Craig Olejnik has built a career by listening to his inner actor.
The handsome star of The Listener was in his early teens when he landed his breakout role opposite Helena Bonham Carter in the acclaimed Margaret’s Museum, which was filmed near his hometown of Halifax. Once bitten by the acting bug, Olejnik guest-starred on filmed-in-Canada series such as So Weird and Wolf Lake before scoring a plum part in the 2001 feature Thir13en Ghosts. In recent years, he has turned in memorable performances in the TV movies In God’s Country and The Obituary and took a recurring role in the CW series Runaway, starring Donnie Wahlberg.
In 2009, Olejnik signed on for The Listener, in which he plays a paramedic with the ability to hear people’s thoughts. Filmed in Toronto, the show aired in both the U.S. and Canada for its first season. NBC has removed it from its schedule, but it continues to pull a million-plus viewers in Canada. Olejnik, 32, is also a partner in Raw Canvas, a Vancouver lounge and art studio, and has recently begun to produce short films. He spoke to us in Toronto last week.
How does one research playing a paramedic with psychic abilities?
I was curious about telepathy long before the series. It was just something that fascinated me. I had a few books on the subject and I spent some time with Deborah Levin, who is a psychic in Toronto. For the paramedic angle, we did ride-alongs and training sessions.
Although The Listener came and went quickly on U.S. television, the show remains hugely popular with Canadian viewers. Any theories?
I can only speculate it has something to do with the characters. It’s like House. I don’t watch House for the plot and the story; I watch it for the characters, and the character development. The show has a little bit of quirkiness to it and we’re not as aggressive as a Flashpoint or a CSI. Sometimes it’s nice not to be around aggressive things.
Was Margaret’s Museum a life-altering experience for you?
I was 14 or 15 when I made that movie. That’s half a lifetime ago for me. At the same time, it was such a vivid experience for me. I’m hard-pressed to remember things I did last week, but I remember making that movie. It was a special time.
What did working on the CW series Runaway teach you?
It taught me that every project prepares you for the next one. And it made me realize that all the things I thought were frightening, like working on a big American production, weren’t scary at all. It made me realize I was ready for it.
Why do you think so many talented people hail from the Maritimes?
I heard Neil Young say it has something to do with the weather. Right now, it’s summer and it’s amazing and dreamy, but when you have six months of winter and cold and you’re near the ocean and the sea air and it’s so dark, it just gets in you. You fantasize a little bit about different places and things and emotions. It keeps you sane, in a way. And it probably lends itself to expressing yourself through whatever outlet you can find.
What is your involvement with Raw Canvas in Vancouver?
We call it an art house. It’s a restaurant on the ground, with a bar lounge. We provide a platform for painters, mostly. You can come in and have a drink, but it’s about painting. You buy a canvas and we supply all the paint and brushes. You just paint and express yourself. I work with a lot of artists now. I still feel like we’re all kids at school. When I was young and sleeping on friends’ couches, we all helped each other out.
What moved you to start producing short films?
I had some money in the stock market, and I lost it. It made me realize: Why am I investing in people I will never meet? Now, I put my money in friends and people making art. I just produced a short film called Wake Me Up, which was fun. Once you get into this business deep enough, you’re able to do more things and express yourself.
Is it tougher or easier to be a working actor in Canada these days?
The business I entered into back in the nineties no longer exists. Actually the business I entered into with The Listener a few years ago no longer exists. The system is changing. People want content and the way they pay for it and receive it is changing, so we’re going through an uncertain time right now. That’s why I’m investing in other things. I was bored sitting around waiting for auditions, so that’s why I'm doing things like Raw Canvas. Things will change again in the next few years, but there’s always room for good storytelling.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be a photographer. I started taking pictures when I made Margaret’s Museum and photography is still one of my deepest personal passions. It’s a challenge to capture someone’s essence. I’ve been archiving photographs for years and eventually I’ll do a show or put them in a book, if books still exist in the future.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Listener returns with new episodes on Aug. 17 at 8 p.m. on CTV.