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November 22, 2019

Galaxy Quest

Actor and improv comedian Mark Meer has had some help along the way to a stellar career

Photography Curtis Trent; grooming Amber Prepchuck

Mark Meer may be the best-known Edmontonian in the galaxy. Meer is the voice behind the male Commander Shepard, one of the heroes in the smash sci-fi game series, Mass Effect – and while Shepard is saving the Milky Way, Meer is meeting fans around the world.

When Avenue reached Meer by Skype, he was in England as a guest of the MCM London Comic Con, that country’s “biggest modern pop culture event,” drawing more than 100,000 people each year. “Being a nerd myself, I’m the kind of guy who has paid to go to comic book conventions in the past, and now I get to go as a guest, so it’s worked out well for me.”

Growing up in the central Alberta burg of Sedgewick – a town so small the doctor, his dad, still does house calls – Meer was a big fan of sketch comedy, but the closest he’d come to performing was playing the Dungeon Master in local Dungeons & Dragons games. “I had to take art by correspondence,” he says. “I’d never even done a drama class.”

After moving to Edmonton in 1989 to study science at the University of Alberta, Meer’s secret origin story began when he auditioned for the Citadel’s Teen Festival of the Arts in 1991. The following year, legendary Edmonton sketch troupe Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie – Cathleen Rootsaert, Neil Grahn, Wes Borg and the late Joe Bird – organized a comedy show. Meer was featured in the show as part of a makeshift troupe, Three Fried Teens in a Baggie, and he joined Rapid Fire Theatre a few weeks later. He’s been with them ever since. He also formed his own sketch troupe, Gordon’s Big Bald Head.

Meer also became a regular in Edmonton’s legendary live comic soap opera, Die-Nasty, where he became the first actor to ever go without sleep for the duration of its annual 53-hour Soap-A-Thon.

“I owe most everything I know about improv and comedy to my many years spent at the Varscona with Rapid Fire Theatre and Die-Nasty,” says Meer, who received guidance from the likes of Trolls veterans Rootsaert and Grahn, Teatro la Quindicina producer Jeff Haslam, Second City alumnus Dana Andersen and Patti Stiles, an improv artist now based in Australia.

He was particularly influenced by Edmonton actor Nathan Fillion, who hit the Hollywood big-time in the cult TV hit, Firefly, and the ABC primetime drama, Castle, and was an improv MVP with Die-Nasty when Meer first stepped on stage. “Nathan was a senior player. He put me on my very first second-half Theatresports team,” recalls Meer. “I also did some of my very first work at the Soap-A-Thon with him. Years later, after Mass Effect was released and I started attending the big comic cons as a guest, he offered me valuable advice based on his own experience on the science-fiction scene. And he continues to lead by example – he’s absolutely great with the fans.”

Die-Nasty creator Ian Ferguson recalls introducing Meer in the final hour of that first epic improvathon with the line, “They shoot horses, don’t they? Why not this guy?” Ferguson, now a Leacock medal-winning humourist, recalls that,

“Mark was kind of the Connor McDavid of improvisers. He was just a kid when he joined Die-Nasty, but you knew he was going to be the captain one day.”

Today, the 44-year-old actor, who looks like a square-jawed superhero, is best known around the world for his work as a voice actor in games created by Edmonton’s own Bioware. Meer was inspired to audition for the company after friends from the Trolls paved the way for local improvisers. Mass Effect‘s cast also includes America’s favourite fictional president, Martin Sheen; Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix); Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Counselor Troi, Marina Sirtis; and sci-fi icon Lance Henriksen (The Terminator, Aliens). Meer’s first voice work was for Baldur’s Gate in 1999. “I did a single line. It was in the final scene, so you had to beat the entire game to even see that scene.”

A fan boy from cape to cowl – his improv show titles often have nods to comic culture – Meer has been known to show up at conventions dressed as a cosplay version of Commander Shepard and, when he’s not signing autographs or meeting fans, he’s on a quest for action figures to augment his collection. While Meer is modest about his reception at these events, an online writer recently gushed that the line to see Meer in London rivalled the queue to score a signed poster from British film director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz).

“My favourite thing is seeing people dressed as the characters I played in games. In fact, that’s how I knew that Mass Effect had really taken off, because someone dressed as Commander Shepard walked by me at a convention. It’s things like, you know, seeing the action figure of the character you played in a store. Getting my own action figure was a real geek bucket list moment for me.”

Meer is also famous across Canada for his work with Super Channel’s smash sketch series, Tiny Plastic Men, and CBC’s radio phenomenon, The Irrelevant Show. Irrelevant Show head writer and ex-Troll Neil Grahn suspects Meer was “born coolly confident and funny.” He adds: “That gift probably came from God. But his ability to mimic and alter his voice was most likely from a deal he struck with Satan.”

This month, Meer is shooting the new season of Tiny Plastic Men before spending Halloween at a fan convention in Daytona Beach, Fla. Meer’s favourite Halloween was in 2001, when he married Belinda Cornish on stage at the Varscona. “Everyone was in costume and, instead of flowers, the bridesmaids carried lit jack-o’-lanterns.”

Meer met Cornish – an award-winning playwright, actress and his frequent comic co-star – at an improv competition at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. She was representing a team from the United Kingdom. “I managed to lure her away from London to the bright lights of Edmonton.”

Over the last 25 years, Meer’s has appeared in over 700 episodes of Edmonton’s improvised soaps and he’s a fixture at improv marathons everywhere. The latest London event was the marathon man’s 27th time doing 50-plus hours of stage time without sleep. No wonder Commander Shepard can save the universe – he’s also an iron man.

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