Sara Canning is giddy. Or maybe she’s gleeful. It’s difficult to tell the difference over the phone. But when Reel People asks the Vancouver actress about her role on A Series of Unfortunate Events – the locally shot Netflix series based on the popular books about the Baudelaire orphans and their dastardly guardian, Count Olaf – a burst of laughter shoots through the phone.
Actually, forget giddiness and glee. That’s the unmistakable sound of unadulterated joy.
“I’ve had a lot of joyful projects in my life these last couple of years, but she was so much fun to play,” says Canning of her mysterious character, Jacquelyn, about whom there was much speculation before the series’ January 13 premiere (and around whom, judging by Reel People’s journeys through internet message boards this past weekend, much mystery remains). “I’m super-stoked because there’s a lot of speculation going around about who my character is, because she’s not easy to place within the first book. And I’ve read them, and even I, at this point, am not completely clear on who she might be.” More laughter ensues.
“It was the most fantastical experience,” she continues. “Every day I would go to work and I probably seemed totally crazy, because I’d be looking at everyone going, ‘Is this really work? What are we doing?’ I’d be just losing my mind in a corner somewhere. The costumes blew my mind. The sets were unbelievable. Neil Patrick Harris [who portrays Count Olaf] is not of this earth. He’s very funny and so perfectly cast.”
The year just past has already secured its place in history as the worst of the millennium (so far), but it was a damn good year to be a Sara Canning fan – and even more so to be Canning. Fans of the Vancouver actress were able to enjoy her work in a smorgasbord of screen projects: Hello Destroyer (which premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and won big at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival); On The Farm, Tank Girl director Rachel Talalay’s stirring drama about Robert Pickton’s victims; and as Flora, Eadweard Muybridge’s determined wife, in Eadweard, the Vancouver-shot biopic that continued a successful run on the festival circuit.
And while her films were finding their audiences, Canning – who recurred as Jenna on The Vampire Diaries and was a series lead on Remedy and Primeval: New World – shot two highly anticipated screen projects: the aforementioned A Series of Unfortunate Events and War for the Planet of the Apes, the latter of which hits screens on July 14 (a date that also happens to be Canning’s 30th birthday).
Canning plays an ape in the latest of the Ape films; the role required her to slip into a motion-capture suit. To that end, Canning and her cast-mates received guidance from mo-cap legend Andy Serkis (Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films), who plays the iconic ape Caesar in the summer release. “When us new apes first met Andy Serkis – who is just the epitome of magic, he’s so wonderful – we did a two-hour improv as apes where no one broke character,” marvels Canning. “These apes are very grounded and they’ve been through a lot, and everything is so subtle and specific. It was amazing finding the characters within those parameters.”
Canning traces her passion for storytelling back to her childhood in Newfoundland. (She moved with her family to Alberta at the age of 12.) “We were just in the woods or on the beach all the time, and our imaginations were explosively large,” she says.
A graduate of Vancouver Film School’s screen acting program, Canning won a Leo Award for Best Lead Performance by a Female in a Dramatic Series and a UBCP/ACTRA Best Actress Award for her work on Remedy. The Toronto-shot medical drama ran for two seasons on Global. Canning appeared as Dr. Melissa Conner, a brilliant, obsessive-compulsive surgeon and “one of the best roles that’s ever been handed to me.
“What was great about working on Remedy was we were built to be like a theatre company,” she continues. “We’d shoot 84-page scripts in seven days, which was an insane pace, and I would rehearse surgical procedures at the beginning of the episode, and then they’d build the prosthetic body and then five days later we’d be shooting them – and I’m dreaming about it in between and watching surgeries on YouTube and suturing bananas at home.”
Suturing bananas? “A lot of student surgeons practice on bananas because the elasticity of the banana peel is similar to human flesh,” explains Canning. “I had sutured bananas all over the apartment.”
Canning was devastated when Remedy was cancelled in 2015, but she says she’s at a place “in my career where I can make specific decisions about the stories I want to tell, and I think that’s a really powerful thing in any art form.”
A Series of Unfortunate Events is now streaming on Netflix. Find Sara Canning on Twitter @saradjcanning.
More from Reel People's interview with Sara Canning:
On growing up in Newfoundland: “I think, culturally, storytelling is a huge part of Newfoundland. I’m biased, but I think it’s a pretty special place. I grew up in a community of 250 people, and I think that leaves a mark on a person in a sense of wanting to build community and also just being really fascinated with people, because everybody knows everything about everybody else. I’m always really interested in the simple inner workings of a person’s life or a household or a relationship, and I think that’s why I’m an actor.”
On her proclivity for period dramas: “I love period dramas. Eadweard was one of the most amazing projects of my career so far. I also got to work on Hell on Wheels. I end up in the 1880s a lot. I’ve done three or four projects in the 1880s. I guess I have the face of the 1880s.”
On her first professional acting role: “I played Nicky Hilton in a movie about Paris Hilton. It was great because I think we’re quite different. I don’t know her personally, but I did my research and came at the role as a total acting student, where I was researching all of her businesses and I’d read Paris Hilton’s book about the two of them that’s basically a photo scrapbook with a few words sprinkled in about how fabulous their life is, but it was great. It was really fun. It’s just so silly because people often ask, ‘What was your first professional role?’ and that’s what I have to say.”
On her dad’s advice when she decided to pursue acting: “I remember my dad just sitting down with me and saying, ‘I absolutely support you in doing this, but I hope you know how hard you’re going to have to work.’ That still sticks with me. He said, ‘A lot of people think they want to do this, and that’s great, but I don’t think they treat it the way you need to treat it to sustain it as a job.’ That was the larger psychological point he was making. Later, I was doing this Lifetime movie with James Van Der Beek [Taken in Broad Daylight], and it was quite dark and my character is kidnapped and there’s a rape scene in it. It’s a Lifetime movie, so since it’s for TV, it was sort of inferred, but it was happening on camera. And I talked to my dad about it because it was one of the first movies that I did, and I just remember saying, ‘There’s this rape scene in it’ and I think I was still nervous about making my parents really uncomfortable. And he said, ‘You can’t be an actor if you’re not going to explore these darker things about what happens to people.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my god! Dad!’ He was spot-on, and I think that opens up a whole other level of permission, because I’ve gotten to explore a lot of characters who are going through some pretty deep stuff.”
On her definition of success: “One of my theatre teachers from high school sent me a letter from a young girl he was teaching – I think she was in grade 10 or 11 – and she asked me, ‘At what point did you hit success?’ I think she was inferring, ‘You are now successful; at what point did you become successful?’ And I didn’t know how to answer that, because I think I just don’t examine my career or my years on whether or not they’ve been successful. I exist. I look at what opportunities I’ve been given, or what opportunities I’ve created for myself, and have I been active every day in what I do? On my days off, have I written something down? Have I read something? Have I watched a film that moves me? Have I gone to see a friend’s independent piece of theatre? Have I gone to see a band that is doing really innovative things? What am I doing to fill the spaces in my in-between time with being an artist or supporting artists? I don’t even know if I have a definition of success, because I don’t think in these terms, I guess.”