Province interview
by Glenn Scahfer

Isabelle keeps conquering her fears, Englishman’s Boy co-star revels in tackling acting’s unknowns

Katharine Isabelle flounces into the Hollywood-meets-the-Old-West miniseries The Englishman’s Boy wearing a Marie Antoinette outfit and a towering powdered wig.

It’s a rare comic moment in the CBC’s two-part adaptation of Guy Vanderhaeghe’s otherwise gritty novel (The movie will also be available on DVD March 11). Isabelle co-stars as a silent film star, meaning the Marie Antoinette get-up is just the first in a series of hair and costume changes.

“Those things are heavy, they weigh your neck down,” says the 20-something Isabelle, sporting her own straight brown hair on a walk down Kits Beach.

The Saskatchewan-filmed miniseries is a revisionist western in which a fictional participant in a real-life massacre of Canadian natives in the Cypress Hills ends up in early Hollywood as an old man (Nicholas Campbell), where a producer (Britain’s Bob Hoskins) distorts his story into a D.W. Griffiths-style heroic adventure.

Isabelle’s character stars in that movie, meaning the real actress got to play a fictional 1920s star and also portray a damsel-in-distress in the era’s silent style for the movie-within-the-movie.

“I got to do this glamourous, flapper, tart, diva – but I also got to do silent film work, and I don’t know how many people get to do that anymore,” she says, widening her eyes in the silent-movie style. “I was totally into it, I was trying to make my lips as tiny and pert as possible.”

She rented some silent movies from Videomatica to get the overly expressive acting technique for her latest jump into the acting unknown.

Isabelle has faced down some major acting fears in a few years, earning cult-horror stardom as a teen werewolf in 2000’s droll Canadian hit Ginger Snaps and its two sequels. She spent several days being yelled at by Al Pacino as a murder witness in 2002’s Insomnia, which indirectly led to her conquering another fear. During filming breaks, the legendary method guy encouraged his younger co-star to try acting on stage.

“Al Pacino harped on to me about doing theatre,” says Isabelle. “So when this opportunity came up I thought, I guess I have to do it.”

The opportunity she’s talking about was a call from another actor, Woody Harrelson, inviting Isabelle to act in a three-person play he was directing in Toronto in the    fall of 2006. Harrelson had seen Isabelle in her 2003 drama Falling Angels, and wanted her for his version of Kenneth Lonergan’s comic-drama This is Our Youth.

“I was terrified – I can do film and TV, and we can cut and go again,” she says, adding she wasn’t sure she’d be able to go onstage for the first of 38 shows. “They lied and said I wasn’t going to be able to see anyone in the audience – I could see everyone, all the women in audience checking out my outfit, talking about my shoes.”

That might have been because co-star Jason Lewis drew in fans of Sex and the City.

“I was so terrified the whole time. It was fabulous, a wonderful experience, but I don’t ever have to do it again.”

Doing scenes with Bob Hoskins in The Englishman’s Boy was, by comparison, a piece of cake.

“He was so nice, he had all these ideas he brought, this enthusiasm,” she says. “He’d tell me if what I was doing was funny.”

Which helps with another Isabelle fear – doing comedy. “I could just cry and scream all day long, especially when Al Pacino is yelling at me. He was just so scary that I was purely terrified.

“Being funny is way more difficult, especially on set where no one’s allowed to laugh. So if they don’t laugh in the blocking or the rehearsal then you’re sunk. You do it 17 more times, and you just hope you’re still funny.”


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