WFF 2013: Jason Priestley on surviving Beverly Hills, 90210
Before Edward Cullen, there was…Brandon Walsh.
Um, who—depending on your generation—you might ask?
While Brandon wasn't a vampire (then again, anything is possible now that we have fanfic), many Twihards may not realize that one of the precursors to the Edward Cullen/Robert Pattinson teen Twi-rking phenomenon can be credited to a local actor.
Jason Priestley found himself at the eye of a teen-idol perfect storm, in the days before the existence of social media, no less. (Yes, true Beliebers, there was life before the Internet.) The TV series Beverly Hills, 90210 graced the small screen on October 4, 1990 and became an international hit show. Thanks to swooning teenage girls (and undoubtedly some guys too), Priestley became a household name.
But from the inside looking out, the view was different. Very different.
"That whole experience was pretty crazy," Priestley says in a Whistler hotel room during the Whistler Film Festival. "Looking back on it, I didn't understand what all the hoopla was about, to be perfectly honest…. Because I was on the show and I was in the show, and I knew how ghetto the show was. Like literally, we cheaped out on everything. Like everything. They didn't even want to pay for us to have a caterer. They would, like, bring in food for us from the crappy restaurant down the road because they didn't want to pay for a caterer. Oh my god. It was ridiculous. So cheap. We were so cheap."
Priestley is animated, gregarious, and upbeat. And rightly so, since he's at the ski resort for the Western Canadian premiere of his directorial debut, Cas & Dylan, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Tatiana Maslany. He cut his teeth helming episodes of Beverly Hills, 90210. But it wasn't easy, considering their tight(ass) budget.
"I would wanna do things," he says. "I would want to have a bunch of candles in a scene. 'No, no, no. You can't do that. No.' 'Why can't I do that?' 'We'd have to bring the fire marshal in.' 'Well how much'd that cost?' '250 bucks.' 'So bring the fire marshal in!' 'Nope. Nope. Can't do it.' 'Guys, we're the number two show on the network! You can't bring the—' 'Nope. Nope. Can't do it.'…'Okay, so how many candles can I have?' 'Five.' "
He laughs about it—now. But incredulity still rings fresh in his voice.
"We're making this show up on all these super rich people and we wouldn't spend 250 bucks," he says. "And that was the show. It was beautiful."
But directing wasn't the only challenge. Priestley had the more daunting task of surviving the aftermath of being a star on the show.
"You didn't have to look very far to see that being a teen idol…is a treacherous landscape to try to navigate. I think I navigated it pretty well because it's treacherous. For me, I just kept working, and that seemed to be the solution for me…. And also keep working on yourself, like keep working on your craft and keep working to better yourself as an actor and not just sit back and rest on your laurels and say, 'Well, there you go. I made it and I'm still going to…keep on my same shtick and just be like, hey, I'm Brandon Walsh forever.' Like you can't be that guy because that's…what'll sink you and that's what'll get you stuck as that guy forever."
Yet Priestley possessed enough foresight to know what he had to do in order to work his way through the minefield that lay ahead of him after he left the show.
"I just knew that I had to keep pushing myself to get better and to keep maturing because the other thing about being successful young is that you stop maturing as a human being and you gotta break out of that and that's what I forced myself to do."
After leaving Beverly Hills, 90210, Priestley even portrayed a teen idol struggling to be taken seriously as an actor (who is pursued by a male writer who becomes obsessed with him [flippant editorial note: this character was not based on the writer of this article]) in the 1997 film Love and Death on Long Island.
He also starred in other TV series, including Tru Calling, Love Monkey, Side Order of Life, Haven, and, presently, Call Me Fitz. He also directed several TV shows, including one episode of the Beverly Hills, 90210 series spinoff 90210, which launched in 2008.
But all that time away from his hometown has made his heart grow fonder.
"Vancouver is unrecognizeable. You know, I left Vancouver in 1987…and Vancouver's become this beautiful, modern city. Like it's gorgeous… And Whistler is spectacular. This place has grown up into the number one ski destination in North America now. It's crazy, man!"
His long memory of what this place used to be like has certainly made him appreciative of where he is today.
"I used to ride that two-banger up in that parking lot across from the Husky station. [laughs] It was a long time ago, my friend. My lift ticket used to cost me six bucks when I skied here. Now, it's 160! A long time ago, brother. Long time ago…. Now my movie was the opening night gala [film] at the Whistler Film Festival. I feel like the circle is now complete."