This month, two documentaries will examine the lives of two Newfoundland artists whose dedication to their work has brought joy to their audiences, but, occasionally, pain to themselves and their families. Why do they do it? What’s it like having a camera focused so closely on their private lives?
Interviews and photos by Elling Lien
…has written the play Easy Down Easy, directed by Mary Walsh and accompanying the grand opening of the LSPU Hall on October 5th.
…is the subject of a film about his life by Barbara Doran (director of Love and Savagery) entitled Still Rowdy After All These Years, which will be showing October 26 at the Women’s Film Festival. It tells the story of the charismatic actor’s beginnings in Grand Falls (being ‘blessed’ by Bob Hope) to his work today.
So, my first official question is pretty ridiculous: What’s it like being a Newfoundland icon?
[laugh] A Newfoundland icon! I’m not sure. Every time I hear the word “icon” I figure something’s going to fall off the mantle, you know?
You are very respected here in Newfoundland, I mean. When you appeared on the Republic of Doyle, for example, that little part, people were talking about it everywhere. I don’t think I heard a negative word said about you.
Even though that part was of a villain? [laugh] It’s a lovely feeling. I get a way better feeling out of a smaller part than I do when I’m doing a lead and shouldering so much of the weight, you know? It’s a very good feeling to come in, go to work for a few weeks, have a good and interesting role to play, meet wonderful people, and have a terrific time with the crew. It certainly makes you look as though the reason why you got into the business. You know, it has that same feeling to it.
I enjoy it immensely, and St. John’s is of course, you know, you get it. Every time I land I feel at home. So I mean it couldn’t be a better atmosphere in which to work, you know?
So tell me about Easy Down Easy, the play you wrote.
There’s no sense in getting into the finest possible detail of it, but basically it’s about a sign-post in our lives. That we really don’t lose our backgrounds. We don’t lose our mistakes, our errors. We live with them, we learn by them and from them. Basically, it is that as a story of eventual self-tribulations and self-forgiveness.
It’s just a marvelous story between three people on stage. Mysteries and memories from the past, and having to deal with those in the happiness in the present.
There was the scene at the beginning of the documentary where you were pushed over a railing and it was muddy and cold. Sometimes the work behind-the-scenes isn’t very glamourous. What is it that’s keeping you working? What keeps the passion there?
The fact that it’s different, not the same thing. I remember going to work earlier on in my life and realizing that I might have to settle down to a particular kind of work that I didn’t want to spend my life at. I was so lucky to find something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That’s the beauty of the arts, because they’re all about creating, and you never stop creating. When they put me in the box, I’m going to bring a pen and scratch out something on the underside of the lid. There’s always something. Always something to say, always something to do. You are that way until you stop breathing, so might as well keep at it. Otherwise it’s not very interesting. The later part of life can be very dull, in fact, depending on what you’re involved in. This has always been a very dynamic way of existing. It really demands the best of you. I like this kind of activity, being able to sit down and create something that nobody’s seen. It’s a wonderful sense of achievement, even though nothing may ever come of it. But it’s yours, it’s all yours.
When you set out to work as an actor, you had no idea that you were going to be able to make a go of it. In the film it talks about your first marriage, which broke up. And I couldn’t help but notice a connection with the play—not being able to run away from yourself, or from your past.
Well, I think it would be a fairly uninteresting, uneventful life if things stayed on an even plane. I think being in an unchangeable situation you don’t discover much of anything, much less about yourself. You have to see things as they go along. They are there. They’re in us. You know, we have a source in ourselves to go to when we want to open it up and enlarge our existence. That happens by, probably, through an adventurous nature where you want to lead a different kind of life than what might be expected.
I found out fairly early that I was not the best at manual labour. I was also mechanically un-inclined, so instead of all that I went for the other, the arts. Then I would have been really dead wrong if that didn’t work. I don’t know if there would have been a place for me.
I didn’t go to drama school. I didn’t have the money to do the wonderful schools in England. A lot of people did that. That was the way to go. I didn’t have that, so I had to go with whatever assets I had.
Another person in town who has had that kind of impulse is Ron Hynes—and there’s another documentary in the same film festival this year about him.
Yes, that’s The Man of a Thousand Songs.
For these interviews I wanted to concentrate on you and Ron because you both have had some times in life where your artistic passion took over. Where you chose it in place of a more stable life…
I would say we’re lucky to have had a checkered past. In the checkered past, if you haven’t done absolutely dirt to people, if you’ve been a fairly decent individual, you just happen to make mistakes, what it does is it adds layers to you. With more and more layers, that gives you a greater inventory of places to go to when you’re writing and you’re creating. Even as an individual, it adds. It’s a plus. Otherwise, can you imagine?
I remember when I started I was a painter at one time, and I still do some. I’d go around and I think, “I’ll touch up that painting.” That was one I had done years and years ago, but my wife said, “Don’t touch it. That was you then.”
And it was. It was me then. That’s how I felt like wielding the brush at that time.
There’s a marvelous thing about looking back. Yes, sometimes, sadly, since my wife past, I can look back think, I want that particular day back. I want that week back. I want to do something that I had never done. I want to take her somewhere where she’d never been. That kind of regret.
But things worked out well. We got on famously and stuff. It’s been a very worthwhile trip for just about everybody involved. It’s not seen in any sort of unseemly way. It’s seen in very good light. Because what you’ve done is you’ve learned from it, and it’s your book of life. The place in your own private place. If you’ve handled it okay. It’s all been okay. It’s been very good. I mean regrets are going to be there. She said if you start fixing up your paintings, if you start trying to perfect in that false way of life, you’re going to end up with a very thin book. You’ve got to have a bigger book than that.