Every time Canadian actor Michael Riley takes on a new role, he embarks on a new journey. Whether he’s portraying the level-headed psychiatrist Dr. Tom on CBC’s hit series Being Erica, or the Cockney petty criminal Harry Stein from St. Urbain's Horseman (which is now out on DVD), Riley loves nothing more than developing his characters from scratch.
“You’re structuring a human being from the ground up,” Riley told the Straight in a phone interview from Toronto. “To me, that’s the thrill of it and always has been.”
Riley’s introduction to the world of acting began at age 18, when he attended the National Theatre School in Montreal, and he’s been pushing his limits ever since. He explains that his theatre background is what draws him to the complex characters, and allows him to push beyond his comfort zone.
“When you get characters that are kind of close to the vest, it’s sometimes easy to push them or pull them into your comfort zone,” he said. “I think that’s the danger.”
Riley admits that portraying Harry Stein in the CBC miniseries adaptation of Mordecai Richler's classic novel, was the kind of “full-escape character” that he seeks out.
Riley took on a complete physical and mental construction when transforming into Stein, and consequently ended up with one of his most-liked roles to date—as well as a Gemini award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Dramatic Mini-Series in 2008.
“It [Stein] was just so far away from me, from the accent to the teeth, glasses, hairline, and even the history he was steeped in...everything about him I had to construct,” Riley said, “I love playing a character that is very theatrical by nature, so he was one of my favourites.”
Diversity and creativity in everything he does is clearly an important part of the veteran actor’s career. That is exactly why he continues to enjoy playing Dr. Tom on Being Erica, which is now shooting its third season.
“He [Dr. Tom] can become a function so easily but because of her [Erin Karpluk], and the latitude that they’ve given me with the character, you’re always peaking behind the wizard’s curtain and getting to see there is an inner life to that show and that person and I appreciate that,” Riley explained.
Riley and his costar Karpluk have gained much attention and critical praise for Being Erica the CBC series and Riley credits much of that to the creators, writers, and producers of the show. But he admits that the chemistry between him and Karpluk needed to be right for the show to be as successful as it has been.
“It wasn’t until the middle of season two or something that I ever got to play with any other character than Erica, so you need that relationship to be a fully dimensional one just to keep things interesting if that’s the only person you’re playing with.”
After two decades in the business, and ten Gemini Award nominations, including five wins, Riley is seeing a whole new level of exposure as an actor and the irony of it all isn’t lost on him.
“I lived in L.A. for eight years and of course I come back here to do a show in my own backyard and now I’m being seen by people there,” he chuckles.
Riley can next be seen in Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody (opening July 16), starring Jared Leto, Diane Kruger, and fellow Canadian actor Sarah Polley. And the creative thespian admits that he couldn’t resist being a part of Dormael’s vision.
“I played a very small character but I read this script and it was like a Rubik's Cube for the mind and I am quite fond of that kind of material so to be a part of his painting, I couldn’t pass that up.”