October 22, 2018
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Cover story: a profile of Sheila McCarthy

I’ll be huffing and puffing as you ask me questions,” says Sheila McCarthy who, at 57, is bubbling with more effervescence than most teens. The much-decorated actress — she’s racked up two Genies, two Doras and a Film North Bull’s Eye Lifetime Achievement Award — is barely gasping for breaths as we leap between topics. In the span of an hour we bounce from her lifelong love of dance to her upcoming films, and we even get the veteran actress to divulge her desert island acting medium.

While we gab about the curriculum that McCarthy has developed for the two separate acting courses she’s teaching and the relationship between aging and acting, I imagine the flaxen-haired icon curled up enjoying the fall colours around Lake Rousseau (she’s escaped the city for Thanksgiving), only to remember this entire time she’s trekking along on the elliptical. The Little Mosque on the Prairie actress admits that she’s “a bit obsessive about going to the gym.” Of course the workout sounds nearly effortless. McCarthy works out for an hour and a half daily.

When asked what motivates her compulsive calisthenic regimen, McCarthy digs back to its origins. “I’ve always been a dancer,” she divulges, which isn’t exactly an explanation, but it illustrates her five decades–long affair with movement. McCarthy sounds near diffident when she says it — as though she were some mediocre talent show–quality dancer. It’s almost as if you can hear a shrug in her voice: “I’ve always,” shrug, “been a dancer.” 

The Thornhill native’s modesty obscures the calibre of her dancing —she became professional at just 16 years old. 

McCarthy’s extracurricular acting work earned the future star school credits in music and theatre arts. If you cocked your brow at the music credit, then you may have missed McCarthy’s 2004 performance of Guys and Dolls. Long before donning Miss Adelaide’s mink stole on the Stratford stage, McCarthy established herself as a triple threat. She could act, dance and sing — all while trying to memorize high school chemistry formulas. The made-for-Broadway star even took time away from her studies at Thornlea Secondary School to tour with the Charlottetown Festival. (It was while touring that she earned the aforementioned school credits.) She appeared in shows ranging in scope from Anne of Green Gables to Kronberg: 1582, a Hamlet-inspired rock opera.

Touring with a festival might seem like a great excuse for a surly artistic teen to avoid high school, but McCarthy was no misunderstood artistic stereotype. McCarthy was a proud Thornlea cheerleader. 

“Cheering by day, hippie by night! It was the ’70s after all. I loved high school,” says McCarthy. 

The Emily of New Moon actress gushes about her high school experience. She remembers the school having a collegiate atmosphere because the staff encouraged independent work and free thought. For one of McCarthy’s classes, she and her classmates “conceived of, wrote, directed, choreographed, did sets and costumes and finally performed” a murder mystery–musical entitled Checkmate. Decades have passed, but McCarthy still remembers Thornlea teachers by their full names, like her music teacher Terry McGrath, who had the students listen to and discuss and dissect the work of composers like Glenn Gould. Despite the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia, McCarthy is quick to divulge it wasn’t all straight As for her. 

I didn’t fare quite so well in Miss Jane Garden’s biology class — but god knows she tried to help me.”

McCarthy may have started as a traditional triple threat, but she has grown into a multi-pronged industry threat in the sense that you are almost just as likely to see the acting vet cast in a silver screen role, as you are likely to see her on the stage or on the small screen. Though the actress is of the opinion that acting is acting and that stage techniques can work just as well on the small screen as they can in front of a live theatre audience (she finds Breaking Bad to be very Shakespearean, in the best sense), she has a special fondness for television acting.

We posed the actress a King Solomon–inspired query and asked her to choose between television, stage or big screen as a favourite acting medium (should she only be able to do one for the rest of her life). 

“If I had to choose? Hands down I would do another TV series,” responds McCarthy without needing time to reflect. “You get to stay with the character and be in her skin for a longer time than a movie. I love wallowing in that! And I love the theatrical family that is created.”

After wrapping up a six-year role as Sarah Hamoudi on CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie, McCarthy has taken some time to pursue personal writing projects. She has also taken the beat as an opportunity to teach courses at Humber College and the Canadian Film Centre. 

McCarthy currently has two creative projects on the back burner. The first is a buddy flick she is co-writing for herself and, hopefully, her pal Liza Minnelli. The second creative project, which she is co-writing with Brendan Howley and Laurie Lynd, has been dubbed The Departure Lounge, and is a comedy set in a retirement community populated by a raucous bunch of geriatrics. 

McCarthy’s daughter, Mackenzie Donaldson, was recently awarded a $150,000 grant to produce a web series, Whatever, Linda. McCarthy will play a CEO who’s being Bernie Madoffed by a clique of conniving secretaries. The ever-busy McCarthy also recently finished filming Dear Viola (with Kellie Martin). If that wasn’t enough, the actress will also appear in a triplet of films slated for 2014 release: Algonquin (with Nicholas Campbell), No Stranger Than Love (starring Colin Hanks and Alison Brie) and Canadian flick A Fighting Man (starring James Caan and Dominic Purcell). 

In A Fighting Man, the veteran actress moves from the Little Mosque–era role of the middle-aged mother to a mother at the end of her life. McCarthy embraces being cast in these silver roles. 

“As I’ve aged, I’ve become less ambitious, and I mean that in the best way.… It’s not the end of the world if I don’t get a part. Lately, I’m feeling more comfortable in my skin. There’s that old cliché: you finally figure out how to do it and you’re too friggin’ old. But I kind of looked old when I was 10. So, I say, ‘Bring it!’ ”

And when an ex-cheerleader says bring it on, she means business. 

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