Liane Balaban had less than 24 hours to pull together an audition tape for the upcoming film Last Chance Harvey, in which she co-stars alongside Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Frazzled - and frantic to snag the role of Hoffman's estranged daughter in the tale of middle-age romance - she grabbed the first warm body she could find (her real dad's, as it turned out) to read Hoffman's lines in a tear-jerker of a scene.
In retrospect, the 28-year-old Toronto actress says, the time squeeze was likely a bonus: She didn't have time to overthink her character or, more importantly, to get freaked out by the star power with which she was vying to be cast. Acting on instinct, she nailed the audition. And, she now adds with a saucy grin, she got to spend a fantastic summer in London last year making a movie that turned out to be like "going to the best acting school in the world."
Balaban, who grew up in the Toronto suburb of North York, went to high school at Lawrence Park Collegiate, and now lives in Montreal with her long-time writer boyfriend, is not normally the type to gush. But when it comes to talking about Hoffman and Thompson - who have a pair of Oscars each - she can't help herself, calling them the most "grounded, funny, real" people she's ever worked with.
"Dustin's such a lovely, generous, wonderful person," says Balaban, who was a journalism student at Ryerson University before deciding to concentrate on acting after her career took off in director Allan Moyle's 1999 film, New Waterford Girl.
(Balaban won a special jury citation for playing the Nova Scotian misfit, Moonie Pottie, at that year's Toronto International Film Festival.)
"He was giving me tips … not like coaching my acting … but life lessons," she says. "I remember we had a big conversation over lunch, and one of the things he imparted was: Always trust your truth. Dustin told me that if the director wants you to do something, and it doesn't feel right, don't do it. Do what you want. It was nice to hear it from a vet."
Balaban's Thompson gush-o-meter is equally high. "Emma's lovely, hilarious and so bright. Not only is she an actress, but she's a writer, an activist and an artist. She's such an inspiration," says Balaban, sporting just a smidge of makeup, but nonetheless looking exotically gorgeous.
Last Chance Harvey, written and directed by Joel Hopkins ( Jump Tomorrow) and opening in theatres on Friday, is a sweet love story about two middle-aged people who meet as each is grappling with a dreary life that bears little resemblance to what either had hoped for.
Hoffman is New Yorker Harvey Shine, a jingle writer about to lose his dead-end job. The film starts with him hopping a budget flight to London, where his daughter, Susan (Balaban), is about to get married. Thompson is Kate, an employee of the Office of National Statistics, who longs to write a book, but finds herself instead in neatly pressed suits, polling people, and looking after her neurotic mother (Eileen Atkins).
The drama heats up when Shine's bad day gets worse, starting off with his only daughter telling him that her stepfather (James Brolin) will be walking her down the aisle to give her away. "We talked about that scene beforehand … and what I learned from Dustin was not to decide anything before you do it," says Balaban.
"When we were rehearsing that scene, the director gave me a note about the acting. And Dustin's like, 'Whoa. Wait. Sometimes when you give an actor a note too early in the process, they become a slave to that note, and it blocks their exploration. You never want to do that,' " remembers Balaban. "But Dustin didn't do it in a patronizing way. He was just being helpful. And you can tell by Joel's light hand directing this movie that he just let Dustin and Emma do their thing."
Balaban says her two co-stars had been searching for a project to do together since they collaborated on Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction in 2006.
Director Hopkins originally sent Thompson a first draft of the script. She got back to him within 24 hours saying, "Love it, love it, love it." She then sent it along to her buddy Hoffman. About 48 hours later, the director got another e-mail from Thompson - this time confirming that Hoffman was also on board.
Last Chance Harvey has already garnered Golden Globe nominations for both Hoffman and Thompson. Balaban says she's not surprised. "As characters, they're both so likeable. And they're not acting. They really are like that in life. They bond because they're both standup comedians who love entertaining," says the willowy brunette, who credits a teacher at Lawrence Park for instilling her love of drama.
The project is Balaban's second major-studio film, but the actress says she still loves to work on independent features, most recently shooting Jacob Tierney's The Trotsky; Michael McGowan's One Week; and Will Frears's Coach, starring Hugh Dancy (who starred in The Jane Austen Book Club with Harvey's Kathy Baker). She also manages to dabble in television, recently heading back to London to make the CBC pilot Abroad, based on Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren's tangles with British men.
And if that weren't enough to fill her plate, she has also asked Montreal-born Tierney to serve as her mentor on a screenplay she's trying to pen - and which she shudders at describing in more detail. "I've still got lots of writing in me," says Balaban. "I have not left journalism, but I put it on hold to focus on acting. I love actors. I think it's a crazy thing to do with your life, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for them.
"But I have equal respect for people who have the ability to write. If I had more discipline, I could probably do both," she says with a shrug of her delicate shoulders. "I've learned that in order to write a book, you have to be incredibly disciplined and focused. I think one of the greatest skills a person can have is to complete a task they start. To take something from beginning, to middle, to end. In life, if you have that skill, I think you can go very far."