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Despite his over-the-top enthusiasm, there’s something about Bruce Greenwood’s calm-in-a-crisis voice and pretention-free delivery that makes you believe in his authority.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Here's something you might not know about Bruce Greenwood, who's contending for the best actor prize at the Canadian Screen Awards on Sunday night for his new drama Elephant Song, which opens today: Off-screen, he's an arm-waver. An enthuser. The over-doing-it opposite of the understated, under-control generals, judges, businessmen and U.S. presidents he often plays. Or as he described them in a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, "men in suits with sticks up their asses, who die in the second act."

In his real life, Greenwood, 58, continues, "I'm more Emeril-meets-Jim-Carrey. My wife is constantly going, 'Oh, God, stop. Calm down.'" Example: He's currently "deeply, deeply into baking bread." He waxes on about the 30-year-old live yeast a friend gave him from France via San Francisco, and how if he mixes the dough with more water and less flour, he gets a mucky lump that rises with large holes, resulting in a more airy loaf. "Then there's learning about the husks of the wheat, and the wheat germ inside the kernel," he adds. "You have to stop me now, because I will talk all day about it. And yes, my one arm that's not holding the phone is waving and gesticulating."

Even at peak enthusiasm, however, there's something about Greenwood's calm-in-a-crisis voice, his pretension-free delivery and his straight-up handsomeness (his face would suit any decade from the 1930s to now) that makes you believe in his authority. It's why he's in steady demand in the United States and his native Canada, for directors famous and fledgling. He's worked with Robert Zemeckis (Flight) and Atom Egoyan (six times); he's co-starred with Bradley Cooper (The Place Beyond the Pines) and Kevin Costner (Thirteen Days). He appears in blockbusters such as I, Robot and the current Star Trek series, and in passion projects such as Capote, Meek's Cutoff and I'm Not There. In upcoming films, Greenwood will share the screen with Aaron Paul, Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford. Since his career began in 1977, with the TV series The Beachcombers, the longest he's been out of work is four months – and that's saying something.

In Elephant Song – a taut three-hander about a psychiatrist (Greenwood); his ex-wife, a psychiatric nurse (Catherine Keener); and the brilliant patient (Xavier Dolan) who orchestrates a life-changing mind game – Greenwood begins the story with a stick up his ass. But the more determined he is to stay in control, the more we see how much he needs to let go. (The screenplay, adapted by Nicolas Billon from his stage play, is also up for a Canadian Screen Award.) "It's a trip through these labyrinths," Greenwood says, "where I'm trying to follow this kid through all these tunnels that lead me farther and farther away from my ability to see things clearly."

Normally, a film is shot out of sequence, which forces the actors to guess at how scenes set earlier will play later. But because most of Elephant Song takes place in one office, the director, Charles Binamé, was able to shoot in sequence, allowing everyone to add layers and nuances as they went. "Things could evolve," Greenwood says. "Scene A played in a way we didn't anticipate, so we could allow scenes B and C to go to new places. It was a luxurious experiment. Binamé is a beautiful guy, an artist and we had miles of conversations and glasses of wine, talking through the tone. He lets the hard stuff land so softly that you don't realize all the information you're getting. The horror is whispered to you."

Dolan, the fiercely precocious writer/director/actor, whose Mommy is contending for several Canadian Screen Awards as well, conducted an experiment of his own: Because he didn't know Greenwood, he wanted them to meet for the first time on-camera, as their characters are meeting. It involved a fair amount of wrangling. Greenwood would block the scene with Dolan's stand-in. Then he'd be spirited down the hall, and Dolan would block with Greenwood's stand-in. Then they'd do it again, making tweaks. Greenwood, who prefers to converse with his co-stars in advance, "to find out what they think the movie is about," initially thought the intrigue was a bit much.

"But then I thought, 'Don't be an idiot, he's a talented kid, what have you got to lose?'" Greenwood goes on. Sure enough, when the cameras rolled, something happened: "Xavier opened the door, and all this stuff poured through my mind, how young he looks, how tall he is, is he tired? And everything that was coursing through my mind was written on my face. It's stuff you only get to experience once, and it's stuff you can forget to include when you're meeting a character. Afterward, Xavier was incredibly charming. He said, 'I know it was odd, but I thought it might be worth it.' He was right. It created a certain electricity. It reminded me to pay attention to those details."

It's the kind of experience that keeps Greenwood arm-wavingly excited about acting, even with all his expertise. As a child "drowning in books," he was always intoxicated by behaviour, why and how people do things. "Acting is an extension of that," he says. "So it's an extension of who I, fundamentally, am. It's a bit like music. The more you do, the more you realize there's an endless amount to learn."

(Speaking of music, Greenwood also writes songs and plays guitar. He gigs around L.A. a few times a year, and, in 2013, he toured the American Midwest with John Mellencamp – 21 dates in 25 days – performing the musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which Mellencamp co-wrote with Stephen King. "Waking up at 11 a.m., not knowing if you're in Tulsa or Akron – it was awesome," he squeals.)

In his early years, Greenwood was more inclined to go in, do an acting job and get out. He took some work for the paycheque alone and his self-esteem was tied to whether or not he was employed. That's all changed, he says: "I'm more open now to appreciating the moments we have, to trying to make the absolute most out of what we're doing. I no longer assume that because something seems a little flat on the page there's not something really wonderful in there, waiting to be brought out."

As an example, he cites the 2014 remake of Endless Love that he made with director Shana Feste. "As much as the movie, ultimately, was just kind of okay, it was a whole lot better than it could have been, and that's really gratifying. It doesn't matter to me what people say about it.

"In the past, I was a little blind to all that," he goes on. "I may not have worked as completely as I do now. Which is to say, I may not have worked as hard. But it doesn't feel like hard work. It feels like the thing that makes it interesting. Makes it fun."

So an experiment like the one Dolan wrought on Elephant Song is an apt metaphor for Greenwood's passion for acting (not to mention, for moviemaking, itself). "It's bizarre and kind of ridiculous," Greenwood says. "But it's great."