Tag Archives: Adrienne Mitchell

Coroner: Serinda Swan on Jenny’s Season 2 journey and the joys of creative freedom

As the second season of Coroner begins, it’s clear that Dr. Jenny Cooper—the hit CBC crime drama’s competent but anxiety-prone heroine—still has a lot of personal demons to confront. She’s overmedicating and she’s developed a disturbing sleepwalking habit.

However, according to series lead Serinda Swan, Jenny doesn’t want to deal with any of this. 

“She just suppresses and suppresses and suppresses,” Swan tells us during a phone interview from her Los Angeles home. “She is taking six Ativan a day. She’s really numbing herself.”

It’s easy to understand why Jenny isn’t eager to dwell on her emotions. After all, Season 1 began with her husband’s death and ended with the revelation that she accidentally killed her sister when they were both children, a fact that her father Gordon (Nicholas Campbell) hid from her. That sort of trauma can be messy and time-consuming to unpack, but—unlike her character—Swan has no interest in glossing over the process.  

“One of the things I find can happen in television is that we establish a big tragedy in someone’s life and deal with it in the first season, and by the second season, we are kind of like, ‘Well, we solved that!’” says Swan. “You sort of lose that fundamental, true human trauma that we all have in various different ways. And mental illness was something that, if we were going to do, for me, you really have to do it justice.”

Swan’s commitment to her character’s mental health struggles led to a key moment in last week’s Season 2 premiere, where Jenny threw her bottle of anti-anxiety pills across a vegetable garden and then started to have a panic attack.

“Those are the types of scenes where I’m like ‘Hey, guys, I need about 15 seconds here to be able to show the panic,’” Swan says. “Because in that scene, she didn’t have any of that panic. It’s just written that she throws it and says, ‘Damnit,’ and goes after it.”

Swan’s license to change scenes on the fly are a tribute to the deep trust showrunner Morwyn Brebner and executive producer/lead director Adrienne Mitchell place in their headliner’s creative instincts and acting methods.

“This is the first project where I’ve really worked on asserting myself and said, ‘You guys, this is how I really, truly feel about this character,’ and have been given the space to be able to say it,” Swan says. “Adrienne and Morwyn have been so supportive of me this season—they were, of course, last season—but this season, Adrienne came to me and said, ‘I trust your instincts and you need to do what it is that you feel is right for Jenny.’ It was this beautiful sort of symbiosis.”

To get us ready for Monday’s new episode, “Borders,” we asked Swan to tell us more about her creative approach to Season 2 and preview how Jenny’s relationships with Gordon, who is suffering from dementia, her son Ross (Ehren Kassam), and her boyfriend Liam (Éric Bruneau) might evolve in upcoming episodes. 

When we last spoke, you told us that you helped develop some of Jenny’s physical quirks, such as the crooked way she cut her bangs, in the first season. What were some of the details you wanted to emphasize in Season 2?
Serinda Swan: We started again with the physicality. Her hair has grown out, and I let it go a little bit lighter. It’s a little bit more feminine, it’s a little bit more relaxed because that where she feels like she is. It’s sort of the outward expression of ‘I’m doing great!’ Then quickly, within the very first scene [of Season 2], you see her lighting a candle for Ross and the match burns down and burns her finger, but she doesn’t react, and you start to realize that she’s numbed herself in a way and that she doesn’t have normal reactions to things. So for me, it was sort of, ‘Oh, look at Jenny, she’s so fancy! We put her in a dress!’ And then it quickly becomes clear that it’s a coping mechanism. I wanted to show the polarity between the two. 

There was one other thing that we were playing with that was really interesting for Jenny physically, which was that she is afraid of her anger and is afraid of her physical anger. At the opening of the season, we see her tackle Kelly [Nicola Correia-Damudeand]. Originally, that wasn’t written in the script, and I said, ‘We need something physical in here to trigger Jenny’s sleepwalking, because that is the next iteration of the dog [from Season 1], right? How do we trigger it?’ The last time Jenny got so mad that she touched someone, she killed them, and that was her sister. At this point, she’s so mad, that [she decides] not another person is going to die in front of her. Nobody else is going to help this woman, and she just runs and tackles her, and this odd reaction comes out, her screaming ‘No!’ at this woman.

Kelly becomes a very big part of her life this season. So this is a journey for the two of them, which is really interesting to see. 

What else can you hint about Jenny’s journey this season?
SS: I think that moment where I throw my Ativan is a great analogy for the season. Obviously, she just talked to Dr. Sharma [Saad Siddiqui], and he’s like, ‘You need to feel, Jenny,’ and I’m like, ‘Why? I understand what happened, I understand the feeling is going to be sadness and all of those things. But I know what that is, I’m getting on with my life, I don’t need to go into it.’ She’s kind of reverting into something that she did before, which was control, control, control. 

It’s this constant suppression and avoidance and eruption this season. All of a sudden she has to face her demons. She has to face what happened in the past, and she has to have some really human conversations. She has to have them with herself, she has to have them with her son, with her boyfriend, and this season, a lot of it is around the conversations she won’t have, and eventually has to have, with her father around his choice to protect her from the truth—that inevitably just ended up protecting himself—because it hurt her so badly. There is a resentment there, and think that’s a really interesting thing to see.

In the premiere, we found out that Ross didn’t graduate from high school. How is that going to go over with Jenny?
SS: At first, she acts like a parent with him, and says, ‘You are in so much trouble and you’re going to get a job,’ and the typical parent reaction, but then, there’s this just utter betrayal that he didn’t tell her the truth, so it’s something for her that hits her at a really deep level. 

But it’s also sort of an interesting dynamic as Gordon deteriorates more and more, the relationship between Ross and Jenny gets more and more strained because he doesn’t understand Jenny’s anger toward her father. It’s a really interesting thing for Ross and Jenny to deal with. They’re going through a growing spurt, you could say. 

And we found out that Liam, who continues to struggle with PTSD, is now living with Jenny. Will they be able to support each other emotionally, or will there be conflict?
SS: Again, we try to ground everything in reality as much as possible. When you have these traumas, you either share them all, and that’s how you bond or you don’t share them at all, and that’s how you bond. And it seems like, at the beginning this season, they are doing the latter. They’re both ignoring the fact that they have work to do, and doing work outwardly, instead of inwardly. So Liam takes on the house as a project and keeps renovating for her and doing acts of service for her and kindness and all that, and Jenny’s out solving crimes and they’re both doing the thing that they think they need to be doing but really not talking about it. And as you see for Jenny, that the truth starts to bubble up, the same starts happening for Liam, he starts getting faced with his demons, and that becomes a point of contention within the relationship, of “Are you going to talk to me?”

And so it’s a struggle between two people who may have gotten into a relationship a little too soon but ultimately love each other so much. The love that’s in this relationship is really beautiful and really true for both of them. It’s just the timing that’s really interesting. They both kind of come into each other’s lives as lessons instead of as true, healthy partners, and so watching them kind of navigate that this season now that they’re in such close proximity is beautiful and lovely and funny and really heartbreaking. 

What are you most excited for viewers to see this season?
SS: For me, it’s having the audience continue Jenny’s journey. I’ve had so many messages from people who deal with mental illness letting me know that they felt seen within the show and within the character, and having that kind of responsibility and then sharing that with our creators and insisting on it in every scene and moment that I possibly could is what I’m excited to share this season.  And how adamant I was in holding that we all have cracks, we all have tears, we all have points of trauma in our life, but it doesn’t mean that we’re not capable, it doesn’t mean that we’re not strong, but it also doesn’t mean that we are able to deal with them all the time in the best possible way. 

I’m excited for people to see that, and I’m so grateful that people had that reaction the first season and shared it with me. Not only does it solidify why I’m an actor, but it also makes all the tough conversations that you have to have within the production on why you need a little more time to prepare to get ready for the panic attack or why you feel that Jenny needs to tackle someone rather than sit with someone a lot easier. It makes it easier to walk into a room and take up space for a second and say what I feel. And the beautiful thing about working with a room full of women is they go, ‘Oh, yes, of course, come sit at the table and let’s hear what you have to say.’ And that’s such a rewarding job to have. 

It’s like being forced to do paint-by-numbers your whole career and then suddenly someone gives you a blank canvass and says, ‘These are the colours you have, this is the character you have, but you’re allowed to paint the picture that you want.’

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

Images courtesy of CBC.

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Coroner creator Morwyn Brebner previews explosive second season

I love Canadian television. If I didn’t, this site wouldn’t exist. My girlfriend, on the other hand, is very picky when it comes to her time and devoting any of it to television, regardless of what country it originates from. So, when she immediately became hooked on Season 1 of Coroner, I knew the CBC had something really special.

Much of Canada agreed. Created, executive-produced and showrun by Morwyn Brebner (Saving Hope, Rookie Blue), Coroner was the highest-rated new series on CBC. Now Coroner roars back with an explosive—and tragic—Season 2 premiere on Monday night.

When we catch up with Jenny (Serinda Swan), she and Donovan (Roger Cross) are investigating a fire in a low-income apartment building.

We spoke to Morwyn Brebner ahead of Monday’s return.

It must’ve been pretty mind-blowing to be the No. 1 new show on CBC, and have great reviews from critics and fans.
Morwyn Brebner: We were so blown away because we felt like when we were making Season 1, we felt so much love for the show. I think there was a feeling on set from everybody, from the cast, from the directors, from the crew, from everyone that we were making something that’s felt special to us.

And so, when people liked it … because you never know how anyone’s going to feel, right? We knew that we had this incredible cast lead by Serinda and Roger. And so, it’s was kind of overwhelming. And then when we got to make Season 2, we just feel so lucky. To have lived with the characters for a season, and now to be able to know them more, it’s like you start Season 2 with a leg up.

We’re thrilled by the response and we’re thrilled people seem to really care about the characters.

When I spoke to Serinda Swan ahead of Season 1, she had a very good idea of who Jenny was as a character and where she wanted the show to go. How important is it to have someone that’s No. 1 on the call sheet that has a clear vision for a show?
MB: Oh, I mean it’s really important. Serinda embodies Jenny. She embodies her in this way that no one else can. It’s such a collaboration with the actor. Her really strong sense of Jenny and her connection to her and the way she embodies her physically … and Serinda’s so smart. And so, her and her guiding intelligence for how she portrays the character is really part of it.

Was there anything after Season 1 was done where you sat down and did a post-mortem and said, ‘OK, this worked, maybe this didn’t work so well. Here are some things we want to do more of in Season 2’?
MB: We did. We have many post-mortems. We have sort of rolling post-mortem. One of the things we really felt was that we wanted to spend more time with the characters. We have these amazing characters. And so, this season is more serialized. We still have great cases. That was something you wanted to keep. We have this incredible case that starts out with a bang. And then that case is like a ribbon that twines itself through the season.

And we have guest characters who also sort of exist through the season and bring out things in our characters that are surprising and are involved. We’ve tried to make this season even more character driven, which is an incredible opportunity to just get to know everyone better. And to feel more complete rooted in who they are.

We have Donovan who has always pushed away personal connections forcing to be connected and not being able to avoid it. And we’re trying to bring it all back also to sort of the cases and the empathy that Jenny feels for the dead that she speaks for.

You’re really delving into the brain in a couple of very serious storylines. When it comes to Jenny’s mental health or even with her father, Gordon, is there someone that you’ve consulted to just make sure that you’re doing it right?
MB: We do. Anxiety is a really interesting disorder in that it manifests in different ways at different times. I live with anxiety, some serious anxiety as do many people. I mean it’s the condition of the age and it’s also a specific thing. We had a consultant. We talked to a psychiatrist. We talked to doctors. This season we’re trying to find new manifestations to visually show what she’s going through.

One of our favourite episodes from last season was the Thanksgiving episode. You could have easily not had a holiday episode or a Thanksgiving episode. A lot of shows don’t. Why did you choose to do one?
MB: We wanted an episode last season that would be much more character, character, character, where we got to see the family and where we got to really feel Jenny as someone struggling. Not just with work, with her family. And it really was one of my favourite episodes too. I mean I love them all, but I felt like that episode … the feeling of just going home with her, it felt real, you know? We all are trying to deal with shit, right?

And in this season we have an episode, it’s not a holiday episode, but it’s sort of, again, a non-work work episode. We were with Jenny much more. We’re with the characters personalized much more this season. But even then, it’s just good to take a break. Like you want to just breathe with people, you want to feel them, you want to live with them, you know?

And that episode, which Noelle Carbone wrote, I love that episode so much.

Another thing I love about Coroner is conversations. The dialogue is very natural. 
MB: Oh, that’s such a nice compliment. Thank you. Well, we have great writers. I like the thing where you’re not always on the beat. If you just take yourself off the on-beat. What I like is to be disciplined but loose. I like to live in the humanity and in the moments. They can talk like people and be with each other. That’s the goal, and if it’s working, I’m glad to see it register.

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

Images courtesy of CBC.

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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: 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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