Down River's Helen Shaver makes friends with mortality

In the locally made Down River, veteran actor Helen Shaver immersed herself in questions of life, death, and art

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      When most moviegoers think of Helen Shaver, they probably picture Janelle, the barmaid girlfriend to Paul Newman’s pool-hall hustler in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money. Or perhaps they think of Desert Hearts, the seminal lesbian romance about two opposites who find love in Nevada. But what they may not realize is that the veteran actor has been working hard behind the scenes for the past couple of decades, directing and producing in the male-dominated TV-network world.

      In different ways, it was that work that helped lead her to take a big part in a small, personal indie film made here in Vancouver by writer-director Ben Ratner. In Down River (which opens on Friday [March 14]) Shaver plays Pearl, who acts as a mentor and confidante to three young female artists in her West End apartment building. But while she’s helping others, she’s waging a silent battle with cancer. The movie was inspired by Babz Chula, the late, beloved local actor who gave guidance to so many aspiring thespians in town. But it’s not a biopic.

      As Shaver points out in an interview with the Straight in a Yaletown café, where the tall, dark-blond-maned actor still cuts a glamorous swath at 63: “Babz included everyone in the celebration of her life and the walk toward and the step over the great threshold into the great cottage of darkness, the unknown world.” Shaver, who lives in Vancouver, met Chula, and knew young actors, like Callum Keith Rennie and Ratner himself, who were close to her. But Shaver didn’t know her well.

      She admits she was reticent, at first, to face her own mortality in the film. But she wanted to support Ratner in his passionate project, and in 2011 he was sending her sections of the script while she was hunkered down in Toronto for a gruelling shoot of the TV series The Firm.

      “That was very difficult, demanding, exhausting work. I directed five hours and produced 22 episodes in 10 months,” the affable artist explains candidly, adding that the thought of retreating from that into a small indie acting experience became more and more appealing. “As this 10 months finished, I felt the need for myself as an artist to go back to basics and sort of cleanse the palate—and this was a good little lime sorbet for that.

      “So the exhaustion of all that seeped into my bones, and I thought, ‘These are good things to bring to dying.’ ”

      She says with a laugh that Down River also offered her the opportunity to hold herself to the same high standards she now demands of her actors as a director. “I invite, I seduce, I cajole; I get my actors to give me everything and they do—mostly because I’m patient. It was interesting to see if I could still do that. It is that moment of taking the ride, of understanding you’ve already done all the work.”

      The “ride” Shaver took in Down River resonated even more with her because she had been contemplating mortality since the death of her ex-husband, producer Steven Reuther. Over 2010, she had a front-row seat to his battle with cancer. The experience would deeply influence the way she portrayed the final weeks of Pearl, a woman who has always embraced life, regularly donning her wet suit to swim in English Bay.

      “In the course of his last year alive, I was in L.A. a lot and saw him a fair amount,” she says. “I really got to see how hard it is to die, how much energy it takes to die, how singular of an experience it is—that you can only die by yourself and no one can die with you. You stand on that porch and the threshold is there and that final step you do by yourself. And the distraction of others trying to keep you alive, or you trying to make them feel okay about your dying, takes the energy away from the one last thing you have to do in your life.”

      The remarkable thing about the resulting performance is how Shaver’s character has to face all this without really talking about it to others. It’s a highly contemplative role; you can see her mind dwelling on it as she looks out at the waves of English Bay.

      “I don’t have a date certain on it, but I’m certain I’m going to die, so I allowed that certainty to live with me,” she explains of her approach to the role. “So I went to bed as a woman knowing she was going to die, woke up in the morning as a woman knowing she was going to die, brushed my teeth as a woman knowing she was going to die… This is not a place where human beings like to live, but that was a very fascinating opportunity for me to do that.”

      It was also an opportunity for Shaver to dwell in a predominantly female film after so many months—and years—of working in the male-dominated world of Hollywood. She admits that Pearl’s nurturing side—which ranges from tough talk with a young singer about her drug use to going over lines with a neurotic actor—came naturally to her. Shaver, after all, grew up in a family with five sisters in the small city of St. Thomas, Ontario; she pulls out her iPhone to show a picture of them all at her mother’s recent 100th-birthday party. But she also uses that caring side every day in the movie and TV business, she explains.

      “I’m a director, I’m a crone, I turned 63 last month,” she says with a smile, then quotes a friend who reminded her recently that every human being in the world comes from a woman’s womb. Says Shaver, who is also a mother to one son: “Every human being grows beneath a woman’s heart. I am a woman. Literally, a human being has grown under my heart. And I am an artist. Ibsen said there is a truth shared by women, children, and artists that men will never know.”

      Still, Shaver says that as much as natural instincts come into play, a lot of her portrayal comes down to acting. On a film with as small a budget as Down River’s, there isn’t always a lot of time to build relationships with the other actors. But then, she points out, that shouldn’t matter. It reminds her of working on The Color of Money and meeting Newman for the first time.

      “I had worked with Scorsese before and he asked me to come to New York to meet Paul,” she says. “There’s Paul in this beige room with this beige hair and this beige crew-neck sweater and his beige pants and his incredibly blue eyes. A 61-year-old Paul Newman stood before me, and my knees went weak and I started babbling, and he had the good grace to put his sunglasses on and keep them on until I got acclimatized to the archetypal beauty that had struck some deep chord in me from my formative years of watching Cool Hand Luke.”

      By the time they started shooting, that nervousness had dissipated, she says. “But I’m pretty sure that he’s enough of a creator and I’m enough of a creator and Scorsese’s enough of a creator that had we only met five minutes ago and stepped into it, by the time Scorsese said ‘Print’ there would have been a relationship there.”

      Almost 30 years later, Shaver is still busy honing her craft. She has no plans to slow down, and is only half joking when she says that she has always used her mother’s age as a measuring stick.

      Shaver is also only half joking when she insists that she can’t quit directing and producing TV series and movies because she’s one of the only four percent of people in those jobs who are women (a figure she gleaned from the documentary Miss Representation). She has at least one movie in the works that she hopes to debut at film festivals next year.

      As much as Down River has given her insights into mortality, it seems it’s also helped feed her love of independent filmmaking.

      “Doing this film reminds me that you don’t need four-and-a-half million dollars to make a movie,” Shaver says, adding that’s sometimes her TV series budget. “It didn’t remind me why I got into the business—I’ve known that all along—but it reminded me that you can make a movie with your mother’s credit cards. Though Mom’s given up her credit cards now, so I guess I’ll have to use my own.”