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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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Unspeakable: CBC miniseries revisits Canada’s tainted blood scandal

I was a teenager in the early 80s, and I remember when the AIDS crisis began. It was a mysterious disease killing people and no one seemed to know why. Being a teen, I was caught up in my own life, one of high school and part-time jobs so I wasn’t aware of the very Canadian angle to the story that included a second virus called Hepatitis C.

Robert C. Cooper was infected with Hepatitis C through tainted blood back then. Now the man behind such series as Stargate and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is telling the story on a world stage. Unspeakable, premiering Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBC, 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.

Unspeakable stars Sarah Wayne Callies, Michael Shanks, Camille Sullivan, Shawn Doyle. We spoke to Cooper, Callies and Doyle about the project during a recent media day.

Robert, I know about the personal story and the connection to Unspeakable that it has. How did it end up coming to CBC?
Robert C. Cooper: Well, I had a relationship with CBC … and I will forever be indebted to [them] for allowing me to tell this story. I was exposed to Hepatitis C. I spent 30 years or so dealing with that, trying to get rid of that after several arduous treatments, but then in 2014 I was finally cured. I took a treatment that worked finally, and I think some of the catharsis of that gave me the strength and energy to in some ways stop being a victim. I looked at it more from the point of view of the storyteller. And also felt like I had maybe come to a point in my life where I was a little more mature and had a little more ability to be fair and take a more, certainly not objective, more objective point of view of the story.

Having said that, what I did was write this stream of consciousness, angry diatribe that I just said, ‘Sorry, but this is what I have.’ And then, actually, the folks at CBC admitted later that they had not ever bought into so much development on so little. It was just really an angry rant.

In a way three and half, four years later, that’s the most important thing that translated into the show, which is that I knew from the get go. Once I dove into the research, much of which I myself didn’t know.

I became aware of the scope of the story. And I was incredibly daunted and terrified taking this on, and wondered sort of in a way what I had gotten myself into, but felt like if nothing else we would never be able to tell the whole thing in eight hours in a dramatic format. What we needed to was somehow convey the emotion of what it was like to live through, and to translate that experience from a more emotional standpoint.

The anger, the fear, the terror that you felt, and the sadness that the victims who didn’t make it carry with them. Their families, the survivors carry with them everyday. So yeah, it sort of became more and more of a holy crap, this story is almost too big.

What I think what’s unique about it from a storytelling point of view is incredibly challenging when we started getting down to executing it is that unlike a lot of disaster stories it’s not just about the one event. It’s about the long haul.

How old were you when you got diagnosed?
RC: Well, like the story it’s not 100 per cent clear. What happened was when I was about 14, I got sick. They didn’t have a test for that, and so what they did was they called it Non A and Non B, and then it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that they actually came up with a test that told you, ‘Oh yeah, by the way you have this.’

And by the way, that’s how I was told. ‘By the way you have Hep C.’

Sarah Wayne Callies: What was the germane thing they were addressing to which the by the way?
RC: This and that. You’re all good, and on the way out …

Sarah, why did you get involved?
SWC: Well, I was growing up in the States at the time it was going on. My parents had a catastrophic marriage. My dad’s second marriage was no better. The people who taught me what love was was a gay couple named Joe and Clifford. And they had fun, and they cooked together, and they inspired each other. It was this beautiful relationship.

And then one day when I was in junior high my mom came home, and said, ‘Joe has AIDS.’ We didn’t even know he was HIV positive, and he was one of our closest friends.  And watching him die … it left a really lasting impression on me, and so when Rob brought this up to me, the Hep. C angle was new to me. The Canadian part of it was new to me, but the idea that we’ve castigated and isolated parts of our populations and decided that it’s OK if they die of diseases.

And Rob’s mentioned this before, but also at a moment when at least south of the 49th peril the media is under such a concentrated attack. This is a story about two men who are journalists who investigate and write books and bring things to light that protect the public.

Like Ben going into his editor saying this is story, and basically the editor saying it’s not a sexy enough story type of thing. It’s just incredible to look at it back with 2018 eyes, and just think that that was the way that everybody thought.

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

Images courtesy of CBC.

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CBC and Sundance TV confirm casting for Unspeakable, including Shawn Doyle, Michael Shanks and Camille Sullivan

From a media release:

CBC and SundanceTV today announced casting for the dramatic eight-part miniseries UNSPEAKABLE, which chronicles the tainted blood scandal beginning in the 1980’s. Acclaimed actors Sarah Wayne Callies (Colony, The Walking Dead), Shawn Doyle (Bellevue, Big Love), Michael Shanks (Stargate SG-1, Saving Hope) and Camille Sullivan (The Disappearance, The Man in the High Castle) will lead the series. Production on UNSPEAKABLE begins spring 2018 in Vancouver, BC, for broadcast on CBC in Canada and SundanceTV in the U.S.

Created by Robert C. Cooper (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Stargate SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis) and based on first-person experience and non-fiction books, Bad Blood by Vic Parsons and The Gift of Death by Andre Picard, UNSPEAKABLE chronicles the emergence of HIV and Hepatitis C in Canada in the early 1980s and the tragedy that resulted after thousands of people were infected by tainted blood. One of the largest medical disasters in Canadian history, the blood scandal triggered a federal inquiry and precedent-setting lawsuit resulting in billions of dollars in compensation to victims.

A CBC and SundanceTV original series, UNSPEAKABLE is produced by Mezo Entertainment, with Cooper and Meridian Artists’ Glenn Cockburn serving as executive producers. The series is a passion project for Cooper, who himself was a victim, having contracted Hepatitis C from tainted blood. The series is written by Cooper, Carl Binder, Adriana Capozzi and Lynn Coady, with Cooper and Callies set to direct episodes.

AMC Studios will manage worldwide distribution outside of Canada.

CAST BIOGRAPHIES:

Sarah Wayne Callies has made an indelible impression on audiences worldwide by bringing complex and unique female characters to life on screen. She was recently seen in National Geographic’s miniseries The Long Road Home, opposite Michael Kelly, Kate Bosworth, Jason Ritter, and Noel Fisher. She also currently stars on USA’s drama series Colony, opposite Josh Holloway. In addition to her projects with NatGeo and USA, Callies recently starred in the season five reboot of FOX’s critically acclaimed series Prison Break. Another notable role held from 2010-13 was starring as Lori Grimes, on the internationally renowned, record breaking series The Walking Dead. On the film front, Callies most recently starred in This Is Your Death, alongside Josh Duhamel and Giancarlo Esposito, which premiered at the SXSW film festival in March 2017. She also recently appeared in Warner Brothers’ action-packed Into the Storm, directed by Steven Quale. Other feature credits include: The Other Side of the Door, Pay the Ghost, Black November, Whisper and Benoit Phillipon’s Lullaby for Pi; where she composed and performed an original song in addition to acting opposite Rupert Friend.

Shawn Doyle can currently be seen on WGN America starring opposite Anna Paquin in CBC’s Bellevue. He recently wrapped filming a role starring opposite Keon Alexander and Genevieve Kang in UCP’s Impulse for YouTube Red as well as season three of the SyFy series The Expanse, starring opposite Thomas Jane and Steven Strait. He can also be seen on TV starring opposite Jason Momoa in Netflix’s Frontier. He was last seen in theaters starring opposite Joanne Kelley and Jason Priestley in the independent film Away From Here, directed by Justin Simms. Shawn also starred in season three of the Emmy® nominated Netflix seriesHouse of Cards, as well as season one of Fargo and USA’s Covert Affairs. Shawn starred opposite Tatiana Maslany in the Sundance hit Grown Up Movie Star, and played “Joey” (Bill Paxton’s unlucky brother) in the critically acclaimed HBO show Big Love.

Michael Shanks, after a decade-long stint as fan-favourite Dr. Daniel Jackson in sci-fi series Stargate SG-1, has gone on to star on several other hit series, TV movies, and films, including, most recently, the drama series Saving Hope which earned him a Leo Award for Best Lead Performance by a Male in a Dramatic Series in 2013. Shanks has also directed three episodes of the series, after making his directing debut in 2001, directing Stargate SG-1. Shanks appeared in a three-episode arc on the Emmy Award®-winning drama 24, and recurred on the hit series Smallville, as Carter Hall (a.k.a. Hawkman). Shanks played opposite Anne Archer in the made-for-TV movie Judicial Indiscretion, and portrayed the hockey legend Gordie Howe in Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story, a role which earned him a 2014 Leo Award for Best Lead Performance by a Male in a Television Movie, as well as a Canadian Screen Award nomination. His other television credits include a recurring role on Burn Notice and guest-starring roles on CSI: Miami, Stargate: Atlantis, Mr. Young, Endgame, Supernatural and more. He also co-starred in the Emmy Award®-winning William H. Macy telefilm Door to Door and the film adaptation of Jack London’s Call of the Wild.

Camille Sullivan is an award-winning Canadian actress. Most recently, she was nominated for a 2018 Canadian Screen Award for her work on the miniseries The Disappearance. Sullivan has twice been nominated for Gemini Awards: once for her portrayal in the series lead role of Amy Lynch on Shattered, and then again for her portrayal of Francine Reardon in Chris Haddock’sIntelligence for CBC. She played a lead role in the drama pilot Mistresses, and other recent television credits include recurring roles on Man in the High Castle, Rookie Blue, Red Widow and Hellcats. She has guest starred on shows including Proof, Motive, Falling Skies, Combat Hospital, Alcatraz, Flashpoint and The Killing. Past film projects include the much lauded Ally Was Screaming for which she won the UBCP/ACTRA Best Actress Award for her stunning performance. Sullivan was also luminous opposite Gabrielle Rose in the heartbreaking film Birdwatcher for which she garnered another UBCP/ACTRA Best Actress Award. Another lead credit includes Carl Bessai’s multiple award-winning dramatic feature film, Normal. Her performance in Normal won her a Leo Award for Best Actress in a Feature Length Film. Other starring roles include Mount Pleasant, written and directed by Ross Weber, Mothers and Daughters, an improvised film directed by Carl Bessai for which she earned another LEO nomination. Sullivan also appeared in Bessai’s Fathers and Sons and now completes the set with Sisters and Brothers.

 

 

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WGN secures rights to Bellevue

WGN America announced today that it has acquired the exclusive U.S. linear rights to the gripping original drama series Bellevue which was commissioned originally by the CBC network and is being broadcast in French in Canada by V-télé, starring Academy® and Golden Globe® winner Anna Paquin (True Blood).

Produced by Muse Entertainment and Back Alley Film Productions, the eight-episode, one-hour drama also stars Shawn Doyle (House of Cards) and Allen Leech (Downton Abbey). Bellevue will premiere in early 2018 on WGN America.

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Season 2 of Bellevue being developed, but show seeks a new home

It turns out Bellevue‘s fate is as mysterious as the show itself. After reporting last Friday that a second season was being developed for CBC came a troubling update: there is no home for the Anna Paquin-Shawn Doyle led series after all.

Co-creator, Episode 1 director and executive producer Adrienne Mitchell contacted TV, Eh? on Tuesday night with the following information:

“To clarify, though Season 2 of Bellevue has been in development with CBC, unfortunately, production of a follow-up season is currently not moving forward,” Mitchell wrote. “We are incredibly proud of our talented cast and crew who worked so tirelessly to bring this beautiful series to life. We also feel there are more stories to tell and we’ll be looking for other opportunities to bring this to fruition. In a town like Bellevue, the future is never as it seems!”

Fellow Bellevue co-creator Jane Maggs is going to be part of next month’s Writers Talking TV event—find details on how to attend that here—and we’re sure the topic of a new home for the program will come up. Produced by Mitchell and Janis Lundman’s Back Alley Film Productions Ltd. and Muse Entertainment Enterprises, Bellevue was co-created by Mitchell and Maggs with the latter serving as senior writer, executive producer and co-showrunner with Mitchell.

Season 1 of Bellevue starred Anna Paquin as Annie Rider, a brilliant but troubled cop in the town of Bellevue whose past returned to haunt her following the death of a transgender teen. During the course of her investigation, old wounds were opened and secrets revealed, putting her at odds with her ex-husband, Eddie (Allen Leech), her superior, Police Chief Peter Welland (Shawn Doyle) and putting the relationship with her daughter, Daisy (Madison Ferguson) in jeopardy. Season 1 also starred Billy MacLellan, Sharon Taylor, Janine Theriault, Amber Goldfarb and Sadie O’Neil.

Listen to Maggs discuss her career and the creation of Bellevue during our recent podcast and read Carolyn Potts’ reviews; here’s the link to her season finale review.

Where do you think Bellevue should go if it doesn’t return to CBC? Comment below.

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