'Stargate: Atlantis' actor dishes on challenging new film role


When Paul McGillion’s mother gazed down upon her newborn child – her sixth of an eventual seven, all born in the family home in Paisley, Scotland – and considered his full head of hair, she was struck by inspiration.  

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“She looked at me and said, ‘Oh, my god, look at his hair! He looks like he’ll be a Beatle. Let’s call him Paul,’” says the veteran actor, adopting a Scottish accent when quoting his mother. “She still tells me, ‘You’ve been a performer since the day you were born.’”

Fans of the über-popular Stargate SG-1 spin-off Stargate: Atlantis would recognize that accent as the one McGillion wielded for five seasons as Dr. Carson Beckett – a role that wasn’t originally designed to be Scottish, but became so when McGillion brought the accent into the audition room and convinced the producers otherwise.

But McGillion doesn’t use the accent in most of his projects, and he doesn’t use it when he meets with Reel People to discuss his career journey.  His default accent could be categorized as “Canadian” – perhaps because he spent the bulk of his childhood in Niagara-on-the-Lake, attended university in St. Catharines and St. John’s, and honed his acting chops in Toronto before heading west to crack the BC screen scene.

Today, McGillion is a busy actor who enjoys variety. His lengthy filmography spans a couple of decades, and includes a staggering range of genres, character archetypes, and big-budget and independent screen projects, including The X-Files, Sanctuary, Tomorrowland, Once Upon a Time, and Supernatural.

McGillion had the opportunity to enjoy a lot of variety in 2016. He logged roles in Heartbeats (a musical comedy about an American hip-hop dancer who finds love and Bollywood moves during a family trip to India), Big Fat Liar 2, appeared in On the Farm (an award-winning feature about the Robert Pickton case) and the TV series Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.

McGillion also graced festival screens on both coasts in Hello Destroyer. The feature-length directorial debut from Vancouver director Kevan Funk – which premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival – centres on a junior hockey player (portrayed by Jared Abrahamson) whose life is shattered by an in-game act of violence. The film also stars Vancouver stalwarts Ben Cotton, Ian Tracey and Sara Canning, and won Funk the BC Emerging Filmmaker Award at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival. McGillion plays the father of the disgraced hockey player.

“I could relate to this film,” says McGillion, who was a wrestler throughout high school and college, and majored in physical education at Brock University. “It’s a dark subject matter that really hasn’t been broached on this level in Canada. It really brings to life institutional violence in sports – especially in Canada – and how there’s pressure put upon young men to perform.”

Vancouver audiences will get another chance to see Hello Destroyer when it returns here in January as part of TIFF’s touring 16th annual Canada’s Top 10 Film Festival.

Although McGillion plays a father in Hello Destroyer, the character is vastly different from that of his own father, upon whom he admits having based part of his Stargate: Atlantis character. “The [Stargate] writers weren’t Scottish, so I could use a lot of my background and my family’s background,” recalls McGillion. “The Scots always wear their hearts on their sleeves, and [Beckett] was sort of like the Cowardly Lion in a lot of ways. He had a lot of comedy, as well as a lot of drama.”

In 2008, McGillion read for the part of another famous Scottish character from the sci-fi sphere: that of Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in the reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise. The family of James Doohan (who portrayed Scotty in the original TV series and films) publicly endorsed McGillion for the role that ultimately went to Simon Pegg. McGillion did appear in a small role in the final film. “It’s because of the Stargate fanbase that I even had a crack at that,” says McGillion, who travels to fan conventions around the world each year and calls Stargate “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Hello Destroyer screens January 13-22 at the Cinematheque as part of TIFF’s 16th annual Canada’s Top 10 Film Festival. Follow McGillion on Twitter @PaulyMcGillion.

More from Paul McGillion

On the magic of Hello Destroyer: “In the film, I play the lead character’s father. The silence in the movie is really another character, and the awkwardness of it, and it’s a generational thing as well. I think my character’s father was probably abusive to him, and my character is somewhat abusive because he can’t communicate. It’s all they really know. As dark as it was, it was sad, too, because they can’t get to having a conversation about this and getting it out. It wasn’t in their nature. I think the film is a very difficult watch, but it’s really poignant. I think the performances are fantastic, and I think it really brings to light an important issue.”

On his most memorable encounter with a Stargate: Atlantis fan: “I went to a signing in Dublin, and I went to Belfast, and there is a big dichotomy between the two. In Belfast, there’s a big line-up for me, and I see a little kid. He’s in line, and every time I look up, he’s giving me a thumbs-up, and he’s got a little toque on. He’s probably 10 years old, and he finally gets up to me and I say, ‘How are you doing, buddy?’ And he goes [in Irish accent], ‘Oh, I’m grand, sir. Just grand. Just a pleasure to meet Dr. Beckett.’ And I go, ‘Thank you so much. What can I do for you? Sign a picture or…’ And he goes, ‘No, I just wanted to meet you. It was my birthday yesterday and I wanted to give you a piece of my birthday cake.’ And he had it in his pocket in a napkin, and I saw his mom over there, standing there, and you could tell they were poorer, and he put the cake down, and he started to walk away, and I said, ‘Get over here; it’s your birthday.’ And he said, ‘Yes, Doctor’ – he called me Doctor! – and I said, ‘Why don’t you pick a picture for your birthday?’ And he said, ‘A present for me?’ And I said, ‘Yes, for you! A present!’ ‘We don’t have any money!’ And I said, ‘It’s fine. This is a birthday present for you. And the look on his face – he lit up like a Christmas tree. He walked away and he was just jumping. It kills me to this day. It was the sweetest thing.”

On his experience at fan conventions: “I’ve been all over the world, multiple times, at conventions. I was in Australia and England this year. It’s been an amazing experience for me. It’s one of those things where I never take them for granted. It’s a pleasure to do it. Just the amount of happiness that [Stargate: Atlantis] has brought people. The great thing about it is it’s a family show, and families grow up watching it together, and I have so many people who come up to me and just say, ‘Thank you so much for helping our family; it was our time that we spent together,’ which is really a lovely thing.”

On playing vastly different characters: “For me, variety is the spice of life. I love the opportunity to play different characters. You constantly have to reinvent yourself as an actor and show them what you’re capable of. And it never stops, which is sometimes frustrating, but at the same time it’s challenging.” 

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