JASON PRIESTLEY in conversation with Glenn Sumi, presented by NOW Talks and Canadian Stage at the Jane Mallett (27 Front East). Tonight (Thursday, March 28), 8 pm (doors 7 pm). $15. 416-368-3110. RACE by David Mamet, directed by Daniel Brooks, with Priestley, Nigel Shawn Williams, Cara Ricketts and Matthew Edison. Presented by Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel (27 Front East). Previews from April 7, opens April 11 and runs to May 5. $24-$99. 416-368-3110, canadianstage.com.
The trademark pompadour is gone and a few lines are etched in his forehead, but talking to Jason Priestley - those baby blues! - you can still see the clean-cut, boyish Brandon Walsh he played so convincingly for 10 seasons in the 1990s.
The actor, now in his 40s, has of course ventured far beyond Beverly Hills 90210 territory, most recently as the boozing, sex-addicted used car salesman in three seasons of the HBO Canada sitcom Call Me Fitz.
But he's always looking for a new challenge. Which brings us to his first big theatre outing in over a decade playing a shark-like lawyer in David Mamet's Race.
"The last play I did was Side Man in the West End with Edie Falco back in 2000," says Priestley, relaxing on a sofa in the Canadian Stage's Berkeley offices. He's the subject of a NOW Talks interview tonight at the Jane Mallett. "But I've been looking to do more theatre. It's important to get back in touch with the thing that made me fall in love with acting in the first place. It's great having the time to rehearse things properly, and breaking down a really rich text like Mamet's has been a joy."
A joy, yes, but also potentially fraught with politically incorrect land mines.
The Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-The-Plow playwright is dealing head-on with racial tensions in the U.S. The play focuses on a case involving a privileged white man accused of raping a black woman.
The C-word is used a lot; so is the N-word, which Priestley's slick character has to blurt out a few times.
"It doesn't bother me saying it," he says, laughing. "Is that wrong? I understand why people are offended by it. Should you not use the word? Absolutely. Does it offend me when I hear it? Not at all. It doesn't have all that meaning attached to it - for me."
Based in the U.S. for most of his career, Priestley's seen the kind of racial tension Mamet deals with. But that's not something he knew about growing up in Vancouver.
"It always surprised me, because I grew up in Canada and we're this accepting, diverse society," he says. "The reasons have to do with how we were founded and formed. We never went through what they did in America. Slave ships never came here. Those things still define America in a lot of ways."
Among the many subjects he's discussed with the Race cast and director Daniel Brooks have been the O.J. Simpson trial and whether or not it's a pre- or a post-Obama America play.
"We decided it's pre-Obama," says the actor. "It would have been written so differently had it been after."
And then there's finding the right way to deliver Mamet's rat-a-tat-tat dialogue.
"There's a certain energy and speed to the language," he says. "You have to get it right - just hit it. All of us are responsible for keeping this ball up in the air. It's a challenge for us, but it's also a challenge for the audience. That's what makes great live theatre. You don't want to sit there and be spoon-fed."
Although he's directed lots of TV (including many 90210 episodes from the third season onward), Priestley's currently finishing his feature film debut: a May-December buddy picture starring Richard Dreyfuss and Canada's Tatiana Maslany.
"Tatiana is fantastic, and Dreyfuss... working with him was like putting on an old jacket. He was really collaborative and happy to be there. Some guys are like, ‘Meh, I don't want to leave my hotel room.' Dreyfuss was, ‘Okay, what are we doing? Let's get in there!'"