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Coroner: Showrunner Morwyn Brebner and director Adrienne Mitchell on bringing “real” Jenny Cooper to TV

There’s something a little different about Jenny Cooper (Serinda Swan), the lead character of CBC’s new drama series, Coroner. Like most crime procedural protagonists, Cooper—the creation of British novelist M.R. Hall—is troubled and going through some tough times, most notably, the sudden death of her hard-gambling and secretly destitute husband.

But instead of engaging in Scandinavian thriller-style brooding like fellow book-turned-TV crime-solvers John Cardinal and Kurt Wallander, Cooper simply gets down to business. Yes, she sucks down anti-anxiety pills and suffers the occasional crying spell in her car, but she shakes it off and keeps going, every step forward a tiny act of defiance. Her superpower is just getting up each morning and doing what needs to be done with as much humour and grace as possible—even when that involves investigating gruesome crime scenes. And that makes her feel refreshingly real.

That realness of character was what made series executive producer and lead director Adrienne Mitchell want to adapt Hall’s The Coroner book series into a TV show. It’s also what enticed showrunner Morywn Brebner, who worked with Mitchell on CBC’s Bellevue, to sign on to the series.

“We were really searching for a series of novels that had a strong female lead who was unpredictable, who was authentic, with a sense of humour,” says Mitchell.

Brebner adds, “[Jenny’s] anxiety, and her fearlessness, and humour, and her deep, deep intelligence—which is really beautifully embodied by Serinda—made me feel like there was something about this woman that was like the woman you wanna be. So flawed, but so committed to living her life the way she feels she needs to.”

To get us ready for Monday’s new episode, “Scattered,” which is the first of a two-part instalment, Mitchell and Brebner gave us a call from Toronto to tell us more about what makes Jenny Cooper special and how they went about adapting Coroner for the small screen.

First of all, how did Coroner come about? I know that you two have worked together in the past.
Adrienne Mitchell: At Back Alley [Film Productions], Janis Lundman and I are the principals, and we were really searching for a series of novels that had a strong female lead who was unpredictable, who was authentic, with a sense of humour. And who was placed in a world that had a very strong investigational line but also a very strong character line that sort of dipped in and out of her work and family. We came across the very talented M.R. Hall’s books and were really were struck by the character Jenny Cooper, who just stood out to us on so many levels, being someone who was full of incredible intelligence but also full of her own theories and going about it in ways that will blow up in her face and also doing it in such a way that she was strangely self-aware. It was just such a fun read to explore her character.

And we were so fortunate to work with Morwyn on Bellvue. I got to know her since I was the lead director, and Morwyn’s voice is a really amazing, unique voice, not only in our country but I think in North America. I thought she would be amazing for this. Janis and I were just praying and hoping that she liked the novels.

Morwyn Brebner: I really liked working with Back Alley on Bellvue, and I really wasn’t looking for anything to do, and I certainly wasn’t looking for anything in the sort of crime realm. But then I read the books myself and was really drawn to the character for the reasons that Adrienne was saying and because she seemed like a real woman to me. Her anxiety and her fearlessness and humour and her deep, deep intelligence—which is really beautifully embodied by Serinda—it made me feel like there was something about this woman that was like the woman you wanna be. So flawed, but so committed to living her life the way she feels she needs to. It’s a really beautiful quality in a woman. She’s not afraid of things. She’s drawn to do the things she needs to do, and it’s really amazing.

One thing I particularly enjoy about the series is just what you said, that Jenny feels real. Unlike a lot of characters in crime procedurals, she doesn’t have any super abilities and she isn’t mopey. While she has anxiety and other issues, she is getting out of bed and showing up every day, choosing to be present. Just like a lot of women I know. 
AM: What you’ve just said there is the best thing and is a cornerstone of this series. She gets up after getting beaten up, and she just keeps getting up. She’ll have an anxiety attack, she’ll wrap her Ativan in wrapping paper during inquests and then pop the pill. She’s got this incredible fight in her and just keeps going. Morwyn and I have talked about this, and we love that she doesn’t dwell and wallow.

MB: For me, what’s really interesting is that a lot of the ways we deal with women who are complex in shows, is we re-traumatize them. That becomes their narrative, exploring the character through re-traumatization, which isn’t quite something that we do with male characters. What I love about Jenny is that that’s not actually her arc. It’s a going through and it’s a moving forward. We used to talk about the quality of her suddenness, which was that she would just do things. And that action and forward living is really exciting to see in a female character. I really love her because she does feel like, as you say, a woman you would know.

I also appreciate the way you deal with Jenny’s grief in the series. It ebbs and flows, recedes and then reappears in new ways. I thought that was an important quality in a series that revolves around death. Is that something you were actively trying to portray?
MB: Her husband doesn’t die in the books, actually. And the impulse to do that, for me, was that I was having trouble fitting the husband into the storyline and then I felt somehow the decision to kill the husband really made the story snap into focus for me. You know, in a Disney movie, you kill the parents so the kids can have an adventure? It was a little like that. And I was trying to figure out how to fully move the show from the books into our world. That was the decision that actually made it happen, and after I did that, I felt that the show really came alive.

AM: Grief is not a linear thing, and we trying to really service that in this series and explore that. Grief comes and goes, and it may trigger something else in your life that’s unresolved, and then that grief merges into something else. So I really tried to explore all the dimensions. Grief is not one thing. It’s active. It can manifest in so many ways. So what you’re seeing is something that we really wanted to work with.

MB: Grief is something that feels within you and lives without you, and that’s the process. You’ll come to see that it’s very integral to the series.

What are some of the other changes you made from the novels?
MB: The relationship with her son, which is beautiful, we’ve altered. M.R. has been very generous about that. The character of Alison [played by Tamara Podemski] is in the book, and we love that character so much, and the character of McAvoy [played by Roger Cross] is in the book, but he’s in one of the books in a different way.

It was really saying, ‘How do we take this beautiful spirit and the beautiful character in these books and make her a really Canadian character, a Toronto character and let her live in a way that feels like she’s really part of our world and really representing for us?’

And how did you go about taking a British story and a British character and making them feel, as you say, “really Canadian”?
MB: That’s a really interesting question. I feel in an adaptation, you try to retain the essence of something, but the specifics of the show are very Canadian. Everything is set very specifically. Everyone speaks specifically.

AM: And all of the cases come from things that have happened in Canada and are inspired by them. The research, the coroner research, the pathologist research, we had consultants who would share things that were happening here in Toronto. We have such a diverse city, which we love, and that’s really reflected in the casting and in the stories. So it just happened kind of organically.

MB: Yeah, I think in order to adapt something, you have to put it into your own perspective and you have to put yourself into it and you have to, you know, have skin in the game. I feel that it was a very organic process, but I do feel like in the end, the transmutation happened while retaining the strength of the source material.

AM: I think our show is a bit more urban, in a bigger city. I think the M.R. Hall version was more English villagey, that small town vibe. So we’re in a much bigger urban environment. One of the biggest changes, too, is that our place of work is quite a big institution. It’s a state-of-the-art facility.

MB: Our coroner’s office in Toronto is the most advanced facility in North America. In the book, it’s much more sort of ad hoc and dusty, and it has a real charm, but it’s very different. We wanted to represent the reality of our situation here. And in the book, she’s a lawyer, because a coroner is a lawyer there, and here, she’s a doctor because that’s the way it is in Ontario.

Adrienne, as the lead director for the show, what sort of look did you want to bring to the series?
AM: I think the juxtapositions in Toronto are fascinating. The city is growing exponentially. There are so many condos and buildings being built. So, one of the things we were looking at visually was the contrast of that versus nature being moved out, people being moved out, the tension of living in that type of environment, where there is constant change and people being squeezed out. Visually, I don’t think Parkdale gets featured a lot in any of the Toronto shows I’ve seen. Parkdale, where there’s so much gentrification going on, where’s there are so many colliding communities.

It’s also very important for us to have geography, locations that inform [Jenny] as the coroner. The coroner is all about looking at the world and how bad shit happens. It’s not so much about her perspective and not so much about convicting a criminal. It’s, ‘How do I prevent this from happening again?’ And, in that way, we need to see the environment of where the death occurred and visually from her perspective, what that looks like.  We also wanted to visually explore something about her personal relationship with death, and we love these moments when she has a little prayer that she says to the dead, and we’re working with all sorts of interesting lenses to really establish her personal connection to the dead and that they’re not just a body, that there is something there, that she has to try to find the truth in the situation to sort of give them peace.

This week’s episode is the kick-off of a two-parter. What hints can you give us about it, and why did this particular story require two parts?.
AM: It needs two parts because it takes Jenny into a really personal relationship with a character whose life is going to be greatly endangered if she doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

MB: And it leads Jenny to make a decision that has strong, strong implications for the rest of the season. These two episodes are just so exciting.

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

Images courtesy of CBC.

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Links: Little Dog, Season 2

From Charles Trapunski of Brief Take:

Link: Interview: Joel Thomas Hynes and Sherry White
“I think everyone loves an underdog story and he is an incredible underdog who, I think, everyone felt quite sympathetic towards. I also think that it didn’t take itself too seriously but it also wasn’t a send-up, there are some raw emotions in it as well as the fact that it’s funny. It’s the kind of show that I’d love to watch so I’m glad that other people are enjoying it as well.” Continue reading. 

From Bridget Liszewski of The TV Junkies:

Link: Little Dog creators say it’s time for Tommy to take responsibility
When viewers last saw Little Dog’s Tommy Ross (Joel Thomas Hynes), he was riding off into the night after a winning a fight that he was supposed to throw, making his family, adversaries and many others pretty upset with him. Continue reading.

From Melissa Girimonte of The Televixen:

Link: Get ready for Round 2 of Little Dog with Joel Thomas Hynes and Sherry White
“The second season is exploring the fallout of [Tommy winning the fight], and his relationship with his father, Lowly Sr. (Andy Jones). In the first season, we looked at Tommy’s relationship with his mom, but now we’re diving into fatherhood.” Continue reading.

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Preview: Little Dog gets back into the ring for Season 2

Life for Tommy “Little Dog” Ross isn’t getting any easier. In fact, it’s looking a lot tougher for him in Season 2. And, honestly, I wouldn’t want it any other way. That makes it all the more rewarding when he punches his way—literally or figuratively—out of a bad situation.

Returning for Season 2 this Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on CBC, Little Dog picks up moments after the Season 1 finale. Tommy “Little Dog” Ross (Joel Thomas Hynes) was on the run after winning his rematch with Rico “Havoc” St. George (Dwain Murphy). Why? Because that went against Tucker’s (Mary Walsh) wishes. The win also messed up Lowly’s (Stephen Oates) bet against his own brother. The result? Sylvia (Ger Ryan) lost her house.

When we catch up with Tommy, he’s in a bad way. Battered and bruised physically from the showdown with Rico and hurting emotionally thanks to his family turning against him, Tommy pedals into the night and seeks shelter in an old shack. Freezing and frustrated, he lashes out at a bird fluttering overhead and kills it. Shaken, Tommy adopts the now empty bird nest and its egg contents as his own. Finally, this is something he can control and care for and not even a bad canned spam will stop Tommy from mothering the eggs.

Show creator, executive producer Hynes and showrunner, executive producer Sherry White have created something truly special in Little Dog in general and Tommy more specifically. Hynes brings an incredible amount of hurt, longing and vulnerability to Tommy. It’s truly special. Amid the maelstrom of life in the Ross clan, he’s the sensitive centre, a guy who wants to be loved and cared for but gets dumped on at every turn. It doesn’t appear as though things will be getting any easier for Tommy. By the end of Thursday’s return, Tommy is introduced to the child he had with Pamela (Julia Chan), opening a new door for Tommy to stumble through: fatherhood.

I can’t wait to see how he handles that.

Little Dog airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on CBC.

Image courtesy of CBC.

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Link: Coroner: Morwyn Brebner and Adrienne Mitchell talk “Bunny”

From Bridget Liszewski of The TV Junkies:

Link: Coroner: Morwyn Brebner and Adrienne Mitchell talk “Bunny”
“Roger and Serinda have a great dynamic and really love and respect each other. But they are very different people and do things in a different way where they sometimes get in each other’s way. That awesome dynamic really works for their characters because they do things different, have different instincts and can clash. They are trying to figure it out, and it’s not a war, but they are trying to figure it out. It’s a lot of fun to watch.” Continue reading.

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Shawn Doyle speaks of Unspeakable and some regrets playing Canada’s first prime minister

Unspeakable was, as the title suggests, once just that. The CBC miniseries delves into the tainted blood scandal in Canada that took place during the 1980s as the AIDS crisis was unfolding. A time when there was a misunderstanding in the disease, how it was spread and how some Canadians, as a result, were infected with Hepatitis C. It was something not talked about. Not anymore.

As I already covered in this previous story, writer Robert C. Cooper acquired Hepatitis C because of tainted blood. He turned his personal experience into the basis for Unspeakable, which tells the story from the perspective of two families caught in a tragedy that gripped Canada, as well as the doctors, nurses, corporations and bureaucracy responsible.

Shawn Doyle stars in Unspeakable as Ben Landry, a journalist. By the end of Episode 1, Ben and his wife, Alice (Camille Sullivan), learn of their son’s Hepatitis C diagnosis and realize it could have been prevented. That sends Ben on an investigative path to find out who is responsible. We spoke to Doyle about his most recent project and reached back into the past to talk about his portrayal of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister.

Give me the background, Shawn. How did you end up finding out about Robert’s project in the first place, and what attracted you to it?
Shawn Doyle: Robert approached me about doing it, and he sent me the first few scripts, and then a couple outlines. I didn’t know a lot about the scandal other than the fact that my mother stood the risk of actually becoming infected because she had a number of transfusions in the early 80s. I read the script, and Robert had told me to look at the character, Ben, that I played. I actually originally was more attracted to the other character, Will, in so far as he was more volitional, you know?

I suppose on an unconscious level, there was a resistance within me about playing a character that ultimately is so paralyzed, feeling so impotent at the top of the series. Robert and I talked about it, and he kind of clarified why he thought I was appropriate for Ben. Ultimately, the result of that conversation and reading those scripts, I was just honoured to play the role because it felt like he was really entrusting me with kind of an awesome responsibility.

This project was personal for Robert. What about for you? You mentioned your mother.
SD: For me, it was really about dealing with the humanity of his relationships, the minute-to-minute experience of trying to reconcile himself with his wife and his son, and also trying to seek some direction in his life. In some ways, my job as the actor was to fill those very human moments and allow the larger story to take shape as Robert dictated through the writing.

In the first episode, it’s established that we’re starting to find out information. There’s a virus that’s in the States and is creeping its way into Canada. There’s fear, but there’s also frustration, that people don’t seem to be taking this seriously. They think that it isn’t a big deal. That really resonated with me.
SD: Yeah, I think everybody is in the dark, and there was nobody to turn to. That’s kind of the clear message that comes through, and certainly, it doesn’t take much of an extrapolation to figure out current-day examples of the same thing. We trust all these governing bodies to guide us in the proper direction, be it health or environment or safety. Constantly, we come face to face with evidence that nobody really knows, and often, people don’t care.

Sometimes we get a little bit blasé and smug in this country. When it comes to something like this project, Walkerton with the water and people dying, or Maple Leaf Foods, people getting sick, contaminated foods … We really can’t afford to be smug in this country because stuff has happened here, and people have died in this country, too.
SD: I would second your statement there. And I would go so far as to say that we often thumb our noses at the States and feel that we have some sort of superiority when it comes to taking care of our own and not being affected by the same level of corruption. But the truth is, like you just said, with Walkerton, with this, with the fact that private blood companies are still on the rise in this country, are still trying to be not regulated. I mean, this stuff happens, and it will continue to happen unless there are watchdogs out there looking after everybody.

In something like Unspeakable a historical precedent is set. It’s based on real events. As an actor, is it any different taking on something that’s historically accurate, or something like Bellevue, where it’s fiction? Does that matter to you when it comes to a project? Is one more difficult than the other?
SD: I think that the subject matter dictates how difficult a project is. For example, I played John A. Macdonald, and that required very specific preparation in terms of dialect and movement and look. In some ways, that kind of work frees your emotional life because it supports all the other kind of work you do from the moment-to-moment acting work. In some ways, I treated this more like fiction than trying to portray a real-life person because, in fact, I was an amalgam of other people. It was less about trying to pin down a specific person, a specific character that existed, and more about just trying to find it in the moment with my fellow actors.

The speech Ben gives in Episode 1 is stirring. You’re under makeup and you can feel the age in your voice. You can just feel the weight of what’s gone on in Ben’s life coming through in his voice as he stands in front of that group of people. It was pretty amazing.
SD: Oh, thanks for saying that. That was one of the most terrifying days in my career, I would say, to get up in front of 300 background people and be in age makeup and trying to play someone in their 70s who’s gone through this experience. That all happened very early in the shooting, too, so it wasn’t as if I had the momentum or the weight of having done a number of scenes. It was really very close to the top shooting, and so it really relied on imagination and trust and just trying to jump off the cliff. Also, when you’re in that kind of makeup, it’s really important that you try not to act your age, act that age because it’ll just weigh too much. Yeah. I haven’t seen it, and I don’t know if I want to see it, to be honest with you.

It’s so funny that you say that that was nerve-racking for you to be up in front of a group of people in makeup and saying that speech. That’s so funny. Out of all the work that you’ve done over the years, I find that interesting.
SD: Well, first of all, I hate speaking in public. I have a huge fear of it, as a lot of actors do unless they’re hiding behind a character. But secondly, there’s just so many traps to fall into when you’re playing … First of all, when you have a prosthetic on your face, and second, you’re playing such a different age. But more than anything, for me, it was the eagerness to try to capture the weight of history, the years that had gone by as he has struggled to keep a family together and not always won. I wanted to find ways to live that inside and not have to feel as if I had to act that, if that makes any sense, to present it. I didn’t want to present it. As much preparation as a five-page speech does in that context, it also requires time to just allow your heart and your mind to travel through what that must be like. Because again, we hadn’t done enough of the series yet for me to have physically experienced it, so it was all imagination. So, that’s what was terrifying about it.

Because you brought up John A. Macdonald. John A.: Birth of a Country was recently available on Encore +, so it’s readily available for people for free via YouTube. How does it feel to have that available online now for a new generation of viewers to see?
SD: I have very mixed feelings about it. I think it’s actually a very good film. I’m very proud of the work that we did, and I’m proud of the work I did. But post-playing John A. Macdonald, I discovered that I am First Nations. I have my First Nations status and I also now have a life partner who is an Indigenous artist, Métis, Cree and Saulteaux. My worldview of that particular part of our world has just expanded so dramatically, and I understand that there’s a glorification that happened in our production that I can no longer get behind.

Now, the idea was to do four films through his four major tenures as a prime minister. I think if we would have had that journey, we could see the frailty of the man or his flaws. We didn’t get a chance to do it in the one film, and unfortunately, we lionize him a little bit in a way that I regret based on what I’ve since learned about his behaviour towards First Nations people. Because when we did that movie back in 2009, I did my due diligence, and I read biographies and everything. There weren’t any anti-Macdonald biographies easily and readily accessible, so we didn’t dwell on that in the films, obviously. I didn’t really uncover that in my own research, and that’s something that I just have to carry with me.

So whenever things have come up with his anniversary a couple years ago, I have decided to kind of publicly talk about that, certain situations, because I think it’s important.

Unspeakable airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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