The Globe and Mail, September 25, 1997
If I'd succeeded earlier I'd be dead... Now, all the fear is negotiable.
SECTION: THE ARTS: TELEVISION
HEADLINE: Get this man a script, okay? FROM THE DESK OF... / Callum Keith Rennie was, like, The Nowhere Man four years ago. Now he's on Due South, and it's only a matter of time till Tinseltown comes calling, if you know what I mean.
BY MICHAEL POSNER The Globe and Mail
TAKE a memo to Bruce McDonald.
Bruce, I think I've found your next film project. It's portrait-of-the-artist-as-youngish-man (37) material. Lots of anguished struggle, inchoate rage, a goodly amount of substance abuse, but the raw talent is irrepressible and ultimately erupts, okay? It's a documentary on your pal, The Callum, a.k.a. Canadian actor Callum Keith Rennie, who co-starred in your 1996 flick Hard Core Logo (great piece of work, incidentally).
Anyway, as you know, CKR has just made a major career move, a mega-move really, appearing in the Detective Ray Vecchio part (second lead) in Due South,Paul Gross's never-say-die-because-we're-Canadian comedy-drama. Cult hit, third season, 26 episodes, international sales to BBC, the Deutsch, the Gauls, plus broad syndication, via Polygram, to the Yanks. I tell you, this fellow Lantos at Alliance has something on the ball. But that's another story.
What happened is, David Marciano, who was playing the Vecchio character, got into a dust-up with Alliance about remuneration and took a hike. And the whole premise of the series is having a crude and rude Chicago cop -- your basic ugly American, but with heart -- as a foil to Gross, and the Mountie's tireless civility shtick.
Enter Rennie. You know what he's done these last four years -- Genie nomination for his work in Mina Shum's Double Happiness,two Gemini nominations, 12 movie roles in all, including Mastermind with Patrick Stewart, Excess Baggage with Alicia Silverstone, and Men with Guns with Paul Sorvino. Small parts, admittedly, but crafted pieces of work, gem-like, okay? I mean, he did one day on an X-Files episode and Chris Carter called him in and offered to write him into the series. Of course, they wanted his body in perpetuity (actually six years, but pretty much the same thing in acting), so Callum said thanks, no thanks. "Didn't feel right," he said, in that mumbled way of his. And now the L.A. agents -- William Morris, ICA, yadda, yadda -- are calling his manager, Liz Hodgson in Van. and saying, put that boy on a plane, fast. He's got leading man potential -- six feet tall, a better-looking version of Keifer Sutherland, and wired.
So Alliance wanted him bad. So bad they were prepared to give him biggish bucks (mid-six figures, it's rumoured) for a one-year commitment. One year! You understand what that means, Bruce? It means that if Due South develops serious legs, which the sucker looks like it might, and Rennie starts getting Tristar offers he can't refuse, Constable Benton Fraser needs a new partner again next season. Of course, Paul Gross isn't committed beyond this year either. Not a prospect to relish, if you take my drift.
Even with the one-year clause, Rennie had big-time misgivings. Wasn't sure he was ready for the comic stretch. Wasn't sure he wanted to have to comb his hair every day. Wasn't sure how well he would click -- chemically, you understand -- with Gross. Truth is, he was terrified at the prospect. He and Gross had a dinner one night at Bistro 990 and actually flipped a coin on whether he should join the cast. In fact, they flipped it three times because the first time it was tails, you lose (i.e. not joining). Nice scene, eh? Then you could cut to Gross saying, "Because it is a gamble, in a way. It's not about whether he can act, or whether he can handle the schedule, but whether we can get along, operating in very close quarters, over the long haul." And then Gross does that cheeky, deadpan thing of his and adds, "Of course, he is the most incredibly difficult dink."
But here's the point, Bruce, and here's what's compelling about this pitch: four years ago, Callum Keith Rennie was, like, the Nowhere Man. I mean, his life was a complete screw-up. Yeah, he'd done a few radio plays and some non-profit theatre in Edmonton, where his family moved in 1964 from Sunderland, England. But he didn't do any acting at all until he was 25; it was all punk-rock music and mountain climbing -- pre-yuppified. Comprendez? Callum always chose The Other Way. I mean, the reason he uses three names is because a Numerologist did a reading and recommended it, okay?
He was always interested in acting, and accumulated a library of books on the subject, but he had this quasi-Zen-like attitude. "I knew it would have to find me," he told me recently. "Somehow I couldn't actually go and chase it myself. If I did, then I'd be caught up in some sort of idea of wanting to succeed or wanting to make a bid splash, and that's not the true nature of art."
Eventually, he took some acting classes with Alex Bruhanski in Vancouver, who's probably worth a cameo. Alex thought "Callum was brilliant, electric, self-destructive, hungry for the truth." One day, Alex staged a showcase. Producers came, talent scouts, agents. Alex had this wall of black-and-white glossies of his students. That day, he came in to find that one photo had been vandalized, the goatee and moustache bit, in pencil. Callum's, of course -- he'd done it himself. Alex called it "an act of personal invalidation. When Callum left, I thought he was either going to be a major force or he was going to be dead."
Dead may be a stretch, but it's true that Rennie stopped acting for six years and drank industriously. For a long time, he said, drinking "is fun and then it's fun with problems, and then it's just problems, and you're sitting in a detox centre thinking maybe this isn't so much fun any more."
But the real epiphany comes later, about four years ago. He's in a Vancouver bar, minding his own business and someone picks a fight with him. He ends up with a piece of window glass in his eye and a torn retina and after the surgery "you realize that you're not immortal, that you actually pretty much went out in the world and said, 'Damage me, so I can get on with my life,' and you know that you have fucked up royally and that your entire life to this point has been a lie."
So he sobers up, moves in with his older brother (who he hasn't seen in two years, though they live in the same city) and goes to read for Elizabeth Hodgson, his fourth agent -- "the first person who saw me as what I was." He recites his oblivion days, and she says, so are you done with that? And he says yeah. And she says, fine -- and starts mapping the career plan, Rennie telling her, "Look, I can't do this for me, I'm still too screwed up. But maybe I can do it for you." He gave himself one year, vowing to book one gig a month.
You know the rest. Great story, eh? We end with him wrestling with the Decision -- to go or not to go to L.A. "Headquarters," he calls it. Not wanting to turn his back on Canada, but wanting to stretch himself, work with better directors. And having enough money in the bank now, even after giving half of it away to friends and relatives, to wait for the right part, the right situation.
He has no regrets about not starting earlier. "If I'd succeeded earlier, I'd be dead. In some respect, I can hold on to it now. Now, all the fear is negotiable." Not bad for a guy who's been known to stumble through interviews with monosyllables, punctuated liberally with pauses.
So let me know what you think, Bruce. You might have to bite the happy-ending bullet here, but it's probably time you lightened up a little, anyway. Or maybe not. Because the real jury -- those sweet people in Hollywood -- is still out on The Callum. Here, he can pretty much do whatever he wants. There, as you know, the sharks, babe, have such teeth, dear.
ETA: Edited to add the FULL article, as found by the awesome mindyfromohio