There is a famous Scottish play whose cursed name, it’s said, must never be uttered in a theatre space. It’s a superstition, yes, but one that thespians generally adhere to with the utmost respect.
So, it’s remarkable to watch what happens when Gabrielle Rose unwittingly utters the play’s name while in a room that has the capacity to convert into a theatre – in this case, Kitsilano’s Neverland Tea Salon, which has a Murphy Bed-style stage concealed in a sideboard.
“I have to get up, and I’ll knock wood,” exclaims the award-winning actress, after Reel People mentions the hidden stage. Rose dashes out the door, turns around several times, runs back in, slides back into her seat, and speaks a few lines of Shakespeare – all to the astonishment of a couple of tea drinkers at a nearby table.
But Rose – who was born in Kamloops and is a familiar face to local and national film, television and theatre audiences – has good reason for taking that old theatre superstition (which declares that saying the title Macbeth in a theatre is a bad omen) seriously. Her father, Ian Rose, played Fleance in a particularly fraught production of Mac… – ahem, “the play”– that starred Sir Laurence Olivier in the title role.
“It was infamous because [producer] Lilian Bayliss died two days before it opened, and it was delayed – which is unheard of in the theatrical profession – partly because part of the set fell on Sir Laurence Olivier and broke his arm,” says Rose. “It was one of those beset productions that cemented the superstition. That’s why I have to twirl. I have it in my blood memory.”
And you could say, as Rose does, that performing is the family business. Her grandfather, L. Arthur Rose, was a playwright, producer, and Vaudeville artist. (Incredible fact: “Lambeth Walk,” a song from L. Arthur Rose’s musical Me and My Girl, was used during WW2 as a secret greeting among members of the Allied war resistance.)
Rose herself is a legend in her own time on the Vancouver screen scene: winner of four Leo Awards (and a nine-time nominee), and recipient of numerous career achievement awards from UBCP/ACTRA and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Her lengthy credit list includes dozens of films (The BFG, Two 4 One, The Dick Knost Show, Sisters & Brothers, The Devout) and TV series (Continuum, Dark Angel, Sanctuary, Robson Arms).
This has been a particularly busy year for Rose. She played the title character’s aunt in Maudie, a biopic about Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis that opened the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival and won the coveted Super Channel People's Choice Award. Director Siobhan Devine’s 2015 drama The Birdwatcher (in which Rose plays the estranged biological mother of a dying woman, portrayed by local powerhouse Camille Sullivan) is still scooping up accolades on the festival circuit. She logged roles in Once Upon a Time, The Man in the High Castle, and several television movies, and accepted the Maven Award at Whistler Film Festival’s (WFF) summer event for (according to the press release) “helping to unite strong women in film.”
And at WFF’s 16th edition (which runs Nov. 30-Dec. 4), Rose appears in two films: Hoods, an action fantasy short from emerging filmmaker Maja Aro (Rose plays a bow-and-arrow-wielding badass grandma named Robyn Hood), and Grand Unified Theory, the sophomore feature film from Vancouver filmmaker David Ray that looks at a family in crisis through the lens of quantum physics.
“I’ve always wanted to act, and I always wanted to do really interesting, challenging, fun roles,” says Rose, who earlier this year appeared in Blackbird Theatre’s The Rivals at the Cultch. “I love making people laugh. I love making people cry.”
Rose fell in love with theatre as a child attending plays in the UK (“My father took me to Regent’s Park to watch Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Puck landed right next to me, and I went, ‘I want to do that’”) and studied the craft at the venerable Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
Rose worked steadily in the UK theatre scene for a decade before returning to Canada to perform on stages across the country. Her first major foray into the screen world came after a spell of unemployment, when her agent called her with the news that a young film director wanted to cast her in his feature. “I went, ‘Okay, what’s his name?’ and my agent said, ‘Adam McGorian.’ So I wrote that down, thinking, ‘Oh, some Scottish fellow’,” says Rose. “And Atom Egoyan phoned me and sent me this script.”
That film was Family Viewing, and it was on that particular set that Rose learned how “to take my theatre [skills] and bring it, because the big problem with theatre is that everything is very displayed, and so I learnt that display was not what film does. Film is very interior. It takes so little to express anything, and if you’re not honest, then the film rejects you. That was something I learned through Atom.”
Egoyan and Rose would work together again on Speaking Parts, The Adjuster, and on what Rose describes as an iconic film in her career: The Sweet Hereafter, a gripping drama about the aftermath of a deadly school bus crash (Rose played the bus driver). “I hold it extremely dear in my heart, and I am forever grateful to it, and there were certainly moments when filming where I don’t think I’ve ever found that joy again.”
Follow Gabrielle Rose on Twitter @gabriellerose79. Peruse the Whistler Film Festival schedule at WhistlerFilmFestival.com
More from our interview with Gabrielle Rose:
On her first stage role: “When I was around 10, very young, I got to play Much the Miller’s Son in [a stage production of] Robin Hood. I’d never really acted, other than plays that my sister would write, but I got to play Much the Miller. He had three lines, and I think one of them was, ‘Hmpfh.’ But I took them really seriously, and for me, it was very dramatic, and I went out on stage and every time I spoke, the audience would roar with laughter, and I was deeply offended and came off of my bit and burst into tears and my father and the director of the piece, a wonderful teacher of mine called Herbert Flynn, came rushing back and said, ‘What is the matter?’ And I said, ‘They’re laughing at me.’ And they went, ‘No, no, they were laughing with you, your lines are funny lines.’ And I hadn’t realized that what I had considered to be extremely dramatic was in fact very comic, and the laughter was supportive laughter, and I became instantly addicted to it, and I went, ‘I think I’d like to do this.’”
On her decision to study theatre in England: “I went Simon Fraser, and I didn’t really want to go to university but I was trying desperately to please my parents who said that I must go to university before I went to drama school, which is what you did in my day: you went to drama school, and usually drama school was either the National Theatre School, or schools in England like LAMDA and RADA. Unbeknownst to my parents, in my second year of university, I’d had it. Everybody I knew was dropping out, because it was 1969, the summer of love – we did have a good time! – and I wrote to all of those schools [in England] and got auditions for the following summer, and I presented that to my parents and said, ‘I don’t want to be a political scientist, I want to be an actress and I want to go to theatre school, I don’t want to waste anymore time,’ which is ridiculous coming from a 16- or 17-year-old. But I ended up heading off to England to do those auditions, the first one of which was the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I went to Bristol. It was summer. It was beautiful. There were two men sword-fighting outside the school. It was a dream. It was everything I’d dreamed of, in this haze of summer and everything was in bloom and blossom, and I went, ‘Oh, this is where I want to be,’ and I got in.”
On the worst review of her career: “There are times when I’ve been on the floor in a ball. There are times when I’ve had terrible reviews. Diana Rigg wrote this book called, No Turn Unstoned. It’s a book that is full of actors’ bad reviews, and I think it makes us all feel better because we go, ‘Oh, if they survived that, then I can survive this.’ I once did a play – and I hadn’t had a bad review up until this point, so I didn’t know what it felt like; I’d been ignored, which is sort of ignominious, but I remember coming downstairs after opening night and I was very excited to read the review, and I pulled out the front of the entertainment section, and it said, ‘Gabrielle Rose ought to be shot.’ That was the headline. This was 1979 or something. This is how entrenched it gets: I’ve had many reviews, I probably can’t remember my good ones, but I know this one word for word. The final line of it was, ‘Would that I could have pulled the trigger myself.’ I’ve read a few reviews since, but it’s really the last time I ever ran down to read a review. I had trouble walking on stage that night. I actually had trouble walking on stage for the next few nights, and then I got really sick. I had trouble sleeping. I felt like I was embarrassing myself. I felt like I was letting down the cast. I had trouble looking anybody in the eye. That was a challenge, a big challenge, and I sort of failed because I let it get to me, and I got so ill.”
On the importance of small roles: “My son does some extra-work, which I think is a really great place to start. I think it’s good to see, before you go into this, what is entailed, and it’s quite good to see it from a place where you’re not making huge mistakes, you’re not committing yourself, but you’re seeing how dull it can be. You’re seeing how people are treated. You know what you’re getting into. And I think it will give you immense respect for everybody. I have immense respect for the background performers in this city. They’re so tremendous, and they’re committed. They’re miming, and they’re improvising – all of those things, they’re not easy to do. It’s an interesting challenge for your ego, because I think most actors want to be in the middle of everything. Me, too. I’ve always battled with my ego. It’s a big issue. When my ego gets out of control, I have instant karma. It just smacks me in the face. It’s good to see how your ego can take it when you’re playing a small role, or your function is to be unnoticed. I remember one of the very first parts I ever did after England. I had a tiny, tiny role playing William Shatner’s secretary, and I did so much work on it, and I had three lines or something, and I was so appallingly bad in the background – I was basically in the background, with a couple of lines – and there’s me in the background, smiling away, and I’ve got all of my back story, you can see that I have my back story and I’m displaying it for everyone to see. It’s one of those hang-your-head-in-shame moments, but a great learning experience. I hope it’s not on YouTube! I was ridiculous, but I’m making my mistakes and I saw them when I went to watch them. I’m making my mistakes without losing a lot of ground. It’s just a moment in time where I’m really super-bad in the background. It’s one of the biggest teachers around.”