An Actor’s Life: The Sequel

Disc I: Film City or Mr. Saracino Works in Ottawa

The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in. – Harold Goddard

A word does not frighten the man who, in acting, feels no fear.Sophocles

I love the stage. I love the process of acting, but unfortunately, it doesn’t pay the bills. – Kabir Bedi

In my last blog, I talked about my experience shooting the feature-film Crook, which in case you missed, you can check out here:

So for this posting and the next, we’ll be looking at what it was like to work with the incredible Dan Aykroyd on a project called The Gamechanger – We Work Ottawa, as well as my time spent working on an exciting TV pilot called MMA Super 8. In addition, we’ll learn what it’s like to stand next to a top-ranked MMA fighter in a bathroom in a Cage aux Sports in Montreal for an hour. Granted, Johny Hendricks is a lovely person, but describing it as “awkward” is undercutting it a little bit. (But more on that in the next post.)

The Gamechanger is the brainchild of an extremely talented, driven and dedicated Ottawa actor and writer, Peter Michael Dillon – – and it has been a long time in the making in terms of the idea itself. That is, to promote Ottawa’s screen acting and film production talent to a worldwide audience. To say this project is important to Dillon is an understatement. Take as earnest evidence of that his decision to bankroll the project in its entirety, which, with film production, is no small feat. While discussing the project with President of ACTRA Ottawa and co-producer Sally Clelford– – she instantly recognized the importance and value of such a project, and as proof, offered to split half the project’s cost. A highly skilled and natural actor herself, Clelford understood that the immense talent pool of actors, technicians and directors in Ottawa was simply not getting the attention and work they deserve. Clelford explains:

There’s a serious lack of attention to the fact that this city contains an immense amount of talent, and this project developed out of a love for the talent here, and of wanting to promote it. I think most people would be surprised to know there is a film industry here. It’s an immensely powerful revenue-generator for the city, and a lot of our industry is disappearing to other places where there are more options available to them. When more productions come to town, obviously it’s wonderful for the talent, for the cast and crew. But the fact is everyone benefits. When productions come to Ottawa, they shop here, they eat here, and they spend money here. It contributes not just to our industry but to our city’s economy. And it’s immensely important not only to Ottawa, but to the country. We want to promote Canadian talent, that’s also important. When you scan a website like IMDb (The Internet Movie Database), you quickly realize how many actors are actually Canadian. But equally important, we want the incredible talent pool in this city, and the city itself, to be recognized worldwide. We want to keep the industry here in Ottawa, and have it grow as a really great spot for people to shoot.

Cities like New York, Los Angeles and Toronto tend to bring in millions (if not billions) of dollars in revenue because of location shooting. Bottom line, wouldn’t it be nice to have a little extra dough in the city coffers the next time you drive over and smash into that Wookie-sized pothole on your way to work? Exactly. But what tends to happen when most productions come to town is that they have not only already cast most of the actors, but also usually bring along their own technical crew as well. As you can imagine, that doesn’t leave much by way of our city’s actors getting cast. Most of the roles left at that point mostly consist of either background or minor roles, re: “B” players, and to have 300+ actors in the city vie for the same role is not only far from a workable solution, but a terrible recipe for trying to build a career, and to actually stay and work in the city you love. What unfortunately ends up happening is that our brilliantly skilled, hard-working, dedicated actors and crew leave Ottawa for greener pastures, the so-called larger “film cities” of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

When finished, The Gamechanger will clock in at around 10 minutes, the average length of a short film. Dillon also plans to have shorter versions of the film, but his original intent was always to make this project a little different than the ones that other Canadian cities with similar ideas have tried. Dillon’s goal with The Gamechanger was not only to make the project different in terms of length, but to also give it an actual storyline, and to shoot it with the same attention to detail and purpose as a feature film.

The idea was to have an interesting and beautifully shot storyline that would have a mysterious package being handled by a lot of different Ottawa actors, he said. Something unique and eye-catching that would show off our pool of immensely talented actors and crew. There’s such a high level of professional performers here, it’s amazing. I got to sit in on a recent audition, and I was amazed and delighted by the sheer amount of wonderful and varied performances. Oftentimes, production companies already have their leads cast, and they’re usually brought in from other cities. But Ottawa is the place I want to see flourish, and this is one way to do that. We need to promote and celebrate our own. We need to work with and employ each other, and we want these casting companies to look at us first.

Dillon’s belief in Ottawa as a viable location for big-budget films and for its talent pool is strong: I’d like to think we can play any city that you see. Movies of the week are often shot here and dressed up to be one major city or another. We offer a lot of different locations to cover it from a physical standpoint and create a specific look. But add to that our wonderfully diverse, rich and dedicated talent pool, and there are not many other places that can offer what we can.

A big part of making this whole thing work, tight time-frame, low-to-no-budget and all, was to bring in the perfect director for the job. Dillon and Alex Carrière – – were chatting one night, and the conversation turned to Dillon’s short film idea. Carrière is the enthusiastic, driven, hyper-talented and downright loveable writer and director of the MMA Super 8 TV Pilot that Dillon and I are working on and starring in as renegade MMA sports agents Bradley “Buck” Huck and Enzo “ET” Torres. Carrière loved Dillon’s idea and ran with it, his enthusiasm and drive bolstering in us even more the belief in The Gamechanger as a viable project. Dillon knew from past experience working with Carrière that his method of shooting is markedly different from most directors, and that Carrière’s joy and excitement when working is an almost palpable, contagious thing. Thankfully, not contagious in a bird-flu kind of way, but more so in the very real sense of community, camaraderie and excitement that he manages to create on set. It’s very easy to get swept up in their enthusiasm, when working with Carrière and crew.

Now, with another piece of the puzzle in place, Dillon and Clelford realized that to be able to really promote this properly, they would need a very special ace-in-the-hole. A big “name”, read: movie star, would need to be attached to the project.

From the very beginning we wanted to have celebrity support in this, Dillon says. We thought about who would be the best person, if we could only get one, and the answer was someone who had obviously made it on the big stage, who is extremely supportive of the town he grew up in, and is an actor’s actor. Someone who really supports his own. He was definitely the guy who we knew would be perfect.

Dan Aykroyd is undoubtedly a Canadian icon – actor, writer, businessman, entrepreneur, comedian, and creator of seminal TV and film characters. Original member of Saturday Night Live‘s Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players, star of Trading Places, Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers (my personal fave), Gross Pointe Blank, Antz, Canadian Bacon, and on and on and on. Getting Aykroyd was certainly a coup for the project and no small feat to accomplish. Dillon confides that he can’t get into the specifics as far as to how exactly he managed to get in touch with Aykroyd, but the importance of having someone of Aykroyd’s stature drove Dillon to use more creative methods when trying to reach the star.

I did everything I could to get his attention, and when we finally got in contact, he made it very clear he wanted to be involved. I want to underline how incredibly supportive he is of the actors here in Ottawa. At the end of the shoot, he made a point of saying that he would love to come back and work on a feature or a series here. He was very supportive of the idea of making it happen. And that was a real breath of fresh air and another great vote of confidence for the city.

I’m not one to usually be star-struck, but being on set with Dan Aykroyd, while certainly a privilege, was also a somewhat surreal experience. It’s a strange thing to be standing only a few feet away from someone I’ve been directly influenced by as an artist, and who has had an impact on my early comedic formative years. And frankly, my not excitedly and haphazardly blurting out one of Elwood’s lines from The Blues Brothers was sometimes a challenge. Aykroyd is someone whose body of work has affected and informed countless comedians and actors over the years, and has entered and infiltrated mass culture. Dillon echoes my enthusiasm in meeting the star.

Because of how insanely busy his schedule is, we only had him for two hours, so we’re a little worried about making sure that everything was prepped and ready to go when he got there. But he never made us feel rushed or hurried; he was genuinely happy to be there. Working with Aykroyd was absolutely great. He has a wonderful reputation and he exceeded all of our expectations. He was extremely friendly, supportive, and easygoing. He always had a smile on his face, a true professional throughout. Everyone who met him was absolutely delighted with the experience.

I had two days scheduled for The Gamechanger: the first, at a film production warehouse in Ottawa’s south end, The Fenton Film Production Space, operated by Ottawa-based film producer Steve Boisvert, who also donated his expertise to the project as associate producer –

Boisvert’s extremely generous donation of time, warehouse space, and production assistance allowed Dillon to greater showcase the variety of Hollywood-level sets and scenes that our production crews are capable of mounting – from run-down bathrooms to office spaces, street scenes, living rooms, and pretty much anything you can think of.

Pic 2-Police cars
Woop! Woop! That’s the sound of the police! (Photo: Luigi Saracino)

Pic 3-Bathroom 1
Ok, I am NOT cleaning this up! Seriously, this bathroom would make Mr. Clean retire. (Photo: Luigi Saracino)

Pic 4-Office interior
Sure, it’s an office now, but just wait a few minutes. (Photo: Luigi Saracino)

It’s a strange feeling to walk through 50 feet of warehouse space, but pass through a half dozen different sets every few feet as you do. It’s a bit like tripping on mescaline, but all your hallucinations happen to be “film-based”. Overall, 75 people, actors and crew worked on The Gamechanger. A huge group to corral and bring together, but for all the seeming chaos, it was amazing to see how precisely and joyfully it all worked out. Actors and crew, all energized by the simple fact of being on set, and of getting to contribute to a project that could potentially change the film industry here in town. The thing about actors is that, plain and simple, they love to act. And any chance to get to express that drive and desire by being on set with a few dozen like-minded folks, all directed towards the same goal, made it a unique and unifying experience.

My second day on set, for what was to be an overnight shoot, was in the beautiful Westin Hotel in downtown Ottawa.

Alexandre Carrière, Peter M. Dillon, Sally Clelford, Greg Wilson, Nikki Mosca, and Me
Alexandre Carrière, Peter M. Dillon, Sally Clelford, Greg Wilson, Nikki Mosca, and Me (Photo: Luigi Saracino)

The Westin had kindly allowed us to prep and shoot the closing sequence for the film in the lobby and elsewhere in the hotel. But getting this particular sequence right would be a tricky undertaking.

It was written to showcase not only the wide variety of actors working in the city, but also to show off our technical expertise and know-how. The goal here was to have one long, continuous shot, travelling from point A, the hotel’s parking garage, to point B, the film’s denouement. Director Martin Scorsese used a similar idea with the “kitchen scene” in his movie Goodfellas, and anyone who’s worked in film can tell you that such a scene is ambitious and challenging at best. It all hinges on each person – actors, director, sound and lighting and camera crew, moving and hitting their marks (literally, where the actors are supposed to stand and/or enter the scene) or cues precisely and exactly on time. Like a giant, living Rube Goldberg machine, each piece had to fall into place to be able to not only keep the scene itself moving, but to keep the story moving as well. The viewer’s focus throughout the shot follows the mysterious package, as it’s passed from person to person, sometimes taken slyly, sometimes forcefully, each character with their own shady reasons for wanting to get their hands on it. When a scene like this comes together, it’s a beautiful thing to see. And I’m sure I can safely speak for the other 30 or so actors and crew who had their heads excitedly crammed together around a tiny video screen, we were all feeling very proud of what we had managed to accomplish.

It’s a wrap!
It’s a wrap! (Photo courtesy of Dominique Binoist,

One of the things that most people may not know about acting is that while it certainly pays well when the work is actually there, more to the point, and this is important to remember, for most actors the work is by no means, what you would call, steady. The fact is that even when you’re on a job, you’re looking for the next job. And sometimes, that can take months, if at all. It’s the simple reality of being an actor. Just getting the gig is a challenge, and trust me when I tell you, there’s nothing quite as surreal and Twilight Zone-like as being in an audition room with 20 other bald, tattooed, vaguely-ethnic looking guys who look exactly like you, all there for the same role. One of the things I try to remember as an actor, is that rejection is a huge part of the process. I want to be clear in saying that my goal here is not to discourage anyone reading this who may have the ambition to pursue this particular life path. I only mention it, as that too is another reality of the industry and of the arts in general. Actors have to be able to demonstrate and generate a remarkable amount of self-faith and trust to be able to survive. If there are those reading this who feel that desire to pursue the call of the muse, I humbly offer a few pieces of advice that I’ve managed to learn over the years

– Meet people, talk, share ideas. You never know what could turn into a project.

– Read. Read, dammit, read. Everything you can get your hands on. Know the world around you.

– Be positive, even when you’d rather not be. Always try.

– Be generous as an actor; give and ye shall receive.

– Love what you do. It’s the only thing that will keep you going, and keep you honest.

– Listen.

– Watch.

– Work hard.

– Be respectful to everyone.

– Know your lines.

– Show up early.

– Eat your greens.

– And lastly, when all else fails, selling your blood will get you some quick cash and also score you a delicious macadamia nut cookie. (If you happen to go to the Appletree Clinic on Carling Avenue near the Westgate Shopping Centre, be sure to ask for Nancy. She’s not overly “jabby”, and she knows where they stash the best sweets.)

Here’s a link to ACTRA’s website with tips on how to get started:

Any career, let alone a career in the arts, requires sacrifice and dedication, and the choices involved will almost certainly create hardship. Those words quickly take on a very real meaning, particularly if you work in the arts for any length of time. Ask any musician, writer, actor or what have you, and I can almost guarantee that all of them will say the same thing when asked, that they do it for the “love”. It’s an expression that you hear quite a bit from artists. But it’s one that doesn’t precisely capture the enormity and weight of such a decision. Most actors have full-time jobs, but even finding an employer who will be willing to grant you the flexibility and understanding to take time off from your day job when need be is challenging.

Please don’t misunderstand, acting is certainly one of the most rewarding and fulfilling endeavours I’ve had the privilege to participate in, and to be completely frank, there isn’t one decision I would change in regards to my artistic life. But it takes courage, determination and perseverance, which unfortunately is still no guarantee that you’ll “make it.” I think the thing to remember here is that your success will be defined by your perspective, by what you choose to see as successes. By the projects you involve yourself in and the people you create with. By the relationships and exchange of ideas that will inevitably lead to more and more projects. And most importantly, to quote The New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman: “Just do good work.” Gaiman gave a compelling, honest, revelatory speech about working in the arts to a graduating class that you should check out here:

And that’s one of the reasons projects like The Gamechanger are so important. Even aside from the incredible revenue-generating potential film projects create for the city, even aside from the necessity and importance of promoting Canadian, and more specifically Ottawa-based talent, is the idea that it creates connections. Not just in terms of creative and financial relationships, but more importantly in terms of the art that’s being made, and that we all get to enjoy, share in and grow from. I don’t know about you, but I always get a kick out of recognizing my hometown in a film I’m watching. In some strange way, it makes me feel proud. Dillon echoes the sentiment, and plans for the release of The Gamechanger to be a big event.

We’re going to do this right. We’ll be inviting the press, the industry in the city. It’s something we hope will bring the city together to celebrate our own talent. But where they’ll also have the chance to meet people, to network and more so, to give them the chance to talk about new film projects. Dan Aykroyd will obviously be invited and we hope he can be here to take part in this massive celebration. The goal was always to get film productions to seriously consider this city to bring their projects to – actors, crew, we have it all.

The celebration for The Gamechanger will take place at the Centrepointe Theatre, date to be announced soon.

And a special thanks to my agents Rachel, Kate, Christine and Laura, the wonderfully lovely folks over at the Mensour Agency, for all their continued hard work on my behalf and for their steadfast and sincere encouragement:

Top Photo: Dominique Binoist,