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On location in Prince Edward County, Ont., for the new film Drifting Snow, Sonja Smits’s writer/director, Ryan Noth, kept telling her, “I want your character to be you. Show me you.” And Smits kept thinking, “Who do you think I am?”
Noth, who was jumping from documentary to features, was asking for a naturalistic performance (which she delivers). But I bet he felt he did know Smits. After watching her career for 40-plus years, I bet we all do.
Some stars you love for their mystery, and some stars feel like family. Smits, 63, is the latter. She’s got a voice like warm buttered toast and a laugh rich with mischief. She carries herself elegantly; her wavy hair is now chic COVID-silver. But there’s raucousness in there, too. She tells me precisely one off-the-record story (Sharon Stone, Malta), which makes me long to sit in the garden of her Prince Edward County winery, Closson Chase, pour her a fat glass of red, and dish. Instead we are on Zoom, behaving ourselves.
Smits grew up on an Ottawa Valley dairy farm, “isolated in some ways, but I had my imagination,” she says. “I was interested in politics, injustice. I realized that as an actor, in a tiny way, you’re helping to say, ‘This is how things are.’”
She inscribed herself on Canada’s collective consciousness with back-to-back, pre-millennium series, Street Legal and Traders, that everyone sat down on Thursdays to watch, and defined a certain sort of shoulder-padded power woman – what Smits calls, “Tough, but.” She worked for David Cronenberg in Videodrome; co-starred with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Owning Mahowny; and parodied herself on the Rick Mercer Report.
But hers is a Canadian career, which means she hit roadblocks, first in the early 1980s. Smits recalls, “It was, ‘You’ve done your one CBC movie for the year, so now which do you want to do on screen: be raped, attacked by dogs or take your clothes off?’” Instead she spent three years in Los Angeles.
Five weeks after she landed, she found herself in renowned costume designer Edith Head’s dressing room on the Paramount lot, having a fitting for a series pilot, Command Five, and negotiating “more money than I’d ever seen in my life.” She played the Girl, a psychologist. “I had an Uzi, I was riding motorcycles, I had grenades on my belt, I was like, ‘Whoo hoo,’” Smits says. “Of course, it ended up being a disaster. They spent all sorts of money blowing things up in the Arizona desert, and then The A-Team came out. It was like, ‘Okay, that was that. Welcome to Hollywood.’”
She came home to make Street Legal, but it and her subsequent successes didn’t inure her from other roadblocks. “There were a lot of lost years,” Smits says candidly. “I thought my only choice was to wait for the phone to ring. I don’t think actors are doing that now.”
Lately she’s been popping up in guest spots on Canadian series (American Gods, Murdoch Mysteries, Diggstown), and entertaining offers from the handful of writers and directors who create roles for her. “They’re often not-nice women,” Smits says, feigning outrage. “I guess I’m good at playing not-nice.”
Certain tropes receive a quick no: “Hideous monster mothers, women who get to do nothing but die of cancer, and women who are just ‘Yes, dear, how was your day,’” she rhymes off. But in Noth’s 15-page treatment for Drifting Snow – he sent an e-mail out of the blue to Closson Chase – Smits saw “something lyrical.” A recent widow and a man she collides with on an icy rural road (the musician Jonas Bonnetta, making his screen debut) form an unlikely friendship. The shoot was 18 days, the budget a mere $75,000, but the mood is adult and elegiac, and it’s beautifully shot by Tess Girard, Noth’s partner.
Smits gave the young crew the benefit of her experience, and the film is “1,000-per-cent better because of her,” Noth said in a phone interview. She did her own hair and makeup, put together and kept track of her own wardrobe, contributed dialog, suggested shots, encouraged an admittedly intimidated Bonnetta (who also did the soundtrack and some sound recording), and one day, when they were losing the light, she even held her own reflector board. Her sole request to Noth was that she didn’t want to be cold.
“I was so green, I never thought about where the camera was or how I’d look,” Bonnetta said in a separate interview. “Sonja would tuck my hair behind my ear for me. Her patience for the process, when it was minus 30 and everyone was tired, is something I’ll carry into my music. She was endlessly curious, engaged and excited. She took something difficult and made it joyful.”
“It was a wonderful experience, because it was so intimate,” Smits says. “Intimate being a nice way of saying they had two cents.” She laughs. “But it was beautifully liberating, all of us crammed in the car, Tess and Ryan crunched down in the back seat. I felt like I did when I was starting out in theatre, where you all figure it out together.”
The film almost ended before it began, however, when Smits’s husband of 30 years, Atlantis Films co-founder Seaton McLean, suffered a health crisis (now resolved) just days before cameras rolled. “We go through life denying things until they smack us in the face,” Smits says. “I haven’t suffered much loss – my parents, some friends, but I’ve been lucky. Then suddenly it was, ‘Oh.’ I’m starting to understand the vulnerability of living long enough that things start knocking at your door.” She grins. “But being an actor, I went, okay, this will make me more empathetic to my character.”
Off-screen Smits keeps busy, exchanging ideas with her adult son and daughter; overseeing the winery (vineyard life is a lot like the film business, she says, a band of experts making something together); and learning to jump her horse. “My heart starts pounding. It’s really good for my head, my body and my nerves. A horse person asked me, ‘Why don’t you have any fear?’ I said, ‘I do have fear. I just hate having fear.’”
So if you want to know who Sonja Smits is, try this: Offer her roles that use her hard-earned skills and her vibrant sexuality. And give her some fun. “I don’t have to prove anything,” she says. “My ego or reputation isn’t on the line. I just want to help lighten the load.”
Drifting Snow is available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes and Vimeo on Demand, starting May 11