She's the southerner who tried to flee her problems by moving to Lynx River. The outsider whose
relationships with other residents have gone through many ups and downs. But she's also the
woman who finally built a home for herself--literally and figuratively--in this small northern community.
In the hands of actress Tracey Cook, Sarah Birkett has taken "North of 60" viewers through a wide
range of emotional territory.
Tina Keeper was also present during most of this interview. There are also a few comments by
publicist Fran Humphreys, makeup director Al Magallon, and actor Derald Black Kettle.
Near the beginning of our discussion, Tracey actually interviewed me a bit. I've left that section
in because it demonstrates how interested she was in a fan's perspective on the show, and
also because it answers some questions I often get about how a Californian got hooked on a
Canadian TV series.
(This interview contains spoilers for "In the Blue Ground" and "Dream Storm.")
TC: So you know the show, you watch the show. You obviously know history that we don't know.
PW: Maybe, although not word for word like some people on the discussion list do!
TK: What? Some people know stuff word for word?!
PW: It seems like it!
TC: There are people who are that devoted to the show?
PW: Somebody pointed out on the mailing list once that Sarah's children, Elizabeth and Michael, were named after her parents. And of course, she got along not at all well with her parents. So it was weird--you wouldn't expect Sarah to name her kids after two people she didn't like. I think the writers pulled a fast one there! A little in-joke. The two last people that Sarah Birkett would ever name her children after. Anyway, that's an example of something I had never noticed, but someone did.
TC: So you watched the show from day one? Or did you just pick it up and then get an interest in it?
PW: No, I didn't see it at the beginning. It was after I started watching "Due South." When that show debuted, you folks had been on the air for about three years. I got to talking with some "Due South" fans on the Internet. Some of them were in the States, because it was on CBS down there. But others, of course, were up here in Canada, and they occasionally made passing references to this other show that Alliance produced that also had Mounties. They said it was set in the North and was a very good show.
I thought, this sounds intriguing, so I asked a Canadian friend to tape a few episodes for me. I think that was somewhere around the middle of the third season. So my friend sent some tapes down, and I got hooked on the show. I got drawn into the characters very quickly. And the scenery was very beautiful, of course.
So I hit up a friend in Canada to tape all the new episodes for me, and then I found a friend in the States who was getting the older seasons on Trio, the satellite TV station that CBC used to co-own. So I was able to get the old episodes from him. So one way or another, I was eventually able to get all the episodes. But it all started with those recommendations from "Due South" fans.
TC: Was this a chat room where you can go back and forth and it involves people from all over the place?
PW: No, this was on a "Due South" mailing list. But yeah, there are chat rooms, too, for TV shows. There are some "North of 60" chat rooms. There's one on the official web site, and one on our Yahoo Groups page.
TK: I wrote into our web site, because it says you can talk to the stars! [laughs]
TC: Yeah, you're like, "Oh, Tina Keeper, I really, really like her!" [laughs]
TK: I said, "Well, when I can talk to Sarah?" [laughs] Nobody ever wrote me back!
TC: I don't realize how much people take it to heart. I was at the gym one day here in Calgary a few years ago, and it was after the episode where Sarah's father came back. I was on a treadmill doing my thing, and this guy was eyeing me. And all of a sudden, he's like, "You know, your father just loves you! He just loves you! Just let him back in your life!" I went, "Oookay..." [laughs] Honest to god! I don't think he was demented. He didn't look demented. I think it just came out. I don't recall talking to him at length.
PW: You mean, to find out whether he could separate make-believe from reality?
TC: I think he could. I remember kind of laughing a little bit. But he had to think about it. I don't relate to that, 'cuz I have never done that. I don't understand that. I've never become so close to a character on television that I, that...
PW: That you would address an actress as though she were the character?
TC: I have, by mistake, called Tina "Michelle."
TK: Is there an American show that you find this show comparable to?
TC: "Picket Fences," kind of.
PW: I never got into that, but from what I've heard, I think that might be true. Although it was probably quirkier than "North of 60."
TK: There was kind of a rhythm to it that reminded me of this.
TC: "Picket Fences," that's going back a while. That's Lynch, right?
PW: No, you're thinking of "Twin Peaks."
TC: Ah, right.
TK: ["Picket Fences" was] with Tom Skerritt, and whatshername who married Jim Carrey. Lauren Holly.
PW: That show was also set in a little town, right? Except they had a lot of murders--which you didn't have much of until the movies started. [all laugh]
There are certainly some excellent U.S. shows on the air now, but I don't know that I'd call any of them comparable in the way the "North of 60" cast brought a fictional town alive.
TC: "Northern Exposure," maybe, but that's no longer on the air.
PW: But that was more determinedly quirky.
TC: Yeah, it was. And that came after "North of 60," didn't it?
TK: No, before. 'Cuz everyone called us "Northern Exposure."
TC: I remember someone saying to me, "You know, I've looked for you and looked for you and looked for you, and I can never see you on the show. When are you on the show?" So I explained, and got sort of a blank look, and she said, "Oh, 'North of 60.'" She'd been looking at "Northern Exposure." [laughs]
TC: So who's your favorite character? C'mon, c'mon! [all laugh]
TK: C'mon! It's okay. We're all family!
TC: We don't care any more! [all laugh]
PW: I will tell you the honest truth: I couldn't pick one.
TK: No way!
PW: Yes, because it's such a wonderful ensemble show! Really. I'm not just trying to dodge the question!
TC: Well, can you remember anything in particular that you liked? What episode or situation that you particularly liked, or a scenario.
PW: The whole sixth season was great. "Borrowed Time" was a very special episode.
TC: You mean the fifth? That would be the last season, because we only did five.
TK: No, we did six. Remember, 5, and then we got 5b, which was our sixth season.
TC: Oh, that's right, that's right.
PW: Is that what you called it, "5b"?
TK: Yeah, because one of our funding bodies in Canada, Telefilm, will only do five seasons. But because it was so popular, they did a "5b" and we shot it right away, back to back [after season 5].
TC: Oh, that's right! That's right--we had a month off in January and then it was 13 episodes instead of 16, wasn't it? That's right, I remember that.
PW: But wait a minute--you can't film out here all year. It's snowed in part of the time.
TC: Oh yes, we can.
TK: We have only ever shut down production once for snow. There was a snowstorm, and we came out here, and there was so much snow it was unbelievable.
TC: I remember people having to sleep here. I remember one of our ADs [assistant directors] getting frostbite at forty below. I remember George, our sound guy, freaking out because all the material was rustling and all you could hear was "crunch crunch crunch" and "swoosh swoosh swoosh."
PW: Tracey, I was asking Tina earlier whether she had developed a backstory for Michelle Kenidi. Did you develop a backstory for Sarah Birkett?
TC: No, they gave me a backstory, and I just sort of worked with that.
PW: How did Sarah end up in Lynx River?
TC: Well, basically, she left. She ran away. She thought she was running to, but she was running from. She was escaping the politics and the city life and the baggage and the garbage. She wanted to go somewhere where she could still live and still work and still earn her keep, but wanted it to be in a place where there was no judgment and there was no history. It was like a clean slate. I think she picked Lynx River because...
TK: She was in love with me?
TC: Exactly! It was a lesbian relationship. [all laugh]
PW: Wow, I have a real scoop here! Finally, the truth comes out about Michelle and Sarah! [laughs]
TC: But I think in this community, the idea was that you were allowed to be who you were and make your own mistakes, and nobody would hold you in judgment. So I think she liked that idea. But in essence, she was running away.
PW: She thought the North would be a different place?
TC: Yeah, I can't remember what actually brought her here. I know Eric had a storyline like that. He had a bit of a breakdown or something and he was transferred up here. With Sarah, it was on her own. Eric arrived and she was already here, so they never really gave that backstory. So no, I never invented that background. I just thought that I had my own issues and eventually I would have a nervous breakdown because they were unresolved issues.
TK: Oh god, when you were crazy, that was like, ohhhh! Even acting it, eh, must have been real hard.
TC: Well, your daughter died, and you were crying, crying, crying.
TK: Even here [in "Dream Storm"], where I'm kind of in a dream and kind of not, it's just like, yachhh.
TC: It's tiring.
TK: I remember when you were Crazy Sarah.
TC: I played Crazy Sarah for a whole season. That got a little hard.
PW: What's it like to still be playing Sarah Birkett after all these years?
TC: I don't even know that have to think Sarah anymore. I just play her. I just do me now. I like to think it's not being unprofessional, it's just being that comfortable with the character.
PW: After six years and three movies, she must indeed be a pretty comfortable character for you to slip into.
TC: I don't even have to slip into it. That's the whole thing. She's me. And it's funny, it's like you look like your dog after five years. After you're partnered with your husband for so many years, you begin to look like him. I think this happens.
And it's weird, because the writers, you swear they've got a tape recorder somewhere, because they sometimes come very close to your real life. Maybe that's just me reading into that. You can always make something what you want it to be. But more times than not, I'm going, "Wow, that's pretty good."
PW: So somehow Sarah comes to Lynx River, and has a variety of experiences with other people in the town. Eventually, she stumbles her way across the river to Albert Golo. And he takes her in. He wasn't mean to her--at least not at that point. Gotta say that for the guy!
TC: And the whole town did, really. There was no judgment cast. I think Albert stepped a little bit further in giving me shelter. I think I was living in the forest, giving medical advice for food.
PW: "Will nurse for food!" [all laugh]
TC: Yeah, exactly, but no one whispered behind my back. But Albert took that step of actually letting me live there.
PW: The relationship between Sarah and Michelle went back and forth. Sometimes they were good friends, sometimes there was an edge to it.
TC: Yeah, and they did that purposely because I was a foreigner, I was a white southerner. They had to keep that tension there. But it was never really bitter, and it was never really overt. It was always just sort of subtle.
TK: Remember the one time Sarah went away on the plane and I chased her?
PW: Yeah, "Moonlight Sonata," where Michelle yells out about the moonlight making you stronger as the plane is taking off. I guess there will always be some ambivalence about Sarah by the people who were born in Lynx River, even though it diminishes as time goes on.
TC: There will always be, because Sarah is a white woman from the South. But Michelle and me, I think they've written us up as equal women. [Although] I still don't play Scrabble with the gang.
TK: I don't even play Scrabble with the gang any more!
TC: I think originally their idea was that Sarah would become this sort of enigma, this bush woman, this white woman living in the bush somewhere. I think way back when, that's sort of how they saw her in the end. She was like folklore.
PW: Do you mean she was trying to go native?
TC: No, I don't think so. I think she was sort of an entity all on her own. But I when Wayne [Grigsby] and Barbara [Samuels] wrote the stories, I remember them saying, "We see her down the road years and years and years as this sort of woodswoman." Out on her own, without relating to the community, but not being ostracized in any way from the community. Just sort of this woman who's gone full circle. But I think they saw her perfectly content, years away.
PW: If Sarah was going to be a self-sufficient woodswoman, why did the producers eventually introduce a permanent love interest for her?
TC: I think, like anything, at the beginning when you write something you have an idea and you need to have an objective, you need to have it go somewhere in your own mind. But as you get going and get writing, you have to create stories. And if they want the stories to go, they're not going to retire me. They're not going to make me a woodswoman quite yet.
PW: Yet they could have left Sarah doing her own thing, without Martin.
TC: Yeah, but I think there's literally an element that they have to write my character something. They can't just assume I'm out in the forest. I think they could if they wanted to, but I think maybe the fan base might find that disheartening. Someone's missing, right? So they have to give you a story. But it's still sort of vague. There's not a lot about my house or where I stay. It's always in a very professional way that they deal with me. That's still something that might come to pass.
PW: Did bringing in Martin seem good you?
TC: Oh yeah, it made sense, because I don't believe that Sarah would ever be utterly, totally accepted [by the community]. There's no overt animosity. It's just that she is not Aboriginal. She's a white woman.
TK: Uh-huh. She's not of this community. Even Ellen was never accepted. Ellen was not from this community.
PW: So bringing in Martin gave her someone who could accept her more? That was a good development?
TC: Yeah, I think it made sense for Sarah, because as I refer to him in ["Dream Storm"], he's never here, he's perfect for me. You know, we're having a little girl talk and we're being honest, and I say, "Well, you know, in some ways Martin is perfect for me because he's always away working. If it was a real relationship, I'd just screw it up anyway." That's my dialog, and Michelle laughs.
So they brought him in, but then they took him out. They brought him in just to give me a storyline, and now he's gone. But he's not gone gone, he's just not around.
PW: One could certainly say that Sarah deserved a break after the guys she'd been hanging out with, to have a nice man like that.
TC: Yeah, but sure enough, I picked him, too, because he's always away working. Now there's an insight there.
PW: At least he's been around longer than some people we could mention.
TC: I think they obviously wanted me to play that part of I didn't know what was going on. They wanted my issues to show through a little bit. 'Cuz I didn't make the choice out of a healthy place to come here.
TK: Remember the pilot?
TC: Oh, Al! Remember my pilot! He jumped off the church.
TK: Yeah, he was on the church and he was singing a song to you.
TC: Well, he got caught with that hooker in Yellowknife! What was I supposed to do? Take him back? Forget it! [laughs] I just saw him [Stephen Shellen] on "Law and Order" the other night.
TK: Ohhh, on "Law and Order"?!
TC: You missed it. He murdered his wife.
PW: Since one of my other favorite shows is "Due South," I'd be interested how you liked doing an episode of that series.
TC: Oh yeah, you saw that, eh? That was fun. I played someone completely different. I played a PR person.
PW: An agent for a hockey player, right?
TC: That's right, that's right. And, and, what I remember most about that was I got to work with that hunky guy who was in "Top Gun."
PW: Rick Rossovich, who played the hockey player?
TC: Yeah. I was just like, "Oh my god!"
PW: Are you saying that you didn't even notice Paul Gross? [laughs]
TC: You know, I had known Paul Gross. He was around the city. Paul Gross was like just a fellow actor. He was working like a dog, that guy. He was writing, directing, producing--he was just going crazy. No, he was a very nice guy. But I noticed the "Top Gun" guy. [all laugh]
PW: What are some of the other things you've done that you've enjoyed?
TC: Well, I've enjoyed it all really. I've been doing this for what, 15 years maybe? I never went to the States. I had a family and made that choice long ago. I wasn't going to climb that ladder. I was separated from my daughter's father, and I was more concerned with, if I had moved to the States, how was that relationship going to survive. So I decided I'd rather be a medium fish in a smaller pond. So that was a better way to go than being a small tiny guppy in an ocean.
TK: No kidding!
TC: So I feel I opted for the little more secure route.
PW: Have you ever done theater?
TC: No, I've never done theater. But I've done every episodic from "Top Cops" to "Counterstrike," "Forever Knight," "Traders."
PW: You had a semi-regular role in "The Hoop Life," right?
TC: Oh gosh, yeah. It was "Hardwood," then renamed "The Hoop Life." It was a recurring role. I played the deputy commissioner of the--it wasn't the NBA, because we couldn't say that.
PW: Some fake basketball league name?
TC: Yeah. [My role was] to kick ass. Giving detention to nine-foot-tall men with shoulders that are eight feet wide. Yeah, that was an interesting thing.
PW: So you keep an eye out for the episodic shows that are filming in the Toronto area?
TC: Well, you know, to be honest...shall we be honest? [laughs]
TC: Shall we, Fran?
FH: Why not!
PW: Just remember--the tape recorder's going! [laughs]
TC: Okay. This is my official last project.
PW: Are you kidding?
TC: No, I'm not kidding. It's my official last project. But as I said to Tom [Cox], "North of 60" is like my child at this point. I have such a connection...
FH: Oh my god. A dead man just walked in!
DBK: I need coffee to wake me up.
PW: Is this the famous Bob Sampson, who's found dead at the beginning of "Dream Storm"?
TC: Yeah, that's Bob!
TK: Were you in the freezer?
PW: Get this guy something warm, quickly!
TK: The poor guy. He's been in the river, in the freezer.
PW: I hope they're paying you well.
FH: There's no coffee for you, you poor dead guy.
TC: There's tea. We'll make you hot tea.
PW: So, Tracey, you were saying that you have a strong connection to "North of 60," but that this is your last acting project. Would you come back here again?
TC: Yeah, but it's not a priority for me. I'm at University of Toronto.
PW: Taking what?
TC: Well, I've just begun now, it's my first year, but hopefully--I have yet to really know--working toward a Bachelor of Science.
PW: In what field?
PW: So you must live in the Toronto area?
TC: In Toronto. I have two children and my husband in Toronto. And a dog, and a cat.
PW: Is he in the entertainment industry?
TC: You could say that. He's in sales. [laughs] He's actually with a division of AOL.
PW: So if they called you once in a while to do a "North of 60" movie, I presume you'd come back for that? But you don't have your agent pursuing other shows? You're essentially retired from acting?
TC: I can't say it's a retirement. I'd say it's a sabbatical. Who's to say? 'Cuz school's not a trade for me. It's about learning. So who's to say that this doesn't arm me with a little more knowledge and come back and finally win a Gemini. [all laugh]
TK: I said I felt like I was the Canadian Susan Lucci!
PW: When you finally won a Gemini the fourth time you were nominated?
TK: Yeah, I thought I was the Susan Lucci of Canadian television.
PW: So your plan for now, Tracey, is to take time away from acting, but if you change your mind later, you'll come back?
TC: Yeah, acting was more of a need than a want. Then I just parlayed it. It just worked for me to do it. Now I'm curious what else I can do. So it's chapter three, stage three.
PW: Stage one being?
TC: One being print. I did print for years and years, modeling.
PW: Ah, that's right. You were modeling before you became an actress.
TC: Then I went into TV, and now I'm going to school. I've always been into production, though. There was a time where I thought I might go into that, 'cuz I love the whole business aspect. I'm going to take some elective economics courses. So we'll see. I feel like I'm starting, just beginning.
PW: I hope you'll be willing to come back for future movies.
TC: I think so.
PW: It wouldn't take too much time to do that.
TC: No, a week, ten days. I don't know that I would sacrifice much more than that. But that's all I'm needed here. It's only a 21-day shoot anyway.
PW: And they already did a major storyline about Sarah in the first movie, so it's unlikely that she would be the main character in subsequent ones.
TC: It's an ensemble cast, so they gotta go through everyone. And there's always Story A and Story B, so I could play the underlying story, which doesn't take a lot of time.
PW: Keep your hand in the show.
TC: Yeah, keep my foot in the door.
TK: Keep our little gang going!
TC: And it's like I have a little body clock that ticks, "Time to go, time to go, time to go." I've been doing it for nine years!
PW: Time to get back to Lynx River?
TC: Yeah. And it's so true, isn't it Al? Whenever we come in it's like, "Hey!" Then an hour later it feels like we never left.
AM: It seems like we never left. The rest of it was just a dream!
TC: But you know what? Honestly, it gave me the wrong impression of the whole industry, because "North of 60" was my first series role as a regular. And I had only been acting for about two years at the time. So I got into this and as it's turned out, everybody knows everybody. Al made dinner I don't know how many times at his house, and you'd see children growing up.
So I walked away from the series after six years thinking, "Okay, this is what TV life is like as a series." So off I go and do my next show and it's a little bit of a rude awakening. I think this is sort of an anomaly. It's not the norm.
PW: So there was a community created off-screen here.
TC: Absolutely. I really feel that. Maybe it's just my personality. Maybe it's what I need. I don't know.
FH: I think that's definitely true.
TC: Oh yeah. I think there really was a family off the screen. And it's not that way across the board. There's a connection here, there's a relaxed mode, there's a friendliness here that doesn't exist [with other shows]. "Traders" I found that way. But that's a five-year show again. When I did the last season of "Traders," I felt at home immediately, just like here.
PW: How many episodes of "Traders" were you in?
TC: Three or four, I think. I played a seductress. [laughs] I'm sort of expecting a two-hour movie [of "Traders"]. They did it with "E.N.G," they did it with "Street Legal." So "Traders" may, I don't know. It was a lovely set and a lovely cast and a lovely crew. I just had so much fun. At that point I was pretty much decided to get out of the business, and when I was on the "Traders" set, I thought, "Do I really want to leave this?" But then I worked for other shows and was convinced that yes, I really wanted to leave.
FH: "Da Vinci's Inquest" is similar. "Da Vinci's" is great.
TC: I would think anything running after three seasons, four seasons, without too much..."Due South" I don't think had that, because there was a lot of change continuously going on with characters and money and tension, foreign money and this and that. And the pressure, of course, to stay in the States.
But I think for the most part, shows that have run for a consistent amount of time, like, I'd say, past three seasons, I think that would probably develop, that sort of feeling. But I only recall "Traders," "North of 60." And the other shows I've worked on were anthologies, so those don't have a chance to develop as this show was.
PW: "Forever Knight" was on for several years.
TC: Yeah, "Forever Knight" was great fun, too. And then [Geraint Wyn Davies] did "Black Harbour."
PW: And then he came and directed an episode in the final season of "North of 60."
TC: Oh, yes. Nice man. A great guy.
PW: And now here we are, three movies after that final season.
TC: Yeah, it's been a good run, as they say.
PW: Yes, you all have a lot to be proud of. I know you give credit to the writers for creating such good characters, but you're the ones who bring those characters alive.
TC: But the writing is the beginning. You can't do it without writing.
PW: The movies, of course, have a somewhat different feel from the series.
TK: Well, the movies have been so much the cop stories.
TC: But you know what, you gotta take in ratings, you gotta take in all this stuff in TV land that we don't really know. There's an ideal, but then there's also reality, right? You have to get ratings and you have to be acclaimed. And you know, the polls show that violence is a seller, and the polls show this and the polls show that. So they have to, I think, tie all of that into their ideal.
PW: Certainly the movies have been more plot-driven than the series.
TC: Yeah, it's television land. We all have great ideas, don't we, for stories? But would they fly or not?
PW: It was wonderful in the first movie to see them follow up on the Brian Fletcher storyline. How did you feel about that?
TC: Oh, I love him! I wish he was back now. I said, "Oh my god--they killed Brian!"
TK: Oh, I know! We loved Robert!
TC: Please, bring him back as a ghost! Bring him back as a ghost!
PW: Certainly being dead isn't an obstacle on this show!
TK: He's so much fun to work with, eh?
TC: He's a blast. He's a nice man. I see him occasionally in Toronto; he drops by my place about every two or three months. He's just such a great actor. He does a lot of voiceovers, he does theater, he does all kinds of stuff.
PW: So you were happy when you read the script for the first movie and saw that they were bringing Brian back?
TC: Uh-huh. I didn't like being buried, though!
PW: Oops, it looks like they need both of you now.
TC: Thank you so much. I'm so flattered that you enjoy the show as much as you do.
PW: Well, on behalf of all the show's fans, thank you, Tracey, and Tina.
Text and photos (c) 2000-2001 Patricia F. Winter.
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