That was the advice Deborah Grover gave Jann Arden when they began filming CTV’s Jann in Calgary last fall.
Singer-songwriter Arden is an experienced stage performer with enviable comedic ability, but toplining a TV series—and all the line memorization and mark-hitting that goes with it—is new to her. Grover, who plays Arden’s mother Nora in the series, is a veteran actress with a long list of credits, including films Agnes of God and Where the Truth Lies and TV shows Night Heat and Anne with an E, so she knows exactly what to do when someone has acting jitters.
“When you start to panic and go, ‘I don’t remember a single thing, I don’t even remember my first line,’ it’s like, breathe,” Grover says during an on-set interview last October. “Because it’s all sitting inside of you. You’ve done all your work, so just breathe. So [Jann and I] would start a scene, and just breathe, and boom, it’s there. And if it isn’t there, then we start again. Not a big deal.”
Of course, that approach only saves actors who have done their work, and according to Grover, no one arrived on set more prepared or more committed each day than Arden did.
“She came prepared to work, and every day she’s working on her lines and her scenes and her nuance of the scene,” Grover says. “She’s come at it with everything she’s got, and it’s been fascinating to watch. You know, she’s a Canadian icon, so you want this to succeed for her, because man, what we have to give in this journey is personal, but it’s a universal story. It’s so human.”
In the series, Arden plays a mostly fictional version of herself, a version who is on the declining side of fame and struggling to get back on top—which leads to lots of hilariously unflattering scenarios. However, the show also deftly mixes in Nora’s struggles with dementia, which are based on Arden’s real-life experiences caring for mother Joan Richards, who suffered from Alzheimer’s before passing away in December.
Grover read Arden’s 2017 memoir, Feeding My Mother: Comfort and Laughter in the Kitchen as a Daughter Lives with her Mom’s Memory Loss, before auditioning for the part.
“I read the book, and during my screen test with Jann, I think she felt I had the right feeling, a certain sensibility, and that seemed to work for her vision of her mom,” says Grover.
The connection between them is evident onscreen, counterbalancing the show’s spot-on bits of entertainment industry satire with moments of emotional depth and familial tenderness.
“It is a fictionalized version, there’s no question,” says Grover. “And I think the more we explore the scenes, the more I discover about her mother.”
Grover’s family was also touched by Alzheimer’s when her mother-in-law was diagnosed with the disease.
“I got to experience that on a first-hand basis,” she says. “But it’s totally different with every individual, and people have been very open about sharing their stories with me, going, ‘Well, my mom was this,’ or ‘My grandmom was that,’ so you receive it all, and it all adds to the mix.”
It isn’t a spoiler to say that Nora moves from simply being forgetful—as in a scene from Wednesday’s new episode, “Weeknd at Charley’s,” when Jann loses her patience with her mom for misplacing her phone—to suspecting something more serious is going on as the season progresses.
“As the journey gets more pronounced, you’re seeing a little bit of forgetfulness, the dementia is there, and then there will be the diagnosis at the end of the six-part series,” Grover says. “Hopefully, if there is a second season, there will be an exploration of the journey with mom and what that means and how the family deals with it through humour, through the heartbreak of it all. But you’ll hopefully get all those colours because Jann wrote about it all in her book.”
While a second season of Jann seems like a good bet, thanks to strong early ratings, Grover is also thankful for her recurring role as Aunt Josephine on the CBC/Netflix series Anne with an E, which started filming its third season in March.
“What a lucky actor I am,” Grover says. “I’ve got two amazingly different things on the go, and hopefully, other things that will fill in the cracks. I feel extremely blessed in these character years when you go, ‘Well, isn’t it over?’ No, it’s just beginning. Man, it’s just beginning. I’m having more fun than I’ve had.”
Jann airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CTV.
Images courtesy of Bell Media.