Getting to play Henry Morgentaler, in a movie about his life, was the best role I ever had.
I found out a week before the movie was to start filming that I won the role, so I immediately asked if I could meet with Dr. Morgentaler before travelling to Montreal for a month of shooting. He was gracious and agreed, being very interested that “I get it right.”
He talked to me with precision about his life, and took me along to his abortion clinic on Bayview Avenue in Toronto. He made a point of saying how devoted most of his medical staff was, with their decades of committed employment. After spending a more few visits with him at his home and going for walks, as well as doing as much research as I could cram in, I had the ingredients I was looking for in the hopes trying to “to get it right.”
He certainly was a man of great intelligence, passion and unstoppable drive. He was also a Holocaust survivor, as was my father. That was the emotional opening that first helped me connect to playing Henry.
Playing Henry was an actors dream. They shaved my head, which didn’t take much, and fitted me with a very itchy beard. To try and master his accent I would listen to speeches from CBC archives day and night on headphones, and speak in a voice with a slightly higher octave than mine. Even though all of these outer physical elements did help inform me about Henry, any actor worth their salt knows the goal was not to do an imitation of Dr. Morgentaler, but to somehow find the spirit of the man.
As filming began, I recognized what a rollercoaster of a life Dr Morgentaler lived. He was in the eye of the storm in the late 60’s and 70’s.
One day, halfway through filming, Henry came on set to watch a bit of action live. The content of the scene was an argument between him and his estranged brother. They had to cut filming during the middle of the second take as Henry was audibly crying, revisiting again a strained relationship with his brother that was never mended. It reminded me about how human Henry truly was. There was vulnerability and inner pain underneath all that confidence and drive. Not unlike my father, deep down inside he was also haunted by the Holocaust.
It is always wonderful when you get to play the lead in a film. But to get to play this real life hero, who is also so human with his flaws, was a gift few actors get.
After the movie aired I saw Henry, and he as kind enough to say I did a good job, but “they didn’t get all the stories exactly right”.
I feel very lucky to have had a small role in Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s life.
David Eisner is the co-artistic director of the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company
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