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Q&A: Barbara Gowdy on swearing and her television debut on HBO’s Sensitive Skin

Don McKellar in Sensitive Skin

Barbara Gowdy in Sensitive Skin

Is the new HBO Canada comedy Sensitive Skin, starring Kim Cattrall and Don McKellar, on its way to becoming CanLit’s favourite show?

Based on the British series of the same name (starring Joanna Lumley of Ab Fab fame), the six-episode story follows former model Davina (Cattrall) and her hypochondriac “humorist” husband, Al (McKellar, who also directs), as they adjust to middle age after moving into a sterile downtown Toronto loft. The dark and razor-sharp show features the requisite Canadian cameos (hilarious turns by Mary Walsh, Colm Feore, and Marc-André Grondin), but the third episode (available on demand), gives a wink to literary insiders.

Early in the episode, Al’s agent introduces Davina to an author “who was just nominated for the Giller Prize.” Meanwhile, Al, nervous about participating on his first literary award jury, prepares a book’s worth of comments on each nominated title. As the other painfully bored jurors look on, Al reads through his copious notes on the first title, I Am This by Gavin Fines (a CanLit title and author name if there ever was one), which includes such garbled clichés as “In this book we find a protagonist whose environmental dislocation propels him on a journey of physical and spiritual…” and “In the opinion of this humble reviewer, the horse beneath the writer doesn’t quite have the legs for the journey.”

Once he finally finishes (with a satisfied grin), the other jurors respond with their own succinct reviews of the book: “terrible,” “hated it,” and, in a flash of genius casting, two-time Giller nominee Barbara Gowdy is sitting at the table and declares, “It’s shit.”

Q&Q spoke to Gowdy about her acting background, her television debut, and the myriad ways you can say something is shit.

Have you ever acted before? I was a frustrated actress before I was a frustrated writer. In 1965, I won the high school Dominion Drama Festival award, which was kind of a big deal at the time, and then I studied theatre arts at university. I had one professional gig when I was 17 in a play called Ten Nights in a Barroom and I did some Shakespeare – Olivia in Twelfth Night – for CBC back in 1967. I always had the bug but didn’t really pursue it.

Did you ever get the urge to try acting again? I joke to directors I know, like Bruce McDonald, Atom Egoyan, and Don McKellar, that I want to be in their movies. Bruce was making a zombie movie (Pontypool), and talked about having a scene with a bunch of Canadian writers that turn into zombies in the back of a truck, but I guess that didn’t happen.

How did this opportunity come up? Jokingly over the years, Michael Ondaatje said he would be my agent. I would bug him and say, “You’re a lousy agent, I’m not getting any roles.” Then he phones me to say he got me a speaking part on Don McKellar’s show. Of course I withheld his 15 per cent because it’s the only role he’s ever gotten me. It’s all a joke between Michael and me and Don.

Are you the only real-life author in the scene? Don was going to get Austin Clarke, too, but he couldn’t make it. Don’s father was also in the show – he’s a lawyer and always wanted to be part of one of Don’s movies.

Don McKellar in Sensitive Skin

Director/actor Don McKellar in Sensitive Skin

Did you enjoy the experience? It was harder than I thought – it took me many takes to say two words. One of those words I use all the time.

I think we shot that little one-minute scene – not just because of me – about 15 times. Don was sitting to the left of me; he’s in the scene and also directing. Because it was my big breakthrough I kept saying, “It’s SHIT!” in a Shakespearean way. I was overdoing it and he kept wanting me to flatten it out. He had this very blank look in his eye as he was trying to transmit to me how I was supposed to say it. Finally they got something they could use.

He hasn’t called back, let’s just put it that way.

How did the show’s interpretation of literary juries compare to the real deal? It’s more like a Canada Council jury because by the time you meet in person for the Giller Prize jury, there have already been so many conversations you know what you’re going to be talking about, and you’re not talking about the shit books. With the Canada Council jury, there’s not as much agreement.

The funny thing is, the day we shot the scene the Giller jury was meeting somewhere in a hotel across town, so in a way we were parodying them.

This interview has been edited and condensed.