Saturday Night Magazine Interview | by Veronica Cusack
Callum Keith Rennie has had a great four years.
Now if he can only survive the next four.
"You fart hammers pull those weapons in Chicago." Callum Keith Rennie spits the words across the barroom sleaze of the Due South set. "What the fuck does fart hammers mean?" demands Paul Gross. "Creeps. It's in the Big Book." "Well," pronounces Gross, executive producer and senior writer, "If it's in the Big Book I guess we have to let it go."
Filming resumes. "Callum has a dictionary of American slang he carries around," Gross later explains. "We call it the Big Book, but he only has A to H; he's missing the rest. We're going along and suddenly he will come up with something he's found. What's neat is that I'd never write that; fart hammers is just not something that comes to mind. It's not a big deal, its just part of a line, yet it adds color that is perfect for the show. But nothing after H."
In the slightly demented, licensed in 110 countries, viewed by umpteen million television series Due South, thirty-seven year old Callum Keith Rennie stars opposite Gross's decorous Mountie as maniac Chicago detective who acts without consideration, speaks without thought and yearns to lose himself in the gentle glide of ballroom dancing. Twelve months of Toronto shooting, covering the show's final two seasons, this month comes to an end. His stint as a replacement for David Marciano (who left the series last year in a fit of financial pique) has ensured the actor extensive exposure in Europe, North America, and the Pacific. It has enabled him to work with established, even great performers and earned him money far removed from the welfare cheques of his not-too-distant past.
"It's hard to be interviewed," Rennie says, in a Queen Street West cafe. "I don't want to sound arrogant but I don't want to sound like a pushover and I don't know who I am but I think I am defined by my relationships but I don't have that many friends."
He has the face of an ascetic, fragile bones straining against pale skin. There is a nervous elegance to his movements, in how his spine curves toward a conversation. His eyes glint ice blue, the left red-rimmed, tiring easily, its vision weak. He is conceit and humility all at once, confession and concealment. Stream-of-consciousness jags abate, though never completely disappear, and make way for introspection, contemplation. "I'm called 'bad boy' or 'the new James Dean' by those who want to romanticize my past - who don't want to see it as a life of pain in which I was another person."
"A brilliant screen actor able to suggest the capacity for both extreme violence and gentle compassion with just a look," declared The Vancouver Sun in late 1996 when Rennie starred in the CBC's acclaimed For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down. "Easily Canada's hottest young actor," proclaimed Britain's Screen International magazine after his appearance in Bruce McDonald's Hard Core Logo, the story of an imploding rock band. In an earlier life Rennie worked as a tree planter, paper baler, bartender. He is a recovering alcoholic, sweet as sin when it pleases him, at other times a disturbing, disconcerting presence: "I'm an addict - print that !"
I wait for the Click, the moment when a subject relaxes, forgets formality, and begins to truly talk. It doesn't always happen; some are ever aware of the public face. With Rennie it happens repeatedly. Off. On. Off. On. Self-concern, revelation, apprehension, candour. It comes in a tiny restaurant across a white lined table-top; in the middle of a cell-phone call from his chauffeured car: "I'm going to get a tumor in my head," he laughs, then stays on the line for an hour; from a tall ship afloat on Lake Ontario, until he's called back to filming, "I have to go now and kiss a serving wench."
Born in the industrial city of Sunder land in northeast England, Rennie immigrated to Canada at the age of four and was raised in middle-class Edmonton, the second of three sons. "I thought about being an actor at eighteen, but didn't do anything about it. It seemed a vain retarded thing to pursue." Instead, he clutched at the fledgling punk movement and the 'Sex Pistols' creed of "get pissed; destroy." He had been drinking heavily since his mid-teens. "When I was seventeen I drank a twenty-six-ounce bottle of vodka in half an hour and went into convulsions. I woke up in hospital. Alcohol became many things: an antidote to pain, a means of being more outspoken, a way to feel better than I did in my regular life. I'm sure I laughed a lot, if only I could remember. I didn't see it as a problem until later on, until everything around me - relationships, trust - was destroyed. When did fun become fun with problems and then become just problems?"
I recognize that final sentence, know it has been recited to other journalists. The past is his shield, talking about it his means of keeping others at bay. Like acting, it is an elaborate arm our. "On the 'Due South' set I can talk to anyone, say anything. Saturdays [away from the set] are insane. I'm unsure if I can go outside - what's it like out there? how is everyone? was I cruel today? I don't know if I can deal with people I don't know how many weird things I can see in one day before I have to go home and lie down. Sunday is a fucking eternity."
In the early eighties, friends at the University of Alberta asked him to write for and join the cast of a campus radio show inspired by the British "Goon Show." The same troupe produced David Mamet's American Buffalo at the 1985 Edmonton Fringe Festival and Rennie played the part of Bobby, the artless young protege of two small-time cons. He had discovered his vocation. But he was still drinking, more. "I woke up in alleys and drunk tanks. I needed to drink until it hurt. Alcohol made me scrambled, fucked, screwed up. It's all about losing because losing is where you want to be. Other drugs don't give the same shit feeling you need."
He moved to Vancouver, questioning his own abilities - Can I act? Can I participate in the world? - and enrolled in the Bruhanski Theatre Studio. "His was a self-destructive tremendous talent," recalls Alex Brunhanski. "Callum's battles were never with his craft. They were always with Callum."
Christopher Newton, artistic director of the Shaw Festival, invited Rennie to appear in the 1990/91 season after seeing the Touchstone Theatre production of Lost Souls and Missing Persons, his first professional performance. "I recognized he was incredibly talented and charismatic with the natural gift of making dialogue sound true," says Newton. "Acting came easy to him, but at the Shaw he realized this profession could be difficult." Newton is being diplomatic. Rennie remembers missed performances, benders. "I was used to a co-op mentality," he says now, "not the corporate world of theatre. I can handle a live audience of a hundred or so but nothing bigger than that. Knowing all day long a gig is coming up, that would haunt me."
Despite fascination with self - "Being with Callum is about Callum," says his friend, actor Sarah Strange - Rennie inevitably seduces those allowed past his defences. Strange talks of his "inexplicable unlearnable electricity. He wanders around simply wearing it, this combination of wonderful and obnoxious things." His opinions can be blunt, his manner challenging, but a fierce argument about the merits of David Mamet or Redd Foxx or a polemic on neophyte directors is diffused by a sudden beatific smile and a self-satirizing "How's my hair?" It is impossible to argue and laugh at the same time.
Back in Vancouver from the Shaw, in the line-up at a downtown Starbucks, Rennie met Babz Chula, a busy, beautiful actor, fourteen years his senior, struggling through a horrendous marriage break-up. "I had gone from woman to woman," Rennie admits. "Oh God, you'll think I'm a slut machine. I needed to be baby-sat and ass-wiped. Everything could fall apart and still this person would take care of me." Chula and Rennie lived together for nearly two years. "He never went home," she smiles into the memory. "I fell in love with him. He made me laugh and I'd thought I would never laugh again, but Callum had an addiction as serious as any addictions gets. When he was drunk he was a falling-down, piss-in-his-pants drunk, a poor-me, alas-my-crummy-life, primadonna drunk who never wanted to enter into a dialogue, just wanked. He could appear to be functioning really well at times and yet be constantly tense, hungry, gut-churningly anxious. He was hardly working, certainly not capable of committing to a career. He's a great actor but didn't know - because he was drunk."
Nevertheless, he appeared in Mike Hoolboom's short film Frank's Cock, one unbroken shot of Rennie telling the camera a raw, radiant love story. Hoolboom used him again in Letters From Home, his intimate study of living with AIDS. "We were," Hoolboom recalls, "trying to figure out where the emotional trajectory should be in the final scene. Callum went for it, but was holding back the obvious emotions. I thought it was too flat. I said 'be there, feel it' and we did two more takes. I nearly cried with the passion he portrayed. But I never used those last two. He was right the first time; his instincts were perfect. He left space for the viewer to feel those things. On an innate intestinal level he knows exactly what to communicate." Both films went on to win prizes for best short at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Summer, 1993. Rennie is in a foul mood, Welfare Wednesday money in his pocket. Wearing bad hair and an attitude, he sits down at a table in a rough Vancouver bar with a bunch of construction workers. One says something derogatory; he says something back. There's lots of macho showing and the barman tells him to leave. Once outside, he flips his antagonist the bird; the construction worker punches his fist through the plate glass window. A shard of glass angles down through the left eyelid and pierces the retina. Rennie remembers screaming.
Months of intense treatment followed. He was thirty-three, called this his "Christ year," and made a commitment to change - to career, to sobriety. He started to find small parts on programmes such as "The X-Files" and "Highlander." Gaining confidence, he snared a recurring role on "My Life As a Dog" (for which he won a Gemini), and guest spots on the series "Nikita," "Forever Knight," and "Side Effects." His first feature-film role, as the ineffectual boyfriend in Mina Shum's Double Happiness, earned him a Genie nomination. Then came arguably the best Canadian film of 1996, Hard Core Logo. In it Rennie plays an accomplished guitarist who craves success. "I tried to use stuff from my own life in the role of Billy," he notes, "my opinions, my desires, my need for the next thing." Even in abysmal movies - Men with Guns, Excess Baggage - his performance is precise, finely crafted. "I read the material," Rennie explains, "and then allow it the luxury of coming to me. I love walking around and thinking about it. I love the pre-stuff: the way the universe will inform me on choices. The presentation of a role is part of a larger picture - what is the best way to make the story effective? I often imagine my character as a cartoon. I simplify that character, don't give anything away, don't draw in extra gestures." This season, his work as a geeky variety-store clerk in CBC's "Twitch City" is elegantly deranged.
One afternoon at a crowded coffee shop Rennie suddenly announces a love of art, of the works of Basquiat, Motherwell, and Pollock. A Champion spark-plug logo tattooed across the muscle of his right arm is not a punk challenge but a homage to American painter Stuart Davis, who did a series of works based on the design starting in the 1950s. "Success meant I was suddenly able to go to the Tate or the Prado, to take in things I never thought I would be a part of, a world outside that once seemed frivolous, never tangible." He details the attraction of abstract expressionism and informs me he has sold a number of his own collages. "Painting puts me into an alpha state. It's a private event. I make all the decisions in the process and never have to deal with the outside world."
Stepping into "Due South" last March he dwelt in "a little place of terror," unsure of his ability to do broad comedy, to succeed as a replacement in an established series. "I followed Paul around like Mutt and Jeff: 'Paul. Paul. Do you like me? Do I suck yet? Am I fired?' " Over the months he gained assurance and comfort. The set became "home." "Working on 'Due South' is like working on an independent film. There are no suits walking around and there is every freedom to do what you think is right. Screwed up I was powerless. Straight I know what should and can be done with the material."
On other productions Rennie's demands for a voice have caused conflict. He questioned the way his character was made to drive every scene in the CBC movie For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down. "Jerry Bines was meant to be every other character's vision of a person, so if you get him to speak too much you lose what those other people have created." His objections, voiced in what he believed was an off-the-record interview, appeared in print only days before the show's broadcast. He was horrified, and very suddenly versed in the ways of the press. But reviewers quickly forgot the controversy. "The movie really belongs to Callum Keith Rennie," wrote Tony Atherton in The Ottawa Citizen, "who gives Jerry a charisma that shines through his scruffy attire and unkempt hair." The performance earned a place in this year's Gemini nominations.
Paul Gross has allowed Rennie to build the character of Detective Stanley Ray Kowalski much to his own design. "Callum has an ego and will really defend things and argue but he has a good sense of improvisation," says Gross. "In a series it's better to say here is the template, what do you feel would he interesting to include?" But in October, working on the feature film Last Night during a "Due South" hiatus, Rennie was forced by writer/director Don McKellar to play his character (a man who spends the last two months on life on earth chasing his every sexual fantasy) as written. "Callum makes himself cooler than possible, then uses that as a defense to not allow awkward, less-than cool moments to sneak out," says McKellar. "It's hard for an actor to ask 'where do I have to go to find myself at a place that may not be natural for me?' I wanted him to find the possibility of the part in himself and that requires an insight into that persona of his. He's high-maintenance, gets himself all fucked up, but I like his problems, they are fascinating. And he achieved great acting, different, rich. He is aware of his own mythology and his gift, and is now employing them with more objectivity and maturity."
I don't know the truth of my past, what was driving me to destroy me," says Rennie. "Drunk, I was one big fat opinion that barfed in the foetal position, naked. Sober, my life was still shit. Perhaps there has to be a struggle in order for it to be sweet. Alcohol seemed to be the solution, but I'm not sure if I've fixed the problem, that's my greatest fear. All I know is that if I die tomorrow I have lived four years."