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Tom McCamus: Ground Control

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[Jul. 30th, 2010|12:53 am]
Tom McCamus: Ground Control

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Stratford star McCamus shines when it’s dark

STRATFORD – There’s a funny thing about Tom McCamus: when he’s good, he’s very, very good, but when he’s bad, he’s better.

Fortunately for theatregoers, he’s being exceptionally bad this season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, playing two classic villains: Captain Hook in Peter Pan and the Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons.

“You have to remember one thing about playing the bad guys,” McCamus says over morning coffee at Balzac’s, the hub of Stratford’s daytime theatre socializing, “no villain really thinks of himself as a villain inside.”

With that he smiles, and it’s possible to see the two sides of McCamus – light and dark – existing side by side.

He’s 55 now, but still makes plenty of female hearts beat faster, with his lean, angular good looks, his penetrating eyes and his tousled mass of chestnut hair. He could be the bad boy they’d never dare take home to mother, or the somewhat rumpled middle-aged charmer they’d settle down with forever.

The same kind of duality exists in both roles he’s playing this year. Captain Hook may threaten to make all the Lost Boys walk the plank, yet you know it’s all a giant game and that crocodile will finally settle his hash.

But Valmont is another matter. The evil games he plays are for real and the young virgin whose life he destroys doesn’t get to know a happily ever after of any sort.

“In both shows,” McCamus explains, “your character is dictated by what you have to do. You can try to put whatever spin you want on it, but your actions speak more loudly than any line of dialogue ever could.

“In Peter Pan, it’s such a huge technical show, that you have to think in broader terms. I don’t want to use the word ‘cartoon,’ because I certainly don’t think of my Hook in those terms, but there’s, well, an entertainment value implicit in what he does that’s lacking in Valmont.”

Dangerous Liaisons, starting previews this week on the Festival Stage, is Christopher Hampton’s award-winning adaptation of the classic French novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, about a group of jaded French aristocrats in the late 18th century who play Trivial Pursuit with other people’s lives.

“The kind of people Seana (McKenna) and I are playing don’t have much concern for other human beings and although everyone knows they’re terrible, it’s still always possible to be charmed by those nasty people, especially if the horrible things they’re doing aren’t happening to you.”

It’s refreshingly strange to hear McCamus speaking like this, because he’s widely known for his profound humanism, not just onstage, but offstage as well, where he lends his talents to a wide variety of charitable and socially conscious activities.

He was born in Winnipeg in 1955, the son of an executive from John Labatt Ltd. and a woman who taught library science. He had a brother one year younger than him and McCamus recalls they were “very close”. But the familial relationship that coloured every aspect of his growing up was with his sister.

“She was born severely physically and mentally challenged,” says McCamus “and my parents had her institutionalized just before we moved from Winnipeg to London when I was 10. I know it was the hardest decision my parents ever had to make and I know they wondered, ‘Is that the best place for our daughter?’ But back then, it’s what people did. Had she born 10 or 15 years later, she probably would have grown up with us and all our lives would have been different. But she stayed institutionalized until she died at 46.”

Ask McCamus what his most lasting memory of his sister is and his eyes fill. “She’d never seen me act, so back in 2006, when I was acting in The Innocent Eye Test in Winnipeg, I took a video camera and shot my performance, and took it with me to show her when I visited. That meant a lot to both of us.”

McCamus spent his youth wanting to be a writer. “I worked in a bookstore, which was perfect for me. I was a huge science fiction fan. I still am. I read The Lord of the Rings as many times as I could.” But like many imaginative young people his age, he found himself being drawn to theatre, first in high school (where Soulpepper’s Nancy Palk was in his class), then at the University of Windsor.

McCamus enjoyed the program, but left after three years in 1977. “That’s me,” he says with a shrug. “I stay in places for a while and then I think, ‘Hmmmm, maybe I should go someplace else.’ ”

Together with Dean Gilmour, he founded a small experimental theatre in a church in London, where they did plays like No Exit and Fortune and Men’s Eyes. Then he went into the Young Company at Theatre London when Bill Hutt was in charge, because “I was prepared to do my time with all those Stratford people to learn what I had to learn.”

He learned quickly and was soon one of the most sought-after young actors in the country. Over the next 20 years, he appeared in some of the most memorable shows on Canadian stages, including Stratford’s legendary Long Day’s Journey Into Night, opposite Hutt, Martha Henry, Peter Donaldson and Martha Burns. He also did a superb Waiting for Godot, also at Stratford, under Brian Bedford’s direction, opposite Stephen Ouimette.

But most McCamus fans will never forget his Hamlet for Theatre Plus in 1991 under the direction of Neil Munro. “I used to joke that it was the third time Neil played Hamlet. I just did what he told me to do.” The result was brilliant and years ahead of its time, with McCamus playing the theme from The Flintstones on his saxophone to start Act II and typing out “To Be Or Not To Be” on what was then still called a word processor.

Over the years, he’s shown up in unlikely TV series such as Mutant X and also dazzled in films as varied as David Wellington’s I Love a Man in Uniform and, more recently, as Patricia Clarkson’s husband in Cairo Time.

But although he loves performing, he’s most at home on the 54-acre property he shares with his wife of many years, Chick Reid, in Warkworth, Ont.

“It’s a real working farm,” says McCamus, almost shaking his head in disbelief at where he’s wound up. “We pick 10 pounds of asparagus a day at the height of the season, Chick breeds dogs, it seems like I spend my days cutting down a lot of things.”

That may seem light years away from the flamboyant Hook or the sensual Valmont, but it all makes sense to McCamus. “I quite like my life. I’ve got a beautiful wife, and I get to run away and play make believe just enough to keep me content.

“What else could a man want?”

TOM MCCAMUS FIVE FAVE VILLAINS

John Hurt: I find he can always bring out the human side of a character, however twisted they might be. My favourite was a film called The Hit, where he played a sympathetic killer.

Richard III: I love him for the total theatricality of the guy and his insane genius for manipulation.

Cruella de Vil: I was just a kid when I first saw 101 Dalmatians, but I loved the way she was so much larger than life. She represents the fascination of evil to me.

Sauron: His presence fills the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy. He remains a total mystery, but yet he’s pure, pure, evil.

Alice Cooper: I don’t mean the man himself, but the persona he put on. I thought he was an amazing example of slipping villainy on and off like a costume.


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