You may remember him as Brandon Walsh in Beverly Hills, 90210, but Vancouver-born actor Jason Priestley mainly plays bad guys these days. Fresh from his success as the morally bankrupt used-car salesman on the Canadian comedy series Call Me Fitz, Priestley turns to theatre, where he takes on another dubious character, the cynical lawyer Jack in a Toronto production of David Mamet’s Race.
How often do you come back to Canada?
These days quite often. Last year I spent six months here between directing television and my first feature film, Cas & Dylan, and I did another 10 episodes of Call Me Fitz, and the year before it was about five months. The way the film and television industry is right now there are less and less jobs in California. I always seem to wind up back here in Canada; I have the right passport.
How long has it been since you were on stage?
I did a fair amount when I was young before I got corrupted by the bright lights of Hollywood and then I didn’t do any for about 10 years. And then in 2000 I did Side Man, the Warren Leight play in London with Edie Falco. I haven’t done any theatre since. The way you work in the theatre is so different; it’s refreshing to come back to it. And very difficult.
In film and television you develop a lot of bad habits, you shortcut a lot. You don’t have six hours to rehearse a scene; you have six minutes and then you film it. So you end up playing the result instead of getting to the result holistically. I end up using the tone of my voice to convey an emotion instead of getting to that place where that emotion is earned. Coming back to the theatre, those are the sorts of bad habits you have to break.
Actually living the emotion, that sounds draining.
Yes. The biggest thing about theatre is being totally present on the stage with the other actors all the time. Jack is the one character who remains onstage the whole time so I never get to shut it off even for a second. I always have to be completely present and available for my cast mates. It’s quite a task.
Tell me about Race. David Mamet has very specific requirements …
He gives very strict instructions about everything. You can’t use amplification; you can’t use music. I don’t even know if I can be talking to you about it. Seriously, it is pretty locked down.
The play is about race and about the state of race relations in America. It is also an examination of the legal system, about the lawyers who have no regard for truth or justice but just want to win. That’s the part of the legal system that a lot of people don’t really want to look at.
Mamet’s dialogue is unique. How do you produce the effect?
The punctuation! On the page you look at it and say, how am I supposed to do this? There is a definite rhythm, there is a singular way to deliver his dialogue and make it effective. It has been a challenge to wrap my head around it. The whole piece is a challenge for us as actors and also for the audience. The things these characters say, that are full of powerful and deep meaning, happen very fast so the audience has to work to keep up with what is going on. This production for me has been about learning; that’s why I am here.
You have revived Brandon Walsh for an Old Navy ad that takes us back to West Beverly Hills High School. It seems hard to believe, but we seem already to be experiencing 1990s nostalgia ...
I know. Chuck Rosin, who was the first executive producer of 90210, sent me an e-mail. He said you realize in a couple of months it is going to be 20 years since you guys graduated from high school. You’ve got to be kidding me!
How do you feel about Brandon these days?
For me, that was just another character in a long line of characters that I have played. I understand that show was very iconic and a lot of people loved that character, but I much prefer other characters. Brandon was very one-dimensional, didn’t provide a lot of challenges, but also did not provide a lot of fun. He was the social conscience of America.
I have had a lot more fun playing Richard Fitzpatrick. The more flawed a character is the more fun he is. I had a lot more fun playing Jack Harper on Tru Calling [a supernatural drama on Fox] for two seasons. He was the grim reaper; he was a very interesting character.
Fitz is shameless. Did you agree to play him to right the balance?
Fitz to me is such a perfectly flawed character. I read the pilot and I just knew I had to play him. [He] just doesn’t care. He is the antithesis of Brandon Walsh, which isn’t why I took the part, but it is something that makes him much more entertaining.
So why did you agree to the ad?
Oh, I thought it was funny. If you can’t make fun of yourself you are in the wrong business.
Race plays at Canadian Stage until May 5.
This interview has been edited and condensed.