Things come fast and furious across my desk at a blistering clip sometimes and the land of promotion and press is a never ending 24-hour cycle. But sometimes you get a chance to do something truly unique. I recently got to sit down with Anthony Lemke, the star of the Space Channel mini-series Exploding Sun, who also has a key role in the upcoming Hollywood blockbuster White House Down. It was a real treat to talk with a Canadian working actor about the state of the industry, the differences between Canadian and Hollywood productions, the amazing work being done in the Quebec film industry and the importance and magic in never forgetting to have fun in whatever we do. Read our Q&A below.
I really got a kick out of Exploding Sun?
Anthony Lemke: Oh great! Thanks man.
It reminded me of the old school mini-series of the 1980′s with big sweeping action. What was it about this project that drew you in?
AL: I grew up a big fan of things like Space 1999 and all these big things where you get to be the guy who rides in on the white horse, or at least in my case the guy who rides in NEXT to the guy on the white horse (laughs). But it was a dream and it was a really fun character to play. I mean, any time you get to play the hero, who has a hell of a lot of baggage, it just fun.
And you really bought into the archetype of the character which allowed you to give the character some real swagger…
AL: WHY NOT buy into it right? (smiles). I’ve got three kids myself, and I remember watching this kind of stuff when I was growing up so when I am doing this now it’s kind of like doing what you always did when you were a kid. While every different role you play is fun in its own way, this was just an unabashed all out blast.
What were your bench mark shows that you got behind as a kid?
AL: I only ever had this black and white TV with two or three channels when I was growing up. It was basically things like Space 1999 and the original Star Trek, in reruns of course. Basically whatever showed up on my little UHF…
I guess whatever the CBC was airing at that time, right?
AL: (Laughs) Totally! and I had all the action figures and the stuff to play with. Such great fun.
Is that how you ultimately got the bug for acting? Because you have a theatre degree, but you also have a law degree and those aren’t necessarily two things that go together…
AL: They really don’t…but I think it really does come from a sense of loving to play. I was born in Ottawa, to a couple of teachers, and we certainly didn’t know any actors and it wasn’t exactly something you did for a career, so for me I always loved to play and in a way I kind of backed in to it as a career because as a kid I never really thought that would be a viable option for me. But I’ve have a great run so far and I feel really lucky about that and fundamentally that all came from goofing around in the backyard playing cowboys and Indians and it all comes from that desire to just play. It’s what I do and I am really lucky.
Canadian productions tend to show how Canadian the show is by name dropping locations, etc, etc… and audiences would subsequently just pat it on the head, push it in the corner and just say… “Oh, this was good for a Canadian production…”
AL: (Smiles wryly) Yeah, yeah…
But in recent years there has been a shift away from that kind of mentality with shows like Flashpoint and Lost Girl that you’ve been in, as well as something like Rouge Sang, which I just thought you were great in…
AL: Oh, thanks man. Rouge Sang just got into the Shanghai film festival as well…
AL: It’s really great…
For you in the middle of all this, do you think there is a conscience shift for Canadian films and shows to be less self conscience about their nationality and just tell strong stories?
AL: Yes… I mean, I broke into this industry pretty much right in the middle of exactly what you are talking about. I see it kind of like human life in a way. When you are teenager and trying to figure out your way in the world you feel the need and have the necessity to “declare” a lot, like THIS is what I am and THIS is what I believe in. Then as you gain more maturity and security in who and what you are, whatever that actually may be, you have much less of a need to be self referential when you go about telling your story and living your life. I see such a strong parallel in the Canadian film industry and I am very lucky that I am not twenty years older, because if I were it wouldn’t have been as easy for me to have a career in Canada as it has been. The industry back then just wasn’t big enough and it wasn’t mature enough, and the pioneers who went before me opening things up by forcing people to say “We can do this well”, and I think it took a little while for people to be able to chest thump and say “This is Toronto! “This is OUR story!” We can tell stories about ourselves, people get it and we are past that point of it being the default position. And what I think is really interesting is that we’ve been telling our own stories for years. I mean shows like 24 and House already have such huge Canadian imprint on them and we have been telling our own stories for years. What really defines a Canadian story?
It’s true, it really is. That sliding of scale of it being “Good for a Canadian Production” which I’ve hated from day one can get thrown out the window.
AL: Exactly! It’s just good or its just bad. Moving to Quebec for me was really an eye opener because not only do we have this great Canadian industry, but we also have this great FRENCH Canadian industry. When I landed my first job in French I was really lucky because it was a series regular type of role that lasted like a solid year and half on a very popular TV show and what really struck me was the talent of even just the day players walking in and just knocking the ball right out of the park. Some of those guys are operating on such a high level, with so much creativity. I’m certainly not trying to make a negative comparison to the English side of it all by any means…but they just replicate the entire network of the industry over again, but in French. They have all their own TV shows and movies so the output is just huge and they never stop working. Very talented from top to bottom and just an amazing amount of output from an amazing side of the industry that never stops working.
Is it a different kind of beast walking on to set for a major release like White House Down?
AL: You know, I really was expecting it to be. I’ve never really made my name working on Hollywood productions and I’ve stuck mostly to Canadian projects, I don’t really know why but that’s just the way it was. But I would say, even for my first “tent-pole” project like you say, there was really little to no difference between a Hollywood set and a Canadian one. All the stories you hear about the Hollywood star being stuck in their trailer and never coming out, just didn’t exist on this… at least not where I was shooting. I was exclusively in the Pentagon set, and the days were long!
You’re pulling 16, 18, 20 hour days right?
AL: Absolutely! It was crazy…but everyone was on the set, all the time. Maggie Gyllenhaal was on the set and Roland Emmerich wasn’t running around screaming at people. It was like shooting on a Canadian set…honestly. The stakes are never that high, and we are lucky to get to do what we do, and we are there on the set of this film with a nine figure budget where everyone was calm and relaxed, playing on the same team with no drama at all.
Was that your biggest pull away from the whole experience, that as much as things get bigger and bigger they are still basically the same?
AL: I’d say my biggest pull away of all was just marvelling at how much money they had to work with. My story from White House Down is basically just getting called in one day, then just me sitting in my trailer on the first day for about 4 or 5 hours, then having them come in and tell me that I can go home because Roland doesn’t like the set. So, I come in the next day and we go through the whole process of makeup and wardrobe and 4 or 5 hours go by…and they send me home because the set wasn’t ready yet! (Laughs). I think it was a question of what was happening on the computer screens, there was A LOT of them and it wasn’t perfect and they want it all to be exact so we weren’t shooting yet…stuff like that just doesn’t happen on a Canadian film set, I mean…
If the computer screen is on at all, you’re rolling!
AL: Exactly…we’ll just frame it out. But White House Down was just such a great experience from top to bottom and the role ended up being a fun little pivotal one. I won’t blow any smoke at you and say it was a super important part, but we all understand when the big shows come up here these are the parts that we get and it ended up being a nice little part for me and I had a great time with it.
Any aspirations for yourself to write or direct one day?
AL: Oh, there are aspirations without a doubt. However, I also have three young kids so I have been trying to keep that stuff in check. I have one television project that is in development with a production company in Montreal. At some point in time when the kids get a little older, I’ll probably branch out a little more into that. That is why I left a career in law in the first place, because I wanted to see my kids grow up. That first five years is super important to be around for them, so I’ll hold off.
When they are in their teens…
AL: (Laughs) Exactly! They’ll be yelling at me to get out of the house, I can go do what I want! But being a part of that creative process is just super rewarding…
So I guess the focus for now is a little closer to home, and I mean obviously you can’t control what is going to come across your desk.
AL: No, I really wish I could, but I am a Canadian actor and I’ve been really lucky to have a really great run and be able to support my family and be a part of some really cool projects, which is only getting better and better to be honest with you. It’s been a real great career path so far, because I didn’t stay in Montreal for career reasons, I stayed because it is just a great city to raise a family in. Being able to work on both the French and English sides of the industry and find some projects that I have really enjoyed being a part of has just been really cool. Now I am at a place in my career that I am truly comfortable with.
I imagine being fully bilingual was a real boon for you as well starting out because you really did sort of hit the ground running in your career.
AL: It really was. The biggest gap was right after things like Queen of Swords and Robocop because I had just gotten married and I had always wanted to go to law school and this was the only time to do it. So I moved to Montreal and did it, but that was by choice because law school is hardly easy. Once I had gotten a handle on all that and gotten through school, it’s just been a great run and I can’t really complain.
What’s coming up for you?
AL: I’ve got a couple of French projects on deck, two television shows. Plus there is a feature we are waiting on financing for, and Still Life, a CBC show which is like a “Movie of the Week” style pilot that we shot. It’s basically a series of crime novels written by a Quebec writer named Louise Penny. What’s really neat about her is that she was a journalist who retired and said “I want to be a writer”, so she wrote a crime novel and it sort of languished unpublished for a while because it was very very different from other crime novels that were being published until it won an award for unpublished novels, then a publisher snapped it up and she has never looked back. She’s on her ninth book now with a contract for 11, and it made the New York Times bestseller list and people just love it. CBC has commissioned the first one, and if it is a hit we’ll keep going so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
When you need that spark of inspiration when you are working on a project, what do you pull from and what gets your creative juices flowing?
AL: You know, my inspiration for acting actually comes from outside of the acting world. Of course there are shows that we love, and at this stage of life I really love comedies like Modern Family and Community, which really do get me going, but if you want to talk inspiration it really does show in some of the work that I do. Something like my role on Lost Girl, and I mean the role wasn’t meant to be written as a comic role as such, but comedic elements will ultimately bubble up in things like that. But it really all does come from the outside of that, from family, from friends and from just living your life. I like to think of it as a kind of tool box, if you are a carpenter you can only build something from those tools in your box, and as an actor the way to go and get those tools is to just go out and live life and gather experience and go do stuff, get married, have kids, take chances, win, lose so you have analogous situations to play because you’ve gone through all of that stuff.
So what tools did you use on Exploding Sun?
AL: Well, actually I HAVE saved the world before, what are you talking about? (Laughs) You know, honestly man, you just go play like you are a kid again and have fun.
Both parts of Exploding Sun will have repeat airings on the Space channel on Canada Day, check with your local listings for show times. White House Down opens this Thursday night at theatres all across Canada.