Like the non-Native Mounties before him, James Harper arrived in Lynx River with firm ideas
about how an RCMP detachment should be run. And like them, he got some hard lessons
about how things are done in the North. But slowly, he gained the trust and respect of his
partner Michelle Kenidi and the town's other residents. No longer spending his time trying
to get transferred to some high-profile RCMP position in the city, James has become a valued
member of the Lynx River community.
Here's the first part of an interview I conducted in January, 2001 with the man who has brought
that transformation to life, actor Peter Kelly Gaudreault.
PW: Your "North of 60" biography says that the first time you got excited about acting was doing Shakespeare in high school.
PKG: Yeah, that was the first real sort of indication that this is something I might be interested in doing for a longer period than just a school show. But I actually got interested in acting a few years before that when I was finishing off in elementary school. Then I had a teacher in a Catholic high school who used to make the classes interactive when we got into Shakespeare. Her approach was very simple; she just had us read out the various characters in the scenes.
I think I was probably hyperactive or something, but I used to love it. I used to love to read the characters. And the bigger the part, the more enjoyment I got out of it. If I wasn't asked to read a scene in a given class on a given day, I would become disruptive in the back, and inevitably, she would steal somebody's part and give it over to me. And that's more or less how it all started. Then with the same teacher we organized a drama club and put on a series of plays. And thats what I wanted to do. That was the one thing that I found that I had a talent for and an interest in doing.
PW: It sounds like it really let you get some of that energy out!
PKG: I think I really was hyperactive. I couldn't sit still in the classroom if I wasn't involved in the scenes. Or maybe I was just spoiled. [laughs] I knew that if I misbehaved, I would get my way eventually.
PW: They probably shouldn't have rewarded you for that! But I'm glad they did, because it led to your acting career. But you actually left acting for dancing for some years, right?
PKG: I was bouncing around from theater school to theater school looking for a guru, I guess. Or an environment which really made sense to me. And I went to some very, very good schools. But at that stage of my life--I think I was 17 or 18 years old--I found the whole approach to acting at the schools I was involved in was very intellectual. It was very analytical, cerebral. And I just didn't feel in tune with it. It didn't speak to me. I didn't understand the necessity of what they were asking me to do.
For me, acting was acting. I just wanted to go to an environment where I would be allowed to do it more and challenge myself more. And I felt that it wasn't inspiring that type of reaction. If anything, it was negating it. I felt like it was suffocating my talent. At that time I didn't realize that. I just knew that I wasn't having fun. I felt restricted and I felt confused. And I lost any interest in wanting to do it. I think I was at the National Theatre School of Canada--wonderful school, and I met some very intelligent, sensitive artists both on staff and among my classmates and other students in the school, but I also met a lot of people that, for one reason or another, didn't know how to get anything out of me. And I got to the point where I just didn't think I could help myself. So I walked away from it all.
I had some ridiculous teachers, too. I had a teacher who one time said to me that I have very odd inflections, and that I should listen to chamber music to develop my ear.
PW: To moderate the way you spoke?
PKG: Yeah. He wasn't talking about how I spoke outside of class. He was talking about how I spoke when I was in acting class. But the thing is, when I was in acting class, I didn't speak the way I wanted to speak even when I prepared a scene, because I was overwhelmed by the information and I was very intimidated by the environment because I felt stupid.
PW: So it was an artificial situation to you.
PKG: It was a situation where I remember many instances where I would walk in with ideas of what I wanted to do, and I would actually get there in front of the class and I would just want to get out of there. And I would end up just doing something else. So I think that's what I was being judged on. This fellow gave me this information, but it's very general. To tell somebody they've got very weird inflections is like telling somebody, "You smile a lot. Try smiling less." Where do you pick when to smile and when not to? It was information like that that if anything, made me more self-conscious than courageous.
PW: That's exactly the reaction I would have had. I would have become very self-conscious.
PKG: Yeah. But toward the end of my tenure at National Theatre School, I did come across some wonderful, sensitive teachers. Like I remember the first introduction that we had to Shakespeare was with a wonderful teacher who came down from Toronto. He was a very energetic teacher, and he spoke and he acted in a way which made sense to me. And I really thought, "Wow, this is wonderful." If I could be with this fellow for a little bit longer, I could come back to life again. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. I talked with him, and he really thought that I had something and that I should stick it out. But by that point, I just thought, I have to get away from this a little bit.
PW: You were about how old then?
PKG: I wasn't very old. I think I was 19. At that time, National Theatre School was a finishing school, and they very, very seldom selected students who were younger than 21, 22. In my year, I think there were three of us that were 17, 18 years old that they selected. But the average in the classes was about 24, 25. And they all came from professional backgrounds, working in regional theaters. They were probably people who worked their way through the theater in the old apprenticeship system and felt that they wanted to hone their skills a little more, and spend time working on technique. Or maybe they just wanted to breeze.
But for myself, I just came from loving acting. It just wasn't the best environment. I would hang out at the bar all the time and spend all my bursary and scholarship money drinking. I think it a lot of it was retaliatory because I wasn't comfortable in the school. If you're really not enjoying yourself eight hours of the day, it's nice to kind of unwind by going in the other direction and having a lot of fun.
PW: When you left the theater school, you began studying dance. I presume you had a preexisting interest in it?
PKG: No, it was purely incidental. I did it as a form of movement in acting class. My movement teacher [at the National Theatre School] was an old ballet dancer, and when I told them I wasn't interested in coming back, she walked me outside and asked me what I planned to do. I said I really had no idea and probably would go back to university or something. And she asked me if I'd ever considered dancing. I said no, I never had. She said, "Well, you have talent for it, and I think you could develop yourself and have a very successful career."
At that stage of my life, it was nice to hear that, to have somebody give me an idea of a direction that I could go in. She was a wonderful, supportive lady, and she did a lot of ground work for me. I used her connections at a couple of dance institutions in Montreal and set up a series of informal auditions. I managed to get small scholarships and ended up going to the school of Les Ballets Jazz, which is the company I danced for a few years later. I trained for a time at National Ballet School, and I went to another Canadian ballet company called Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. And it was all because this woman thought I had talent and she helped me out.
And it was great. It gave me a chance to work on my artistry and get performing experience. And the training aspect of dance is so regimental and so disciplined that it helped to sort of curb my extracurricular behavior that I had developed at the National Theatre School. Because in dance, what you do outside of the studio affects how you are inside the studio. So it really turned out to be a godsend. I don't think I'd be talking to you right now, in all sincerity, if I didn't dance. There's no doubt in my mind.
PW: Because of the discipline that later transferred back into your acting?
PKG: Yeah, it allowed me to take a long, hard look at myself, to realize what my real interests were. And it gave me the courage to walk back into a profession, an area of my life that had left a very bad taste in my mouth and I was kind of afraid to go back into it again. Of reliving the confusion and the feeling the inadequacy and stupidity.
PW: What made you decide to go back into acting, and how old were you then?
PKG: Well, as you know from my bio, I had kind of a serious leg injury that required surgery. I had to take a take a year off from touring, and I was on crutches for three and a half months. I actually wasn't allowed to do any type of physical activity involving my leg for six or seven months. I'd never thought about the fragility of a career as a dancer. At that time I was living in a three-story walkup. I could walk out of my apartment one morning, run down the stairs and trip, and my dance career could be over. It's a very, very fragile existence. There are so many things that could easily happen to you that could totally affect your career.
PW: So after you finally healed from that injury, you decided not to come back to dancing?
PKG: I actually did come back. My orthopedic surgeon told me he couldn't guarantee that I would be able to perform up to the capacity that I had done prior to the operation. So during that year, I lost my desire. But the thing is, when I left acting, it haunted me through the nine years of my life away from it. I couldn't go see a play. It was difficult for me to watch movies. Because I felt like somebody had closed a door on me, and I let them close the door. I didn't want to have the same problem with dance.
So what I did, even though I was having all these negative feelings toward it, I thought it would be worth my while to see what I could do. See if I can dance. See if I don't want to dance. So eventually, I think about 15 months after my operation, I got myself in very good shape and I rejoined the Ballets Jazz and danced for, I think, a year. I did a full season with the company and toured around the world. Went to Asia and South America and Europe and everything. And was dancing better than I ever danced in my life, because having the injury made me kind of revisit my body and how I was using it. I was hypersensitive and hyperaware to movement, more so than I had been before. And to my artistry. The beautiful thing about any art is there's a point where your technique and your artistry bridge together.
PW: You get comfortable with the mechanics and can relax and become more expressive.
PKG: Exactly. There's a bit of difference in dance, because [your physical peak] is the pinnacle of your ability, that's the pinnacle of your artistry. After that, the physical part starts to deteriorate and the artistry compensates. But there's a point where your physical ability and your artistry are sitting there side by side in harmony. And I felt like I was just reaching that, 'cuz I was young. I think I was 27, 28. I still had a few good years left. But my feeling for it had gone. I came back and I danced wonderfully and it was great, but in my mind, I had already left dance. And I said, this is it. I already had it out of my system.
PW: Meanwhile, you still had that unfilled feeling about acting.
PKG: I did, but I was very cautious about wanting to go back into that arena. So I spent the whole year that I was dancing thinking about alternatives to acting. There were a few things. I've always loved to cook, and I thought about maybe going to a cooking school and becoming a chef, or going back to university and getting a business degree. Those were my three possibilities, and I weighed them all through the year. I would quiz myself every couple of weeks and find out if there was one that was kind of separating itself from the other two, and acting started doing that. And I thought, "This what I want to do. I'll give it a go. I'll be a good actor, I'll be a bad actor, I'll be a great actor, but I'm gonna be an actor." So I went back into it.
PW: At that point, though, you probably didn't still have any contacts in the industry.
PKG: [There was] one woman who was a director; she directed for the National Film Board of Canada, and I'd taken a film class with her at the first place I studied. She actually cast me in a movie that she was doing. She also used me as a model in these artistic photographs that she would have showings for. So I called her just to let her know that I was getting back into it, and she would invite me into a few auditions for projects that she was casting.
Besides that, I tried to get an agent, and couldn't get an agent to save my life. You know, the typical Catch-22 situation, "Get a gig and I'll negotiate." So I started taking a few workshops that were offered by one of the casting houses in Montreal, where I was living at the time. So my work was getting noticed. The casting people were noticing me, so they were bringing me in for auditions. So I was slowly making some inroads just through being seen.
PW: What was that movie she cast you in?
PKG: I had done the movie for her when I was still studying acting. It was called "A 20th Century Chocolate Cake."
PW: And that was for the NFB?
PKG: No, it was actually her own film. It was very Andy Warhol-like, Velvet Underground-type.
PW: Did you do any more films for her when you came back to acting?
PKG: She never really cast me in anything, but she brought me in for a few auditions for some interesting projects. One of them was a docudrama on the life of Kafka. And she was very sweet and very supportive. Unfortunately, her hands were tied in as much as she was a casting person, so all she could do was bring me in.
So I was gradually sort of getting in the door, so to speak, because I was taking the right classes from the right people. And then one day I was walking in downtown Montreal, and I ran into a choreographer by the name of Brian Macdonald. Brian had directed on Broadway a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. He'd also been the artistic director of a number of world-acclaimed ballet companies--the Harkness Ballet of New York, and I think also the Royal Swedish Ballet. He was a very supportive individual for me when I was dancing. He awarded me scholarships, would cast me in his ballets, create original works for me when I was at the Ballets Jazz. He's just a really, really nice man.
So I ran into Brian, and I hadn't seen him in maybe a year, two years, and we were just having a casual conversation and he asked me what I was doing. I said I wasn't dancing any more, that was I trying to pursue an acting career. Brian had been invited to Stratford [the Stratford Festival in Ontario] to direct "Guys and Dolls." So he asked me if I would be interested in coming in and auditioning for him. I said, "Well, I'm not really interested in doing musical theater. I'd like to do more serious drama. But I'd love to come out there if I could read for a Shakespearean role or read for their artistic director."
PW: But the Stratford Festival is a repertory group, so actors do a variety of things each season, right?
PKG: You're right, but the traditional format of Stratford was that the musical was the moneymaker, the cash cow, and the company in the musical was exclusive to the musical.
PW: Ah, I didn't realize that.
PKG: Well, that's what it was, but something changed. The year that I was going, they had a new artistic director, whose name was David Williams, and he wanted to integrate the musical company into the main stage company.
PW: Aha, perfect timing!
PKG: Yeah! So I talked to Brian, and he said, "Let me talk to David." Then I think I got a call from the casting department at Stratford, and they invited me to do a general audition. So I did a couple of Shakespeare pieces--actually, I did one Shakespeare piece and one [William] Saroyan monologue, something that Gene Kelly did once upon a time, before he ever made it out to Hollywood. Then I auditioned for Brian, and I did a singing audition. I also did a dancing audition, but I think he wanted to see if I could manage the singing, 'cuz he had never heard me sing.
But then I ended up getting a callback for the acting company for a lead role in a contemporary play called "One Tiger to a Hill." I went in and I read for David again, and I also read for the director of the project. And I thought, "This is very interesting. They're taking me seriously as an actor." Well, I didn't get cast in that part, but I got an invite into the acting company, and I was also invited to do the musical. I was a bit undecided at the beginning, because the musical was as chorus, and the acting company was "as cast," so I didn't have any specifics to my contract. But I decided it was a good opportunity. It's a world-renowned company, and I'm just getting back into it, and it's a wonderful chance.
So I ended up going out there, and it worked out very well. I had some wonderful understudy parts. Then they had a Fringe Festival out there and I had the opportunity to put on plays with friends that I'd met there. This wasn't main-stage stuff, but they were investing in me.
PW: Which main-stage plays were you in that first year?
PKG: I did "Guys and Dolls," and I did "Macbeth" with Brian Bedford. I also did "Julius Caesar" with Colm Feore and Brian Bedford and Scott Wentworth. Then I asked if I could be part of the Young Company, which was an aspect of Stratford that was to develop young actors who hadn't had much experience with Shakespeare. They were supposed to kind of be the Stratford actors of the future. They had roles in the summer productions, and they had an actual Young Company production on the third stage [at Stratford]. It's a smaller stage, but it's a wonderful space.
I asked if I could be part of the Young Company because I had a lot of time on my hands and I thought I'd love to train. So I auditioned for it, and I ended up getting invited into it. I was cast in the Young Company production and I also got cast in "Hamlet." I had a nice part in "Hamlet."
PW: Which part was that?
PKG: My main role was Luciano in the play within a play, but I was also asked to understudy Horatio.
PW: Who was playing Hamlet?
PKG: Colm Feore.
PW: Oooh, I wish I'd seen that! He's such a good actor.
PKG: I know, he's a very good actor. What happened was, Wayne Best, who was playing Horatio, fell off a ladder in his barn and tore his Achilles tendon at the beginning of the season. I think we were one week into the season. I was really well prepared for my understudy, and I went on, and I said, "This is my role. I can do this." And I went on and I did a great job and was offered it for the balance of the season. They were shopping around for another actor, and David [Williams] came to see it, and Leon Pownall came up to me with tears in his eyes saying, "This is what theater's all about." So I had the opportunity to play Horatio for the balance of the season. And I had a wonderful role in the Young Company production. Did I have a third show? Yes, I had a third show, because I'm a song-and-dance man, right? [chuckles] So I was also doing "Carousel."
PW: What year was this?
PKG: This was 1991.
PW: And you were how old?
PKG: I was about 29, 30 years old. Then I was invited back for a third season at Stratford, but I was given an offer that was not interesting to me. I felt it was more of the same stuff that I'd already done. I was the second and third choice for a lot of things, but everybody accepted their offers. What I was left with was just not an interesting season for me, and I decided I would rather go and be a gypsy, be a project-to-project guy. There was somebody who needed me at that time, so I went back to Montreal, and I ended up doing some wonderful work. I did a wonderful production of "M. Butterfly," and "Cabaret," and a couple of original works. And then I started working more in film and TV. I had a recurring character in a very popular French show called "Scoop" with Roy Depuis from "La Femme Nikita."
PW: Was that on SRC?
PKG: Yeah, it was. It was exactly that, the French CBC. A hugely popular show.
PKG: So I was doing bit parts in American movies that were coming to town. And then when I was doing "M. Butterfly," a casting person from Toronto was casting a movie called "Squanto," a Disney film with Adam Beach and Mandy Patinkin. And she came to Montreal. Now, they had basically cast all of the parts for the film, but they were casting some of the secondary supporting characters. I knew Claire [the casting director] from Toronto. She had seen "M. Butterfly" the night before, and she was blown away by it. Then she went back to Toronto, and a few weeks later, I got a phone call. Claire knew that I was Huron and Miskika. At that time, I'd played a few Native characters in theater projects. I consider myself a Native Canadian, but I consider myself an actor.
PW: And most of the roles you'd played had been European.
PKG: Totally. I was an actor and I liked the challenges of playing as much as I could of anything. So I got this phone call from my agent saying that Claire wanted to bring me in. She'd gotten a call from Donovan Marley, the artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company. Donovan was casting a Native American play called "Black Elk Speaks," and he was having a lot of trouble casting it in the States. He said that he had met some wonderful, talented Native actors in the States, but they were all either film actors or TV actors with no formal theater training, or they had a natural talent but they didn't have their skills.
He had gone to I don't know how many plays in how many cities, had gone to Los Angeles a few times, and New York a few times. He had an idea to go up to Toronto and see if there was anything up in Canada. So he contacted Claire, who had just seen me in "M. Butterfly," and she called me in for this audition because they were having trouble casting Crazy Horse. The person who played Crazy Horse also had to play Custer. Crazy Horse was the bulk of the character; Custer was just a couple of scenes. It was tremendously interesting, a great challenge. I loved it. So I went into Toronto and auditioned for that. The feedback was instantaneous; Claire called my agent and said, "He's got the role."
So I ended up going to Denver. I had a wonderful time out there. I stayed the better part of two years. And then I did a touring show with the company. I also did another production [in Denver], because when we finished our first run, the show was so popular that they had to turn 8,000 people away. So they figured that that warranted another run.
PW: The show got that much attention in Denver?
PKG: That was the run in Denver. I met people like Robert Plant, the lead singer for Led Zeppelin, who was blown away by the show. He said he'd never experienced anything like that before in his life. Steven Segal came to see the show, and John Randolph, who plays Roseanne's father on "Roseanne." It's just a great, great show. And we were profiled in American Theatre magazine, cover story. We took the show to the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. It was sold out in L.A. I was getting offers left and right from casting people and agents. Nobody wanted me to leave the city, but my wife was pregnant and I wanted to go home. At that time, I was quite cocky, and I thought, "If I can do it in L.A., I can do it in Canada." So I went back home.
But I had a wonderful time. And Donovan said one thing, and it's one of the few things that have left an impression with me because they make you feel good. He said, "You just can't imagine what a privilege it is to work with an actor that you ask him to do something and he shows you five different ways that it can be done."
PW: Whatever happened with "Squanto"?
PKG: Ironically, I auditioned for a non-Native character. I can't remember whether it was British or American. But I didn't get it. I looked too Native!
PW: And they had run out of Native roles in the movie by then?
PKG: Yeah, they had already been cast. The thing is, my father was Huron and French-Canadian. My mother is Miskika and Spanish. I played in period pieces being cast Native on stage. But when it comes to film and TV, I always get cast as the urban Indian, the contemporary Native guy who either works for government, or as a police officer, or who's in the business world. But I don't get cast for period pieces. I think it's a bias in the industry. They think Native people look a certain way.
PW: And they think you look too European?
PKG: Yeah. I was short-listed for "Star Trek: Voyager," for [the character of] Chakotay. I flew out and I pretested and everything. Their concern when they flew me out was that I looked very young. And also that I didn't look Native enough. They were like, "Is he Native? Really?"
The same thing happened with Injun Joe in "Tom and Huck." I was on hold for three and a half months. I auditioned for it twice in L.A., was being strongly considered. They were going in a different direction. They wanted somebody young and sexy, but who could turn and become very menacing. But they ended up going more traditional [and] the same thing happened...At one point they just said, "Well, are you really Native?"
I think it's just the way the industry looks at Native people. I don't think it's a negative thing. I just think that we just all have our stereotypical evaluations of things. Maybe it's blind racism or blind prejudice, I don't know. I remember having a conversation with Gary Farmer. He directed me in "Four Directions" [a mini-series of short stories about Native characters] a few years ago, and I had a shower scene and I shaved my chest. Gary said, "Why did you shave your chest?" and I said, "Because we had a shower scene and I wanted to look more Native." And he said, "No, that's what I want to do is show you with your hair on your chest, because that's Native. I want to break the stereotype." So I buy into it as well.
Anyway, I came back to Canada from Los Angeles, from doing the show ["Black Elk Speaks"] at the Mark Taper Forum, and my wife gave birth to our son. And I went through kind of a slow period in the industry and wondered whether I'd made the best choice in coming home, because L.A. was tremendously receptive. I'd signed on with an agent in Beverly Hills, and she thought the whole world was going to open up to me. And I have to admit that I was pretty high on myself at that time, and I figured I could do anything, anywhere.
And then I came back to Canada and had a bit of a reality check. It's a different industry up here. We don't have the star system that you have in the States. Even somebody like Tina Keeper can walk down the street, and depending on the city, there's a chance that nobody will know who she is.
PW: But it also seems like Canadian actors are more well grounded in theater work. You don't have people just showing up and getting big jobs on television with little experience.
PKG: I think that's one of the keys to why Canadian actors do so well in the United States, is because the background is so different. I think we come from a more traditional approach to acting where you actually develop style and technique, and you try to understand characterizations and minimize mannerisms and personality and all of that. I think it grounds you as an actor because you develop skill, you develop technique. But as far as the industry's concerned here, it can become very frustrating at times. Every now and then, you have to remind yourself what you're doing it for. I think we could use a bit of the star system. I think it would help the artists with their artistry if they didn't have to worry about their finances or other things.
Text and photos (c) 2001 Patricia F. Winter, except as noted.
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Last updated 6/19/09