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Tara Spencer-Nairn

Peter Bregg

Break time is over for Tara Spencer-Nairn. The former Corner Gas fixture is back to regular series rotation on the returning paranormal drama The Listener.

Born in Montreal and raised in Vancouver, Spencer-Nairn spent her formative years as a competitive gymnast before setting her sights on acting in her teens. After graduation from the Vancouver Film School, she paid her dues with roles in Canadian-made series such as Breaker High and Poltergeist: The Legacy.

Her big break came in 1999 with New Waterford Girl. Filmed in Glace Bay, N.S., the low-budget feature starred Liane Balaban as a moody teen named Moonie whose life changes with the arrival of a tough New Yorker named Lou, played by Spencer-Nairn. Critics raved.

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Three years later, she ventured into the comedy realm playing a massage-parlour worker in the saucy indie feature Rub & Tug. Next came Corner Gas. Created by comedian Brent Butt, the weekly snapshot of life in fictional Dog River, Sask., became the most successful sitcom in Canadian TV history, thanks in no small part to Spencer-Nairn's portrayal of Karen Pelly, a small-town constable with a penchant for rules and a passion for table hockey. Corner Gas signed off in 2009, after which she took on guest shots on comedy programs ( The Ron James Show) and movies ( Cancel Christmas).

On The Listener, Spencer-Nairn is a new addition as Sandy, a no-nonsense triage nurse who interacts with the mind-reading paramedic Toby (Craig Olejnik). She spoke to us in Toronto last week.

On Corner Gas , you were a cop; on The Listener , you're a nurse. Does it feel like you've traded in one uniform for another?

I actually love having a uniform. It makes wardrobe fittings so much easier. And I think characters in uniforms age well. If you watch Friends from the early nineties and look at their wardrobe, they look really weird. But if you see someone in a cop uniform or scrubs, they don't look out of place. It's not dated. Now when I watch old episodes of Corner Gas, I can laugh at what the other people are wearing, but what I'm wearing dates really well, because it's just a uniform.

Any preparation to play a triage nurse?

She's a little bit like me, so that helped. Sandy is very organized and the type of person who shows up 20 minutes early for a meeting, which is like me. She runs a tight ship and she's a fun character. And it feels really nice to be doing a drama again.

You were born in Montreal and raised in Vancouver. Which city feels like your hometown?

My mother is French-Canadian. We moved to Vancouver when I was 2, but it's much cooler to say you're from Montreal. I know people in Vancouver are going to hate me for that.

Was there one person or event that inspired you toward acting?

When I was in high school, there was a girl in my grade named Emily Perkins, who was on a show called Mom P.I. at the time. I just thought it was so cool that she was on a TV show, and sometimes she would be in school and sometimes she wouldn't. Until then, I never thought of acting as a career or a job. There was also a drama teacher, Ms. Harrison, who took me under her wing and made me feel like there was something I could be good at.

Before acting, you were a competitive gymnast. Was that like switching one creative outlet for another?

It absolutely was. And it's interesting how many actors I've met who have a gymnastics background. Although you're competing for yourself, you're also competing as a team. No matter what happens in a routine, if you fall or you screw up, you have to get up and continue and do the best you can. Gymnastics taught me how to perform with a lot of pressure and how to focus and not let nerves get to you. Gymnastics gave me the tools I needed to be an actor.

Through the mid-nineties, you guested on almost every show filmed in Canada - Relic Hunter , Cold Squad , The Outer Limits , et al. Was that your training school?

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A lot of those things prepared me for my future. That's what you do as an actor in Canada. You make your rounds by doing guest spots and a couple days on a show here and there.

Was New Waterford Girl your breakout role?

It took everything to the next level for me. If I had to pick one thing that I'm most proud of, it would probably be that movie. To this day, it's amazing how many random people will stop me on the street and tell me how much they love that film.

Your character, Lou, came from the Bronx. How did you get the accent?

I had about two days to learn that.

Were you prepared for the rabid media acclaim for New Waterford ?

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Liane [Balaban]and I had no clue how big that movie was going to be. I didn't know what a film festival was and had never been to one. We just thought we were making some movie for television. It was pretty interesting. In retrospect, I wish I had been a little better prepared. It happened really quickly and I didn't know it was going on.

You've also appeared in several notable indie films, Rub & Tug included. What's the appeal for you?

I love doing independent films, especially Canadian ones. There isn't a lot of money, so there's always a sense of camaraderie. Everyone's doing it for the right reasons. I mean, no one's making huge bucks doing an indie film. It's like a team, an army, coming together and trying to make the most beautiful picture they possibly can. There's no egos or people saying "Where's my lunch?" All I need is a peanut-butter sandwich and a coffee, and I'm fine.

Your IMDb profile points out that you're left-handed. What's the worst thing about being left-handed?

There is no worst thing about being left-handed! There's only great things about being left-handed. You just have to make sure you sit on the left side of the table. And buy the right scissors.

Two years removed from the last episode, does Corner Gas still stand out as a unique experience for you?

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It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I'll tell you, that Brent Butt is a pretty smart man. The show came from such a great group of people, the cast, the producers, the crew. It really was like a family. I still miss it a lot. I think we all miss it. It was hard, but I think the show ended when it should have.

How much of you went into Officer Karen Pelly?

A lot of it came from the writers getting to know us over the years. Originally I was supposed to be the silly and goofy one. The writers gradually got to know us and Lorne's character and my character were flipped. Then Lorne was just relaxed and Zen, while Karen was all about the rules and very anal retentive.

Yet adorable in her own way.…

It's hard not to think someone is adorable when their uniform is too big for them. She may be officious, but you can't take her too seriously when her sleeves are below her fingers.

Any update on the possibility of a Corner Gas reunion movie?

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It's hard, because there's a lot of pressure to do it right. If they were going to do a movie, it has to be amazing, because if it isn't, then you tarnish the entire reputation we took six years to build.

How difficult was it to jump back into regular series work on The Listener ?

I was really nervous my first day on set. It was like the first day of school all over again. But honestly everyone on the show was so welcoming and nice. And of course the uniform always helps.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

The Listener returns Tuesday at 10 p.m. on CTV.

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