Spotlight on alumni
Jonny Harris is busy. The Newfoundland actor, writer and comedian continues to pile up film, television and comedy credits. He's getting ready to shoot a fifth season of CityTV's Murdoch Mysteries, and has recently finished a film project with Mike Clattenburg of Trailer Park Boys fame. His solo stand-up show, kickinthepills, is coming to the Holy Heart Theatre in St. John's on July 16. While in Calgary recently to emcee the Memorial Affinity dinner, Jonny Harris talked with our contributor David Penney.
DP: Tell me how you got started.
JH: Well, I'm from Pouch Cove, just north of St. John's and I went to high school at Holy Heart. That's where I had my introduction to theatre. I found out I could skip a few classes if I joined the set crew for the school play, and that's how it started. It was a saving grace really. I wasn't too enthused about school, but I really got involved in theatre, and in particular the improv team at Holy Heart.
DP: And from there it was the BFA program at Grenfell?
JH: Yeah, after high school, my parents – who thought I was a bit of a problem kid and not sure what I was really going to do – told me about the theatre program at Grenfell, the bachelor of fine arts. I sometimes joke that I have the only parents in the world that would suggest theatre school for their kid. But I was really into it and I had a great time out there. I think really highly of the program and the instructors, and I was also fortunate because I was part of an excellent class. That's how I got started with Memorial.
DP: How did your career progress to where you are now?
JH: I did a one-man show called Out of The Bog in 2003 that was directed by Andy Jones. That sort of put me on the map in Newfoundland as a funny guy, but I've been lucky to make my way to the TV industry in Toronto and also do stand-up. The TV/film and stand-up comedy worlds don't overlap much in Toronto. In a place like LA, it's the other way around, they look to stand-ups to create sitcoms. I had worked on Mary Walsh's show, Hatching Matching and Dispatching and I made a connection with her agent, so when I arrived in Toronto it was with a legitimate TV and film agent. When I was auditioning for TV work, the stand-up was almost like an afterthought. I think if I had gone to Toronto and just hit the comedy circuit, I would've had a hard time breaking into the TV scene.
DP: The Murdoch Mysteries has been a successful show for you. Tell me about that and also about your character, Constable Crabtree?
JH: Yeah, I love it. It's been a blessing for sure. The writing is strong in terms of how it captures the era and also reveals things like police procedural and following clues. And it's great to be the character that's a bit goofy and gets the laughs. In terms of the period stuff, it's easier now, but when I first starting doing the show, if I was to ad lib at all, I had to be careful not to be anachronistic. But it's a lot of fun. Sometimes I think about all the work and money and time that goes into it. I think to myself, I can't shag up my lines because they've just built this incredibly elaborate set and trucked in dirt to cover up pavement and they've got horses and carriages out here.
DP: Can you talk about your recent film work?
JH: Sure. Grown Up Movie Star was written and directed by Adriana Maggs, who's been a close buddy of mine for a long time. She wanted me to audition for the character of Stuart. After I read it I knew that I had to play this guy. It was a great experience and the movie turned out to be the only Canadian film selected for Sundance in 2010. It wasn't a big budget thing, so we all went down on our own dime for the festival and had a blast. We got a couple of reviews that were pretty good too, so we were pleased.
The Guys Who Move Furniture is a feature that was shot last winter in Halifax and scheduled for release in 2012. This was the project with Mike Clattenburg who is the creator and director of Trailer Park Boys. Ah ... it's about guys who move furniture. Great cast. Guys like Will Sasso, he was the lead, and also Charlie Murphy, Eddie Murphy's brother who you might remember from the Chappelle show a couple of years ago. Victor Garber, Gabrielle Miller, Gabe Hogan ... an incredible group. It was a very unique experience for me because Clattenburg wants you to improv a lot so it's different. He'll do a second take and say, "okay just do it again but this time say whatever you want" and I'm like oh, now I've gotta be funny.
DP: Where do you think the connection between Newfoundlanders and humour comes from?
JH: Every interview I've ever done, people ask why Newfoundlanders are funny – and it's a hard one to answer. I've only started to learn why as I've spent more time away from Newfoundland. In other cultures, humour is not always there right away – but in Newfoundland it's just so intrinsic in the way we communicate. I think part of it is detracting from each other, and there's something charming about that, about keeping each other humble. In Ontario – as far as people taking themselves too seriously – something occurred to me recently. You see people with vanity plates on their cars but they aren't trying to be funny. In Newfoundland you wouldn't see a car with a vanity plate trying to be cool rather than funny.
DP: I understand this isn't your first appearance in The Gazette?
JH: When I got accepted at Grenfell, my brother started an English degree at MUN at the same time. My Dad was a philosophy professor and Mom was a conference coordinator for the university. So they got us together one day and gave us a MUN banner and I think MUN t-shirts. Anyway, they took a photo and in the Gazette it said something like, Meet the Harrises – Truly a Memorial Family, with the four of us there, looking sort of nerdy on the cover. Which was great and sweet in retrospect, but I was just about to go to this college and when I arrived, everyone is going around with the Gazette asking me, "Are you the fella who's part of the truly Memorial family?" That was a bit mortifying at the time.
You can see Jonny Harris live at the Holy Heart Theatre in St. John's on July 16. For more information, visit www.holyhearttheatre.com.