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Actor Billy Campbell on Cardinal, the frozen wilds and the roles that matter most

Billy Campbell stars as the titular detective attempting to solve the long-ago murder of a girl found in a block of ice in Cardinal.

Brooke Palmer

Talk about your cold case. For the new CTV series Cardinal, a dead-of-winter crime drama adapted from the Giles Blunt novel Forty Words for Sorrow, Billy Campbell stars as the titular detective attempting to solve the long-ago murder of a girl found in a block of ice.

The Globe and Mail spoke with the 57-year-old actor, about frozen wilds, Canadian sensibilities and the roles that matter the most.

You have permanent residence status in Canada, but you were born and raised in Charlottesville, Va., and you trained as an actor in the United States. What, besides the work, brought you here?

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I'm kind of spiritually Canadian. My family has had a small cottage in Muskoka for generations. I've been coming here since I was a baby, and I've always been in love with Canada. I wanted to live here, so I bought an apartment in Vancouver and I applied for and got my permanent residency.

And, as a sailing enthusiast, you spend time in Nova Scotia, right?

Yes. I have a sailboat there. I was also a crew member on a square-rig ship that circumnavigates the globe. It's in Lunenburg, called the Picton Castle. So, I have Canadian roots.

A lot of Americans would be envious of you. Is there something about the lifestyle or the politics here that appeal to you?

Well, that's a loaded question. [Laughs.] But, yes. I find Canada to be blissfully sensible. Just stepping over the border, there's no one screaming at you about your religion or your morality.

I just find it to be a really friendly, sensible place – maybe the most on Earth.

The new CTV crime series Cardinal, which you star in as Detective John Cardinal, reminds me a little of the American series True Detective. Except for the weather. How does the snow and ice of the northern setting affect the story?

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This is a specifically and definitively Canadian show. And I think it gives it a real heft. And it may sound trite to say this, but the environment is another character.

Maybe the main character in the whole story. It stands in nicely for the kind of frozen wilds of Cardinal's heart.

He's a brooding fellow, I'll say that. What's his deal?

I met with the director, Daniel Grou, before the show. He asked me the same thing. The adjective I came up with is "tortured." He's tortured by the decisions he's made in his life that weren't good decisions, and they've come back to bite him in the ass. And who hasn't done that? I know I have.

You don't seem tortured, though.

Well, maybe I'm not so tortured. But I'm lucky. But Cardinal is essentially a decent person trying to do good. And he's driven.

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The show involves a missing indigenous girl, which is a big concern in Canada. How satisfying is it to work on a drama that addresses a real issue?

Of course it's very gratifying. Dramas that don't touch on something real don't really appeal to me. It feels gratifying to be part of something that has at least some relevance to what is happening in the world.

Over your career, what's the role that satisfied you the most in that respect?

There have been many fulfilling jobs. And there have been plenty of unfulfilling ones. But that's the nature of the business. I did a TV show called Once and Again that I thought said some lovely things about family.

I also did a low-budget film a few years ago in the Antarctic that was really fulfilling. It was called Red Knot, a little slice-of-life film that was mostly improvised. I didn't even have a big part in it. It was immensely gratifying, even beyond that fact that I got to go to the Antarctic.

I put an extra log on the fire just watching Cardinal. I can't imagine heading to the Antarctic.

Listen, I was colder on my first day shooting Cardinal in Sudbury than I ever was the entire time I was in the Antarctic. I kid you not. That's not an exaggeration.

Cardinal premieres Jan. 25, 10 p.m. on CTV

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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