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After six seasons at Stratford, Ian Lake will be starring as Guy in Once.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Ian Lake has a gig, and a good-paying one – he's starring as the heartbroken singer-songwriter Guy in the musical Once, opening this weekend at Toronto's Ed Mirvish Theatre. So, on a morning off, the 31-year-old actor is found at his favourite music store on College Street.

When unemployed (which, truth be told, is not very often), Lake keeps away from Soundscapes because he can't leave without dropping a couple hundred bucks on vinyl. That's clear enough: With Beck's Grammy winner and the new Father John Misty album already tucked under his arm (and a Wilco B-sides collection on special order), he is still flipping through the records, genre by genre, headed from Folk/Americana toward Soul/Funk.

Is there a particular item the gentleman is searching for? "It's hard to know the categories," the 31-year-old actor says, pulling out Neil Young's Live at Massey Hall 1971, a gift for the American musical director on Once. "Music has moved beyond pop and rock."

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Lake is certainly a fine example of the limits of artistic categorization. For six straight seasons, he was a classical actor – in fact, the most talented male one under 30 at the Stratford Festival. He made an impression from his debut as a full-of-himself Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost in 2008 right through to a fiery Mortimer in Mary Stuart in 2013.

But Lake disappeared at the end of that season, and it was a real surprise where he popped up next, announced as the guitar-playing lead in the first Canadian production of Once, the Tony-winning musical adapted from the 2007 indie Irish movie with music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

Once is not only Lake's first musical, it is the first musical he has ever auditioned for.

Shortly after leaving Stratford, he travelled down to see fellow Canadian Paul Nolan playing the part of Guy in the now-closed Broadway production. "Normally, I see a musical and I think, 'How do they do that?'" Lake explains, having moved from the record store to a coffee shop down the street. "This was the first time I thought, 'I really want to do that.'"

In a way, Lake has secretly been preparing for the role for a decade. On his 21st birthday, his stepfather and mother gave him a guitar, and he set about teaching himself the instrument. Coincidentally – or perhaps with extreme foresight – Lake gravitated to Irish alternative music: The very first song he learned to play the chords for was Waiting by the Dublin alt-rock band The Devlins.

Next, Lake worked away at tunes by Irish songwriter Damien Rice. And when he went to see Rice while a student at National Theatre School in Montreal, The Frames, fronted by Glen Hansard, were the opening act at Theatre Outremont. Lake became a fan and went to see Once when it came out in movie theatres – well before it won the Oscar for best song (Falling Slowly) in 2007, and certainly before its brilliant stage adaptation won the Tony for Best Musical in 2012.

Born on Saltspring Island and raised in Vancouver, Lake certainly has had a fairly charmed professional life, unlike the about-to-give-up songwriter he plays in Once. Within a year of graduating from NTS, he had been accepted into Stratford's Birmingham Conservatory, and he made his debut at the festival in 2008 at age 24 starring in Love's Labour Lost, directed by the legendary Michael Langham, and playing a smaller role in Caesar and Cleopatra alongside the legendary Christopher Plummer.

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A mentor of Lake's came to visit him in Stratford, Ont., that year and joked that he shouldn't expect his whole career to go like that. "It's all downhill from here," he was told.

That did not turn out to be true: Lake had a string of excellent fortune, working with the festival's top directors on critical hits several years in a row. He was comically empty-headed as boxer Joey in The Homecoming in 2011; mercurial and mad as Orestes in Elektra; and fantastically fanatical as Mortimer in Mary Stuart. Everything he did had an edge that was absent from many of the polished performances around him.

Moving up the ranks at Stratford can take a while, however – Jonathan Goad, playing Hamlet next season, is in his 40s – and so as Lake reached the end of his 20s, it was time to take a break from the company where he had been working steadily since theatre school. Lake thought: "I don't have a mortgage, I'm single, I don't have kids – now's the time to take the risk."

There's more to the story: Lake, who is friendly but seems a carry a certain inaccessible sadness with him, doesn't want to talk about it, but confesses a bad break-up helped propel him on his way.

With the help of the parting gift of Stratford's Richard Monette Travel Grant, Lake embarked on a three-month journey through Western Europe mending his heart and searching for his post-Stratford self – and then came back to Toronto to find that Mirvish Productions was going to mount a Canadian production of Once.

His agent thought Lake didn't realize the show was a musical when he asked to audition, but after six round of gruelling callbacks, he landed the lead role.

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Lake, who has been taking the first professional voice and guitar lessons of his life in preparation, says the appeal of Once to him is that it's about struggle. "Everyone in the play is struggling in some way – artistically, romantically, financially, and existentially even," he says. "There's something very serendipitous for this story and show to be coming into my life now."

Lake? Struggle? From the outside, he seems like a guy with all the talent and the luck, in his career at least. And his vinyl collection is unlikely to stop growing any time soon.

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