A NUMBER by Caryl Churchill, directed by David Storch, with Gary Reineke and Shawn Doyle. Presented by CanStage at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley). Opens tonight (Thursday, January 12) and runs to February 11, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday 2 pm. $36-$51, limited half-price same-day rush and Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110.
In a scene from Ruba Nadda's film Sabah, Shawn Doyle tells Arsinée Khanjian about recently being dumped by his ex-wife. In a few seconds, a wave of hurt, anger and frustration washes across his crushed face.
It's a case study in effective film acting, and it takes us by surprise. Not just because of the emotions that well up on the screen Doyle is one of those actors whose moods can change, in film or onstage, in a flash. What's more surprising is that Doyle, often cast as the intense, dangerous guy, is finally playing the romantic lead.
"The way I look now is the way I've always looked," he says about his rocky, somewhat grizzled visage. We're sitting in a Front Street Japanese restaurant, munching on a bowl of salted edamame.
"I looked this way at two. All through my 20s I was told a romantic lead had to be this or that. It's refreshing to be at an age where those qualities don't matter so much. I can just be me."
That "me" is in big demand these days. He's lived in L.A. for a year and a half with his wife, actor Allegra Fulton (best known for playing Frida Kahlo in the play Frida K.), and their five-year-old son. In that brief span of time when most other actors would just be getting a decent portfolio together his sturdy mug has showed up in a number of prime-time shows, from C.S.I. to a little series called Desperate Housewives.
"It's hilarious that of all the things I did in 2004, maybe seven or eight projects, everyone recognizes me from Desperate Housewives," he says, laughing about his two-episode arc as the lawyer of Gabrielle's husband, Carlos. "I did two years on The Eleventh Hour and people say nothing. Now it's 'Hey, I saw you on Desperate Housewives. '"
Come March, he'll reach the cable-owning cognoscenti as Bill Paxton's estranged brother in the new Tom Hanks-produced HBO series Big Love, about a group of Mormons. This could be his big breakout role; he shares the screen with actors like Harry Dean Stanton and Chloé Sevigny.
But for now he's back in T.O. for one juicy theatrical role. Make that roles. In Caryl Churchill's award-winning thriller A Number, Doyle plays three men. The twist? They all share the same genetic makeup.
"I'm playing three different characters, but in a way they're not three different characters," he says. "What's a challenge is that you can't alert audiences to the fact that they're different by putting a limp on one guy and an eye patch on another. They've ultimately got to be defined by their motivation."
If anyone can communicate motivation, it's Doyle. The last time he stepped on a Toronto stage, three years ago, he played a bleary-eyed, Sartre-quoting hoodlum caught up in a heist gone wrong in the Scottish thriller Gagarin Way. Before that, in the late 1990s, he and Kristen Thomson made local theatre history as R. J. and Denise, a couple on the fringes of society caught up in a desperate child-stealing scheme in George F. Walker's Problem Child.
His characters want things and go after them, a description that makes Doyle nod his head vigorously.
"It takes me a long time to get my brain up to the speed that most of my characters operate at," he says.
"For me, it's all about plotting the trajectory on an intellectual level that allows my emotions to switch. That's what's been so tricky about this play these three characters process information in such completely different ways. The trick is understanding the nuances. If I can understand their thought processes, I can feel secure enough in exploring the emotional part."
In person, Doyle comes across as that guy you've seen before but can't quite place. There's a touch of Harvey Keitel about him, a little Cillian Murphy. It's not surprising that Daniel Craig (the newly minted James Bond) originated the demanding part in A Number in 2002. He shares with Doyle that whiff of unpredictability and maybe it's those watery blue eyes a certain boyishness necessary for the role to be believable.
"I find him fascinating," says Doyle about Craig. "He's got this lightning-fast emotional response mechanism. He's dangerous not at all your typical leading man. He looks like he's lived a life."
Right back atcha, Shawn.
One of the reasons Doyle accepted the role in Sabah is that he got to add more history to his character, including the bit about the ex-wife.
"I didn't understand how this man was so amenable and flexible it just didn't seem realistic," he explains. "When Ruba and I came up with the idea that he had recently been left by his wife, that explained it. Here was a guy who had a reason for putting up with Sabah's unpredictability."
Los Angeles might seem worlds away from the small-town community in Labrador where he was raised and where his father continues to work in local theatre. But perhaps it's not so different, after all.
"I go do my job north of the city and come back home," he says. "We've been renovating a house, and our prime focus has been creating a home so our child doesn't feel like he's living with two nomads. If anything's surprised us, it's that we've been able to live a life that's about family as opposed to trying to pursue some abstract notion of show business."
One of their biggest challenges, it turns out, has been trying to stay politically aware. A tough project, especially given the current political climate.
"It's hard to find out exactly what's going on with this administration," he says. "Canadians understand an obligation to help out other countries it's part of our political makeup. There, it's not. So we spend a lot of time actively seeking out alternative news sources."
A day after our talk, Doyle leaves a message on my phone machine. He sounds hugely apologetic.
"I woke up this morning mortified that we didn't talk about the other actor in the play, Gary Reineke," he says about his A Number co-star. Reineke plays the somewhat sinister father figure.
Doyle fills me in on Reineke's history as an actor, how he helped build the local and national theatre scene. He says working with him and director David Storch are two of the reasons why he's felt so comfortable, so challenged.
"I can't believe we didn't talk about him," he says, sighing. I can't see Doyle, but I'm sure a wave of emotion has just rippled across his face as he speaks those words.
Spoken like a true Canadian.