In Sensitive Skin, a new dark comedy from HBO Canada, Don McKellar plays a 50-something creative type trying to reinvent himself alongside his even more age-o-phobic wife (Kim Cattrall). Here, the decorated director, actor and writer shares some of the secrets to his success (and why he has no desire for a 15-year-old’s libido).
Make ‘em howl
When I was in Grade 6, we had a school assembly where I was asked to do a gymnastics demonstration with a couple of other kids. I was kind of flattered because I was pretty good, but then when I did it – I did a bunch of vaults – my friends who were in the audience laughed at me. Not because I did it badly, but just because it was a bit ridiculous to see me plant the thing and then there are those ridiculous hand gestures. I was sort of upset afterwards, and my coach whose name was Mr. Barrett said to me, you know Don, you can make people laugh and that’s a great gift. One day you’ll realize that the things you hate most about yourself as a teen become your greatest asset. That might not work for everyone, but it worked for me.
Do the unexpected
I have always had a pretty contrary nature. If I’m given a rule, my first instinct has always been to challenge it. I came up during the period where the greatest threat to movies was the new story telling models, those sort of “Write a Screenplay in 30 Days” books that formalized movie structure. I immediately reacted against those things because that was my problem with movies – everything was so predictable. I remember when I was making my first movie, my mom said to me, “Dear, shouldn’t you think about taking a course?” I thought, no way! If anything, I need a course about how not to make movies to get all of this [convention] out of my head. I’ve just always thought that making interesting rather than expected work is the goal.
A life in little moments
I’ve never been particularly goal-focused, but I don’t see that as a flaw. It has sort of worked for me. My impatient mind has brought me into areas that I never would have thought I would go, and where I probably wouldn’t have gone if I had been super committed to one specific achievement. I’ve had a richer career and life because I’ve entered places that I wasn’t really qualified to enter, like writing a Broadway musical [McKellar co-wrote The Drowsy Chaperone]. That was never a goal or even anything I’d even think of as a possibility and then I did it and it was fun and I embraced that. One of the things you learn is that those moments you think are going to be the most satisfying rarely are. Maybe you win a Tony or something and sure, it’s great, but it’s not what you thought it would be, it didn’t change anything. On the other hand, some stranger will make a comment about one of my movies and that will just be so moving and satisfying. It’s not always the big moments.
Auteur is as auteur does
It’s funny because people forget the origins of the term auteur. They think it means that you only make personal films, you only exercise this very hermetic kind of artistic vision. When the term was invented it meant that your personality is unavoidable no matter how diverse your work is. I think people are surprised when I do something like The Grand Seduction, which is more a genre film [a light comedy]. People will say that it’s not a personal film and I think to myself, who are you to say? I feel invested in everything I do. I’m directing TV now. People would always say, oh, you’re not going to do TV, are you? At least that what they’d say to me. Probably they were thinking, he couldn’t do it. Anyway, I don’t think the idea is that I have to make a Don McKellar movie, it’s that the movies I make are Don McKellar films. Doing things outside of what people might expect is fun for me. It’s a way to test myself.
Film festivals are like band-aids…
I think all of my movies have premiered at festivals. It can be really stressful, but, you know, you make movies to be shown to the public, so it’s going to be stressful at some point or another. Film festivals are sort of like ripping the bandage off the wound – do it fast, get it over with. In terms of television, I’ve always found it frustrating because you can’t feel the audience, you don’t know when they’re watching. Especially with On Demand, they could be watching it any time. I find that more frustrating than a festival experience, which is a release. It makes you feel like you’ve finished your film and you can move on, whatever the response. You can’t dwell on what the response is. You make moves hoping to satisfy something within yourself and then hoping that you have enough emotions within you that other people will be connected to it. I already know whether I’m satisfied with a film before it premiers. Getting appreciation from your audience is the gravy.
You’re only as old as you forget you are
I’m not one of those people who is hung up on aging [one of the themes of Second Skin]. Instead I’m one of those people who is always shocked when you tell me how old I am. I guess you could read something into that – I never think I’m as old as I am. It’s probably a good thing. I remember reading as a teenager that males reached their sexual peak at 18 and I actually thought, that’s great – I can’t wait to get through this. If I can just get through my teenage years, I’ll be able to get some work done. That hasn’t seemed to be the case. If anything as I age, my desires have gotten stronger. I’m not just talking sexually. I have much readier access to my emotions. My feelings are stronger and I as I age, I’m not as surprised by them any more.