On Flashpoint, Enrico Colantoni plays a flinty-eyed police officer who defuses life-threatening situations without breaking stride. But one balmy day last summer, the Toronto actor was on a TV set in an entirely different role – as stage dad to his 13-year-old son Quintin, who is a lead in the new HBO Canada series The Yard.
“He looks just like me, but with hair,” quips the doting papa, best-known as the libidinous photographer on the hit sitcom Just Shoot Me!
Colantoni, on hiatus during the summer from filming CTV’s Flashpoint, was on hand every day at Givins/Shaw Public School, where The Yard – a quirky, six-part miniseries that bills itself as the kids’ version of The Sopranos – was filmed in Toronto.
The show is a mockumentary about two rival gangs (the good guys led by Quintin’s quick-thinking character Nick Moshanski) who are jostling for supremacy in the politically charged environment of a schoolyard – usually during recess.
“I’ve been waiting for someone to do a children’s version of The Sopranos,” said the younger Colantoni, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Canada. “And even though this is one of my first ‘real’ acting jobs, I’m not nervous. With my dad being an actor, I’m kind of used to the whole set atmosphere. So it was an easy transition for me.”
The miniseries was developed by director Mike Mabbott ( The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico) and novelist and Globe and Mail advice columnist Dave Eddie. They insist that the idea came to each of them independently.
“I was living in Vancouver and I used to play tennis at a public school at Main and Broadway,” says Mabbott. “Nine times out of 10, we’d be there when the recess bell rang, and these kids would come screaming out ... [ready] to take care of business. I was fascinated by the very real power struggle there, one not that dissimilar from the adult world.”
For his part, Eddie was struck by the schoolyard power struggle as metaphor for adult shenanigans after watching his eldest son Nick interact with his then-Grade 6 peers at Givins/Shaw, where his three boys go to school.
“I was sitting right on these steps watching Nick, and thinking this yard reminds me of a prison,” says Eddie, who talks on set while dressed for his role as an ex-con, cafeteria slop server in a filthy apron, striped pants and muscle shirt that proudly shows off the tattoos (the name of his sons) on his right arm. “Nick was with his best friend Joel, and it seemed to me that other kids were coming up to him, asking him questions, and he was dispensing advice and solutions. He later disabused me of this notion and explained the leader of the yard was this other kid named Quan.... He called him the Minister of Information.”
Eddie and Mabbott found out that they both had a similar idea for a show when they met to talk about turning Eddie’s novel Chump Change into a film (a project still in the works). Mabbott told his friend he’d long been mulling the idea of a documentary about kids and the natural pecking order that quickly establishes itself in the school yard. But he could never figure out how a doc like that might work – let alone how it would get funded. Eddie suggested a TV program, and they hammered out a script.
Still, Eddie bluntly acknowledges that while he was intrigued by the idea of The Yard, he didn’t think the series would ever see the light of day. Mabbott was upbeat, however, and convinced Eddie to work with him on a pilot. It ended up in front of Whizbang, a production company helmed by Frank Siracusa and Paul Gross (yes, the Due South mountie). Gross loved the quirkiness and uniqueness of the script so much that he joined on as executive producer. With backing from The Movie Network and Movie Central, the show was green-lit.
Mabbott estimates that the production team interviewed more than 400 kids from coast to coast for the 10 to 15 primary spots on the series. Initially, they were looking for kids with acting experience, but they soon realized that those with less polish, and more spontaneity, were better suited for The Yard.
The last role to be cast was Nick. Hiring Colantoni, Mabbott says, was a total fluke.
“We were in Frank’s office at Whizbang lamenting that we still had not been able to find the 10-out-of-10 Nick. I looked across the hall and saw Enrico. On his way out, he popped his head in, and said ‘I’ll get my kid to put himself on tape for you.’
“It just seemed the way it was supposed to happen. You spend days and weeks in casting sessions looking for this kid, and then some guy looks in and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got the kid for you.’ And he did. You can’t direct a kid to do what his kid does. It’s just a presence.”
It showed on set. As scores of extras were excitedly milling around the lunch counter, getting gruel from ex-con chef Eddie, the noise level was almost deafening. Through all the clamour, though, the diminutive Colantoni, shag hair reaching almost to his chin, maintained an air of calm and cool – much like the self-assured Nick, who is “the capo” of school and an astute reader of human nature.
Watching his son from the sidelines, Nick’s proud dad agrees he seems to have a knack for the craft.
“It’s true what they say: You can’t teach someone how to act,” says Colantoni, who also has a 10-year-old daughter with aspirations to be in theatre. “A lot of young actors are a little over self-conscious – they’re either too happy or they’re doing the monkey dance. Quintin is just very comfortable in his own skin.’”