Actor Michael D. Cohen's career epiphany occurred at the age of four in his Winnipeg basement – a rec room that had fake palm trees built into the wall – while watching The Carol Burnett Show with his family.
"I just looked at that TV set and I went: That's it, that's what my life is going to be about," says Cohen, who then adopts a classic 1970s television announcer's voice: "'From Television City in Hollywood …' And I'm like, that's where I'm going to live. I'm going to live in Television City in Hollywood."
Cohen is speaking from his apartment just a few blocks from the CBS studio complex known as Television City in Hollywood, and with a view that includes, yes, palm trees.
The occasion for our discussion is his starring role in the Canadian film It Was You Charlie. Cohen plays Abner, a depressed, down-on-his-luck doorman working the graveyard shift. Once an acclaimed sculptor and art teacher, Abner has given up his college position, and is falling apart – the result of a traumatic car accident, a disagreement with his brother, and the loss of the woman he loves. Part unrequited-love story/part psychological thriller, the low-budget (about $350,000) film is dark and dramatic, but has a strong comedic element.
For Cohen (who lived in Winnipeg, Vancouver and Toronto before moving to L.A.) it has the potential to be a breakout role as he grabs hold of this opportunity to strut his thespian stuff.
He has been a busy working actor for years, with such guest TV roles as "taxidermist" (The Mindy Project), "ticket taker" (2 Broke Girls) and "odd neighbour" (Modern Family). He also gets a lot of voice work, including a starring role in the animated series Grossology. He has a supporting role in the feature Whiplash, which will have its Canadian premiere at TIFF. With It Was You Charlie (which takes its name from an On the Waterfront quote), he is upping his game with his first lead in a feature.
"It was a bit of a leap of faith," says director/screenwriter Emmanuel Shirinian, making his feature directorial debut with Charlie, about choosing Cohen for the role. "But I also knew that Michael is one of those actors who does so much with so little. … I really needed an actor who could go to some really difficult places for me – emotionally, physically – and Michael was always up for the challenge."
Shirinian was a resident at the Canadian Film Centre Directors' Lab when he first came across Cohen. He cast him in two shorts, including Song of Slomon, which had its U.S. premiere at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. "I was immediately kind of attracted to his stature," Shirnian says. "He was a little guy, but he chewed up a lot of scenery on screen; he was a very big presence on screen for a little guy."
Cohen is five feet tall. He is also very funny, thoughtful about his craft, and meticulous in his prep work – the walls of the place he stayed in Toronto while shooting Charlie were covered with an enormous chart plotting Abner's emotional state up against the shooting schedule.
With all that going for him, though, he has still worried about the potential impact of his height on his career. "When I first came to L.A., I was a little concerned about it, and people were saying: 'You know what? This is going to be a huge advantage for you. This isn't a negative.' And I think there was a time when that had not been tested out and I was a little dubious and thinking: 'Am I always going to be [cast as] the elf?' But I don't see myself that way, so I guess other people don't. I think they see all the different possibilities of what I can offer," says Cohen (who believes he has played an elf twice in commercials).
This leads to a discussion about actors being pigeonholed based on their appearance. Cohen, who is also an acting coach, figures 75 to 90 per cent of roles that actors are cast in are based on looks to a degree. "That's part of our product," he says. "It shapes who we are. It's part of the storytelling apparatus, our physicality."
But he believes things are changing for character actors (a euphemism, he says – a leading man is the good-looking guy who gets the girl; a character actor is the guy who doesn't). He points to Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire and Paul Giamatti in Sideways – guys who, appearance-wise, may not have been considered typical leading men.
"Let's face it: We like looking at pretty people up on screen, but I think for only certain types of movies. We want a variety, we want a buffet of things to choose from. If we only had the Brad and Angies up there all the time … I think we'd get bored and we'd wonder: Where am I in all of this? Where is the everyday person?"
Cohen is also keenly aware of the comedic opportunities his stature presents. He still idolizes Burnett, and he went to see her speak last November with her old co-star Tim Conway. During the Q&A session, Cohen asked for advice on what to tell acting students about what makes comedy work. He recalls Conway saying: "Well, looking at you and then looking at the man behind you …"
Behind Cohen was a giant of a man ("he was, like, 11 of me"). Cohen turned around, gave the stranger a hug, then, sensing that the guy was game, wrapped his legs around him, crawled up onto his shoulders, flipped around and, fireman-style, slowly slid down his back to the ground. The audience was in hysterics. So was Burnett, who offered a dry, "Well, I guess that answers your question."
Cohen knows Burnett's daughter, and approached her after the show. "I made your mom laugh," he told her. "I can die now."
It Was You Charlie opened Aug. 15 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.