THE LIST OF HOLLYWOOD heavyweights who have portrayed Mordecai Richler’s characters on screen is an impressive one. Richard Dreyfuss as Duddy Kravitz, Gary Busey as the Hooded Fang and, believe it or not even rapper Ice T has brought the celebrated Canadian literary icon’s words to life.
When the CBC announced it was adapting Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman — the story of Jake Hersh, a disgraced film director who lives out his fantasies via Joey, a Nazi-hunting, adventurer — into a two-part miniseries, they began looking for actors who would do the characters justice.
Elliott Gould signed on, so did Andrea Martin. When it came time to cast the role of Jenny, Hersh’s long suffering wife, they cast North Yorker Liane Balaban.
And who better to tackle the role of Jenny than the young Canadian actress from Willowdale whose past characters have often had that ‘fishout- of-water,’ disposition. Something — as a Canadian actor — Balaban knows very well.
“The identity of a Canadian actor in the Hollywood machine?” Liane Balaban laughs. “It’s really hard to stay in Canada and feel confident that one can have a thriving career here. You need to feel content with where you are and trust that you are on exactly the perfect journey for yourself.”
Balaban began that journey in North York in 1980, born to a Catholic mother, a medical secretary, and a Jewish father from Uzbekistan, who works in real estate. She remembers her childhood in Willowdale fondly: visits to Cheap Cheap, the local hardware store, swimming at Mitchell Field community pool, hanging out in Abbotsford Park.
“One day my friend Andrea’s clothes were stolen from the locker room,” Balaban says, recalling the summer of Grade 7 when she spent a lot of time at Mitchell Field pool. “I still remember people gawking as my friends and I walked with Andrea, who was barefoot and in a leopard print bikini, along Yonge Street to Cheap Cheap where she bought some one-dollar shoes.”
She even laughs when she recalls the intense cardio training she endured during middle school. “I remember every year in gym class we would do runs, outdoor cardiovascular training,” she says. “And if you were really good you would make it to Yonge Street, and if you were really bad you’d never pass Horsham Street. I don’t think I ever passed Horsham.”
Because of so many fond memories, Balaban prefers to remember the North York of her childhood rather than the one she sees when she comes home to visit from her new home in Montreal.
“North York has changed so drastically over the last 10 years,” she says. “I remember as an adolescent, walking along Yonge Street. But that was back before the boulevard was lined with condos. It was more of a low-rise section of Yonge Street, aside from a few skyscrapers. Now it’s like a condo jungle.”
Although at the time she felt like she was too far from the action in downtown Toronto, Balaban says, “Growing up in North York was, in hindsight, wonderful. It was a safe neighbourhood. I could ride my bike to my friend’s house,” she says.
There are a few things she still misses. “I miss my family. I have lots of friends in Toronto,” she says. And what’s really amazing is that a lot of these old high school friends are joining Balaban in the movie business, becoming filmmakers and producers.
“This year at the Toronto Film Festival I’m in a short film that’s directed by my high school friend Simon Ennis, called The Canadian Shield,” she says. “It’s his second short at TIFF. He has a feature in development, he’s becoming a real Canadian filmmaker. Another friend of mine just graduated from AFI [American Film Institute] in Los Angeles. He produced the short and he’s going to go on to produce features. It’s amazing to see that. And it’s such a coincidence that I ended up in the film world.”
And just how did Balaban end up here?
It all started with a little independent Canadian film called The New Waterford Girl. “At that point I had never intended to be an actor, so it changed the course of my career path,” she remembers. A producer named Julia Sereny lived on her aunt and uncle’s street, and she knew Balaban from holiday dinners. One day she asked Balaban to audition for the role of Agnes-Marie “Moonie” Pottie in Allan Moyle’s 1999 film.
Seven excruciating auditions later, she had the part of the 15-year-old dreamer and was even given the Special Jury Congratulation at the 24th annual Toronto International Film Festival and a Canadian Comedy Award nomination.
Since the role that made her a familiar face, Balaban has been choosing films that keep her in the Great White North, including leading roles in John L’Ecuyer’s Saint Jude; the television film After the Harvest, starring opposite Sam Shepard; and Now, opposite David Arquette and Ally Sheedy. Balaban’s next roles will see her travelling south of the border, first with an ensemble drama set in Athens, Georgia. Tentatively titled The Hills, the film added even more Canadians to Balaban’s impressive list of directors and co-stars: Toronto director Jeff Stevenson, who has directed a number of award-winning shorts, is at the helm of his first feature, and Canadian actress Kathleen Robertson co-stars.
And with a supporting role in the upcoming Definitely, Maybe, Balaban is set to appear in her first mainstream feature. The romantic comedy’s cast includes fellow- Canadian Ryan Reynolds; Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin; and Oscar-nominees Rachel Weisz and Kevin Kline. Very impressive company indeed.
Balaban is thrilled about her first Hollywood role. “It was a project with a larger budget where the shots were more elaborate. There were many extras, as opposed to 12 extras, crossing the scene many times,” she says.
But for now, Balaban’s most triumphant project is as Canadian as they get. She will play Jenny, one of Mordecai Richler’s heroines, in St. Urbain’s Horseman, which airs in two parts on Sept. 19 and 20 at 8 p.m.
Like Moonie, the teen who dreams of leaving her tiny Cape Breton coalmining town to study art in New York, Jenny journeys from suburban Yellowknife to big city Montreal.
“I read the book and fell in love with Jenny,” Balaban says. “My first reaction was that I wanted to honour her character, but that immediately puts a ton of pressure on me because I feel like I have to live up to this impossible task of bringing to life a literary character that is different to everyone who reads the book.”
Before auditioning for St. Urbain’s Horseman, Balaban had only read one Richler novel, Barney’s Version, and did not consider herself a Richler aficionado. In fact, she didn’t even read the book before the audition.
“I had only read the material for the audition, and then I read the script,” she remembers. “I was so exhilarated because it’s such a wonderful concept and an incredible character. She’s so vividly written. Even though she comes from a rural area, she’s an urbane goddess. She’s a muse and an intellectual and artsy and light-years beyond her surroundings in terms of the kind of culture she consumes and where she wants to go with her life.”
Just like Balaban’s breakthrough character, Moonie Pottie from The New Waterford Girl, who yearns to break free from her rural existence, Balaban herself is moving from the very suburban neighbourhood of Willowdale to downtown Montreal. But will she be making the move back to her hometown anytime soon?
“Everyday I wonder whether I should move back,” she confesses. “I completely and wholeheartedly miss Toronto.”
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