April 6, 2020
F= Film & Television
David Connolly (D) in conversation with Karen LeBlanc (K) for Matinee to Z,
a series of Instagram Live Master Classes developed in response to Covid-19.
D: Our subject today is film and television and we are incredibly lucky to welcome Karen LeBlanc, who knows all about crossing over from stage to screen because she’s a Canadian Film and Television star. So thank you for spending time with this.
K: Thank you for asking.
D: So, let’s go all the way back because we have a bunch of people who are from small towns online. Wave if you’re from a small town. How did you get from Tottenham, Ontario to Sheridan College for Musical Theatre?
K: Absolutely. Tottenham, hi Hammerheads, had a population of 3000 people when I was growing up, and one traffic light. Not a lot to do - just go to the arcade and be outside - that was my life anyway. But I was always singing, whenever, wherever, usually Bruce Springsteen or rock and roll. And one day our music teacher showed us a pamphlet from Sheridan. So off I went to the audition - I sang To Sir With Love and did Butterflies are Free for my monologue. I had no idea what I was doing but, as the youngest of 8, I think I was a natural performer because I was always trying to get attention. Anyway, I got accepted and the rest is history.
D: So, when you went there, did you have visions of what you wanted to be? Were you thinking Broadway or Recording or Film and TV?
K: To be honest, I don't think that I did. The vision was to be seen. When I was younger, my sister suggested I go to commercials, I said, "What do you mean? How?” I'm looking at the back of the TV, trying to get in there.
D: And this was all before social media. Before we had access to people like you to hear these stories and follow their journeys. So let's move along. So you're leaving Sheridan now, and then what?
K: Yeah, well Sheridan was a Musical Theatre program and we had pop classes, tap, jazz, ballet, music theory, ear training - all of these things that I wanted to pay attention to… I really wanted to. This was in the era of Cats and Durante… I felt like if you left school and didn’t get one of those shows… what was there to do? What I did learn there is that actors are natural born survivors, so I ended up waitressing.
I also met my then partner and we started a band called Midnight Hour which was amazing because I was singing anywhere to anyone who would listen. And I remember when I was singing at Canada’s Wonderland, I thought, OK, maybe there is a career to be had that isn’t necessarily a big Broadway musical.
D: So you mentioned to me, that shortly after leaving school you had some surprising news that the world maybe wasn’t ready for your version of Meg Brockie.
K: Yeah, I was lucky to play Meg in Brigadoon at Sheridan and it was amazing.
D: You were amazing.
K: So much fake hair. Thank you David Juby. Anyway, an audition for Brigadoon came up after school and I remember asking my agent about it and she said, “There are no characters like you in Brigadoon. There are no people of color in Brigadoon.” And that was a rude and weird awakening. Now, times are a changing but…
D: Well, they are, but I think it's important you to realize that that was in our lifetime. That was only a couple decades ago. So these are definitely looking up yes, but I think that’s good context for where you were at when your career after school started.
For those who don’t know, Karen is an unbelievable singer, which bring us now to RENT days.
K: How perfect was RENT? Because as it turns out, I’m more of a pop rock singer and that’s where I gravitated to. I love theatre but my heart was in pop and I was a person of color who you didn’t see in many shows and then a long came RENT which was such a breath of fresh air. All of a sudden, I’m seeing multi-cultural people talking about some deep, important subjects that had never been in a musical. So, I auditioned for that and I was scared out of my mind. Auditioning for Stephanie Gorin who saw thousands of people for that show. I had three callbacks. I became a little more calm each time but it was really nerve wracking.
D: OK, so there you are: starring as Joanne in Rent. Had you started your film and tv career yet?
K: My first TV show was in ’93 I did a series called Material World and somewhere in that time I started doing Tina Turner.
D: Which again, for context, Material World was a huge deal. CBC was doing very few original shows. And there you were… at the frontier of what is now a lot of original content, but at the time, that was a big deal.
K: Thanks for saying that. I think some time we’re so focused on the next thing, what you need to get, that you don’t take the time to realize the present and the heaviness or importance of what’s happening in the moment.
D: Yeah, I think it’s a silver lining at this time, to have some time and get off the hamster wheel for a minute. With a shout out to the people who are busy and working and keeping us safe and alive and fed. I saw your sign, it’s gorgeous it’s so beautiful.
K: Well the UPS man came to the door and my heart wanted to burst, I thought what can I do? You just want to reach through the TV and thank the nurses and doctors so badly. Anyway, that’s what that sign means.
D: OK, so you said the words Tina Turner because that was a big part of the magical potion that is Karen Leblanc.
K: Ya, I impersonated Tina Turner for nearly a decade. At least a decade that started with a Legends show at the Limelight Theater on Yonge St. Well, many of the producer’s legends left overnight, over some dispute, and he reached out and said, “Hey, could you join my show because there needs to be a show tomorrow night.” And I told him I don’t know the first thing about impersonation, who would I even impersonate? I had sung What’s Love Go To Do With It at Canada’s Wonderland and I was fooling around a bit with her voice, but would never have considered myself an impersonator. But the head of production said, great, we’ll get you a wig.
So the night before, I remember watching everything I could on video, and I mean VHS and started mimicking what I saw on the screen and then I found a short sparkly dress from my Top 40 band and showed up the next day for rehearsal. We did What’s Love Got To Do With It, Proud Mary and Hot Legs. At 6 O’Clock Larry said, “Do you really need the wig?” I said, “Larry, I need the wig.” I mean, we’re theatre people, we need the things right? So someone put one in a cab and it showed up a few minutes before the show and I put it on my head and it led to almost a decade of work.
D: You went on to be one of the premier Tina Turner impersonators in the world and yes, she did perform for the King and Queen of Malaysia.
I love hearing the foundation of how eclectic your career is and that you didn’t really stop one thing to do another. You never said, OK, I’m closing that chapter. You continued to weave all of these different, wonderful pieces of you into this fabric and I think they must inform each other. Did you find that you're a better actor because you're a singer and vice versa?
K: So when I got into TV acting, I secretly had no idea what I was doing. And I'm sure many of us artists are always thinking, “What if they find out?”
D: The imposter syndrome.
K: So when I got my first acting job, I approached it with music. Thinking, if I were to sing this script, if I were to sing these lines… because I know how to emote in a song. I get a song, you know? How you have to push vocally harder to hit a high note… so I started singing my dialogue to help make the two connect. All the while, having no idea if it was right or wrong. Just thinking, well, this is all I know.
D: That’s amazing. So let’s move to questions… Do you ever deal with racism on the job - from other actors, creatives or casting and if so, what do you do about it?
K: Yes, it’s present but I’ve had an incredible career surrounded by amazing people. I have fallen into the hands of some really wonderful humans. Being in the highly multi-cultural cast of RENT and I have an incredible manager. And also, I’m not a confrontational person. I quietly deal with people who are trying to deal with me in an ill way, quietly. And just walk away and do my job. Unless it would really interfere with what I’m trying to do which it hasn’t, lucky for me. I’m not really a throw down girl. You don’t want me to take my earrings out and throw down. It’s a very good question and yes, I have and I try to deal with things as gracefully as I can and try to rise above people’s nonsense.
D: So for those of you who don’t know Karen’s film and tv career has basically been filled with overlapping jobs… decades of you going from one project to another. To just glance at your resume is to see a remarkable Canadian television career.
K: Well, I think like all of us, the minute one project finishes we make pacts: “Please don’t let that be my last job ever. I promised to be a kinder, nicer person. Please let me work again.” And part of it is about being fearless - about no focussing on just one thing. That’s how my voice over career started. By keeping my options open. I’m like that way about music, I don’t like just one thing. I like rock and roll, I like country, I love music theatre, I love pop. Maybe because of that, it’s allowed me to stay interested in any and all of the things.
D: I think that’s excellent advice for emerging performers. Let’s speak to the difference between music theatre performers and film in television? Because I think there is a general myth that the twain shall not meet. That theatre performers are too big for the camera. Is that something you believe?
K: No. Everybody can learn. If you’re used to projecting to the back of a theatre, hopefully you’ll have five minutes before a film audition to look at the room. Just know the room. Performing for a camera is very intimate so, is it impossible for a theatre actor to figure that out? Absolutely not. But I supposed like any form of training, you’re going to kick into what you know. But is that transition possible? Well we see it everywhere, so absolutely. Like, Thom (Allison) on Killjoys - brilliant. Sharron Matthews. Just know the room.
D: I love what you say about training. I find sometimes musical theatre actors expect to just jump into that world of film and television, and be great. The same people who train years, sometimes lifetimes to get on stage but think they can automatically transfer to film and tv without training. Without seeing yourself and hearing yourself…
K: Yes, should you train for acting on camera, yes. And I need to get back to class because we should never stop training, in the same way we should never stop caring about our health or going to the gym because ultimately… that’s what contributes to our whole being. So yes to classes but not only to control the size of a performance but someone needs to teach you like, where to look for starters.
Also, as a pop singer, I remember taking my first music theatre audition class and being handed the pages and the pages in the pages of the song, kept turning and now, let’s modulate… theatre is no joke. I have such respect for theatre actors. And you need to get through those 13 or 14 pages in an arena. I remember when I auditioned for the Broadway production of Aida and thought there is no amount of training or preparation in the world that would allow me to mow that beast down 8 times a week.
D: Can you talk a little bit about the difference between television and film?
K: I would say it’s mostly about the pace of shooting. A feature has a bigger budget so therefore you have more time.
D: I think for people who are emerging, that’s a good thing to know. In theatre you have a long time to get it right, but then you have one shot to get it right because it’s live. Also, the number of people influencing your work is much different.
K: Yes, in RENT for example, we were a cast of 21 with a huge creative team and we were around each other all the time and the room was always so alive. But for screen, everything comes in pieces, you go to hair and makeup, then you get to set and there’s a director and wardrobe and camera and a focus puller and then, everyone goes away. And it’s just you. Sometimes all alone. Or at least it feels that way.
In theatre you build and build and build and there’s a momentum and you all start rowing where as in TV, you build with a team but then there are only a couple people with the oars.
D: Do you recommend Sheridan College?
D: Ben has a question about the rehearsal process for film and tv - he’s done some and was surprised at the lack of attention there was on rehearsal compared to what he was used to in theatre.
K: Well, TV moves fast. You never know the full gamut of how things are going to move on set so you need to be incredibly prepared. You have to be ready for anything. Ready for “Oh, we only have time for two takes of this long lawyer speech?”
Also know that sometimes you are preparing all by yourself. Everybody’s different, but there are actors who like to rehearse and some are like, “back off, I’ll see you on set.” Sometime you have time to find out where you’re going to walk, but some people like to use that blocking time differently. Sometimes they’ll be focused on a camera angle or light, but then you still do you - run your lines or pick up the cup… make the rehearsal yours as much as you can. Again, some people don’t want to walk and talk before they roll, I do.
D: And sometimes it varies greatly on the director too, right? I’ve been on sets where the director wants to figure everything out before they roll, but I’ve been on others where there’ll be a stand in for lights and then an actor’s breezing in from a trailer to just start shooting.
K: Absolutely. That’s why you have to always be ready to stop, drop and roll.
D: Question: Can you speak about performing musicals, such a large genre for such an intimate medium?
K: Great question. I mean, look at Les Mis. You hear these technical stories, like she sang the whole song in one take. I played Tina Turner once for camera and we rehearsed the song and then it took like three hours to get one song. It is a lot of stop and start.
D: We’re going in for one line of the song. It’s exhausting.
K: Right? Because you want to make every take amazing and give them something they can use. I mean, it’s like stage as well - when you’re on - there is a pressure for you always to be amazing.
D: What that brings up for me is the the heart of it is still truth. Wherever we are, in whatever medium. What we’re trying to do is embody these characters with something that to do with ourselves, some kind of personal intersection. And move people. That doesn’t change. Everything else changes but the core is truth.
K: That’s why we’re all here I think. We’re driven to tell the truth. To sing when no one is listening and dance like no one’s watching. I love that saying. That’s our truth. That we can’t help it.