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Actor Tom Rooney at Crow's Theatre in Toronto, on Dec. 22, 2023.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Tom Rooney is back at his practice.

On a warm December day, the great anti-star of the Canadian stage is rehearsing his big nervous breakdown in the title role in Uncle Vanya, ahead of the acclaimed 2022 Crow’s Theatre production’s return - first at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton, then at the CAA Theatre in Toronto.

The Anton Chekhov play’s creative team led by Chris Abraham – Crow’s artistic director and Rooney’s chief collaborator – are watching from chairs pushed right up against the sides of a column-cluttered room.

This is because Crow’s headquarters doesn’t have a rehearsal space the size of the larger proscenium theatres where its Uncle Vanya is now headed, but it seems almost like everyone in the room is cringing into the walls, away from the tragicomic trash-can-on-fire that is Rooney’s Vanya.

The company has reached the part of the third act where this underappreciated, openly resentful estate manager – the ur-embarrassing uncle of Russia – suffers a series of mortifying heartbreaks and humiliations that tip him over the edge.

The first time through, Rooney’s Vanya tries to tear off his cardigan, but it gets tangled up in his arms, and his gesture of throwing it to the ground is totally impotent.

The second time, Vanya’s failed attempt at dramatically kicking off his slippers instead becomes a sad, shuffling slip-off that only makes the character seem shorter.

According to Abraham, it’s not unusual to see Rooney, who is about to turn 60, finding new things to explore in a remount.

Indeed, the director’s experiences returning to work with the Saskatchewan-raised actor are among his favourites to recall – the duo has collaborated on a string of reprised hits that includes Kristen Thomson’s The Wedding Party at Crow’s, Tartuffe at the Stratford Festival, Cyrano de Bergerac at the Shaw Festival and now Uncle Vanya.

“I can always see how much Tom has learned from a show in performance,” says Abraham of an actor who is unusually attuned to the audience. “For a person like Tom, it’s really: You can go to the next level.”

What’s surprising to learn about Rooney after years of being riveted by his risk-taking on stage, and seeing how much creativity and liveness can flow out of him even at the tail end of a long rehearsal day, is how different his energy is in an interview.

The actor’s defences are hard to crack even though we’re eating a prix fixe dinner, and therefore I have several courses in which to try. He’s soft-spoken, humble and grateful – and steers questions away from anything controversial or gossipy. Now, he’s the one who seems to want to disappear into the wall next to him.

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'You look around, there’s clowns everywhere,' he says. 'In real life, you know what I mean? There aren’t any leading men or leading women.'Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

This is an actor who can make dialogue as ornate as Shakespeare or as verbose as Shaw sound like it is off the cuff and straight from the heart, but, speaking about his craft or his career extemporaneously, he can sound almost canned. (Indeed, reading old profiles of him afterward, I see he’s been using almost the exact the same words to answer certain questions for decades.)

“I get very allergic to talking about acting,” he apologizes at one point. Later, he admits to a more general intolerance of talking: “I’m shy – I find conversation challenging, for sure.”

Rooney, long a favourite of Canadian theatregoers, is coming off one of the most critically acclaimed seasons of his career – and is heading into one of his most high profile.

In 2023, he gave one of his most soulful, mournful performances to date in the Crow’s sold-out stage adaptation of André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs, playing Majnoun, a sentient poodle of few words who lives by a strict code of ethics; he followed that by unleashing a stream of smart patter as King Magnus in Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart, a Shaw Festival studio show that landed on multiple critics’ end-of-year lists.

Now, in 2024, he will head straight from the Mirvish Productions-presented commercial run of Vanya to a show that will likely garner his largest audience in years – the Shaw main-stage production of My Fair Lady from May to December.

That length of run is music to the ears for Rooney. “To have that much time and that many hours to work on a project, or to work on a role, it’s a great gift because you can practise,” he says. He approaches theatre, it emerges over the meal, as a kind of spiritual endeavour.

The Shaw Festival has once again opened up meaty roles for an actor universally adored for his comic performances in the Stratford Festival, but who hasn’t always fit into the stereotypical mould of the classic Shakespearean leading man, at least according to casting directors and critics. Reviewing his Hamlet at the National Arts Centre in 2004, for instance, an Ottawa Citizen critic remarked (in a rave review) on the “subversive” casting of a man with his “slight build” and “balding pate” who looked “more like an IT specialist from Kanata than a dashing Danish prince.”

Rooney – whose acting idols are, like him, funny and off-beat and original, such as Danny Kaye and Gene Wilder, or Douglas Rain and Mark Rylance – says he does enjoy “a bit of clown” in acting, but believes there’s no contradiction between that and a goal to incarnate real, recognizable human beings.

“You look around, there’s clowns everywhere,” he says. “In real life, you know what I mean? There aren’t any leading men or leading women.”

Rooney’s shift from Stratford to Shaw a few years back is part of a 35-year career marked by moves about once a decade that have kept him fresh on his feet. He considers himself “lucky” to have always had an acting job on the horizon since graduating from the University of Saskatchewan (with a music degree, to boot) and landing the role of Romeo in a bilingual production of Romeo and Juliette that was co-directed by Robert Lepage. (Lepage, a major fan of his, is one of a number of colleagues who make annual pilgrimages to see Rooney in whatever show he is in.)

Rooney spent the 1990s primarily in Western Canada, where his main artistic homes were the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan festival (run by one of his mentors, Henry Woolf, an old pal of Harold Pinter’s), and the now defunct playRites Festival of new Canadian plays in Calgary, where he found another champion in the late director Marti Maraden.

In the 2000s, Rooney moved to Toronto for love – following the life force that was Gina Wilkinson, then an actor, whom he’d met while the two were acting in a Eugene Stickland play. They got together in Edmonton while he was playing Oberon to her Titania. But he quickly landed a role on CBC’s This Is Wonderland (earning two Gemini nominations) and became a regular at a National Arts Centre run by Maraden, who cast him as Hamlet and as Dr. Stockmann in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. He found his way back to singing through Mirvish, playing Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray in Toronto and then on Broadway.

Rooney’s next phase began in 2008, when Maraden brought him to Stratford. Though the triumvirate of artistic directors of which she was a part lasted only a year, he stuck around longer, and bought a house there with Wilkinson, who’d just pivoted brilliantly to directing.

But then, at the very end of 2010, tragedy struck. Wilkinson suddenly got sick – and died of cancer just weeks later.

Amid a grief he now calls a “chronic disease,” Rooney put his head down and distinguished himself at Stratford getting laughter and tears playing gulls and clowns: His Malvolio, directed by Des McAnuff, was one for the ages, while he was the funniest Tranio possible in Abraham’s production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Through he had bigger roles in Stratford, too, there was something particularly superb about the way Rooney rendered such foolish or wily supporting characters as Polonius or Juliet’s Nurse, Autolycus and Justice Shallow. Ben Carlson, a Stratford stalwart and longtime friend of Rooney’s who played Horatio to his Hamlet and Hamlet to his Horatio, says: “He does humour very well – and he does humiliation very well.”

As for another H – humility – that he displays, bahia watson, a frequent co-star of Rooney’s a generation younger, says his “Zen quality” isn’t an act. “He doesn’t position himself as the star of the show – even if he is,” says Watson, who is returning from LA to play Sonya again in Uncle Vanya for the off-Mirvish run.

“I don’t want to put anyone else down, but I think he does stand out in that way,” she says with a laugh. “Though it’s almost the opposite of standing out.”

Directors Eda Holmes and Jessica Carmichael, who have worked with him lately at Shaw, say he does distinguish himself in a couple of other ways: He begins work on a show well in advance of rehearsals (sometimes a year), but is also – despite it seeming paradoxical – always open to experimentation in rehearsal.

Kimberley Rampersad, associate artistic director at Shaw, says his dedication to continuously learning, perhaps because he didn’t go to theatre school, makes him a role model to younger ensemble members. “He attends a vast majority of the company classes offered at Shaw – you will always find his name on the schedule for voice and dialect, singing lessons, Alexander classes, or movement tutorials,” says Rampersad, who is co-directing My Fair Lady (and is a past recipient of the Gina Wilkinson Prize for female theatremakers that Rooney set up in his wife’s memory).

Ultimately – although he could and maybe should be a household name – it would be an insult to Rooney’s ethos and temperament to call him a star. “It’s not a very exciting thing to say, but Tom’s entire orientation is about the story, not about what he’s doing,” says Abraham. “He’s really interested in the whole.”

Rooney, who’s never written and only directed once (”I didn’t have that communication skill”), seems happiest to let others speak to his craft and to speak through that craft to the public. “I’m glad that you were able to see the rehearsal,” he tells me, seemingly relieved an interview has come to a close. “I think that’s much more my language.”

Uncle Vanya continues at Theatre Aquarius to Jan. 27, then plays the CAA Theatre from Feb. 2 to 25.

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