-scenes insights.

Last season, you were a first-time showrunner. Was your approach any different the second time around? 
Joseph Kay: We were able to play to our strengths more in the second season than we were in the first. I was happy with the first season, too, but you learn what you like and you learn where you think the show really lives, and I was able to focus on that.

And just getting to know the actors is a really big one. We’re on set all the time and we develop relationships with the actors and their characters and that informs the way we wrote the second season in a really big way.

As a showrunner, what kind of environment do you try to create in your writers’ room? 
It’s just really important to me that it’s an unbelievably safe place, that it’s not competitive and that nobody is vying to win anything, that everybody feels totally safe to come up with whatever possibly lame idea—myself included—that they have. It’s a no assholes rule. It should just be a safe place, and I really think it is. It’s a very, very hard show to write because there is plot in the show, but the plot is primarily emotional. So our job is to get into the heads of these people and to know what they’re feeling and to navigate sometimes very slight movements of emotion and make that dramatic, and it’s really hard. So it only works if everybody is having a good time and everybody feels safe to draw from their own lives and experiences. And I have a really great group of writers. I’m really, really lucky.

This Life is filmed in Montreal. What’s it like shooting there as opposed to someplace like Toronto?
Shooting in Montreal is fantastic, it’s a very film-friendly city. Our local crews are incredible. We have a much smaller crew than I’m accustomed to in television compared to shooting in Toronto, but then we get a lot of value. I’m really proud of the look of the show, and I’m really proud of the subtle ways I feel the city works itself into the show.

The show is shot entirely on location, no studios, no sets, and that is a real production challenge. Again, it’s a show about how people feel and we can’t tell it all in Natalie’s house. We have to move around. It just needs that dimension of different parts of the city. We sometimes make four location moves in one day, so we can shoot one scene in a restaurant or one scene in a cafe or wherever, and the crew is amazing and the city is very accommodating to that sort of thing. Although, one thing is that it is a very noisy city!

The Season 1 premiere began with Natalie learning she was dying of cancer, but the Season 2 premiere starts with Natalie ziplining, taking a literal and figurative leap into hopefulness. Was that a purposeful contrast?
Yes. The pilot begins in such a way that it tells you all hope is lost, essentially. I think that’s amazing and so brave and that was really exciting. But it was really important for us to find a way to pivot into hope, and as we were writing the back part of the first season we decided we were going to introduce this idea of a drug trial, and we wanted there to be hope. We never want to, and we never will betray the central conceit of the show. The information that’s introduced to her in that first scene, we’re not backing away from that. But we just loved the idea of framing the season with hope and how you might sometimes talk yourself into having hope, whether it’s realistic or unrealistic.

Natalie’s ex-husband, David, is challenging her custody plans for the kids. How is that going to play out?
Her fight with her husband is real and very important for her. If you look at the first episode of the show, other than the information her doctor gives her, the first thing that we dramatize with Natalie is her sister telling her she hasn’t lived her life well. We bring back the husband to let her examine her own choices in her life, to let her examine that question and make sense of it. We want her to dig deep into who she is and the choices that she’s made and to go on the journey with her. We’re really going on two journeys. We’re going on the health journey and all the inherent stakes that come with that, and we’re also going on this very involved personal journey with Natalie in her life and the choices that she’s made and the person she is and what she wants to change before it’s too late.

So many characters are in flux in this episode. Matthew’s marriage to Nicole is crumbling, Maggie is trying to figure out where to live and Oliver is trying to rebuild. Everyone is looking for a place to land.
I think we always sort of looked at it as, ‘How can we tell the story of an extended family that reflects the reality of the way that our lives are always changing and realigning?’ As soon as we knew what we were doing with Matthew and Nicole, for example, we really loved the notion of taking this marriage and ripping it apart and watching it come back together or continue to fall apart on a really micro level. We don’t race through any of the steps, not with Natalie’s cancer, and we don’t race through the steps with them. It doesn’t go from rage to forgiveness or rage to it’s over and get a new partner for him or for her. I think that’s the way the world works. The thing that you think gives your life permanency isn’t that in five years, and you look back and think ‘How did everything change so much?’

In terms of everybody being in flux, I think this idea of hope hopefully trickles down to all the characters, maybe not literally in every sense but thematically.

This Life David
Can David (Louis Ferreira) be trusted? 

Teens can be tricky to write well, but This Life does a great job placing Natalie’s kids in real and relatable situations. In this episode, I loved that Romy stole one of her mom’s cancer pills for the most Romy of reasons: to examine it in the science lab. What’s the key to writing believable teen characters?
The writers have their own approach to all of those characters and we have our ways to make it feel like it’s really believable. I mean, I think everyone has a special dial-in with Romy for some reason. She’s a really unique girl and we have lots of ideas for her that we don’t do but that we get really excited about and try to really gently land in the places she’d be. We just work really hard to keep her scenarios believable. I think one thing is that we don’t think, ‘What do we want to do with Romy?’ We don’t do that with any of the characters, particularly the kids. We look at it more as ‘What would Romy do in this situation?’ We just really try to follow her, and that’s an easy thing to say, but it’s a hard thing to execute.

What can you tease about upcoming episodes?
Natalie continues to go through the trial, and we try to unpack the relationship she’s had with her husband. Matthew tries to put his marriage back together the best he can, and there’s lots of complications for those two. Oliver plays a much bigger role in the second season than he did in the first. He tries to start his life over again. He came to Montreal to see his sister, but he stays to start his life over. We pay a lot of attention to him and the choices he’s making. And Maggie has an interesting journey.

Yes, she’s got a big episode next week.
Yeah. Without spoiling that, Maggie is introduced as a character with her own very specific set of values, which we think are entirely valid. We never wanted to say that Maggie’s singular values aren’t valid, we think that they are. But we wanted to find ways to mess with her. I’m really excited about her story. She’s managed to get to this point in her life by taking everything lightly, and we wanted to put her in a situation that she ultimately couldn’t take lightly, and I think that works in interesting ways for her.

And Natalie’s kids go on very specific journeys into the world. One of the benefits of framing the season with hope is that we’re allowing them a sort of breath. They’re not walking around all the time thinking that their mother is dying. By opening up hope a little bit we’ve allowed the kids to not have to spend all their time focusing on that and instead react to where their lives are right now and see where that takes them in the world.

I have one last character to ask about. Please tell me the cat Natalie found will be a series regular. He’s cute.
The cat is going to stick around.

I was afraid he may have made outrageous contract demands and we wouldn’t see more of him.
He’s not expensive, but he is time-consuming. When I wrote it I didn’t even think about that. You see dogs a lot on TV, and I know dogs can sit on demand, but I didn’t even think cats could do that, but they can. This one was really good. He jumped into Torri’s arms at the end of the episode totally spontaneously.

This Life airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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This Life opens Season 2 with hope and conflict

This Life is often compared to Parenthood. It’s an apt association, as both shows blend melancholy and humour in a similarly touching fashion. But it’s also fitting because This Life, which is an adaptation of popular Radio-Canada series Nouvelle adresse, has faced the same uphill battle for ratings that Parenthood and other superb family dramas like Friday Night Nights always seem to face in a crowded TV landscape. It wasn’t a given that CBC would bring the Lawson family back for a second season, but, thankfully, it did.

Hopefully, more viewers will give this gem a chance in Season 2. Based on the first few screeners, we can promise it’s worth your time. Here are a few non-spoilery details about This Life‘s second season premiere, “Stay Positive,” written by showrunner Joseph Kay.

Natalie embraces hope
While the Season 1 premiere began with Natalie receiving devastating news, Season 2 begins in a much more hopeful place as Natalie undergoes a drug trial that could buy her time. But is she receiving the real drug or a placebo?

Can David be trusted?
Natalie’s wayward ex-husband, David, showed up on her doorstep at the end of Season 1, asking to resume his fatherly duties. Expect the tensions between the former couple to immediately escalate as David’s motives remain unclear.

School’s out for the summer
The Lawson kids are on summer break and each of them is dealing with their mother’s illness in very different ways. Look for Caleb to explore his freedom, Emma to ponder her employment options and Romy to make surprising plans for her future.

Matthew and Nicole and Maggie … and Natalie
Maggie told Nicole about Matthew’s affair and son last season, resulting in a broken marriage and a brother-sister blowout. All three parties are still dealing with the fallout as Season 2 begins, and the situation could bleed over into Natalie’s looming custody battle with David.

The ensemble cast is top notch
Beginning with the sublime Torri Higginson and continuing with Rick Roberts, Lauren Lee Smith, Kristopher Turner and throughout, This Life features an immensely likeable cast you look forward to spending time with each week.

This Life airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC.

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Torri Higginson on This Life’s “Positive” Season 2 premiere

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.

This Life S2
Julia Scarlett Dan, Torri Higginson and Stephanie Janusauskas in This Life Episode 201, “Stay Positive.”

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.

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