‘Down the Road Again’ with actor Doug McGrath

Doug McGrath in 'Down the Road Again'. Courtesy Union Pictures.

While his career doesn’t show many signs of slowing down or stopping as the years go on, it almost feels like Canadian actor Doug McGrath has created fitting bookends to his career with the release of his latest starring effort, Down the Road Again.

Coming as a sequel some 41 years after the beloved Goin’ Down the Road, McGrath reprises his role as Pete, a former rambling man who once went on an epic road trip of self discovery with his friend Joey (the late Paul Bradley) from Nova Scotia to Toronto and eventually to Vancouver. The new film finds soon to be retiring Pete becoming forced to reconnect with his east coast past following the death of his former traveling partner.

Although Goin’ Down the Road was McGrath’s breakthrough performance and one the would endear him to lovers of Canadian film, the Vancouver born actor has had quite a career on television and in genre fare. He was worked with Steven Speilberg, John Carpenter, Clint Eastwood, and Bob Clarke on several occasions. Thought not often in leading roles, McGrath has made quite the career out of memorable character work.

It’s hard to believe McGrath is as old as he is. When he sat down to talk he carried with him a youthful energy and one of the strongest handshakes in recent memory. He smiles often when thinking about the past, even the more difficult times and while reflecting about the loss of close friends and colleagues, and his laugher is positively infectious.

He sat down with Criticize This! to talk about what the original Goin’ Down the Road means to him, and how the new film feels like a chance to reflect on his own personal history.

Andrew Parker: Let’s start by talking a bit about the first movie.

Doug McGrath: Please do.

AP: Looking back on Goin’ Down the Road a little over 40 years later, what are your impressions of the film now?

DM: I really still love that film. I guess the time and working with Paul (Bradley) and Jayne (Eastwood) was a very special time. We were young, and I was in a sense someone who had been around the block a few times by this point, but artistically I was still quite young. The concept was really exciting and I hadn’t done a film before. I’d done a bit of television, some theatre, but then getting together with people who all came from the same studio and people that I knew was really appealing.

Paul and I lived about a block apart. He was living in a hotel and I was living in a room in a rooming house in Cabbagetown, just off of Carlton. So, we’d get together and hang out in the park, you know, Allen Gardens, and go over the lines and rehearse and got to know each other. We had known each other from the same studio, but to take this script and work on it gave us a better chance to get to learn where we were from and a bit more about each other’s personal lives.

That was where we really developed the friendship, and that was something that largely remained, even though we were hundreds of thousands of miles apart. I know whenever I came to town, he just knew I was there. I was just over this today, earlier, but I was saying that I was up from California to do a play of That Championship Season, which became very popular and is something that Keifer Sutherland is doing. I went to Calgary and I was still in rehearsals, and I went on a lunch break and here comes Paul like that drunk in a park with a huge overcoat. (laughs) And the people hanging around, they recognized us! And, you know, Paul being Paul, he had us rolling on the sidewalk laughing. That was Paul. He was always on the world’s stage.

That whole thing, it’s a memory. And he would come around to California and knock on my door at three o’ clock in the morning and just start shouting out “Where’s your wife?!? You got five kids now?!? How fat are you?!? I’m so disappointed! I wanted you to be fat!” (laughs) And the whole time he has left his car running outside. It isn’t even his car. It’s his uncle’s car, this Mercedes Benz convertible in the middle of the street.

That was a huge part of my relationship with Paul, things like that. I learned to really understand him and respect him. I knew where he was coming from and his humour. You know, humour comes from pain. My life was difficult but in a different way. I had some experience and he was fairly new, but he was just pure. It’s almost sad to watch it now, in a way because if he had kept following it and always going to that place, he could have gone a really long way.

What we had was a spiritual connection. We were different and I couldn’t always spend that much time with him because he’d always end up on a drink or something, but he always knew when I was in town. (laughs) I miss that, and I wanted to make more of that and I had a bit of a chance to with this film. He wasn’t on set, but he was there. He was there.

AP: At the time you finished the first film, did you or Paul ever think of doing a follow-up or was this a more recent development?

DM: That there was kicked around for years, but  (writer/director) Don (Shebib) was NOT interested. And, you know, a lot of directors they don’t like to talk about sequels and so on and so forth. Maybe there were other reasons involved, but to some degree Jayne and Cayle (Chernin) just kept coming at him to do another one.

Cayle, she wanted that film to get done. And Cayle, she’s wonderful, and she does so many great things. She’s one of the people keeping amateur theatre alive in Toronto, and I’ve seen her in a number of productions and she is always bringing people together. She was the one who really kept hounding Don. So Don sat down and wrote the draft out of that and then it came down to all of us.

AP: Between the first film and this one you worked at the rate of maybe once or twice a year on film or television.

DM: It was quite a bit of television. I did a bit of theatre here and there, but I did a lot of great film work in that time, too. I worked with Clint Eastwood five times and Steven Speilberg once. But that film was a dud. (Interviewer’s note: The film being referred to is 1990’s Always, but McGrath was also in the Spielberg producedTwilight Zone: The Movie where he co-starred in director John Landis’ ill fated segment that tragically led to the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and several extras) Sadly, once you work on a dud film, most of those people you never hear from again. It wasn’t a bad film, and I’m really proud of what I did in that one, but he miscast that one pretty unfortunately. But I did get that one chance to work with him and talk to him a bit, but that was kind of unfortunate.

AP: And another interesting person that you worked with a few times is Bob Clarke. You worked with him twice. Once on Black Christmas and once with Porky’s.

DM: Yeah! And Black Christmas is still something getting brought up a lot these days because it did so much for the horror genre. It unfortunately, at the time, missed the point with the distributors in California. They misunderstood the name and they never once went to see it because they thought it was about a black family and not a holiday set horror film. It never got the input it needed, but it had Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, oh Margot she was really… (laughs), and John Saxon. It just got misused, but I’m very fortunate that it has such a firm place in film history.

Then I did Porky’s with him, but that was done in Florida. Bob was originally from Florida, you know. This place actually did exist. Eventually it got burned down, but it was a really interesting project to work on because we were almost all Canadian down there. Even Norman Jewison’s son was on that set as part of the crew.

AP: Did you ever have any trepidation going into making a sequel to a film that has your most iconic role?

DM: Well, part of what kept me interested is that I’m seeing a bit of my own personal history up there on screen, but there was some trepidation. I mean, I don’t know what the results will be here. I just finally watched this one last night and I just can’t be objective about it. I just look at myself and I see this old guy and in my heart I’m not that old. I don’t know.

I guess the trepidation comes from asking if the original can even be matched. It’s this movie that comes from a really organic place that has become this iconic thing, and it was made from almost accidental creativity. You got this fantastic cast of people that knew each other and all worked the same way and with the same method. Don just picked locations so brilliantly and edited it so brilliantly, and he brought all of this great music into it. All of that in the first one makes you wonder how you could ever hope to match it, and I suspect that we haven’t. That initial magic that we had makes it work. Subconsciously we might have known something was happening and that it was workable. You have to go in and hope that a follow-up will be just as good. There’s always that little bit of business consideration, but working again with everyone… (trails off).

You know, to not have Cayle here with us now, that’s a really sad situation, because she was probably most instrumental in pulling this all together. Everyone loved that girl. I remembered the first time I met her she was this sweet sixteen, seventeen year old girl. I had just come back from the army and I went into this studio and all the guys, who were all too old loved her. I’ll never forget that That all adds to it. It’s part of my history and because of the people involved. It’s a continuation of art and life, my personal life and my artistic life. In that respect there was no question about the material. It had to be done, and without Cayle it wouldn’t have happened. Even when I read the first copy, though, I knew I couldn’t be objective. Maybe I will if I see it a few more times. (laughs)

AP: What differences have you noticed between filming parts of the original in Toronto then and filming in Toronto now?

DM: It was more fun back then. It was so much looser, and you can’t really think of Toronto as a young city, but it was still undergrown back then. Now it’s a big bustling place with more formality. Now you have to deal with permits and unions and this that and the other thing… We were so free then. We created our own way and we didn’t have controls us. Nowadays even driving through the city to get anywhere is a battle in its own right. That’s a really big difference.

But Toronto is growing up. I know the potential in Canada as a whole is growing. We haven’t bottomed out in the film industry here. We had that in the 60s and 70s where a lot of good product was coming out, but that didn’t continue and it became a copy of America. But there is so much more going on here now, as well, even taking into account the influx of American productions and stuff coming over from the UK. It’s nice to see writers and directors taking a new look at things here. There is this great influx of foreign talent coming here from all around the world to help influence the artistic output and growth of this country and it’s incredibly exciting. And the banks are still solid! (laughs) It’s like what Norman Jewison said at one of his last talks that you don’t go to the government for money, you go to the banks! That’s where the money is!

There is just so much great potential here. Just look at the last Olympics. Canada stood up for itself and said that we don’t depend on anybody. We can do it all on our own here. Even in the international business community, you can be on an island in the middle of the Pacific that no one’s ever heard of and you can make a film. And we can do it. And it’s happening.

Down the Road Again opens in Toronto, Vancouver, Sydney, and Halifax on October 21 and in Calgary, Ottawa, Victoria, and Winnipeg October 28.

Andrew Parker

About Andrew Parker

Andrew Parker writes for numerous blogs and publications, including Notes From the Toronto Underground and his more personal pop-culture blog, I Can't Get Laid in This Town. He is also the curator of the Defending the Indefensible series of films at the Toronto Underground Cinema.