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Ellen Dubin Interview
16 sept 2005

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 youve seen her facemany times. If youve had the privilege of meeting her in person, its 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).

Ellens 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 wasnt always the extroverted performer

Robert: Youve had the privilege to play a wide assortment of characters, and bring a different focus and tenor to each. But interestingly you didnt 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, Ive 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 audiences energy and immediate reaction. For example Id do extra dying swan armsif it was eight, Id 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, Youre a very good dancer, but I think youre 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 womanvery, 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 Im on a set, Im always the one whos there all the time; I never have a stand-in, unless Im in make up, Im 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 didnt do something properly

Robert: Thwack?

Ellen Dubin: Thwack, yeahlittle 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 youve admired over the years?

Ellen Dubin: I love the old film stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Betty Davisthe 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 womens 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 ONeill which Id 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]. Its the role of an Irish farm girl who cant find love, and on one moonlit night actually does find love. Its a three hour playits 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: Its very tough, and you kind of have to put on a different hat. Again, its 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 its sort of a sick thing we do on TV and in film. Theres 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 sceneor 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 its why I hang around it all the timeI want to feel a part of whats going on and feel the set and be there. Because if youre disjointed your performance is going to suffer. Even if youre in that waiting mode, I dont want to go and eat chocolate donuts at the craft service table and then come back on, because it sets me apart from whats 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 Im 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 its the Olympics of acting. Its 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 theres always something new you can find in the material. There are parts you can sink youre teeth into and you can extract something different each time. It was also very sexy with double entendres and such. Hes the pinnacle.

Robert: Whats the most difficult or challenging role youve ever undertaken?

Ellen Dubin: There are two types of challenges, I findphysical 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 blinda 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; its 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 aroundand 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 Jolies and feed me with a toothpick. I lost so much weight on that shoot.

What can I sayI 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 theres the emotionally challenging role.

Ellen Dubin: Then theres 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 Ive 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 its 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 its a period piece, Ill 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. Im very Daniel Day Lewis in my research of period stuff. I wont sit outside and not wash for days if Im 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 Im sure youve heard this from many actors you dont 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 youre too academic and too intelligent, its not going to be organic. Theres 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 Ive been really lucky in that Ive been able to play really wild, over the top cartoon characters, like in Lexx, but then Ill play something like a battered wife in a MOW; something where its very underplayed.

So I like offbeat. I really dont enjoy playing the Honey will you pass the butter, sort of stuff.

Robert: So you wouldnt want to do Desperate Housewives?

Ellen Dubin: Oh, yes, I would! Theyre quirky. I like shows like that and like Six Feet Under, or Carnivale or Nip Tuck or Deadwood, because theyre so offbeat and interesting. Id 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 DaVincis Inquest has been a phenomenal show here in Vancouver.

Robert: As weve already touched upon, youve 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 Id better research and see what else is going on. Its not something I sought out, but the last eight years that Ive been doing television these are the shows that Ive 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 dont 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 Im 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 theres 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 youre 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 Ill start with those [laughs].

Robert: How about any actors youd like to work with?

Ellen Dubin: Viggo Mortenson, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Jeff Bridges. Jeff Bridges is my all time favorite. Ill be running away with him soon of course he doesnt know that yet [laughs]. Ian McShane and Ben Kingsley are also wonderful actors Id love to work with.

Of the female actors in my generation its tougher, because I like something a little edgier and more interesting. Cate Blanchett, certainly. And I know its 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, Im not. Im not interested in directing either. But I am interested in producing, because ever since I was a little girl, Ive been good at putting things togetherIve always networked people put people together and I believe the old cliche, what goes around, comes around. And in this business, its so f***ing tough right now. Its hard to get money, hard to get jobs, its basically become a global business. No matter if its shooting in Vancouver or shooting in Toronto, were competing against people from Europe and the US. And as much as I love elements of the global aspect, its tougher to get work.

So as much as I can produce, I think that would be great. And Ive 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 Id been wearing a smoke jumpers 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, lets go sort of character it worked, because there was no time to think, no time to be self-conscious. And unless youre completely the wrong type, thats often how you nail an audition, I find, because youre in the momentand confident, because you have another job.

But Im 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: Lets 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. Shes a very ballsy broad who wont take no for an answer, but theres reasons for this. Shes a single mother and a survivor whos raising an autistic child and trying to earn a living at the same time. Shes stubborn as hell, but relies on her intelligence to get her point across, as opposed to her sexuality. She doesnt take any sh*t from people.

So youve 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 its a nice duality for an actor to play. I like characters that have masks, because everybody has a mask they wear when theyre outsideall 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 youre out than you do when youre 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, Im a very demonstrative person; I like to hug people. And in this show, I cant 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 cant. And its 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 youre back this season.

Ellen Dubin: Yeah, Ive shot a couple of episodes so far this season. I cant tell you what happens Im sworn to secrecy but suffice to say that its very interesting.

Robert: Well be watching

Ellen Dubin: You better be.

Robert: Ellen, thanks for chatting with us today.

Ellen Dubin: Youre 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 2005 HELEN & Trulyalyana

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