Susan Kent is trying to describe her head. She has a hand on either side of her face and is grimacing.
“I have this really narrow head,” she says. “It looks like a truck flattened my head. Weird, don’t you think?”
I have no reply. I think her head looks nice, looks fine, actually. But you just nod and smile when Susan Kent is going on. About her head, about her life, about how she ended up on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. She’s been on it for a while now, but to many viewers she’s a mystery, the newbie. The others – Cathy Jones, Shaun Majumder, Mark Critch – are familiar. They have their characters, their style. Kent, 38, is the tall, willowy blonde who reads sarcastic news bits, does mockery of TV commercials, a wicked impression of Celine Dion and, recently, a dead-on Win Butler of Arcade Fire.
A Newfoundlander, Kent has a knack for language. Now, she’s not entirely comfortable doing this interview in her tiny office at the 22 Minutes HQ. In jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt and cardigan, she keeps folding herself up and unfolding herself again.
Then, when she gets going on a rich description of something, she relaxes. “It was like this: I was driving over from St, John’s to Corner Brook to see my mom and dad. Didn’t have a cellphone that worked. Got there, checked my e-mail and there’s a flurry of them, telling me to be in Toronto the next day, for a tryout for 22 Minutes. I borrowed a few hundred bucks from my parents, booked a flight, called someone in Toronto to ask if I could borrow a bike. Then I got there, going around like a pig in a hurricane.”
Asked how she got invited to audition, she narrows her eyes in mock suspicion and says: “Mary Walsh. I suspect it was Mary Walsh. She saw me in a performance by this comedy group I was in, the Dance Party of Newfoundland. So I was in Hatching, Matching & Dispatching, the show she did for CBC. I think she recommended me for 22 Minutes, too. Anyway, I ended up in the writers’ room here for a while. Then they asked me back. Then I was on the show. I have to tell you I panicked the (first) time we taped the show. When I heard the theme music, I actually realized what was happening. I told myself: ‘Don’t screw this up!’”
Born in St. John’s, Kent moved with her parents to Corner Brook when she was a kid. “I didn’t fit in,” she says. “Went rebellious, shaved my head, became a punk rocker. In Corner Brook! Then I was in boarding school for a while, did some ballet and theatre. Calmed me down, I suppose. Then I went off. I was in Seattle for a while, had a job in a dance troupe. Came back to Corner Brook and found there was now a theatre school there. It’s where I met Sherry and Jonny and that’s when the bit of magic happened.”
The “bit of magic” is the camaraderie of young, creative people pushing each other into comedy and theatre. Sherry White is now a writer on Rookie Blue and made the wonderful movie Crackie; Jonny Harris is now Inspector Crabtree on Murdoch Mysteries. The group expanded to include Adriana Maggs, who made the movie Grown Up Movie Star, a hit at Sundance in 2010 and in which Harris and Kent appeared, along with Tatiana Maslany, now the star of Orphan Black.
Along the way, Kent did plenty of theatre in St. John’s and wrote and performed the remarkable one-woman show
Nan Loves Jerry, in which she plays both a grandmother and a young lowlife. (It’s a great theatre piece, I’ve seen it twice.) She followed friends to Toronto and scraped a living here and there.
“You can live for a while on a bag of potatoes and a jar of mayonnaise,” she says. “It keeps you going, anyway.” She described a period in Toronto when she shared an apartment with Harris. “We both wanted to live downtown and the prices were outrageous. We found this place, it had one bed and we flipped a coin for it, I won the bed. But Jonny had to get through the bedroom to reach the bathroom. My boyfriend would wake up to Jonny going past the bed whispering: ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry.’”
I put it to Kent that she’s part of a Newfoundland mafia in the comedy, theatre and TV worlds. A group always working together, encouraging each other, hiring each other. “We’re not a mafia, but we’re a gang,” she laughs. “Yeah, we’re a gang and we’re mean to people who aren’t in the gang.”
At this point there is a small interruption. The door opens and Cathy Jones comes in, yawning. She says she’s had a nap, is going for lunch and needs to talk to Kent later about a bit they’re working on. She gives Kent a hug. And then gives me a hug. 22 Minutes is a different kind of workplace.
“I grew up on CODCO and 22 Minutes,” Kent says when Jones leaves. “My friends and I would just be dying with laughter. The audacity of what they did. Those amazing characters. Dakey Dunn. Joe Crow. I knew some of those pieces by heart before I came to the show.”
And what does she bring to it now that she’s here? “I bring misfits, weirdos and skinny people. And Celine Dion. A long time ago, someone told me I look like her, which I don’t. But I started to do an impression of her. And when I came here they asked me what impressions I did. That was it – Celine Dion. But you have to able to do an impression of somebody on this show. I’d say I’m still building that muscle that does political satire. You need that muscle here.”
She’s gone from impoverished artist doing tiny theatres and living on potatoes to national TV. I ask her if she’s okay with the fame and recognition that comes with that. “Oh, man,” she says. “I never think that somebody’s recognized me. I think maybe they’re looking at me because I dress weird. Or my head is weird.”
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