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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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Coroner: Serinda Swan on destigmatizing Jenny’s anxiety and what’s coming in the second half of the season

There is a moment in the next episode of Coroner where Jenny Cooper, played by Serinda Swan, suffers a panic attack while working a crime scene. She ducks into an alleyway and tries to talk herself down, all the while struggling to breathe. From first constricted intake of breath to last grounding exhale, the scene takes up nearly two minutes of air time—time that many other crime procedurals would dedicate to dead bodies and case solving.

But Coroner is not like other shows, and that is partly due to series lead Swan. Given wide creative leeway by series showrunner Morwyn Brebner and executive producer/lead director Adrienne Mitchell, the West Vancouver native immerses herself in Cooper’s quirks and coping mechanisms, letting instinct meld with copious mental health research to create unexpected beats of truth in each episode. The extended panic attack in Monday’s new instalment, “Quick or Dead”—the conclusion of an involving two-part hunt for a serial killer—is a perfect example of her process.

“I know we only have a certain amount of time in the show,” Swan says, “but I can’t shorten the panic attack to make it work for television, because that doesn’t represent people who have panic attacks. Most people’s panic attacks average between two and a half to three minutes, depending on the severity. And so I was like, ‘That’s what’s going to happen.'”

Swan gave us a call following her recent appearance at CBC’s Superfun Superfan Weekend in Toronto to tell us about developing Jenny’s emotional landscape, ending the stigma of mental health issues, and what’s coming up in the second half of the season.

I recently spoke with Morwyn Brebner and Adrienne Mitchell about adapting Coroner from M.R. Hall’s novels, and they told me that they loved how real Jenny’s character is. Is that also what drew you in?
Serinda Swan: I think it was. I think it was that possibility of really showing a human’s experience. I think Morwyn has such an incredible capacity to write that and also leave the space for an actor to fill it. She has a beautiful capacity to collaborate as well. So when we got together, it was figuring out what I would come up with and what Morwyn would come up with, and I remember there was sort of a beautiful passing of the character from Morwyn to me, where she was like, ‘She’s yours now, and you get to incubate her and hold on to her and develop her.’

So I did a lot of work to make her as real as possible, and there were days on set where I was like, ‘The blocking doesn’t feel right to me, it doesn’t feel natural. I feel like I need to go over here.’ And it wasn’t for any other reason than I actually felt that I needed to go over there. And it was really grounding her as best as possible in every single choice that she made so that I could show up and, as soon as they yelled action, I was fully Jenny. It was an incredible experience because everybody supported that.

What sort of things did you add to her character?
SS: Everything from her ticks to the way her trauma shows up, her anxiety. She starts to feel anxiety, but that can be as small as your heartbeat raising, or it showing up on your face, or having a twitch, or breaking out in a sweat, or crying. It can be a multitude of things, so figuring out how to show that. But one of the biggest things was showing the imbalance in her life. Everything in her life when she was with [her now-deceased husband] David was very balanced and very controlled. She was very Type A, and as soon as the things that controlled her and held her together start disappearing, like the husband, like the job, like the money, like the house, you start to see her off-balance and you see her out of control.

And so, what does that look like? It’s everything from me not telling Éric [Bruneau] in the scene where Liam walks around the corner and asks her for a beer that I’m going to be slumped over and leaning against a wall, you know, kind of making fun of myself. Because he’s supposed to walk around the corner, and I’m supposed to be standing there and he goes, ‘Hey, do you wanna get a beer?’ And it’s watching his natural reaction to me doing something personal and embarrassing and how that makes the two of them react and how that deepens their relationship right off the bat. Because he likes that she’s weird. It’s little things, like ‘I’m going to lie down in this part.’ And [the cast and crew are] like, ‘What?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to lie down in this part.’ So there were little things that I would do to make her feel more real.

Mental health issues are heavily featured in the show. Jenny sees a therapist, she suffers from anxiety, and she keeps seeing that black dog. What was your approach to understanding that side of her?
SS: I’m sure we all have times where we have mental illness. Whether it’s like a common cold that comes and goes, or more like a disease that stays with you your entire life, we all have bouts of it, we all struggle with it, we’ve all been infected with it. And it can be as simple a regular cold, where you come in contact with the wrong person and they say the wrong thing, and they affect something in your life. It could be either an old memory or an old trauma or something that they have inflicted on you. And it’s so stigmatized, and it’s something that we hide and we’re ashamed of, and it shouldn’t be that way anymore.

Jenny takes pills, Jenny also goes to a psychiatrist, and Jenny also cries in her car. But Jenny is also a super strong female that is fighting for the truth and is better at her job than most of the men that have been there for many, many years—and she’s having panic attacks on the floors. She’s just human. She’s a human being in all of those experiences, and there’s no judgment on it. It’s watching something that could happen to you and seeing how she goes through it. Just because she takes Ativan and drugs to help, doesn’t mean she’s a drug addict, it doesn’t mean she’s going to spiral down into the opioid crisis. Just because she she sees a shrink doesn’t mean she’s crazy. It’s kind of pushing into all of these stigmas and figuring out who she is and letting her figure it out as well as the audience.

Jenny saw the black dog again in Episode 3. What does that mean?
SS: The dog is an integral part of the story, and, seeing how it shows up in the very first scene [of the series], it makes you think it will probably show up near the end as well. The dog leads her to her own personal trauma, and as you get to the end of Episode 4, you start to realize that there’s a lot more going on with her than you or she can see. The dog is a portal into her own trauma, and as she’s searching for answers in her world, and she’s also searching for them in herself.

Jenny has an extended panic attack in Episode 4. What was your preparation like for that scene?
SS: I did a lot of research on it. There’s a young man on YouTube that actually caught one of his panic attacks on camera, and he actually posted it to show what it would look like. And there are several other people you can watch who have filmed and shared what a panic attack looks like for them, and it’s really good that they’ve shared that. At the end of the season, [Jenny] really comes face to face with her panic and tries to figure out where it’s coming from, and again, without judging it. Sometimes you see her fight it, and sometimes you see her take a drug to try and stop it. Other times you see her lie down on the floor and let it pass through her. So, it’s really just a really honest journey about what it’s like to live with trauma and anxiety.

And it’s not the be all, end all, but it’s one of the first times I’ve seen anxiety represented in that way. And I really wanted to make sure that we did it in a very non-judgmental way, that we didn’t put a stigma on it, but that we also didn’t make her somebody who’s, like, so strong that she’s getting through it on her own. It’s a beautiful look at what she’s experiencing. So, yeah, I did a lot of research. I talked to friends who have anxiety, and I’ve also had lots of anxiety in my life. So I reached in and figured out my own shit as well.

I know we only have a certain amount of time in the show, but I can’t shorten the panic attack to make it work for television, because that doesn’t represent people who have panic attacks. Most people’s panic attacks average between two and a half to three minutes, depending on the severity. And so, I was like, ‘That’s what’s going to happen.’ I mean, you can edit it to show the time cut, but I can’t shorten it. Because that’s not true. So when I talked to Morwyn and Adrienne about it, they really gave me the space to do that.

One of my favourite relationships on the show is the one between Jenny and her son, Ross (Ehren Kassam). I like the dynamic where she supports him sometimes and then he supports her. They lean on each other. 
SS: I’d say, from the get-go, their relationship was one of the most important things for me coming into the show. I had to do chemistry reads for two people coming into the show—one being for Liam, and one being for Ross—because it was really important that we had the right chemistry and also the right idea of these characters and who they could be. And Ehren, from Day 1, just let me smush his face and, like, lick my finger and wipe his face and play with his hair and [treat him] like a kid. He allowed me to step into that mother role. So that scene at the end of the second episode, where we have a fight? If that wasn’t set up properly, it could almost look abusive because it’s a young male swiping at his mother. But when you understand the love that’s there, you see that it’s a small child having a tantrum. And these are things that some networks don’t take risks on because it doesn’t look right. But just because it doesn’t look right, it doesn’t mean that it’s not real. And it’s our responsibility as actors to make sure we set the stage so that people understand that this is real and this is part of life. And Ehren was right there with me. I was like, ‘Hey, can you try this? Let’s try having a tantrum and see what that looks like.’ So it was really amazing being able to work with him and develop that relationship, and I love how it grows over the season.

It’s really amazing because there’s a duality between the young son who’s lost his father, that’s angry at his mother and with the whole situation of being uprooted from his school and his house and all of that, and then there is a side of him where they’re so co-dependent. Because she was 19 when she had him. It was a kid having a kid.  So there’s this co-dependency because they both grew up together. We really see how the husband, David, was the glue that held it all together as the mature adult. And then, throughout the season, you start to sometimes see Ross as the parent and she’s the kid, and sometimes she’s the parent and he’s the kid. And you see them struggle and succeed to redefine their relationship.

Over the last couple of episodes, Ross is also developing a friendship with Liam. And, of course, Jenny and Liam are building a romantic relationship. What role is Liam going to play in their lives the rest of the season? 
SS: Everybody seems to like Liam! It’s a wonderful kind of relationship between Liam and Ross. We get to see Ross grow in a way that he hasn’t before. He hasn’t been around a man like that, and we get to see Liam really care about Ross as the season goes on, which is also confusing because Liam and Jenny’s relationship really starts to develop. It’s hard because they’re both wounded. You start to see him, as the season goes on, start to deal with some PTSD and dealing with what that looks like, and how he’s not ready to be in a relationship and [Jenny’s] not ready to be in a relationship. It’s two people who are kind of coming together at the wrong time but have such a fierce attraction to each other. And it’s not just physical. There’s something about the two of them that just connects them, and they have to figure out how to make that work. It’s the most unideal time and situation.

Episode 4 is a big turning point for the season. What can viewers expect to see? 
SS: I think one of the final scenes in Episode 4 really give you an idea of what’s going to happen internally and externally over the next four episodes. She’s really admitting that she’s going to be diving deep into the truth that may have been missed in the cases and also the truth that might have been missed in her own life. She’s deciding that she’s no longer going to be David’s wife, the perfect woman, and no matter what this turns her into in her own eyes, she’s going to dig for her own truth. And no matter what it turns her into in other people’s eyes, she’s going to dig for the truth within these past cases.  And that leads to a very exciting last four episodes.

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

Images courtesy of CBC.

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