Tall men! Hallelujah! I’m 5 foot 9, over 6 feet in heels, and most actors are delicate creatures. So in interviews I feel I’m looming over them like a hot air balloon. Not this TIFF. In one glorious run, I met Gerard Butler (hunky), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Danish), Alexander Skarsgaard (6 foot 3), and Michael Fassbender (swoon). It was like gamboling through a gorgeous forest. And it sure didn’t hurt that when I went to shake Fassbender’s hand goodbye, he leaned in for a kiss instead. (Readers, I let him.)
My favourite moment occurred with Butler, in my first interview of the week. I mentioned that, to me, he fills the brute-with-a-sense-of-humour niche that’s been woefully unoccupied since Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum. He regarded me for a long second, and I feared I’d offended him. Then he told me that Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum were the two exact guys who made him want to act. “I’m going to call my old mum tonight and tell her that someone compared me to Mitchum and Marvin,” he said quietly. During the rest of the week, there were plenty of moments when I questioned why I was there – when out-of-town handlers swooped in and dismissed Canadian print, with a callousness that was truly upsetting. But then I’d think of what Butler said, and force myself to remember that no matter what happens when they get to TIFF, every film, and every person in them, begins in the same place: one person, alone in a room, with a dream.
Mine was a quietly profound encounter, occurring in a corner room at the Royal York Hotel. An RCMP officer stood outside the door. A handful of stern-faced handlers lined one side of the room, all wearing dark, pressed suits. In the chair next to me sat a head of state, Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives. We were talking about climate change and the documentary The Island President, about Nasheed’s rise as a pro-democracy leader and his current effort to save his country from rising sea levels. Then Nasheed’s official voice drifted away. The President, who is only 44, began to tell me how his island nation and its thousands of years of civilization will disappear if he doesn’t succeed. Yet he also said that the people of the Maldives can’t die hating humanity, but instead they must feel that they did as much as they could. He told me this plainly, one guy to another. I had to stop and remark on the power of what we were discussing. He simply nodded in agreement.
Film, schmilm. I lived a rock ’n’ roll fantasy. I chatted with the total rock star Chris Cornell. One night after watching Neil Young join Pearl Jam on stage at the ACC for Rockin’ in the Free World, I saw the new Young concert documentary, Neil Young Journeys, with Eddie Vedder and Young in the house. And there was the moment at the Hazelton Hotel restaurant where I sat at the table as Bono played new U2 tracks on an iPad and danced and sang along to the music. That's that.
Meeting Jennifer Garner was like a gulp of fresh air. There is not a whiff of pampered, celebrity affectation about the actress, who produced and stars in Butter, a politically-laced comedy about the art of butter carving in Iowa. When I met her, Garner was on the phone to her home in L.A., making sure her girls, Violet and Seraphina, got to school safe, and on time. Now expecting her third child with husband Ben Affleck, the 39-year-old excitedly chatted about the upcoming birth and the “lovely break” she’s going to have from making movies to be at home with her kids. She shared details about her busy volunteer schedule at their school, and added the only “work” she plans to do is a few day trips for her charity, Free the Children. For those, she takes the red eye so she’ll only miss “one drop-off and one pick-up” of her girls. Talking to Garner is like talking to any mom. She’s hard-working, sweet, sensible and grounded. Affleck must – or should – thank his lucky stars he married her instead of the diva J-Lo.
My favourite moment of this year’s TIFF occurred, in all places, during a movie, Asghar Farhadi’s tense and complex family drama, A Separation. A middle-class Iranian couple separates and the husband hires a pregnant caregiver to look after his father, who has Alzheimer’s disease. When the old man soils his pyjamas, the caregiver, a religious woman, does not know what to do: She ends up calling an Islamic Hotline to ask if it would be acceptable to remove the man's pyjamas. Both poignant and absurd, the scene is a vivid example of a more universal issue of how ideology runs counter to basic human decency.
When I saw a pack of Stormtroopers from Star Wars outside the Scotiabank Theatre, I knew I was going to love Morgan Spurlock’s Comic-Con: Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope.
Film festivals aren’t special just because of the movies. It’s the air of excitement that surrounds them. And the world premiere of Spurlock’s doc about the comic book convention in San Diego – the biggest of its kind in the world – had that in spades. Along with Darth Vaders. And Wonder Womans. And Wolverines – fans dressed up as all those and more, giving the whole evening a fantastic carnival feel.
And did I mention comic book legend Stan Lee was in attendance? No wonder all of us nerds were clapping so enthusiastically. Going to the movies might be about collective experience, but it’s never felt so collective as it did at Comic-Con, and I have Darth Vader and his minions to thank for it.
Amidst all the fawning, flattery and false humility, it is refreshing to occasionally encounter someone at TIFF who apparently doesn’t care that much whether you like her or her film. British director Andrea Arnold introduced her bleak and brutal version of Wuthering Heights by telling a crowd that she knew she was supposed to say “Enjoy the film!” but instead she offered this: “... maybe take a Valium now. Or is it Prozac? Whatever you have these days. A lot of people who have seen it said they need a stiff drink afterwards. So, good luck!”
Brushes with greatness, I’ve had a few. Like the time I found myself standing beside Christopher Reeve in the men’s room of a Rocky Mountain ski resort. And will I ever forget the hang with legends such as Erik Estrada, Barbara Eden and Bruce Jenner? Probably not. TIFF this year, though, allowed me a handshake with greatness, the (right) hand in this case belonging to Neil Young. It happened at a dinner party the singer-songwriter attended after the world premiere of Neil Young Journeys. We shot the breeze for about 10 minutes, touching on his late dad, Scott, Winnipeg, winters in Western Canada, vinyl-quality sound, cars, dogs, his 1973 LP Time Fades Away, whatever. It was a small, good thing.
Hands down (or maybe up), the highlight of my festival was not interviewing Madonna. Just imagine. Had I interviewed Madonna, I'd have been obliged to feign some polite enthusiasm for her film, a test of acting that would've defeated Olivier. Had I interviewed Madonna, I might have had to stand facing the wall, eyes fixed straight ahead, lobbing questions over my shoulder at the unseen Divinity – questions that, if She deigned to answer them, would have left her literally talking behind my back. Perhaps, accidentally, I could have shifted my gaze a fraction to behold directly the star's power and glory, no doubt burning my retina. Or, back dutifully turned, I might have used a pocket mirror to furtively glimpse her reflection, then unsheathed my cellphone to film her mirrored image, thereby producing a reflection of a reflection of the Almighty. But so much reflected Celebrity is a terrible thing to reflect upon, and my brain would have cramped severely. Such a narrow escape. Sometimes, even at a film festival, it's what you don't see or do that's the saving grace.
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