Hollywood’s Canadian content

Queen’s alumna Wendy Crewson talks about her roles on both sides of the border and the Americanization of Canadian TV

Wendy Crewson, ArtSci ’77, said working in the U.S. helped her make her name in Canada.
Wendy Crewson, ArtSci ’77, said working in the U.S. helped her make her name in Canada.

Wendy Crewson may not be a household name, but chances are you’ve seen her before.

Crewson, ArtSci ’77, has made a career as a film and television actress on both sides of the border. In a career spanning almost 30 years, she has acted alongside Hollywood heavy-hitters such as Harrison Ford, Robin Williams, Helen Mirren, Kiefer Sutherland and Tim Allen, and is best known for her roles in The Santa Clause and Air Force One.

Along with her success south of the border, Crewson has also worked close to home, starring in Canadian film and television productions, such as At the End of the Day: The Sue Rodriguez Story The Piano Man’s Daughter and Away From Her, and winning four Gemini awards.

From Monday to Wednesday this week, Crewson was in town for the first time in 10 years. As the stage and screen program’s Visiting Artist, she held presentations and workshops for film, drama and stage and screen students.

Crewson said she immediately found a niche at Queen’s in the drama program when she was an undergraduate.

“I had a great time at Queen’s. I adored the drama department. I quickly moved from majoring in English to majoring in drama. Apparently, English was going to be too hard. I just wanted to be in rehearsal all the time,” she said. “We put on fabulous shows and became a real little family. We just lived in that theatre department all the time.”

But it was the lure of Kingston that initially attracted her to Queen’s, Crewson said, adding that she lived in Montreal before she attended the University.

“We had a little sailboat, my family did. We would sail through the Thousand Islands every summer. We’d been sailing by Queen’s and would stop by the government docks and everything. I loved it so much; it was so pretty. When I found out they had this great theatre department, I thought, ‘You know what? That sounds like where I’d want to be.’”

Crewson said the acting bug bit her at a young age.

“I always loved just performing for the family,” she said. “You know those little plays that kids do? I remember once, with my mother at the United Church in Oakville, Ontario. It was an afternoon, we had come to drop off food for a potluck supper that night, and the women were all in the kitchen. I went into the big auditorium area where they were setting up the tables and there was a little stage. I remember getting up on that stage, and there was nobody in there. I was just singing some made-up song and doing this big sort of number and everything. All the ladies had gathered in the room and clapped. I remember thinking, ‘Hello, I’ve found what I want to do.’”

During her time at Queen’s, Crewson received the drama department’s prestigious Lorne Greene Award, which is typically awarded to drama graduates who excel in performance aspects of the program.

She said her award was given out under exceptional circumstances.

“I was told that I was being given the award and I was invited to the breakfast that they have for the award winners. Then the award wasn’t handed out. Even though I had won the award, there was no money left in the Lorne Greene fund at the time, and it was a $2,000 award.”

Crewson, who said she never received the monetary component of the award, went on to study theatre at the Webber Douglas Academy in London, England after she graduated from Queen’s.

But her first big break in the entertainment industry came at home, working for CBC television.

“I did a series called Home Fires about a family in Toronto in World War Two. I had been to England, and had been in theatre school there, so I could do some British accents. When I came back, they were auditioning for a movie called War Brides, which I thought I could get because I could do a Cockney accent.”

Crewson said working in both Canada and the United States over the years has presented her with opportunities she wouldn’t otherwise have had.

“You can never be big enough [in Canada] to get a big role, because they’ll never give it to you because you’re not a star. But you can’t be a star because they never give you the role,” she explained.

“So you move away to the States and you get some TV role, you do a series or do something like that. Then when you come back, they’ll give you a big part because they’ve seen you on an American show and yet you’re a Canadian. Now when you’ve been away from the States, even though you haven’t been working down there, you’ve been working up here, honing your skills, doing leading parts. So when you go back down there, you have more chance in an audition because you’ve had that experience here. So it worked out very nicely doing work on both sides of the border.”

The actress said during her time in the U.S. she never encountered any diva behaviour from her extensive list of Hollywood co-stars. “I have to say the big stars that I’ve worked with—the Harrison Fords, the Arnold Schwarzeneggers—have all been magnificent, lovely. I’ve never really come across any bad behaviour really. Everyone’s been so kind, generous,” she said. “In the trailer [on set], Tim Allen, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams were all hilarious. They’re hard to get close to, but very funny.”

After more than a decade in the U.S., Crewson moved her family to Toronto 10 years ago to allow her son and daughter to establish some Canadian roots.

“I wanted the children to not always live in California,” she said. “I wanted them to see a little bit of how the rest of the world was and to get a different perspective on the world instead of that American perspective, which has served them very well.”

Crewson said she’s not sure which role has been her favourite, but the best roles of her career were those offered to her in her home country.

“The most validation I ever got really was when I was offered Canadian jobs, when I play Canadian women, these ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances,” she said. “Any woman who has gone through an extraordinary experience and come out changed at the other end to have found courage inside to grow beyond what they ever would have expected. That always fascinates me.”

Crewson said she’s a passionate advocate for protection of the Canadian entertainment industry, adding that she’s concerned about the Americanization of Canadian culture.

“In this culture right now, TV drama is the cornerstone of pop culture in the media. It’s the lynchpin of that. Without that, we have no voice that we all tune to, saying, ‘This is who we are. We’re showing Canadians, Canadians.’ All we see on our screens right now are Americans coming back at us. The only popular voice we have right now is the American. A country that does not own its own airwaves, does not own itself. Eventually, it will fall to the influence of whatever country it chooses to broadcast.”

Crewson said she thinks the Canadian government has been too lenient with broadcasters and isn’t doing enough to protect the arts in Canada.

“The CRTC has been so lobbied by broadcasters who no longer want to do any Canadian content,” she said. “They want to buy American shows, simulcast them and get the advertising money. They make all the money from that and spend all their money on American programming, putting nothing back into Canadian programming.” Crewson said her career’s temporarily on hold due to the economic situation.

“I’ve got a couple of things in development, but because of the economy, there’s been a big freeze on everything,” she said, adding that she doesn’t mind having some time off.

“I love being at home. It’s such a treat.”

Some of her most recent projects include appearances on the television shows Flashpoint and ReGenesis. In 2006, she took up her role in the third Santa Clause film with Tim Allen.

“You know what? For a Christmas movie that first one was pretty good,” she said of the series’ original film. “The other two were crappy, but that first one was really, it was very sweet.”

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