Casting in Canadian Productions — Not Just for Gerbils Anymore?

There may — or may not — have been an interesting shift in the last few years.

I’ve commented before (repeatedly, incessantly, ad nauseam) about the idea how often the leading roles in Canadian movies and TV shows go to non-Canadians. (And by that I mean importing an actor, usually from Hollywood, specifically to “star” — rather than referring to the background of a Canadian actor: there are plenty of Canadian actors who are not from Canada originally, but are still, essentially, Canadian).

Yet I do wonder if we’re seeing a shift. I hesitate to make any  proclamations, because it all depends upon what you choose to focus (feature film or TV, movies or series, programs made mainly for the Canadian market vs. programs made primarily for the international distribution). A while back I was thinking about how there seemed to be a shift…but then, after casually glancing over a random list of a dozen recent Canadian movies, I realized that the majority still featured imported stars. Although even then, my perception of a change might have been due to the distribution. Movies where a few years ago, all the major roles would’ve gone to imported stars, now only one or two roles did; movies where once all the good roles were denied to Canadian actors, now the cast seemed more evenly mixed.

Now even bringing up this topic can create controversy in some circles — often from different corners, from people with different agendas. And of course there are the deniers: those who say it doesn’t happen or, if it does, it’s simply the best role went to the best actor and nationality had nothing to do with it. And some of those people might even believe what they are saying.

But as I say, things may be changing a bit — although even the reaction to these changes can be telling.

A couple of recent press releases announced that Kristin Lehman would be starring in Motive, a new crime drama TV series, and Tatiana Maslany would be fronting a sci-fi drama, Orphan Black, co-produced with BBC America. Now what was interesting wasn’t simply that Canadians were getting the starring roles…but how the press announced it. Emphasizing in the headlines that a “Canadian” was cast as the star — seeming almost as astounding as if a gerbil had been announced as the star of the next Bourne film! Maybe I’m just reading too much between the lines, but it seemed like the reporters themselves were surprised by these casting choices as if, though they would never come out and say it, they just assumed the roles would go to non-Canadians.

Still, the fact that two high profile series are announced — one, at least, an international co-production — with a Canadian taking centre stage might be indicative of a new wind blowing (and in Maslany’s case, a Canadian largely known only for her domestic work, as opposed to Lehman with a bunch of Hollywood credits under her belt already).

Go back a decade or so and if you look at Canadian series (usually co-productions) aimed at the international market place (that is, usually “genre” series hoping for commercial success) almost all featured an imported star (or two) and were set in the United States and/or about Americans. StarGate, Earth: Final Conflict, Andromeda, Relic Hunter, Highlander, Adventure, Inc., Adventures of Sinbad, Queen of Swords, Jeremiah, The Outer Limits, and many others. There were a very few that actually starred Canadians, such as First Wave and Codename: Eternity, though they were still set in the United States.

John Woo’s Once a Thief was headlined by an American, but as part of a trio of more-or-less equal heroes, and the setting was kind of vague, but sort of Canadian.

Then there was Forever Knight (set in Canada with a Canadian cast — ironically it was inspired by an American TV movie!) and Due South and Bordertown (which were dual projects, playing up both a Canadian and American angle).

The irony about so many of those above productions is that you could make the case that what opened the door for them, what proved (to American producers and marketers) that Canadians were people they could partner with and who could produce decent programs, were earlier series like Night Heat, Adderly, and others…series which actually did feature Canadian casts, and though not explicitly set in Canada, went for a nominal Anytown, North America milieu (as opposed to being clearly set in the U.S.)

Anyway — so how have things changed? If at all?

Looking at the same kind of internationally aimed programs (as opposed to shows that, first and foremost, are aimed at the domestic market…even if international sales are certainly hoped for) what do we see? (And, obviously, I’m sure I’m missing a few)

The number of Canadian (co-produced) series featuring one or more imported stars and explicitly not set in Canada…have diminished. Recently there’s Haven, Being Human, XIII: The Series, and Copper.

A recent press release announced the TV movie, Still Life — a detective-mystery story — will be set in Quebec…but starring a British actor (though the production itself might be a co-production, I don’t know).

Sanctuary featured an all-Canadian cast, though was explicitly set in the U.S., while Continuum is set (more or less) in Canada, but features an imported star. Lost Girl features a Canadian cast, though is vague about its setting, which is also true of Saving Hope. Combat Hospital featured a couple of imported leads — but as part of an ensemble cast, and explicitly acknowledging its Canadian roots. Flashpoint and Rookie Blue feature Canadian casts and, to varying degrees, admit their Canadian setting.

And there are some series in the pipeline that we’ll have to see how they settle out. Rogue is to be headlined by a couple of imported stars (including Thandie Newton — be still my heart!)…but so far no word on where the story will be set (it’s being filmed in Vancouver) while Orphaned Black will star Canadian Tatiana Maslany — though, again, with no info on where the action will take place. There’s been some suggestion the upcoming Beauty and the Beast up-date is a Canadian co-production (as opposed to simply an American series shot in Canada), but I’m not actually sure. If true, it apparently stars Canadian Kristin Kreuk alongside an Aussie-New Zealand actor, but will be set (I’m guessing) in the U.S.

Now, obviously — making lists and comparisons like this can mean as much, or as little, as you want. And obviously, when talking about “co-productions” there’s only so far you can, or should, push any kind of national identity (since the other production partners have their own legitimate wants and needs). For example, in the North American version of Being Human (a Canada-U.S. co-production), two of the three principals are American actors…but all three are equal characters, so it’s not like all the “important” roles were reserved for American actors: one went to a Canadian. And many of the rest of the cast, including roles that are growing in importance, are also played by Canadians — a press release announced that recurring co-star, Canadian Kristen Hager, will actually be given series regular billing in the third season.

(Man, what’s with all these Kristins/Kristens these days?)

And one can debate which is better (from a cultural point of view): an all-Canadian cast, but in a series set in the U.S. pretending it’s American, or a cast headed by an American star, but which acknowledges it’s Canadian in its setting. Is it better to give the lead role to an imported star, knowing the majority of the roles are being played by Canadians? (The former has more prestige and resonance with the audience…the latter provides more work for more people). And if a Canadian actors is being used to fill a Canadian Content quota in an international co-production, is it simply important he/she be technically Canadian, even if primarily known for Hollywood productions (and so just as likely to have been cast regardless) or that they come from the domestic talent pool? (In The Tudors, most of the Canadians used were actors primarily known for their Canadian work).

Obviously, there’s no one answer fits all — but just things to mull over.

Still, back to my main point…um, which is what?

Maybe things are changing or maybe it’s just happenstance.

There have been two recent mini-series inspired by the Titanic disaster, both seeming mainly U.K. productions with Canadians participating. In Titanic, it was primarily a U.K. cast, with the Canadian actors seeming almost grudgingly fitted in to appease a production partner; whereas in Titanic: Blood & Steel, although it too featured a mainly European cast…Canadian Kevin Zegers received top billing and (at least based on the early episodes) seems to be the nominal lead (first among equals, if you will, given it’s a large ensemble). I’ll admit, as a Canadian, one can’t help viewing the two productions slightly different (vis a vis their “Canadianness”) when you have Zegers carrying scenes, shaking off any lingering young adult aura, and sporting a Clark Gable mustache making him oddly reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio — not, ironically, DiCaprio from Titanic, but DiCaprio from The Aviator. And sharing scenes with fellow Canuck Neve Campbell, yet! And funnily, maybe the very multinational nature of the cast is part of it: Canadians standing next to U.K., Italian and American actors and each with good roles to chew over and each proving as good as the next. What a good co-production should be.

Yet you can read too much into momentary trends that might be no more than blips. As I say: it can depend on what you are looking at, from where you draw your samples. I pointed out that at this year’s Canadian Film Awards most of the winners in the acting categories (and many of the nominees) were imported actors. So things clearly haven’t changed very much. Global Television still tends to foist upon viewers — I mean, present to them — TV thrillers (usually made in conjunction with a U.S. cable network) which almost invariably star an American and are set in the United States (yet no doubt Global counts this as its “Canadian” Content).

I guess my point is just to say: hey, things can change. And maybe to point out that often the argument against casting Canadians is that Canadians aren’t “good enough”, or aren’t “famous enough”, or what have you — yet the fact that there are these productions coming along kind of pulls the rug out from under those arguments.

The point is, we can see a sort of victory — or at least, vindication — in these recent productions. But it’s still partly just in response to how bad things were, as much as it’s a sign of things being “good” now.

And as I’ve said before, one doesn’t really want an industry that doesn’t have the option to import actors (whether or not to fill a co-production quota). But what you want is an industry where you can believe if an American (or whoever) actor walks away with the lead role in a Canadian movie or TV show, it really was because they were the best person for the role, and they beat out the Canadian actors…and not that the Canadian actors weren’t even allowed in for a reading.

You need an industry where the casting of a Canadian in the lead role of a Canadian production isn’t still seen as astounding as casting Moppy the gerbil as Jason Bourne.

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