TORONTO--Paul Gross jokes that the real reason he wanted to play a police officer in the new Canadian movie Wilby Wonderful was so that he could finally carry a gun.
"I got to have an actual gun in my holster. I had played a policeman for quite a long time," he said of his popular TV series Due South, "and because of the convention of the show I never had a gun. I only had a wedge of white pine in my holster. And this time I actually had a gun. I never used it, but just knowing it was there was enough," Gross says with a big grin.
Wilby Wonderful isn't the type of movie that features a lot of gunplay. It's a gentle comedy about a day in the life of a small East Coast island town that's been rocked by a local scandal.
On a hotel patio during a sunny afternoon--to promote Wilby Wonderful's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival--Gross's movie-star looks stand out even in a courtyard full of movie stars. He really does look like the type of cop you'd trust, the guy who'd keep the peace in a place like the fictional Nova Scotia town of Wilby.
Wilby is populated by some of Canada's best and best-known actors, including Maury Chaykin as an ambitious mayor, Rebecca Jenkins as a mom with man problems, Sandra Oh as a type-A realtor, and Gross's former Due South costar, Callum Keith Rennie, as a dyslexic sign painter with a secret or two.
Gross says he was intrigued by the cast, but what really excited him about the movie--even more than the gun--was the chance to work with writer-director Daniel MacIvor, the acclaimed playwright-performer and freshly minted filmmaker.
Like MacIvor, Gross began his career in the theatre. His first success was as a playwright back when he was living in Alberta. Since then he's juggled--and combined--writing, directing, performing, and producing. He's never cut his roots to the stage, so he's been aware of MacIvor for years. "I knew his work and I had seen a lot of his stuff but I'd never met him, and I think he's terrific," Gross says. "Daniel's got a really incredibly finely tuned ear for how people speak to one another, and I would say it's infinitely more tuned than mine is. And to read dialogue where I could see all of the stuff rumbling around under the surface, inside of what appears to be a relatively gentle scene, I just found very intriguing."
Gross admits that the idea of "just acting" has been a rare experience over the past few years--and it's one he really enjoyed. "Daniel's film was like a holiday. I didn't have to worry about anything except my guy, and it was such a relief to have somebody say, 'Here's what you wear, here's where you stand, and here's what you say.'"
Although he's best known for spending half the 1990s in a Mountie suit on Due South--the only Canadian show ever sold to a U.S. network for prime time--he's made a career out of playing, and creating, Canadian icons. Aside from redefining the on-screen Mountie, Gross was a hockey player in the movie Gross Misconduct (which he also wrote); a curler in the movie Men With Brooms (which he wrote, directed, and produced); and on October 31 and November 1 he plays the prime minister in CBC's new political thriller H20: The Last Prime Minister (which he cowrote and produced). He's also played a skier, a rancher, and even had a recurring role on The Red Green Show. So after H20, Gross may have officially run out of hard-core Canadiana--unless he wants to dress up like a beaver, René Lévesque, or Margaret Atwood.
In between his stints as a CanCon icon, Gross has released two country-music albums and, in 2000, set box-office records at Stratford for his performance as Hamlet. On October 14, he's being profiled on CBC TV's Life and Times, wherein he claims he has almost no remaining ambitions except to play Richard III and to hear one of his songs on the radio when he's driving to his parents' ranch in Alberta.
He's clearly ambitious concerning H20, though, but he's reluctant to talk about it while he's promoting Wilby Wonderful. At the end of the interview, Gross finally agrees to describe his latest project. "It's a political thriller in which the future of our country hangs in the balance," he says. Then he spins the interview back from Ottawa to Wilby. "It doesn't have anywhere near the delicacy of Daniel MacIvor's writing. I write things kind of with a sledgehammer. He uses watercolour."