Johannah Newmarch had to walk away from acting for almost a decade in order to really commit to it.
At the time of her clean break, the Vancouver actress was in her early 20s, and a few years into what was by all accounts a successful career.
She’d been working steadily in CBC teen dramas and Stephen J. Cannell shows, including an episode of 21 Jump Street where her character asked Johnny Depp’s if he wanted to “get it on.”
Newmarch was on her way, but something profound was missing from the equation.
“I grew up watching incredible foreign films, and I wanted to be in the movies you don’t forget, the movies you leave the theatre and you think about for three months afterwards, and make a difference to you and change your life,” Newmarch tells Reel People in a recent interview.
“And then I found myself doing not rewarding television, and I think that’s where my disenchantment came from.”
And so she walked away from the industry and Vancouver for several years, immersing herself in Buddhist studies and motherhood and an assortment of non-acting jobs.
When, in 2001, Newmarch returned to acting, she did so with the knowledge that she was precisely where she needed to be.
“I don’t know that I could have come back to it any other way,” she says. “It was the journey I had to go through. I had to miss it and realize how unfulfilling I found other jobs.”
Newmarch has racked up dozens of credits since her return to the Vancouver screen scene, including Smallville, Supernatural, Motive, Polaris (for which she won the 2014 Leo Award for Best Performance by a Female in a Web Series), Gracepoint, multiple Garage Sale Mystery films, Mackenzie Gray’s sumptuous film noir short, Under the Bridge of Fear, and a fan-favourite, recurring role on Hallmark’s hit family drama, When Calls the Heart.
“I think when I was younger, I wanted to make a difference so badly, and I got to a point where I didn’t necessarily see how that could be done with my acting,” says Newmarch. “Now, I’ve had the opportunity to tell stories that matter, and I’ve had a vision of what that could be.”
Newmarch’s latest project is a prime example of the type of work that feeds her soul. She’s the villain in the second season of Netflix’s ProjectMc², which hit the streaming service on Aug. 12.
The locally shot series follows four preteen girls as they channel their collective passion for science, technology, engineering, art, and math (otherwise known as STEAM) into foiling scheming baddies (like Newmarch’s character, Carson Lazarus) and saving the world.
Newmarch is proud to appear on a series that shows girls excelling in the STEAM sphere and celebrating their quirks.
“We contain multitudes,” says Newmarch. “I can love to put on lipstick and high heels, and go shoot a gun at a shooting range, and cosplay, and be a Tank Girl aficionado. We don’t have to be just one thing, so why can’t there be a show that celebrates fashion and playfulness and female sisterhood, as well as science saving the world?”
Newmarch came to acting by way of dance. Her ballet training took her all the way to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, but she soon grew disillusioned witnessing “the body struggles that so many of the girls around me were going through, and it didn’t drive me the way that it used to,” she says.
Acting was a natural next step for Newmarch, and also a natural fit.
“One of the things I had going for me was a naturalness when you just don’t know any better,” says Newmarch. “I would just get up and do scenes and I was so un-self-conscious about the process that people told me I had a certain amount of naturalness that they found appealing.” She found an agent in short order. “I was very fortunate to have my stars line up relatively quickly.”
Newmarch honed her skills at the Gastown Actors’ Studio. She studied alongside some of the biggest names in the Canadian film and television world, including John Cassini, Ben Ratner, Kate Twa, Michèle Lonsdale Smith, Molly Parker, and Nicholas Lea.
“I don’t even think we realized at the time how incredible the talent in that room was,” she says. “Some of the best acting I’ve seen in my life happened in that school.”
As Molly Sullivan on the 1910 period drama When Calls the Heart, Newmarch has been deeply touched by the passion of the Hearties, the show’s ardent fans (some of whom journeyed up to the show’s Langley set this past January for a fan event dubbed The Hearties Family Reunion).
“The fans are extraordinary,” says Newmarch. “Honestly, before social media, being an actor could be a little lonely. Sometimes you don’t know if anybody sees the work or if anybody cares. So when I was on When Calls the Heart and there was this groundswell [from fans], and it really hit a nerve with people, it really affected me.”
“I want to make my time here count, and make myself a force for progress in whatever way I can,” she adds. “I’ve had a very fortunate, very wonderful life, and I feel there’s a real onus on me to tell stories that matter.”
• Project Mc² is streaming now on Netflix.
MORE FROM JOHANNAH NEWMARCH
On the genius of Project Mc²: “It’s all about female empowerment. It’s all about encouraging young women to pursue sciences, maths, engineering, technology, and just really making sure that there are no barriers to entry, and that young girls know that there is no bar to entry to anything that they want to accomplish in their lives, and let’s just throw away all of those gender stereotypes that hold people back. Let’s just have men and women pursue the things that they want to pursue because they’re interested in it. I really do feel like as a society, with every passing year, we’re getting a little closer to that. Obviously there’s a lot of work to do, but I look at my daughter’s generation and her and all of her female friends, half of them are going off to study the sciences, because that’s what they’re good at and that’s what they want to do. The ones who are going to study English or nursing are doing that because it’s what they want to do, not because it’s a typically female job. Not to mention, the show is just a lot of fun, and the girls are all a lot of fun… I just think it’s a wonderful mix of education and play and bravo to whoever put those two ideas together.”
On not being typecast: “Redheads are always the outliers. They never quite know what to do with us. We’re either the weird best friend or Jessica Rabbit. I’ve been really fortunate in not being typecast. I’ve had a really wonderful range of roles, everything from crazy bag ladies to loving mothers to femme fatales to a gun-toting girl in a western back in the day.”
On one type of role she’s eager to play: “I would love to play a really brilliant cop. I haven’t had a chance to do that yet, and I think I would be a good as that. I’ve played a DEA agent, but I haven’t really gotten cops. I don’t just mean a cop in a scene here or a scene there. It would be really great to have a female lead in a cop series. That would be really fun. Gritty, not terribly glamorous. “
On performing in an off-Broadway play with two powerhouses: “I got the opportunity to do an off-Broadway play in New York with Elizabeth Shue, and Robert Sean Leonard who had just come off of Dead Poets Society. It was this wild play by Tina Howe called Birth and After Birth, a very fringe-y play… Tina Howe came, and I remember going and renting the lights and these huge bins and pushing them up these streets in New York City. This was pre-Giuliani. I was living on First between 10th and A, which was rat-infested and drug dealers. I was 19, and I was living the dream. I was just living life, and you don’t realize how incredibly cool it is until it’s way in the rear-view mirror.”