Wendy Crewson is ready for gender equality on television

Queen’s alum and actress reflects on school, her latest TV role and gender equality in the workplace

Wendy Crewson.
Photo illustration by Josh Granovsky

When Wendy Crewson graduated from Queen’s drama department in 1977, she had no idea what the outside world would hold for her. Least of all did she expect to win a Gemini Award, share the screen with Hollywood greats like Robin Williams and step into the shoes of some of Canada’s most well-known women icons.

Now, decades into her career and starring in CTV’s new law enforcement drama The Detail, Crewson prepares to unexpectedly enter a new phase in her career that she’s long coveted: working with women both in front of and behind the camera.

Crewson spoke to The Journal over the phone about her time as a student at Queen’s, her proudest career accomplishments and why an “unapologetically female-led” series like The Detail is much overdue.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

QJ: What was your experience like at Queen’s?

I had a phenomenal time at Queen’s. I loved being a student there. I found the drama department very quickly and found myself at home. It was really the beginning of everything. I received so much support and guidance from our wonderful head of department, Maury Breslow, and the terrific teachers that were there. I found that my love for doing theatre really blossomed and I was given tremendous encouragement to continue.

How did you make the jump from Queen’s to your career as a working actress?

Well, it was there at Queen’s that I decided acting was what I wanted to do. After my first year, I decided theatre was my path and everyone [at Queen’s] really helped me figure out my next steps. The drama department secretary at the time made sure all this information about theatre schools was available to us. She [and] the professors walked us through the process of getting into these schools.

We had one professor, Alan Knight, who was on sabbatical in London and had a flat in Earl’s Court. So, I auditioned for Weber Douglas Theatre School in London, got in, decided to go, and ended up renting a room in this professor’s flat. It was very smooth, and it was that kind of help that gave me the confidence to think [acting] was something I could do.

After two years at Weber Douglas and auditioning around England, I decided I wanted to come home for a visit. While I was there, I managed to find an agent, get some auditions and ended up with a role on CBC’s The Great Detective. From that role, I went onto a CBC movie called War Brides. Then they did a series called Home Fires, which I got the lead on.

After a while, I decided there wasn’t enough opportunity in Toronto—there wasn’t the kind of industry that there is now. I moved down to New York City, got a series in Los Angeles and it kept on snowballing. 

It never happens very quickly. It’s a long climb into being able to support yourself as an actor.

Is there an accomplishment from your career that you’re most proud of?

I’m very proud of the work I’ve done telling stories about real Canadian women. That’s my pleasure, really … the idea of telling real stories. Doing the Sue Rodriguez story, Louise Arbour, Lorraine Evanshen—just ordinary women in challenging circumstances who end up doing extraordinary things. Those are the stories I find most interesting. Those are the things I’m most proud of.

Can you describe the basic premise of your current show, CTV’s The Detail, for any students who’ve yet to check it out?

The Detail is an unapologetically female-led series. It has the traditionally patriarchal format of a police procedural but with three women as the leads and the men as the secondary characters. It certainly adds a new slant on a very familiar TV environment and examines how women work together to solve crimes in different ways than men do.

How does The Detail’s female-oriented cast and crew compare to your previous set experiences?

Having grown up through the era that I did, I’ve played my fair share of wives and girlfriends. In Hollywood, all my biggest successes were playing secondary characters to male stars—not that I begrudge that at all. Those big American hits I did, like The Santa Clause movies or Air Force One, and working with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Robin Williams—those experiences allowed me the opportunity for recognition that let me be seen for leading roles in Canada and tell the kind of stories I wanted to tell.

Even so, The Detail is different than my past female roles because even when I played strong female roles, those sets were extremely male-dominated. The women on set did hair, make-up and continuity. That was it. That environment was sort of what was expected; no one could imagine a set different from that.

But, as times have changed, we are able to watch an era where the female lens is important. People want to see strong females in leading roles reflecting their own experiences. On this show, we have female writers, directors and our executive producer, Ilana Frank, has long been a champion of female-led stories. It’s been significant to be part of a movement where women are able to see themselves in leadership roles. Unless women see themselves in those positions, [it’ll] be hard to change the cultural bias we have.

What drew you to the character of Fiona in The Detail?

[Executive producer] Ilana Frank mentioned the idea of this show to me while we were working together on Saving Hope, and I loved the idea of Ilana producing a strong, female-led show. Another thing I love about The Detail is it has someone in her 20s, someone in her 40s and someone in her late 50s. It really shows the range of female experience. [T]here’s so few parts of older women on television that I think it’s exciting to show someone of this age in a high position. These kinds of roles are few and far between and I leap at them whenever I see them.

You’ve returned to Queen’s a handful of times over the years, whether it be to visit, teach or receive your honorary degree. What is it about this school that has continuously drawn you back?

I think Queen’s is a very unusual place. There’s something about the environment—both academically and socially—that gives you a real sense of belonging and it runs through the entire city of Kingston. That element always makes it feel like home to me, even though I was just there for a few years.

I’m also always in great admiration of how progressive the University is. I was so impressed at the contribution the Bader family made for the performing arts center and I was so proud as an actor to be able to contribute to that. It felt important to give back to an institution that gave so much to me. I’m always happy and willing to come back to Queen’s, whatever the occasion may be.

You know, I have a cousin who graduated from Queen’s in 1924—a time when women didn’t go to university. She insisted [she’d] go and chose Queen’s and she was right. I was happy to follow in her footsteps.

The Detail’s season one finale airs this Sunday, June 3 on CTV at 9PM. The first season is available for streaming on CTV.ca.

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