Saturday, March 22, 2014

Helen Shaver in Down River: An Amazing Career Comes Full Circle

Helen Shaver is a pioneering sort.  As a young actress in, she was onboard the renaissance of Canadian film and television of the 80s and became one of the country’s first big stars. Shaver moved south when she married her agent the late Steve Reuther and pursued work in LA.  Ten years ago Shaver began a new phase of her career, directing. 
                                         Shaver directs Law & Order: SVU
She is one of only 12 female directors to work on a regular basis on Law & Order SVU and she's a regular on shows like Orphan Black and The Firm.  Last year Shaver returned home to Canada to act in her first film in a decade, Down River by Ben Ratner, a touching film shot on a tiny budget. It opens this weekend in Canada. Shaver spoke with me in Toronto and shared her passion for acting again. 
This is your return to acting after ten years directing in the US.  How does it feel?
                                                         Down River                                                    
Last weekend when Down River opened in Vancouver I went into the theatre full of people and there I was  35 feet high on the screen and they were laughing crying and oh yeah!!  It came back.  None of us make movies quoting Shakespeare perfectly to a rose in a field but really truly communicating and touching and finding that common humanity in all of us. You can amuse the conscious human mind and reach in and touch the mind and resonate.
What a wonderful performance in Down River.  It’s deep and authentic and she becomes simple yet complex and real and it concerns death.  How was it preparing for that?
My husband was in Atlanta and Tennessee shooting the film 42 and I was in Vancouver. I just said okay I’m going to brush my teeth and hunker down. We are in denial of death, and focus on sex and drugs and rock and roll, all of which I love, but it was profound for me to live with an acute awareness of my own mortality for those weeks.  It came at a time when my ex-husband Steve Reuther died of cancer.  He was younger than me and we weren’t married for long, I am wildly happy and married to Steve Smith for 26 years, but I spent time with Steve in the last years of his life and I had really gotten to see up close how we come to a point in our life that we have one thing left to do and that is to die. We cross the threshold “into that dark cottage” (Mary Oliver’s When Death Comes).  We can do it only by ourselves, the body’s energy body doesn’t want to die. It takes energy to let go and surrender in into the unknown and so I was able to being that understanding or really root that understanding and experience, in playing this role. At the time 3 of our dear friends were having that conversation with cancer so again it was an opportunity for me to show up and make that and allow and accept that imaginary context for my own self and accept my mortality.

Your character is based on the late actress Babs Chula and her mentorship of young artists including the Ben Ratner who wrote and directs Down River.                        
He’d called me out of the blue three years ago and just said please, please, please, please, and pitched but he had no script.  By the end of his passion and commitment and it’s hard to make a little film, big film but little his passion and his heartfelt connection to the material. I’m not interested in doing a biopic and no it’s not but it’s inspired by this woman who was a mentor. I’m in if you can deliver a great script I’m in.  So it came in fits and starts, the first act then the second and we were hanging on.  You don’t want to get stuck in a thing that becomes a vanity project indulging make me crazy for him to create it between women.  And then be able to cast and deliver and we’re talking really down and dirty, we had a light or two and Larry who produces and the cinematographer did a remarkable job tiny crew.
Her apartment and clothes are very specific.  They suggest that she might have been a hippy, and traveled and is sentimental.  Does that help an actor?
The clothes came out of my closet and it really helps.  The furnishings and paintings were pieces from Babs Chulaz’s apartment except for some things I brought there are a few silk scarves and I’d sit and curl up ion them, one of the anchors one makes. This little film reminded me you don’t make a movie for $10M, you can make one for $125 thousand!

You left Canada and acting for the most part to direct in the US and work on huge projects.
When I'm directing and I love it, people say who do you love more, each the same, directing there is a lot that happens and I'm not limited by what I look like I can tell the story of a ten year old boy because I' m not limited by physical being, as an actor you only play the part that involves you and your face a voice and hair so I certainly over a decade rich and

Do you remember fondly the early days in Canadian TV and film?
Yes, I do think fondly of those times, I was actually as I arrived in Toronto yesterday it resonated with the first Toronto Dusty Cohl who founded the Toronto International Film Festival (The Festival of Festivals then) the only credit he ever took was an accomplice.  I was in Outrageous and he found money for us.  Then once in LA I got a movie role but I had no papers and he said “Just lie”.  I was weeping in a lawyer’s office saying “I can’t do that!” and they said to get papers I’d have to be a big star in Canada and I said “Well there aren’t big stars in Canada! That’s why Margot Kidder and Donald Sutherland left!”  I came from there to Toronto on my 23rd birthday and the four years I spent in Toronto or whatever reason, my career took off in the English speaking film industry.  The Toronto media like George Anthony and Ron Base and Bruce Kirkland at that time really helped me launch my career. Those guys made me a star in my own country.  Ten years ago I got a Star on the Walk of Fame here and it means so much to me.

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