Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Being a Canadian actor: a chat with Michael Riley

It’s a fact. Michael Riley is even deeper than Dr Tom. Or perhaps it’s just that his lyrics are more unique, or otherwise real. And lyrical is the word to describe Michael. The multi-Gemini award winning actor is known for his lead roles in the independent film Perfectly Normal and the acclaimed TV series Powerplay and This is Wonderland. He has been playing the wise character of Dr Tom – the time-travelling therapist - in Being Erica for the past two years and across three seasons. Like Dr Tom, Michael has a wealth of knowledge about a diverse range of topics but, added to this, are his varied experiences as an actor - with variety itself being of essence. When I asked the question, “what would your all time dream role be?,” he replied gracefully, “whatever role would be most different from the last one I’ve played, and one with great writing.” He appears to flourish on the challenges of multiformity and the processes of transmogrification which are required as an actor takes on each character. So here’s a rundown of the guy behind Being Erica’s time-travelling therapist - ‘Dr. Tom’ - with his thoughts on Canada, character and cockney cheek.

On Toronto. It’s where Canadians go to find theatre, culture and commerce and Michael also goes there to film Being Erica, despite living in Ontario, in a rural town outside of Toronto. He also used to live in LA, so it’s a peaceful alternative. Michael likes to unwind from filming in Toronto and go running where it’s green.

On Montreal. Michael went to the prestigious Montreal National Theatre School. Although in the French speaking region, it was not necessary to learn French – other than “to order a biere from a French speaking bar”. Montreal is where he learnt about the versatility of acting, of orienting character. It was also his first time away from home and the “European vibe” of the city was particularly exciting for a boy from Ontario.

On method acting. Michael suggests that an actor’s “methodology” is a “means to an end” - the approach they take to connect truly with their character. “People tend to interpret method as the cosmetic changes which an actor makes, such as Christian Bale losing four stone for The Fighter.” In Michael’s case he engages in a full ethnographic study of his character which includes interviewing and spending time with similar people because “people are always that complicated, like a never ending hallway of doors.” The film To Catch a Killer, was based on a true story of a detective whose determination and focus enabled him to catch the American serial killer, John Wayne Gacy. Michael played the detective and spent many hours talking to the real man so he could gain an insight into his experiences and thought processes. Christian Bale did this also in his recent role in The Fighter but that tends to be overlooked.

On keeping up appearances. There’s a paparazzi in Canada but maybe not to the same extent as there is in America and the UK but it tends to be the people who open themselves up to it who encounter it the hardest. Michael believes that if you’re a serious artist doing what you do then people tend to respect you for that when they encounter you in your own time. “If you want to disappear in a crowded room you can. Or you can go into a crowd and make it be known that you’re out there and that is a choice you make. My favourite actors are the ones where you never see any pictures of them.” They may ask for a photo but then they leave you alone as they ultimately value you for being an artist, not a celebrity.

However, because Michael plays a wide range of roles, when people recognise him they tend to be unsure as to where they have seen him. Once at a restaurant a woman and her burly husband asked him if he they knew him from prison.

On Doctor Tom. In order to feel confident quoting Dr Tom’s quotations Michael wanted to read up on the texts which Tom cites although he was already familiar with some of the philosophers. Michael particularly thrives on playing Dr Tom when the programme explores his back-stories such as the character’s regrets and the past experiences which constitute what he has become. Dr Tom is seen in these episodes as more layered and emotional - as opposed to the often complacent quotation machine he is when he gives Erica therapy (my view)!

Michael is amused to hear that Dr Tom has a fan following on twitter and is glad that fans are interested in the character.

On philosophy. Michael is really interested in non dualism in relation to science and spirituality and he frequents conferences on the subject. In fact, he is possibly even more learned than Dr Tom.

On whether the character comprises the actor or the actor comprises the character. Michael believes that the character must always comprise the actor. The actor’s job must be to “get out of the way” so that the character can take hold. His mission as an actor is always to be completely engulfed by each character he plays. He says it is too easy to read a character’s script and to decide to make the character similar to yourself, by dragging it into the actor's comfort zone instead of allowing
character to inform the actor.

On versatility. Michael only takes roles which are a challenge in the sense that he will have the chance to explore an entirely new character and one which will change throughout their lifespan. He would not be as interested in playing a steady character in “a procedural cop show” and, ideally, each character he takes on will be the antithesis of the last. He recalled his favourite summer spent as an actor where he finished off playing the eccentric, jittery, ADHD suffering lawyer – Elliot Sachs – in the series, This is Wonderland. Following this part he decided he wanted to play someone still and controlled so he took on the heroic role of the American astronaut in the Discovery’s Race to Mars where he was quite literally contained - in a spacecraft. Next, he had the opportunity to play the unsavoury, Dickensian, cockney -Harry Stein - in Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s St Urbain’s Horseman. Michael described how this particular character was such a challenge that he decided to take the character out for a week on a test drive to see how the general public responded to him because “we learn more about how people respond to us than what we think”. He had to wear false teeth, greased hair and stoop continually because the character was both unsightly and small. However, Harry still seemed to make a few friends in Montreal’s English pubs and no one ever questioned his cockney accent or sixties style apparel.

On the physicality of the actor. Michael sees himself as a blank canvas so that he is ready to transform into any role. However, he says that you can usually tell when he is between acting jobs because of the length of his beard.

On alternative professions. Michael wanted to be an air pilot as a child until a drama teacher introduced him to the arts and to his potential as an actor. He can’t be sure he would have ended up actually being an air pilot but he thinks he would want to do something which he feels passionate about and which gets him up in the morning.

On hobbies. Michael loves science, philosophy and art. He likes to read about and attend conferences about physicists’ views of non duality and consider the nature of being in relation to spiritual concepts arising from religions such as Taoism. He also likes reading, listening to music, wandering through art galleries and, not surprisingly, film and theatre. Michael believes that “art in general is something which serves an extremely important function.”

On Britain. British actors tend to be Michael’s favourite because of their rich theatrical heritage, listing Daniel Day Lewis, Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi and Jeremy Irons as some of his inspirations. He’s also a fan of Ricky Gervais and thinks the British do The Office best! Half of Michael’s family were from Newcastle so he is used to spending time in Britain and with British people. He has no fine china tea cup kind of idea of English people and he is familiar with the variety of dialects, including the Northern ones. However, he is yet to visit Manchester.

On Projects in the Pipeline. The cast of Being Erica are waiting to hear if season 4 will be renewed. Michael is currently reading scripts, auditioning for roles and teaching as an actor in residence at the Norman Jewison school at the Canada Film Centre in Toronto.

Being Erica shows on E4 and is currently between seasons 2 and 3. Season 3 has just begun on America’s Soapnet.

Watch this space for a longer interview (as transcript) with Michael Riley.


Bev said...

There's a Dr. Tom on twitter? I can't find him!

Dr Beccy Kennedy said...

Bev - it's @DrTomplus on twitter. Michael Riley doesn't run it though. Thanks for reading.