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Kirsten Bishopric on set for Nikita.
Kirsten Bishopric on set for Nikita.

obituary

Kirsten Bishopric: A distinctive voice silenced too soon Add to ...

"Over the years … I’ve played debutantes and psychos, corrupt cops, zombies, Soviet spies, mermaids, frazzled moms, cartoon lunatics, depraved whores, aliens and even dead bodies. At age 11, I appeared in [David] Cronenberg’s first, thoroughly gruesome film, Shivers, where an octopus climbed down my throat."

This was Kirsten Bishopric’s own two-sentence summation of her career. Ms. Bishopric started acting and modelling as a child and debuted on stage at the Stratford Festival when she was 19. She worked almost all her life on stage and in television and film. Her two specialties were acting in made-for-TV movies and doing voice-over work for animated films and commercials. Her TV work included playing P.T. Barnum’s young wife (opposite Burt Lancaster) in Barnum, in 1986, and Caroline Kennedy in America’s Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story, in 2003. Most of the productions she worked on were shot in Canada, many of which were bound for the U.S. market.

Though she was strikingly beautiful, it was her distinctive voice that always paid the bills.

Ms. Bishopric walked into an audition early last year and was told, “We’re looking for a Kirsten Bishopric voice.” She answered, “I am Kirsten Bishopric.”

She didn’t get the part. A few months after the audition, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. The disease had probably affected her voice, though she didn’t realize it at the time of the audition. She was 50 when she died on April 15 in Toronto.

In a business where work can dry up, in particular for women after a certain age, Ms. Bishopric was always working, though the parts she was offered changed over time and became somewhat less frequent.

Gender discrimination in the industry is a documented fact. Every member of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) has a retirement and insurance fund that is financed by contributions from the firms engaging them for work. The money is administered by the ACTRA Fraternal Benefit Society, so it is easy to track who is getting work.

“A few years ago, I did a detailed analysis of earnings by age and gender,” said Robert Underwood, president and chief executive officer of ACTRA Fraternal. “After the age of 32 there is a pattern of declining work for female performers. It reflects North America’s fixation with youth in film and television.”

Nevertheless, Ms. Bishopric (sometimes known in credits by her stage name Kirsten Bishop) was getting parts on major American series such as The West Wing and Nikita in recent years, while in her 40s. In Nikita, in 2010, she played an evil Russian spy who dies while trying to kill the heroine.

Ms. Bishopric, who was athletic and liked to do her own stunts, was slightly injured in a fight scene during filming, and a stunt person did the dramatic death scene, which involved falling into a glass table. It was fortunate for Ms. Bishopric that she stepped aside, because the stunt person was badly hurt.

“The stunt woman was injured to such an extent that they fired the person who built the table,” her husband, Douglas Roberts, said.

Kirsten Bishopric was born in Montreal in September, 1963. Her mother, JoAnn Blondal-Bishopric, from Winnipeg, was of Icelandic descent, which accounts for the Nordic names of Kirsten and her younger brother, Thor, who is a successful actor and director. Ms. Blondal-Bishopric was a model and interior designer. Ms. Bishopric’s father was a staff announcer at the CBC in Montreal who worked under the stage name John Grenfell. He had a marvellous voice that he passed on to his two children.

As children they often sat quietly in their father’s studio as he read long, dramatic programs, often poetry, to run late at night on the CBC. He also did voice-over work for the National Film Board. Kirsten and Thor, who were always close, truly learned their trade at their father’s knee.

They were walking down a street in Montreal hand in hand one day with their mother when they were spotted by Constance Brown, the top talent agent in Montreal at the time. Soon both were working as models and actors, their young voices used in radio and TV commercials.

Kirsten went to elementary and high school in Westmount, Que., and then studied drama at Dawson College, near her family’s home. She joined The Third Stage (now known as the Tom Patterson Theatre) at the Stratford Festival, in 1983. She spent a year at Stratford and her major part was as Maria in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The Globe and Mail’s theatre critic at the time, Ray Conlogue, said that Ms. Bishopric looked like Nastassja Kinski, the German-born Hollywood star, and spoke with “measured lucidity.”

That year at the Stratford Festival she worked with Colm Feore and David Ferry, among others.

“When I had the pleasure of working with Kirsten in 1983, we had both joined Michael Langham’s Young Company at Stratford, which existed under the aegis of John Hirsch’s Festival company. The idea was to train people for the main stage in a kind of laboratory environment under the guidance of one of the festival’s most successful artistic directors, Mr. Langham,” Mr. Feore said. “Kirsten was, I believe, at 19, the youngest among us. She was certainly the most beautiful. She had a rare poise and unselfconscious self-possession. She radiated intelligence and kindness on top of being immensely talented … It turned out to be a foundational season for everyone involved. That Kirsten’s journey has been so cruelly cut short is heart-breakingly sad.”

When she returned to Dawson, just before her 20th birthday, her teacher said she shouldn’t bother with the rest of the course, as she had learned more than enough at Stratford. She then went to work full time.

Ms. Bishopric appeared and was heard in many TV and radio commercials and her brother, Thor, remembers one that was particularly lucrative.

“She did a Weetabix commercial in which she played a pregnant mother talking to her unborn child. It was the longest-running pregnancy on television. It kept running year after year. And of course every cycle it ran meant she was paid again,” Mr. Bishopric said.

What he was referring to is that actors get paid for every 13-week commercial cycle that runs on radio and television. Having a commercial run for years is winning the actor lottery. In Ms. Bishopric’s case, the residuals came close to $100,000.

When she was receiving care at Princess Margaret Hospital, one of the doctors recognized her name from the most popular voice-over series she ever worked for: Sailor Moon. It was an animated feature made in Japan and Ms. Bishopric did several voices when it was dubbed into English, but she was best known as the voice of Zoisite, one of the main characters.

“Sailor Moon was a bit of a cult thing. The doctor at the hospital recognized her name from the credits. Kirsten sometimes went to Sailor Moon conventions,” Mr. Roberts said.

Whether on camera or off, Ms. Bishopric loved words. She was a whiz at crossword puzzles and Scrabble, and found it easy to memorize scripts in a hurry. It was one of the skills she taught fellow actors at a Toronto workshop called the Monday Night Group.

“We rehearsed for plays and did cold reads [reading from an unfamiliar script]. Kirsten was there just about every week for 20 years,” said her friend, Collette Micks. She also helped organize several ACTRA award nights.

She showed a similar degree of engagement when it came to her family life. Ms. Bishopric worked hard to save the alternative school her two sons attended, in the St. Lawrence Market district of Toronto. The school board was closing a number of schools and in the end the only one spared was the Downtown Alternative School, which her sons attended.

Kirsten Bishopric leaves her husband, Mr. Roberts; her two sons, William and Jesse; her stepchildren, Alastair and Liza; her mother, JoAnn; and her brother, Thor.

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