Don’t tell This Life‘s producers, but Torri Higginson would have worked on the show for free. The Burlington, Ont., born actress loved the humanity of Natalie Lawson, a single mom who discovers the cancer she beat has returned to take her life, so much she would have bypassed a cheque to participate.
Adapted from Radio Canada’s Nouvelle Adresse by Joseph Kay (Bomb Girls), This Life—debuting Monday at 9 p.m. on CBC—not only deals with how the dire prognosis affects Natalie, but her family too. Sister Maggie (Lauren Lee Smith) and brothers Oliver (Kristopher Turner) and Matthew (Rick Roberts) all struggle to cope, as do Natalie’s children Emma (Stephanie Janusauskas), Caleb (James Wotherspoon) and Romy (Julia Scarlett Dan).
Far from being a pity party, This Life boasts many light-hearted and laugh out loud moments, something we discussed with Higginson days before Monday’s debut.
Had you seen Nouvelle Adresse before or after you were cast as Natalie Lawson?
Torri Higginson: I was actually down in the States when I did the audition and immediately went online to get a sense of the tone. But, because I was out of the country, I was geo-blocked. I watched a two-minute trailer, and it was in French and I don’t speak French very well. I was moved to tears and loved the tone of it. If I don’t understand a language I’ll often watch something with the sound turned off so that I get to read the body language and see the acting more clearly, and I was blown away. I did the audition and was cast and I’m really glad I didn’t watch it because it’s very hard to separate and not be intimidated or second-guessing your instincts.
And, also, we’re doing a very different show. Joseph has been working very closely with Richard Blaimert, who created the original, and has been anglicizing it. I really look forward to watching their show, but I’m going to have to wait until we’re done ours.
I love the humanity of it. We don’t talk about death in our culture enough and I think it’s tragic that we don’t.
You said you were down in the U.S. at the time of your audition. What was it about this role and show that grabbed your attention
I have two answers to that, and my first, more artistic one is this. I loved the writing. I love the humanity of it. We don’t talk about death in our culture enough and I think it’s tragic that we don’t. Most religions, in their purest forms, were created to help us live in the moment but they haven’t. They make us live in fear. Until you truly accept the finiteness of life, it really is when you start living and really being in the present and understanding gratitude on a deep level. I read this script and thought, ‘How fabulous that we’re going to do a show that opens up that dialogue,’ and I hope that it does.
And the less artistic side is, we never make choices! [Laughs.] You’re offered something and you say, ‘Yes, thank you, I’ll take it!’ A lot of times you take things because you’re insecure about work and this year every single job this year—and this being the pinnacle—I would have done for free. Don’t tell the producers! [Laughs.]
This Life could have gone the pity party route but I’m not getting the sense from the first several episodes that it will. There is a surprising light-heartedness and humour. Does that continue?
Yes, it does and I’m glad you got that. I think some people are frightened about the subject because we don’t want to talk about it. Natalie is holding onto normal and wants that to last for as long as possible. And you want to laugh. You have to have that light and dark. The writing is wonderful and that’s because of Joseph and Rachel Langer. It’s funny and it’s human and we’re hoping that comes across.
You have a lot of moments when you’re by yourself as Natalie, absorbing what her doctor has told her. Was it hard to get into that headspace without people to play off of?
I did a one-woman play once and vowed I’d never do it again because I love to interact with people, having that energy. I find what she’s going through touches me very deeply. What’s hard isn’t accessing it. What’s hard it letting it go when you’re not there.
It seems as though Natalie is the rock among her siblings. Is that true?
I think so, yeah. Everybody ends up having a lot of plates spinning and some of that is upon hearing that someone they love is going to die. Some of them are a result of life choices they’ve made. I didn’t realize until about three episodes in that this is a soap opera and everybody has got these crazy story arcs. But yeah, she does seem to be the most grounded of the bunch.
Natalie’s kids have a lot going on as well; now we add Mom’s cancer has returned to the mix.
I love how they cast the kids. I think all three are wonderful. They way they have written Romy is the most honest of all the characters on the show. She is so wonderful and grounded … the character is 13 but the actress, Julia Scarlett Dan, is only 11. This girl is so present and so beautiful. Stephanie Janusauskas is a wonderful young actress from Montreal who is very strong, and Emma is going through a ton as well. And then Caleb, who is played by James Wotherspoon, is sort of new to acting. Caleb is sort of the man of the house and I think there is a weight to him that he expresses very wonderfully.
How much time passes within these 10 episodes?
Only about a month. I said to Joseph, ‘Keep that up and we can go 12 seasons!’ That would be awesome.
This Life airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC.