"I am the thinking man's David Hasselhoff." This is how Callum Keith Rennie describes himself, then, as being an objective bon vivant. In his opinion, none of this should have happened to him and yet, all of this should have happened to him.
Callum Circa 1996: Sitting in Bar Italia on College Street in Toronto, the 5'11" actor appears much taller than his measure - a unique turnabout in the acting world. Wearing jeans and t-shirt, with heavy silver rings on his fingers, Callum (no one calls him Rennie) is taking time off from shooting the Kari Skogland film, Men With Guns. His role, a drug-addled dervish who whirls to an early demise, is a character piece which steals the film.
Our interview started out politely, like all Canadian celeb interviews do, nothing more than earnest bilge. As I began to dig, he pulled back and began to perform. Parry. Thrust. Parry. Thrust. Smile. Later on I learn he had done the same thing the day before with an interviewer from another publication. A very middle-of-the-road publication. The journalist asked him to describe his ideal date. "Well, she's blonde and has blue eyes…and she has really big tits," he responded. To date, that interview has never seen the light of press.
The attitude was a carryover from Callum's youth. He was born in Sunderland, England, and raised in Edmonton. At 18, he had his first epiphany that he was someone apart from the mainstream world. "The challenging started…the music changed…the Sex Pistols, the Ramones. I was hanging out with Bruce McCulloch (Kids in the Hall) at high school. People I'd grown up with were offended by my choice of a new friend and my choice of social commentary which had an anti-conservative message rage to it."
The next 15 years involved a long personal struggle. His desire to be in the arts was complicated by the feeling that dramatic schooling, which he lacked, was a prerequisite. That was the high road excuse which covered a low road personality dodge. "I had my own idea of what an actor was which was a loud, verbose, outwardly-extended person and I wasn't that." Instead he worked at jobs which required no emotional commitment: a cook, a bartender, a construction worker and he edged up to the periphery of acting by moving furniture on movie sets. It culminated in what is now regarded as C.K.R.-lore about barrooms and brawls and bodily injury, all adding up to Epiphany No. 2 - he needed to act. Instead of just acting out.
Perhaps a decade and a half of teeth-gnashing had greater value than mere procrastination. His unusually high level of articulation suggests he was thinking, or, at the very least, positioning himself for the psychological leap. One of the first roles he landed was an ideal mixocological blend of cinema and high anarchy - the multi-screen psychodrama short, Frank's Cock, directed by fringe cinema icon, Mike Hoolboom. Few audiences outside of film-fest circuits have seen this cinematic bonbon, although it won Best Canadian Short at the 1994 Toronto International Film Festival. Two years later, he revisited the scene of his first success and starred in Hoolboom's Letters From Home, which again took the prize for best short at the 1996 festival. Next came his lead in Mina Shum's acclaimed cross-cultural romance, Double Happiness, which lead to a 1994 Genie nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and critical praise for John L'Ecuyer's gritty film, Curtis' Charm.
Confident of his talent, the burgeoning star developed a taste for life on the fun side of the velvet rope and wanted more. But, reluctant to bank on unadorned ability, he tinkered with a bad-boy image because of its built-in 'I'm good, but if I screw up, then at least I still have my integrity' voucher. This swagger was a tidy, if philosophically empty, approach but Callum was fully aware of the ramifications. "The more you work, the more you become a caricature of your own personality traits," he admits.
The 1996 half hour interview turned into an hour, then two, then three. The bottom line was apparent: he wanted to be an actor/storyteller. No lusting after directorship, no visions of have writing credits, no wet dreams of producerhood - he just wants to be an actor.
Three years click by. This time the interview is at Callum's Toronto residence. The decor is understated, except for the couches. Very big, very nap-oriented. The t-shirt and jeans are still there, ditto the rings, which are evidently more a talismanic statement than a fashion accessory. But the attitude has evolved from latter-day James Dean rebel-with-a-contract into a more introspective understanding of his own creative mortality.
Another thing that hasn't changed are his goals. He still invokes the word "storyteller" when he discusses his acting. If it was just a handy phrase, he'd have changed his script. No one continues to use old material if their objective is to entertain the press. Too big a risk.
Callum has used the time profitably. His role in Last Night as Craig Zwiller, the man with the check list of sexual proclivities to accomplish, earned him a 1999 Genie for Best Supporting Actor. This award sits next to his 1997 Genie for Best Actor, Youth Series for, My Life as a Dog. In addition to this, he appeared alongside Alicia Silverstone in Excess Baggage, in the Patrick Stewart non-Star Trek thriller, Masterminds, and in Don McKellar's cult hit TV mini-series, Twitch City. Hard Core Logo, another star turn, was picked up Quentin Tarantino for U.S. release. And then there is Due South, in which Callum plays Stanley Kowalski, the American cop/doppelganger to Paul Gross' Mountie. The inherent humour and bonhomie in this role brought Callum front and centre in the public mind, giving him official "Yeah, I know that guy" accreditation he considers valid.
While listing past and upcoming projects is considered standard operational reportage when profiling an actor, with Callum it likens itself to seeing which colour combinations a painter chooses to use in his self-portrait. Next up are a variety of screen gems which greatly exceed the label of a simple filmography: Ken Finkleman's television series, Foolish Heart, a reprise of his role as Newbie in the second Twitch City series, Life Before This, with Sarah Polley, and David Cronenberg's much heralded new film, eXistenZ. No frivolous commitments here.
What has not evolved much in the elapsed time is his personal life. He has been Mr. Suitcase for the last five years. Bedouin Boy. While freedom isn't the motivation for being an actor, it is one of the perks. "Freedom to travel, to see the world in a way that's not conventional, to grow. But it's assumed freedom - it can all go away." In Callum's case, freedom also means never staying in one place long enough to have to mow a lawn. Domesticated, he is not.
While many people create their comfort zones in a household environment, Callum's idea of a safe harbour can be found on set. There is a distinct and sustaining intimacy between himself and the camera lens. That quantum space expands and allows for a direct connection to where he is at one with himself. "Almost everything I've done is an accomplishment of desire over circumstance."
Translated into real life terms, Sunday nights are an anathema, while Monday mornings bring welcome relief as the working world kicks back into gear. "Getting up early to go to work feels blue collar. My life and thoughts haven't caught up with me yet. Working on Due South was the happiest I've been because it felt like family. So you work for a year in close proximity with a great amount of creative freedom and it's a lot of fun."
Fun, indeed. Series television is the pearl in the oyster that is acting. Easy living. Callum discovered both sides of this truth on Due South, "You forget a lot of the fear, a lot of the 'where's my next gig coming from,' the money issues, even that someone's gonna feed you at a certain time. Once that's done, you're back into the regular mode which is the hustle. Now I realize I have to get over that comfort that I found."
One of the reasons the security afforded by Due South had a magnetic appeal is because Callum is, in down home, everyday terms, shy. Legitimate shyness is definitely not an attribute people volunteer as an explanation. Rather, it's the symptoms which give it away. Ordinary shy people decline party invitations and live in cyber space. Successful actors don't have that option. They learn how to hide while in plain sight. Callum's compensating technique is not unique, but it defines him: he prefers meeting people individually and he seems to want others to get to know him as a person rather than a personality. "Seeing who a person is with you is very different than seeing them in a group," he explains.
Still, he eyes other people who have groups of friends with curious envy. Not a motivating envy, mind you, because Callum is known for testing the tensile strength of a friendship, stretching it out over time and distance. Down times between telephone calls can last upwards of four weeks. It's the Callum Keith Rennie version of the Sting song: set a friendship free. If it's true, it will be there when you come back to it. If it isn't, it will slap you upside the head.
There was a period in mid-1998 where Callum extracted himself from acting to allow himself simple pleasures. He took his first holiday in five years. Using his earnings to purchase a black, 1998 Ford Expedition (it replaced his 1964 truck, both of which close friends say he drives like a stolen vehicle), he drove down to Mexico to fish, a hobby he had as a youth. In Puerto Vallarta, he attempted his first effort at saltwater fishing, "This was no Old Man and the Sea Hemingway thing. A 300-pound swordfish jumped out of the water behind us. It was surreal. The rod completely bent like I'd just snagged a cow. My arm was numb and my eyes were bugging out of my head, but I brought it in myself." The catch, now dubbed Marlin Brando, is destined to hang as a trophy in the Vancouver office of his close friend and manager, Elizabeth Hodgson.
In the study of the psychology of fame, living in the spotlight causes people to become self-conscious. Callum corrects this perception, "Not self-conscious - self-aware. The effects of it can wear on you, wondering why people want to talk to you or what people want. It's easier to stay home than go out. Whatever private moment you may be having suddenly gets broken up by a stranger. Then you feel like you were watched or you are going to be watched and it becomes something other than the experience that you were having."
Celebrity, he has learned, is a far cry from the genuine distinction he seeks. Two incidences, which should be funny, but never amount to more than moronic, highlight this. One occurred early in his career when he finally merited the attention of CBC. He saw the interviewer enter the bar where they were meeting and watched her wait for 30 minutes. She had no idea who he was. The second took place two years ago on a flight from Toronto. A flight attendant wanted his autograph even though she admitted she had never seen any of his work. He was astounded, he says, that not even knowing who he was, this person still played the sycophant.
But how does he explain his flirtatious reputation? Laughter is his first reaction. Boyish, evasive laughter. Then he settles down and justifies himself, "After you've been living in LA where you're just another actor, high points like film festivals, where there's all these people around, is fun. You're empowered by the status. There's potential in that moment; it's easy to get sucked in, dangerous but it's resistible and no, it's not real. The repercussions of that mindset are vanity and shallowness."
Orson Wells said "the greatest enemy of art is the absence of limitation which may well account for the lingering dalliance with the underdog status." "I've always preferred the 'behind the 8-ball' sensibility," he confesses. Freedom, he thinks, is not all it's cracked up to be. Limitations can be our friend. The trick, he is convinced, is "to recognize that it's part of your nature and when that can be effective and when it cannot be effective."
While other actors abide by the philosophy of go big or stay in bed, Callum is happy perfecting the small stuff right now. He is working towards achieving the "beginner's mind," a Zen reference for unfettered thought. "Today, it's all personal, today it's all seeking clarity and grace." At the podium, accepting his Genie for Last Night in February, he explained how accepting compliments is very difficult, but the award he could accept, as a genuine compliment.
From there, Callum would be happy to reside in a calm place. Not a geographic location, he explains when asked where his ideal spot in the world might be, "Eventually, it will be in my own skin."