BRIAN D. JOHNSON | Jun 24, 2005
In Canada, she has to wage constant battle against getting typecast as a "ditz." Maybe that's because in her native land she's best known for playing a prime minister's flaky bride in the Trudeau miniseries and a wide-eyed airhead in the movie Men With Brooms. Or that she's a good enough sport to pose in a bikini on a Malibu beach because Maclean's happened to be doing a cover story on tanning this week(she kept her agent in the dark about the purpose of the shoot). But in Hollywood, where she now makes her home, Polly Shannon is making a different sort of impression. She's just landed a plum role in ABC's What About Brian, an upcoming one-hour series from the producers of Lost and Alias. And she plays a pediatric oncologist, a seriously smart babe.
It might be easy to get the wrong impression about Polly Shannon. Over the phone, the 31-year-old Canadian actress is irrepressibly giddy. I keep asking her to repeat herself, because her answers keep dissolving into gales of laughter. And the questions aren't that funny. But behind the carefree demeanour, you can sense a wellspring of determination that may explain how she's become a contender in a town that's a permanent American Idol contest for thousands of pretty, talented actresses.
Shannon is a marathoner. "I run every morning, usually six miles," she says. "I'm obsessive-compulsive about my running. I've missed 13 days in 12 years. There's a place here called Lake Hollywood, a reservoir, and it's 3.2 miles. So I just do that twice." Because she's often driven to the set as early as 5 a.m., that means hitting the pavement at 3 a.m. When she was living in Toronto, she says, "I'd run down Bloor Street at three in the morning and I'd wear big baggy pants and my hair up in a hat. But I've had people recognize me on the street -- getting home from bars while I'm getting up."
Born in Kingston, Ont., Shannon was raised in Aylmer, Que., a suburb across the river from the nation's capital. Her father, Michael Shannon, is a doctor who now works in the private sector after serving in various senior posts at Health Canada, including director general for the Laboratory Centre for Disease Control. Her mother, Mary Mackay-Smith, writes children's screenplays for film and TV. After acting in theatre as a child, Shannon became a model at 13, with assignments that took her to New York, London and Tokyo. She launched her TV career in 1992, landing a part in Catwalk, a YTV series about a struggling rock band. Since then, her notable roles have included a schoolgirl who seduces Henry Czerny in The Girl Next Door, a model married to a tormented NHL player in The Sheldon Kennedy Story -- and Margaret Trudeau. "Playing Maggie was a really thrilling experience," says Shannon. "It was a challenge that was different from anything else I've done."
The lesser challenges include myriad guest roles on episodic TV, such as Human Operator of Starfighter-88 in The Outer Limits. And if you Google her name, the first few sites that come up include a gallery of nude photos from that series, with this illuminating caption -- "Polly Shannon showing us her small, pert breasts while standing fully nude as a guy runs his hand over her naked body." Shannon says she doesn't mind showing her body onscreen when it feels appropriate. "I don't love it. It's an awkward thing to have to do. But if it's for the right reasons, then I'm all for it. If it's because they have a quota of nudity they have to fill, then no way -- but I don't even have the boobs and the butt for that kind of job."
As a brainy doctor in What About Brian, Shannon may never have to consider bimbo roles again, although the show is not without spice. "It's comes on at 10 o'clock at night," she says, when asked if it pushes boundaries. Brian is a thirtysomething guy who realizes he's in love with his best friend's fiancée; Shannon plays the fiancée. Since landing the part, she's been deluged with media attention. And after years of commuting between Toronto and L.A., she's got a green card and appears to be settling in.
But she remains close to a broad community of Canadian actors working in L.A., including her boyfriend, Callum Keith Rennie. They've been "seriously" dating for six months. Rennie is "such a sweet, awesome, shy guy," she says, "but he turns into a monster onscreen. It's so weird." Rennie has played a sex fiend in Last Night, a rapist in Suspicious River, and a dictatorial dad in Falling Angels. "Showing my mum his movies was really hard. But when she met him, she said, 'He's so lovely.' " Then again, this ex-model -- a doctor's daughter who's going to play one on TV -- knows that in her business appearances can be deceiving.