Stranger in Strange Lands
September 16th 2005 10:56pm
Posted by: Robert Falconer HNR Senior Editor
You might not recognize the name, but chances are you’ve seen her face…many times. If you’ve had the privilege of meeting her in person, it’s not hard to understand why this tall, effervescent, strikingly attractive Canadian actress has appeared in such a wide variety of television series – many of them genre shows – ranging from Lexx and Earth: Final Conflict to her most recent regular role as newspaper reporter Jeri Slate in the Canadian supernatural drama, The Collector.
The busy thespian mostly splits her time between Toronto and LA. Recently, she appeared in a fourth season installment of The Dead Zone opposite her Collector co-star Chris Kramer, both of whom had coincidentally been cast for the same episode, “Heroes and Demons.” Currently, she can be found in Ottawa shooting Murder In My House, a MOW for LIFETIME starring Daniel J. Travanti (Hill Street Blues).
Ellen’s background in ballet & musical theater, coupled with her proclivity for being drawn to strong yet quirky parts, have all helped the actress land unusual roles, often set in strange circumstances or outlandish realities. Conversely, she has also played the “normal” character dropped in the midst of abnormality, such as in the The Collector. In either case, her naturally gregarious nature is doubtless another factor in her association with idiosyncratic drama, though as she tells HNR, she wasn’t always the extroverted performer…
Robert: You’ve had the privilege to play a wide assortment of characters, and bring a different focus and tenor to each. But interestingly you didn’t start out in life with a desire to be an actor. Tell us a little about that.
Ellen Dubin: I never wanted to be an actress. A lot of actors tell me, “I’ve known since I was a little kid that my dream was to be an actor,” but I never thought of that. I actually started in show biz in a very weird way. I was a very shy – believe it or not – quiet kid, and very intimidated by other children. I had flat feet and was hunched over, so my mother and father put me in ballet class so I could gain confidence and bring myself out and relate to other kids.
At the end of every ballet year we would have a recital. My teacher saw a lot of potential in me, and I started to grow out of my shell. And when I was on stage, somehow or other I just became a different person and was able to relate to an audience. I loved the fact that I could feel the audience’s energy and immediate reaction. For example I’d do extra dying swan arms—if it was eight, I’d do fifteen; I was a real ham. And if it was a comedy ballet I would have the natural reaction to just wait for the laugh.
So my ballet teacher said, “You’re a very good dancer, but I think you’re going to turn out to be an actress, because the audience is compelled to watch you.
Robert: Did you have any particular mentors or inspirations when you first decided to transition over to pure acting?
Ellen Dubin: Again, I would say it was my ballet teacher. Her name was Diana Jablokokova Vorps from Latvia, and she was a real no holds barred woman…very, very critical and a perfectionist. At the time, I hated it, but when I look back on it now, I realize it taught me immense discipline. Whenever I’m on a set, I’m always the one who’s there all the time; I never have a stand-in, unless I’m in make up, I’m always standing-in for myself because I really want to be there on the set and feel everything.
So Diana taught me this sort of discipline. She used to take a stick and thwack our ankles if we didn’t do something properly…
Ellen Dubin: Thwack, yeah—little girls being hit by this Latvian woman [laughs]. I figured that if I could go through that I could go through auditions in LA.
Robert: Any actors you’ve admired over the years?
Ellen Dubin: I love the old film stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Betty Davis—the wisecracking dames of the ‘40s. Ironically, here we are in 2005, and I think the roles for women were actually much stronger and more interesting then than women’s roles are now.
Robert: All About Eve, for example?
Ellen Dubin: One of my favorite films.
Robert: Of what role are you most proud?
Ellen Dubin: I think one of my first roles that really turned me into an “actor” was a very, very difficult play by Eugene O’Neill – which I’d like to do again – called “A Moon for the Misbegotten”. It was performed as a huge Broadway play with Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst [and as a TV movie in 1975]. It’s the role of an Irish farm girl who can’t find love, and on one moonlit night actually does find love. It’s a three hour play—it’s almost the “King Lear” or “Hamlet” for women. I think the fact that I could hold an audience by myself on stage for that long was a real tour-de-force.
Robert: Where did you perform this?
Ellen Dubin: One of the first stages I ever performed on, Sudbury Theatre Center in Ontario. Paying my dues in Canada.
Robert: In your estimation, is it harder coming from theater to sustain a character or performance in the broken, non-linear formats of film and television?
Ellen Dubin: It’s very tough, and you kind of have to put on a different hat. Again, it’s back to the ballet classes and theater training….
Robert: And getting thwacked…
Ellen Dubin: [Laughs] And getting thwacked, exactly.
Theater performers are very used to waiting backstage. I did a lot of plays and summer stock, so on set I find that theater actors are generally more disciplined. We can wait around and sustain a performance over and over again with gaffers and noise and sets and painting all around us. You have to remember that it’s sort of a sick thing we do on TV and in film. There’s voyeurs standing around; people as close as you are to me right now, and we have to do an emotional breakdown scene, or a rape scene, or a love scene…or even just talk on the phone, so it demands a tremendous amount of concentration and focus, and I think our theater training really serves us on a TV or film set.
What I hate about television and film is the waiting syndrome. Maybe it’s why I hang around it all the time—I want to feel a part of what’s going on and “feel” the set and be there. Because if you’re disjointed your performance is going to suffer. Even if you’re in that “waiting” mode, I don’t want to go and eat chocolate donuts at the craft service table and then come back on, because it sets me apart from what’s going to happen. As cliche as it sounds, I need to “stay in the zone.”
There are actors – and I admire them – who can go and tell a thousand jokes, act like idiots, then go on set and ball their eyes out on cue and turn in a solid performance. But I’m not one of them.
Robert: Why do you think it is so often stated, “any actor worth their salt should tackle Shakespeare?"
Ellen Dubin: Because it’s the Olympics of acting. It’s the biggest, most emotional text there is. He had the pulse on what human beings think, what they want to think. The characters are rich and vivid, the language, the iambic pentameter are never ending, and as an actor, if you care about your craft – as most of us do – then there’s always something new you can find in the material. There are parts you can sink you’re teeth into and you can extract something different each time. It was also very sexy with double entendres and such. He’s the pinnacle.
Robert: What’s the most difficult or challenging role you’ve ever undertaken?
Ellen Dubin: There are two types of challenges, I find…physical and emotional.
I would say that the miniseries I did for Miramax and ABC, A Wrinkle in Time, was the most physically difficult. I was in two fat suits, weighing 200 pounds; I wore a rubber latex mask covered in hair; I had hair from head to toe – I looked like Mrs. Chewbacca [laughs] – and latex glue for 17 hours at a stretch. Plus, in Planet of the Apes they got to show their eyes, whereas my character was blind…a blind healer. And I had four arms, two of which were prosthetics, so I had to be a puppeteer as well. The whole thing was hot as hell. You know when you have a Halloween mask on for an hour; it’s hot? Now imagine glued hair on every portion of your body. And you had to sit there and not faint. They actually had these long hoses hooked to my stomach and an ice pack on the back of my neck to keep me cool.
Anyway, that demanded a tremendous amount of focus. It was very difficult to maneuver and walk around…and to eat. My food kept getting stuck in my beard. People would literally have to feed me. They would open up my mouth – my lips were bigger than Angelina Jolie’s – and feed me with a toothpick. I lost so much weight on that shoot.
What can I say…I seem to get these roles.
Robert: So you must have tremendous respect for actors who do big sci-fi shows week after week and have to wear and endure this kind of stuff continuously.
Ellen Dubin: I will never badmouth a prosthetic actor again [laughs].
Robert: Then there’s the emotionally challenging role.
Ellen Dubin: Then there’s the emotionally challenging role, where you can be in jeans and a t-shirt, but you have to run the gamut of emotions in a short period of time. As an example, take the recent show I’ve been doing, The Collector. I may be doing my usual, wisecracking fast patter, and then I find out in a short span of time that my kid may be dying in the hospital. So I have to go from a kind of Mae West delivery, to breaking down. So it’s very challenging to go from A to Z without making the transition seem too obvious, in which case you come off looking like a moron on camera. Translating the emotional change to an audience in that short of a time is tricky, because everyone reacts differently to bad news.
Robert: How do you prepare for a role?
Ellen Dubin: If it’s a period piece, I’ll research the period. I recently did a show called Young Blades, which takes place in France in the 1700s. I like to read about the etiquette of the period, I look at the costumes and the hairstyles. I’m very Daniel Day Lewis in my research of period stuff. I won’t sit outside and not wash for days if I’m playing a scruffy part [laughs] or anything that extreme, but I do admire Lewis’ research.
In terms of playing a murderer or a “bad guy” or whatever it is – and I’m sure you’ve heard this from many actors – you don’t approach a character as a “bad guy.” You just approach the character as wanting something or doing good for him or herself. In Lexx, when I played the “Pope” and had to spoof the Pope, so I would watch his wave and watch the way he walked, and then I would completely make it farcical, like a Monty Python thing, because the show was so outlandish.
So I do homework on all kinds of little things. And other times you end up doing homework and throwing it away, because if you’re too academic and too intelligent, it’s not going to be organic. There’s a fine line there.
Robert: What kind of roles are you drawn to?
Ellen Dubin: Slightly off. The Collector is actually quite straight for me. I find the combination of sensuality and humor fascinating. I love comedy and I love sensual, tactile characters. And I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve been able to play really wild, over the top cartoon characters, like in Lexx, but then I’ll play something like a battered wife in a MOW; something where it’s very underplayed.
So I like offbeat. I really don’t enjoy playing the “Honey will you pass the butter,” sort of stuff.
Robert: So you wouldn’t want to do Desperate Housewives?
Ellen Dubin: Oh, yes, I would! They’re quirky. I like shows like that and like Six Feet Under, or Carnivale or Nip Tuck or Deadwood, because they’re so offbeat and interesting. I’d love to do any of those shows.
And here in Canada I still think our show, The Collector, presents an amazing opportunity for wonderful actors. And of course DaVinci’s Inquest has been a phenomenal show here in Vancouver.
Robert: As we’ve already touched upon, you’ve done lots of sci-fi in your career. Are you a fan of the genre?
Ellen Dubin: I never saw a sci-fi show in my life until I started doing one. And so I thought I’d better research and see what else is going on. It’s not something I sought out, but the last eight years that I’ve been doing television these are the shows that I’ve basically been auditioning.
Robert: Because we do a lot of it here in Canada.
Ellen Dubin: Exactly. And as a tall, leggy, Amazonian woman, they seem to like that sort of interesting, exotic look on these shows. So my look was very good for that sort of material, because I don’t have that “girl next door” look that fits into every project. So the look helped, and my Shakespeare and my classical theater training also helped. And the fact that I had been a ballet dancer – to go back to the woman whipping me – because I’m able to move through various costumes and “move” using my voice. Plus I had done musical theater, so I was a triple-threat girl.
Robert: Is there a role – past, present or future – that you would love to play?
Ellen Dubin: I gotta go back to those old movies again. I just saw Bette Davis in Dark Victory, and that was certainly an awesome role. And as I mentioned before, All About Eve would have been fantastic. Then there’s the old movie musicals I would have loved to have been in – I would have loved to dance with Fred Astaire.
And this is totally out of left field, but I loved the role Dustin Hoffman played in Tootsie, even though that required a man to play it.
Robert: Any directors you’re dying to work with?
Ellen Dubin: Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Darren Aronofsky, Peter Jackson. And Ridley Scott is another one who does big films that still have heart. So I’ll start with those [laughs].
Robert: How about any actors you’d like to work with?
Ellen Dubin: Viggo Mortenson, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Jeff Bridges. Jeff Bridges is my all time favorite. I’ll be running away with him soon – of course he doesn’t know that yet [laughs]. Ian McShane and Ben Kingsley are also wonderful actors I’d love to work with.
Of the female actors in my generation it’s tougher, because I like something a little edgier and more interesting. Cate Blanchett, certainly. And I know it’s cliched, but Glenn Close and Meryl Streep are both amazing powerhouses.
Robert: Are you interested in writing or producing yourself in the future?
Ellen Dubin: People tell me to write what comes out of my mouth, but no, I’m not. I’m not interested in directing either. But I am interested in producing, because ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been good at putting things together—I’ve always networked people – put people together – and I believe the old cliche, “what goes around, comes around.” And in this business, it’s so f***ing tough right now. It’s hard to get money, hard to get jobs, it’s basically become a global business. No matter if it’s shooting in Vancouver or shooting in Toronto, we’re competing against people from Europe and the US. And as much as I love elements of the global aspect, it’s tougher to get work.
So as much as I can produce, I think that would be great. And I’ve actually been looking at some scripts lately, trying to see if I can find an interesting, quirky, black comedy, because I would really like to do some comedy again.
Robert: Tell us how you landed the part of Jeri Slate on The Collector.
Ellen Dubin: I had worked for producer Larry Sugar on First Wave. I did an episode called “Elixir.” I played a very straightforward, loving, nurturing woman – very different from what I had been doing previously; the comic book aspects of Lexx – and he remembered my work. So you see, you never know. What you did five or six years ago can impact what you do down the road.
Anyway, I was doing this MOW here in Vancouver about smoke jumpers, and was playing this New York firefighter. I had soot all over my face and ran to the audition on my lunch hour. It was one of those cases of not thinking, of running in and auditioning in jeans and a ripped t-shirt because I’d been wearing a smoke jumper’s outfit. I only had fifteen minutes; I did the scene in a hurry, and much to my amazement – because Jeri is a kind of “yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go” sort of character – it worked, because there was no time to think, no time to be self-conscious. And unless you’re completely the wrong type, that’s often how you nail an audition, I find, because you’re in the moment…and confident, because you have another job.
But I’m very grateful to Larry Sugar, and to Jon Cooksey and Ali Matheson who created the show, because they created a beautiful, well-rounded character for me.
Robert: Let’s talk a little about Jeri. How would you describe the character?
Ellen Dubin: Jeri is a passionate journalist who will do anything for a story because she has a great need to get inside the story and see it to completion. She’s a very ballsy broad who won’t take no for an answer, but there’s reasons for this. She’s a single mother and a survivor who’s raising an autistic child and trying to earn a living at the same time. She’s stubborn as hell, but relies on her intelligence to get her point across, as opposed to her sexuality. She doesn’t take any sh*t from people.
So you’ve got the ballsy, fast-talking broad trying to make her way through the world, and then you have the softer, mother side who is more vulnerable. So it’s a nice duality for an actor to play. I like characters that have masks, because everybody has a mask they wear when they’re outside…all of us. You have to survive, deal with people, earn a living on a day-to-day basis, so you have a different appearance when you’re out than you do when you’re in the privacy of your own home.
Robert: How much of Jeri is in Ellen?
Ellen Dubin: Jeri is very opposite to me in that I tend to just “put it out there,” and I have to rein it in with my portrayal of her. Plus, I’m a very demonstrative person; I like to hug people. And in this show, I can’t touch my child, Gabe – played by Aidan Drummond – because of his autism. If you touch certain autistic children, they throw hissy-fits and go nuts. So sometimes, as an actor, when you want to comfort another actor, you just go ahead and do it, but in our show you can’t. And it’s an interesting way to play it, because your emotions begin to percolate from within, and I suppose it can be more interesting for an audience to watch that pent up, restrained emotion.
Robert: Now, even though Jeri is deceased, I understand you’re “back” this season.
Ellen Dubin: Yeah, I’ve shot a couple of episodes so far this season. I can’t tell you what happens – I’m sworn to secrecy – but suffice to say that it’s very interesting.
Robert: We’ll be watching…
Ellen Dubin: You better be.
Robert: Ellen, thanks for chatting with us today.
Ellen Dubin: You’re quite welcome.
Season three of The Collector kicks off September 20, and airs Tuesdays at 8 pm on Citytv in BC, Ontario and Alberta. In Saskatchewan, episodes will air Thursdays at 10 pm.
© LEXX - LIGHT ZONE ñåíòÿáðü 2005 HELEN & Trulyalyana