Jill Hennessy bridges pain and comedy in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

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Okay, so there isn’t much of a connection between David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and the CBC’s full-length centennial adaptation of the 1912 Stephen Leacock classic Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, coming to a TV set near year on Sunday night (February 12). But Jill Hennessy started her career with one, and stars in the other. That’s enough, right?

“I’m actually racking my brain, thinking, ‘Are there any other common denominators?’” Hennessy says with a laugh. “Not at all.”

Fair enough, but let’s allow that they’re both infused with a certain Canadian-ness, at least. In the 24 years since she auditioned for Cronenberg on not much more than a whim, Hennessy secured a big-time career south of the border with steady gigs that included Law & Order and Crossing Jordan. She recently landed a role in the new HBO series Luck with Dustin Hoffman, but joining the CBC’s buoyant, family-oriented production brought it all back home for the Edmonton-born actor.

“It’s this sort of a who’s who of all my favourite Canadian actors,” Hennessy tells the Straight, calling from a hotel in Toronto. “It was an opportunity to literally hang out with people I’ve always wanted to meet anyway. And we were shooting all over Ontario, in the Muskokas, which is an area I’ve always wanted to go to, and we’re staying in these little hotels, and it was, like, ‘So, Colin Mochrie, Deb McGrath, do you guys wanna go get some dinner after work? Donal Logue, you wanna play some guitar after shooting?’ So that was just a joy.”

Sean Cullen, Peter Keleghan, Ron James, Rick Roberts, Caroline Rhea (in particularly good form), and—how could they not?—Gordon Pinsent help round out the heavyweight cast, with Pinsent inhabiting the role of the older Leacock (Vancouver’s Owen Best plays the author as a child).

It’s probably worth mentioning that Geddy Lee also has a cameo, while Keshia Chanté turns up at one point to deliver a lovely and wholly unexpected turn-of-the-century retooling of Burton Cumming’s “I’m Scared”. Strange as that might sound, it’s consistent with the playful if not entirely frivolous tone of the movie, which weaves two of Leacock’s most popular stories—the sinking of the Mariposa Belle, and the campaign to save the liquor license at Smith’s tavern—with Leacock’s own, troubled family history.

“Number one, I just thought the script was tremendous,” Hennessy answers, when asked what sold her on the project. “The way that (screenwriter) Malcolm MacRury integrated Stephen Leacock’s actual childhood, which was kind of rife with a lot of joy, and happiness, and romance, and a lot of extreme pain. His father was a heavy drinker and tended to drink away the family pay cheques, and his mother had to really think fast on her feet and be incredibly strong, and try to protect her children, especially when things got a little abusive. The fact that Malcolm interwove that with basically such a funny script, where I was laughing out loud; any writer who can do that, I have to tip my hat to.”

Hennessy’s role is perhaps the toughest in Sunshine Sketches; she has to introduce a lot of emotional nuance to the character of Leacock’s mother, Agnes, while surrounded by broadly comic creations like Mochrie’s dyspeptic Judge Pepperleigh. Director Don McBrearty keeps the whole splendidly photographed affair as breezy as possible, but it’s to Hennessy’s great credit that she manages to bridge the dramatic shifts in tone, ultimately providing the best performance in the film. Then again, it turns out she does that kind of thing all the time.

“I’ve always been a fan of pain mingled with comedy,” she says. “Call me crazy. But it’s how I deal with issues in my own life. ‘I’m laughing, that’s so inappropriate, I shouldn’t be doing that…’ It actually worked out really well for me.” And us!

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town airs on CBC Television on Sunday (February 12), at 8 p.m
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