THE LORD OF THE RINGS by Shaun McKenna, Matthew Warchus and A. R. Rahman and Värttinä, directed by Warchus, with Brent Carver, Michael Therriault, Carly Street, Evan Builiung and James Loye. Presented by Kevin Wallace Limited Productions at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King West). In previews to Wednesday (March 22), opens March 23 and runs indefinitely, Tuesday-Saturday 7 pm, matinee Wednesday, Saturday-Sunday 1 pm (no matinees March 22), different times after March 23 opening. $56-$125. 416-872-1212. Rating: NNNNN
Michael Therriault is one of the most successful stage actors of his generation, but he's got no illusions about Canadian-style stardom.
"When I was doing The Producers, I had a really humbling moment," he says, with the impeccable timing of a born jokester.
"I had just finished a matinee and was eating at a restaurant in the Eaton Centre, and this couple came in and sat near me. They told me they had just seen the show. I'm thinking, "Okay, they want to ask me something.... Fine!' But nope. They didn't even recognize me."
So much for those huge billboards and posters featuring Therriault, who won a Dora Award for his role as Leo Bloom, the mousy accountant who's lured into show business, and his co-star, Seán Cullen.
Therriault's new stage role might not win him a lot of on-the-street recognition either, although if glowing audience response at The Lord Of The Rings previews are any indication, he's bound to rack up more good reviews.
He's playing the dermatologically challenged creature Gollum in the new $27 million production of LOTR. He's not allowed to talk about the physical look of his character it's a couple of weeks before opening night but he's obviously going to be covered in some sort of mucky latex.
The role that of a greedy Middle Earthling whose obsession with the all-powerful ring has ruined his life couldn't be more different from that of Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas, whom he played to hundreds of thousands of CBC viewers earlier this week.
"This is all a dream come " he begins, stopping himself from mouthing the showbiz platitude. Instead, he takes a bite of his tuna wrap and pauses. He's a thoughtful guy.
"As you know, things are slow in Toronto, and in Canada," he tells me. "There are incredible actors in this city who have gone back to waitering. That's the reality of being an actor in Canada. So I'm grateful that I've been working. And I'm completely aware that at another point I'll be back waitering."
Hard to imagine that.
Therriault whose characters' emotions are always close to the surface, whether tragic or comic is one of the few performers to have not only survived but prospered in the post-SARS, post-mega-musical theatre scene.
After The Producers closed earlier than most people expected, he won the Tommy Douglas role despite having scant film and TV experience under his belt. During filming of the mini-series about the Greatest Canadian, Broadway called, asking him to fill in for a departing cast member in the revival of Fiddler On The Roof. (The show's writers remembered his heartbreaking performance in the Stratford production from years earlier.) During Fiddler, where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Harvey Fierstein and Rosie O'Donnell, he learned that he'd got LOTR, and Fiddler's producers realizing that this was the role of a lifetime let him out of his year-long contract early.
The Broadway experience opened his eyes to how enviable our homegrown theatre scene is and, up till last month anyway, our government.
"Everyone in the Fiddler cast was asking how they could come to Canada and become a Canadian," he laughs. "Mostly because of the politics."
Therriault also got to see up close the pros and cons of celebrity-saturated theatre.
"The most important thing about some shows down there is the star it can alter the balance. At Fiddler, sometimes an audience cheered just to hear funny things, because they were watching a star do them. But Rosie was extremely down-to-earth and generous. She didn't do the star thing. Harvey was sweet, too. And Andrea Martin was so happy to talk about Canada."
Because we don't have a star system up here, he says, Canadians tend to focus on a show's story rather than a marquee name.
As if to illustrate that point, he pulls out two Bible-like books full of notes. One tome is full of scribblings, drawings, Post-Its and cue cards concerning Tommy Douglas; another is devoted to Gollum. After he learned he got the LOTR role, Therriault spent hours at the Lincoln Center library poring through dance magazines looking for interesting body shapes and images. All on his own dime.
"Early on in rehearsals, a lot of people asked me about the Gollum voice," he tells me. "But I had no idea how it was going to sound. Director Matthew Warchus told me he had no preconceived ideas. At first, I tried putting on some funny voice, but that was all I was getting, and the scenes weren't working. Then I decided to concentrate on individual scenes, just using my regular voice. Eventually, a voice emerged without my even thinking about it.
"I think the most important thing is whether the heart of a scene is there," he sums up. "Everything else the voice, the physicality is just icing. You don't want to put icing on a cake that isn't done."
Even as a child, Therriault demonstrated the same tenacity about show business. Growing up in Oakville with equally hyperactive siblings, he remembers watching the TV series Fame and reasoning that there had to be a similar arts school in Toronto.
"I opened the phone book and started calling around," he says, as if that's something every teen might do. "They sent me application forms, and when a friend from grade 8 auditioned for a school, I tagged along and got acceptances to two schools. When my parents complained that the schools were too far, the principal arranged for the school board to provide funding for tuition and transportation."
If Therriault considers any place home these days, it's Stratford, where for seven years he cut his teeth on the classics under the watchful eye of artistic director Richard Monette.
"If it weren't for Richard and William Hutt, my career wouldn't have gone anywhere," he says today. "Richard kept giving me challenges. My second year at Stratford, he gave me a big role in a classical play (Molière's The Miser) that was going to New York. When it opened in Stratford, I got ripped apart by the press. When he found out I got bad reviews, he called me at home and offered me a job for the next season. And throughout my time there he gave me parts I might not normally get, simply because he thought they'd be good stretches."
Similarly, when Hutt decided he wanted Therriault to star in one-person show Oscar Remembered, based on the life of Oscar Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas, the actor expressed doubts.
"Before I even finished a sentence, Bill told me that if I didn't do it he wasn't going to either," says Therriault.
Leaving Stratford for The Producers, he says, was the hardest thing he's ever done.
When I ask if he's ready to face eight-show weeks yet again, he nods.
"This is the life I've signed up for," he says, admitting that the demands have been hard on his personal life. Although connected for some time with another performer, he's no longer dating her. Last year he had to miss his twin sister's wedding because it fell on a performance day.
"I don't think this is unique to actors," he says. "We're all work-obsessed. Maybe I'm more aware because I've been immersed in the world of Tommy Douglas. The 40-hour workweek, arts funding, health care things are changing for all of us."
"Look at Alberta and privatized health care," he says, onto a new topic. "We've had a Conservative minority government for not even a month and things are already happening."