Little Dog, the dark new comedy series from CBC, is about a lot things. There’s redemption, second chances, boxing, and most of all, family.
But there’s one part of the show which really taps into the simmering attitudes of the current zeitgeist: Luv Yourself Mean, an encounter group which decidedly focuses on the negative. Run by “holistic advisor” Ginny Ross (Katharine Isabelle), it’s the perfect pop-therapy cure for the Trump era.
“It’s a ridiculous process that she puts people through,” says Isabelle. She pauses for a beat, then starts barking out commands, Ginny-style: “Screw everybody! Who cares! Get that attitude! Stop repressing or you'll explode!”
After a throaty laugh, she continues, explaining that while filming the therapy scenes can be a blast, they’re also somewhat nerve-wracking.
“I don’t actually yell at people in real life. Once or twice a year I’ll get to bludgeon someone to death on film, or scream bloody murder, or cry cathartically, but to actually get in nice people’s faces and yell at them is hard for me. Everyone was so supportive and wanted to make this a good show, so they let me do it, but I spent the rest of the day apologizing.”
Filmed in Newfoundland, the show follows the story of Tommy “Little Dog” Ross (Joel Thomas Hynes, who also serves as creator, executive producer, and writer), a washed-up boxer on the comeback trail who’s also Ginny’s brother. It’s the entire Ross family, however—with all its dysfunction—which serves as the crux of the story.
“They’re all equally horrible to Tommy,” says Isabelle with a laugh, “although you can see Ginny’s love and support for her brother. He has such a broken puppy-dog look sometimes that’s equal part hysterics and tears, it’s just so heartbreaking and perfect. We’ve all felt like that at times in our lives, and we’ve all been that family member who’s been shitty at some point, and then we’ve been supportive again. I think that’s just part of the roller coaster of life and family.”
Raised in the Vancouver film industry (her father was a production designer and her brother was an actor), Isabelle’s early résumé reflects the greatest hits of a burgeoning Hollywood North: MacGyver, Neon Rider, X-Files, DaVinci’s Inquest, and The Outer Limits.
“It was the family business,” she says. “When your parents grow potatoes, you become a potato farmer. We had no idea that the film industry here would become as big as it did, but Vancouver deserves it, we have some of the most amazing crews and the most amazing locations.”
As it happens, Isabelle’s very first role—filmed when she was just 7 years old—was in one of the movies which helped put Vancouver on the map as a filmmaking powerhouse: 1989’s Cousins.
“That’s what ruined my life!” she says with a huge laugh. “Or, that’s what started it all. It was this huge, big-budget movie about weddings, so it was all mansions and parties and dresses and cake and candy and everyone was so nice. I thought, 'Well this is great, I’ll keep doing this forever.' Cut to me being dragged through the forest, a rope tied around my ankle, covered in blood, in the dead of winter 20 years later…maybe they should have told me that first movie wouldn’t be every movie. I was definitely lulled into that world, and they’re not all like that. It was amazing, though.”
Eventually, horror would wind up being a recurring theme in Isabelle’s career, with meaty parts in features and TV shows such as Ginger Snaps, Freddie vs. Jason, American Mary, Carrie, The X-Files, Supernatural, and Hannibal.
“I love the horror films that I’ve been a part of, but I’m a bit of a chicken,” she confides. “I’m more of a psychological-thriller kind of person. But then I keep finding these incredible scripts with incredible characters within the quote-unquote horror genre, like Ginger from Ginger Snaps and Mary from American Mary and Margot from Hannibal—those were some of the best characters I’d ever come across.”
What’s more, Isabelle notes, horror films can also be very entertaining to film.
“There’s bludgeoning! And blood!” she roars, then immediately breaks into laughter. “I’ll have you know they’re way more fun to shoot than a romantic comedy or a drama.”
This brings up Edmund Gwenn’s deathbed confession that dying is easy, but comedy is hard. So is it true? Is making people laugh along with (or at) the Ross family in Little Dog more difficult—especially with cast mates like Hynes, Ger Ryan, Andy Jones, and Dwain Murphy—than the aforementioned bludgeonings?
“Comedy is hard,” Isabelle admits. “You don’t know how much of it the camera is picking up, and you can go over the top so easily. Little Dog has super dark undertones, so going in I was terrified of overacting”—at this point she launches into a full-on Krusty the Clown vaudeville voice—“Hey, comedy! Wink-wink, doodley-doo!
“I like dark comedies,” she continues, after composing herself from a hearty laugh. “Life is absurd and terrifying, so I dig that vibe a lot, and I was thankful that I was able to channel something and feel comfortable with Ginny. She’s basically me, she has no idea what she’s doing, and then she surprises herself when it works, when something clicks.
“My mom’s really happy about it, she’s thrilled to watch me be funny and not be covered in blood. She thinks I’m the funniest person on the planet, but she’s my mom so she has to.”
Little Dog premieres on CBC on Thursday (March 1).