When it comes to telling a true Newfoundlander versus someone merely pretending to be one, Canadian actor Mark Critch can tell immediately. The Saint John’s native and cast member of CBC’s sketch news show This Hour Has 22 Minutes since 2002 certainly knows his way around the theatre, film, and television industries back home.
It made the TV veteran a perfect choice for director Don McKellar when he was set to direct a remake of The Grand Seduction in Newfoundland. He was so good of a choice to play a key member of the small coastal community of Tickle Head that the film’s star, famed Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, was turning to Critch for tips on how to sound and move like a Newfoundlander.
In the film, which hits Canadian cinemas this Friday, Critch plays the town’s worrywart and straight arrow banker Henry, a man whose job is essentially under constant threat of being replaced by an ATM at any moment because his job consists solely of cashing the welfare cheques of the community’s economically destitute fisherman. Henry’s participation is integral to a scheme concocted by Murray (Gleeson), a man determined to seduce a big city doctor (Taylor Kitsch) into calling Ticklehead home so the town can land a lucrative petrochemical treatment plant that could give everyone a chance to get back to work for the first time in years.
Humble and definitely accent in real life like a true Newfoundlander, Critch sat down with us during a Toronto promotional stop for the film to talk about the Newfoundland experience, Gleeson’s dedication to getting the accent right, and using his famed impression of talk show host George Stroumboulopoulos to talk about the difference between accents and impressions.
Dork Shelf: I was excited to see how big of a role you have in the film, because usually even when you bring a Canadian TV star into a Canadian film that has a cast this big, usually those actors get blended into the background…
Mark Critch: (laughs) Yeah! You get the “token” part where you have to go around getting people coffee.
DS: But your character here is integral to the plot and the very structure of the town at the centre of it.
MC: Yeah, it’s a great role, and I like him as a character, too. What I like most about the film is that it’s kind of like one little gang of locals trying to seduce Taylor’s character there, but everyone has their own flavour or their own little instrument that they have to play, sort of like a band. I really like that about that ensemble. Everyone has their own thing to do, and I like that dynamic and how this character fits into that a lot.
DS: You and Liane Balaban get to play the neutral people in the town. She’s on the side of not wanting to hurt Taylor’s character and to always be honest with him, and you have want the town to succeed, but you don’t like how everyone is going about their business. What’s it like playing the neutral in opposition to the extremes of the rest of the town?
MC: What I always knew was that in the small towns like that, there’s always someone who has a job like that – whether they work in a bank or they work in a post office – and I always picture that maybe while they were growing up they were always a little bit on the outside of everyone. They weren’t going out in boats and they weren’t going out and doing the fishing. They’re all kind of bookish fellas, or something like that. My character is always thinking, “Yeah, there’s this great thing happening and we could get this factory and I’m not sure if we should be doing this, but Murray’s actually talking to me and these two guys are treating me like friends!” There’s that element where this person gets to be liked and gets to be in the gang. It’s neat like that because at a certain point he decides that he’s not an ATM and he puts his job on the line – and that’s his WHOLE identity – to get through this. That’s a big moment for him and for a person. He gives up a lot in the film because that character would be fine either way. He’s got a job in a town where no one has jobs, he has no stake in fishing or anything like that, and he’s getting to a point where he’s willing to throw all of that away to make this crazy scheme happen, and it might never happen. It’s neat that way.
DS: Your character is the straight arrow who’s also being seduced INTO lying.
MC: Absolutely! Brendan’s character plays that beautifully to make my character think that this is something that HAS to be done. He fires me up. He gets seduced just as much as Taylor does.
DS: As a Newfoundlander yourself, you must have been thrilled to see how credibly Brendan Gleeson comes across as someone who has lived there their entire life.
MC: Yeah! I think he did a masterful job. He was always very concerned the whole way about not getting bogged down in any kind of buffoonery or paddywhackery. “Oh, look at these cute little people. They’re basically leprechauns now. They want to get their pot of gold now.” He’d seen way too much of that in Ireland, and he knew the dangers therein. It was always about never making things wacky or hokey and keeping things grounded in creating real people with real problems that they needed to fix.
With the accent, before filming he had contacted me before we started filming. I did this video about the Newfoundland accent online for a travel thing, and I was just kind of kidding around with it, and he was talking to Don about doing the film, and he showed Brendan the video and told him that if you could keep that kind of humour and make fun of the place while also respecting it, then that’s where we should be. And then Don said, “Well, that guy’s in the movie.” And Brendan said, “Oh! Great!”
So I get this call from Brendan Gleeson, who I really didn’t think was THE Brendan Gleeson, and I just thought it was another Irish actor named Brendan who was going to be in the thing. So we started emailing me back and forth, and it never clicked with me that this was In Bruges Brendan Gleeson. We’re just talking about the accent, and I sent him a bunch of links, and he was really nervous, and I said “Don’t Worry, you’re gonna get it.” He did a fantastic job.
Newfoundlanders love to say, “Oh, no, you’re doing it wrong.” Judi Dench did it in The Shipping News and everyone thought that was a horrible accent. But he’s the first actor I’ve seen where he’s been able to do it to a point where I have cab drivers back home a week after the film premiered there saying, “Oh, I saw that movie, Critch. What part of Newfoundland is that Brendan Gleeson fella from?” There you go. (laughs)
He was so concerned about that. I think people would think, “Oh, he’s an Irish fella, so he should be able to do a Newfoundland accent.” But the one place where it would really hit your ear that you weren’t getting it right would be if you were actually Irish to begin with. For him, he was stressing over how to do that accent. I’ve never seen someone work so hard at that before. He puts an incredible amount of work into everything he does.
DS: Growing up in Boston like I did, you kind of hear elements of the same accents up and down the east coast of North America and in Ireland, so it’s really a hard kind of hybrid accent to peg down. They all are, really.
MC: Yeah, and there’s a lot of English in there, too. People always compare it to the Irish, but Old English comes in there. Really what happened with Newfoundland is that people would come over from different places, then they would create their own town or cove, and then they just never left. That community could all be from Cork, and that community over there can all be people from someplace different, or whatever. Then as they intermingled, they pick up accents from here and there, so the accent changes from place to place. I was saying to Brendan, “Really, what IS the Newfoundland accent? You have about 80 different varieties to choose from. Some of them in a way all sound the same.” And he said, “No. I want it to be this one exact thing.” Then I just kind of sighed and said, “Yeah, but that’s a lot more work, though.” (laughs) “Can’t we just say you’re just from there?” But no. (laughs) He had this laser-like precision, and he comes across great.
DS: You guys also lucked out because while you were shooting, you guys happened upon one of the nicest summers Newfoundland had ever had.
MC: You know, when I was hired I said to myself, “Oh boy, we’re actually going to shoot here. Oh, here we go, Jesus.” You never really want to shoot a movie there because you never really know what’s going to happen, but it was really perfect. Every day was just beautiful. On the days we wanted it to feel moody, it felt moody. On the days when we were out playing cricket, the sun was splitting the rocks like it does in a tourism ad. You see all these Newfoundland and Labrador tourism ads and if you’re from there you wonder, “I wonder where they shot that? I’ve never been to that place. I’ve never been on a cliff while two whales breech in a choreographed ballet while some little blonde girl plays a fiddle for me and there’s laundry hanging out to dry on a line.” And then we’re shooting this movie and we’re in this exact spot where the whales are goin’, and there’s fiddle music in the background, and I’m just thinking, “My god! Does the island only do this when it knows it’s getting filmed?” It was great, though.
I heard about this ages ago, but I never really thought they’d actually film it there. It’s based on the Quebec movie, and when you see that movie you can see how it would work in Newfoundland. They’re talking about Newfoundland, but they’re speaking French. Back in the day after the cod moratorium in the 90s, there were a bunch of displaced crab and fishery workers, and we started a historical pageant there with Shakespeare and everything, and that built and built and built, and now there’s a million dollar theatre there and a huge theatre festival. Then after that Random Passage was shot there, a CBC miniseries with Colm Meaney, and then The Shipping News, and now this. So all the extras in these films are people who just lived in these towns and who worked in the fisheries. That town has a real, authentic feel to it because it’s a real place with real people. These people have worked on other productions in the past, so these guys who are fishermen all their life, are asking all these questions about what lenses we’re using, and what kind of light we’re shooting in, and asking when to come back from lunch. They’re totally set up and ready to go out there for filming, so this was really a perfect match.
DS: Was it a nice change of pace to go to this from your normal sketch comedy kind of day job?
MC: Absolutely. I started off in theatre and doing these small Canadian films, and that was my love and passion. Then the comedy I do on the side started to take off more and more, and then that just led to the way it is. I love that, but when you’re doing a scene where it’s just you with Brendan Gleeson and Gordon Pinsent, that’s just the best! There’s something comforting in that, because you think, “I’m going to try my best here, but no matter how good I am, everyone isn’t going to expect me to be good in this scene.” (laughs) And that’s great because that takes a bit of the pressure off. Of course they’re going to be better than me! That’s fine! It was a master class working with Brendan and Gordon.
DS: Before I go, I have to compliment you on your impression of George Stroumboulopoulos that you do a lot.
MC: Oh! Thank you!
DS: It’s such a spot on impression. So as someone who has an accent in real life and you have to play someone with those kinds of specific rhythms and a specific cadence, how hard did you have to study that?
MC: The thing that I’ve learned about impressions is that it’s kind of like making fun of the teacher in class. You’ve gotta kinda either do it right away, or you can do it but it’s not going to be great. A lot of the great impressions when you say “Yeah, I got it!” are when you just realize it. All of a sudden you can start to look like the person even though you don’t realize it and you look nothing alike. There’s something in the movements and the mannerisms, and there’s something about Strombo that’s [in Strombo voice] very nuanced.
It becomes a thing where when you do it once, all of a sudden you got this. Then along the way you start to notice things about the person you’re doing the impression of, and you kind of forget that you even noticed it about them. You just start doing them naturally.
It’s kind of like with Brendan trying to pick up the accent for this film. Some people can do impressions, and some people can do accents. It’s a musical thing in a lot of ways. Brendan’s a musician and I’m a music fan, so you can hear a rhythm and you don’t know what you’re going to say, but you can just [in Strombo voice] I know that Strombo has this kind of, uh, [Strombo styled giggle] little rhythm that he has. Eventually you just fall into that rhythm that he has and it’s almost like humming a song absent mindedly after a while. You kind of forget that you’re doing it. It’s one of those things where you know someone and you’ve got it, and someone might ask you to try and impression of someone similar and you kind of have to say, “Well, maybe. I dunno. But I REALLY got THIS guy down.”