From Student to Star

With a new film hitting the big screen, actor-writer-director Paul Gross reflects on his time honing his craft in Edmonton.

Photography Adam Goudreau & Dwayne Martineau

A small car with a smashed-up front bumper pulls into the parking lot across from the Avenue office, gliding past the overflowing recycling bins and swiftly pulling into a spot. As photographers make an adjustment to the lights in the makeshift studio that has been set up in the boardroom, we peer out the window to see who’s driving the roughed-up vehicle – and it turns out to be Paul Gross, exactly who we’re waiting for.

Though it has been more than 30 years since Gross got his start on Edmonton stages, it’s as if he never left. At the test screening for his newest film at Cineplex South Edmonton Common, he ran into former professor James DeFelice. The morning before our interview is spent with close friend and former classmate Francis Damberger. The car? His mother’s, borrowed for a few errands like interviews and photo shoots.

Gross’s diverse filmography includes a variety of genres and mediums, but the subject matter at the core of his latest film, Hyena Road, hits close to home. He grew up a military brat – his father was a tank commander and his grandfather was a First World War soldier who told his teenaged grandson stories about the battlefields. Gross carried on the family tradition by spending a period of time in Afghanistan – as a visitor.

“After [Passchendaele, his 2008 First World War epic, shot in Calgary], I had no interest in ever doing another war film,” Gross admits. However, his time spent with Canadian Forces members during filming landed him on a flight to Afghanistan in 2010. It was meant to be a cursory “say hi to the troops” visit, but what he saw took him by surprise. 

“It was mesmerizing,” Gross says. “The place was not at all what I thought it was, what the press in Canada had told us.” Compelled, he returned with a few camera operators, looking to capture some of what captivated him. He immersed himself in the experience, going on foot patrols where he experienced a small fraction of the exhausting adrenaline rush that the soldiers experienced daily. “

It’s very surreal,” Gross says, “and, at the same time, it’s probably more real than anything you’ve felt.”

The bare-bones crew had no lights, so, at night, when shooting footage became impossible, Gross swapped stories over late-night cigarettes with soldiers who would talk for hours. It’s from those conversations that he developed the idea for Hyena Road, which will be screened Oct. 2 as part of the Edmonton International Film Festival, with Gross in attendance at Landmark Cinemas 9 City Centre.

“My interest is not so much in the big picture, the political picture,” Gross says. “I’m really interested in what happens to people who we ask to go over there and do these things in our name, and how little we seem to know about what it is they do.”

The military has close ties to Edmonton. The Canadian Forces Base provides support and infrastructure to 47 military units in and around the Edmonton area. The main CFB site, Steele Barracks, stretches across 2,550 hectares. Over the span of 12 years, over 40,000 Canadian Forces soldiers were deployed to Afghanistan, many of them departing from Edmonton. It was these men and women that Gross talked to and used as advisors on matters like military radio jargon.

“It’s very, very complicated stuff, modern warfare,” Gross says. Though the soldiers he consulted explained technical lingo and equipment, there were more complex questions that he still struggles to answer. “How do you find a moral compass in a world where there isn’t one?” he asks. “I’ve had people explain this stuff to me over and over again and I still can’t get it. How can the need to avenge a dishonour go down through generations?” 

SLINGS, ARROWS AND BROOMS

While he got his start in theatre, and will be returning to the stage in Toronto this November alongside his wife, Martha Burns, in Domesticated, Gross’s focus over the years has been on film and television. He has had starring roles in Slings and Arrows and Due South, as well as in projects he wrote and directed such as Men with Brooms, Passchendaele and Hyena Road. Though now a household name in Canada, in the early 1980s, he was just another fresh-faced student. He studied at the University of Alberta rather than attending the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal, because the Edmonton institution offered academic opportunities in addition to theatrical training.

However, he soon found that academia didn’t quite hold the appeal he expected.  “Somewhere in the second year, I was supposed to do a course on logic. The midterm rolled around and I didn’t even know what building it was in,” says Gross. “So I thought it would be a good idea to drop out [of the course]. And then I never made it up.” Immersed in the theatre world, he began to focus his efforts on productions rather than midterms. “I never actually did graduate,” he says, although he did later go back and earn the half-credit he needed for a bachelor of fine arts degree.

As part of his initial attempt to earn that degree, though, Gross began to sharpen his skills through speech classes, scene studies and plays. He fondly remembers his classmates, aspiring actors who worked hard and partied harder, but wasn’t quite as positive about a particular English survey class. “It started at 7:30 [in the morning] and every day it seemed it was pitch black, 40 below,” says Gross.

In comparison, the stage lights were bright, warm and welcoming. 

“A lot of it had to with the teachers – Tom Peacocke, Jim DeFelice,” he says. “I mean there were some dicks too, but mostly they were wonderful and really committed to the students.” As for his classmates, according to Gross, “we were all kind of quite crazy.” Damberger agrees, citing an incident where students pouring beer over their own heads in the Faculty Club led to a quick escape and a mortified professor who was hosting them. “They were a spirited bunch,” admits Peacocke with a chuckle.

While his varied roles are intertwined now, Gross never intended to wear the hat of a writer. “I guess when I was a teenager, I wrote poems, but that was mostly to try to convince girls to be with me,” he jokes. However, a necessary job in a local restaurant between his third and fourth years – “Northern Light [Theatre] didn’t have its money yet” – soon had him scribbling more than customer orders. 

“I was the world’s worst waiter and, on top of that, almost nobody ever came to this restaurant. Still, somehow I managed to screw up all the orders,” says Gross. “I would sit around when there was nobody about and, just to occupy my time, I started writing scenes. I really liked it, and then those scenes started to become kind of a play, and then I showed it to one of the professors.”

“I did encourage him to finish the play and helped facilitate the first production,” says DeFelice. The humble play – a coming-of-age drama set in the Alberta Badlands called The Deer and the Antelope Play – that started on napkins was eventually co-produced by the university’s department of drama and Theatre Network, and won both the Clifford E. Lee National Playwriting Award and the Alberta Culture Playwriting Award. Among the four-person cast was Damberger. “It was a good play,” he says. “He had in his head what he wanted and I think we got most of the way there.”

The balancing act between acting, writing and producing may seem daunting but, for Gross, it’s an ideal situation. “When you’re acting, it’s a very concentrated period of time and a whole bunch of people, and writing is very solitary,” Gross says.

“Once I get really sick of people, then I can go and write. Then when I’m really bored with myself, I go back and act.”

While other Canadians in the entertainment industry often go south and never return, Gross has maintained strong ties to his home nation – both personal and professional. He often shoots in Canada and favours Canadian actors in his productions. Since their acting school days, Damberger and Gross have been driving down to Gross’s parents’ former ranch in the Badlands – a property overlooking the Red Deer River that Gross now owns himself – with cases of Big Rock and pork ribs for smoking over the fire.

The reason Gross returns to Canada again and again is simple: “This is home.”

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