“Canadians suffer from this absolute refusal to see myth and romance in ourselves”: A Q&A with BlackBerry star Jay Baruchel
The actor talks about making the outrageous new film, fighting Canadian cinema’s old guard, buying weed with grandparents and whether it’s “the Beach” or “the Beaches”
Ottawa-born, Montreal-bred and now Beaches-bumming, Jay Baruchel has been working in Canadian film and TV for more than 25 years—even if a lot of people know him best as the goofy stoner dude from Knocked Up and This Is the End. “In English Canada, we suffer from this absolute refusal to see myth and romance in ourselves and our stories,” he says. It’s a reality he’s already revising with BlackBerry, a new film recounting the improbable rise and spectacular fall of the world’s first smartphone. Baruchel plays Mike Lazaridis, the inventor who partners with Jim Balsillie (played by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton) to birth a billion-dollar business. Here, he talks about his love for the erstwhile gadget, why the Anglo film industry needs to check itself and how he got over his anti-Toronto upbringing.
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You star in the new movie BlackBerry, but were you ever a BlackBerry user?
I was until recently. When Matt Johnson, who wrote and directed the movie, first asked if I’d be interested in making something on BlackBerry, I pulled mine out of my pocket.
Which was when exactly?
I know I was still using one in the fall of 2021. I was out in Newfoundland at the time, directing a couple of episodes of the CBC series Son of a Critch.
Is it possible that you were the last BlackBerry user on the planet?
I was definitely one of the last. I think Doug Ford’s got a whole bunch of them, so I wasn’t in the best company, but I really loved it. I guess I’m the rare bird who prefers pushing buttons to tapping a screen, and I’ve never had an appetite for all the other bullshit you can get on phones now. Also, the BlackBerry was created and designed and—for a long time, anyway—manufactured in Canada. I liked knowing that, when I bought one, I was contributing to the employment of Canadians. So, yeah, I was a big fan.
Was the Canadiana factor a big part of why you took this role?
That was certainly a motivator, as well as being a fan of Matt Johnson since his first movie, The Dirties. I would say that, as a freelancer, I’m often just doing whatever comes my way in order to survive. But, to the extent that I think of my career in terms of strategy or big picture, I would say that what I’m most interested in is telling Canadian stories—especially super interesting ones.
Definitely better than boring ones.
Yeah, we certainly don’t want boring ones. But I do think that, in English Canada, we suffer from this absolute refusal to see myth and romance in ourselves and our stories.
It’s true—the word Canadian is often associated with boring.
And we could spend a lot of time unpacking why we see ourselves the way that we do, but the fact remains that God didn’t put me in any other country. I was born in Canada, and a bunch of interesting stuff happens here, just like literally any other place in the world. And so, to the extent that I can, I would love to build a career that brings those stories to life.
Did you meet BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis before playing him?
I still haven’t met Mike, although Jim Balsillie did attend the Toronto premiere, which was pretty cool. While we were working on the project, Matt had a strong instinct that we should keep the process kind of in our own lab—that, if we were to involve the real dudes, a bunch of things could happen, the greatest risk being that we could develop an affinity for them, which would distract us from making the movie we wanted to make. I don’t think the product that exists now would exist if we had been hanging out with the subjects.
So how did you get into character?
Matt Johnson and Matthew Miller wrote a spectacular screenplay. That’s a boring answer, but really, the heavy lifting had already been done. I know they based the script, in part, on the book Losing the Signal by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, which was sort of a distillation of the real life events. But a movie doesn’t and shouldn’t obey the same rules as journalism. That’s not why we like paintings or music or poems. Art is the world of allegory. Very early on, Matt, Glenn and I agreed that we weren’t doing impersonations.
You’re a far smaller guy than the IRL Mike Lazaridis. Did you ever consider gaining weight for the role? I hear it’s a good way to win an Oscar.
We talked about it, but I don’t know that it was ever a serious consideration. The idea of donning a prosthetic was very quickly put to death. It felt like something that didn’t need to happen. We weren’t going the SNL comedy route, and BlackBerry is clearly not a documentary. I was also shooting a TV show at the same time, so wasn’t able to undergo a big physical transformation anyway.
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In the movie, Mike is the gentle genius to Jim’s fire-breathing a-hole. Was that a fun dynamic?
Oh, certainly, because it always gave each of us a clear point of view. We never had to figure out how our guy would behave in a certain scene. There is this hokey expression that “acting is reacting,” and the dynamic between these two characters is a really good example of that. At the same time, what I find the most interesting is how there are these big differences in demeanour, but Mike and Jim are also so similar. They’re both singular; they’re both convinced of their quality; they’re both driven—and they will both do whatever it takes to achieve their goals.
Do you have a favourite scene?
I loved shooting the scene in the diner where Cary Elwes is playing the CEO of PalmPilot, and he tries to take a velvet gloved approach to a hostile takeover. He’s sweet-talking Mike and Jim, but he’s so patronizing. It’s also an amazing allegory for anytime a Canadian has been talked down to by somebody from a bigger, richer country.
You’re in LA at the moment doing press for the movie. Do you also have a place there?
No—this is the first time I’ve been to LA in quite a while. I live in the Beaches. We shot a couple of scenes for the movie in Toronto, and then mostly in Hamilton as well as a bunch of exteriors in Waterloo, at the actual RIM offices.
You’re originally from Ottawa. Why did you make the move to Toronto?
I was born in Ottawa, I grew up in Montreal and then I moved to Toronto in 2014. I was raised with all of the typical anti-Toronto propaganda. And then, when I would come here for TIFF or whatever, I’d have these fleeting interactions with the downtown core—Blue Jays Way, Jack Astor’s insanity—and I’d think to myself, I don’t want this. But then I came here to shoot Man Seeking Woman and got to actually hang out, and I really liked it. I bought a house in 2014, and I live there with my wife and our dog. My mom and my stepdad came too, as well as my sister and her husband and their kids. So we’re all together again in a different province.
What does a typical day in the Beaches look like? Or is it “the Beach”?
Really, it’s either. It’s whether you believe that the beach is one long beach or multiple beaches, but does it matter? We’ll go to Bud’s Coffee on Queen East, take the dog down to the water and then probably get some groceries. I might go see my mom on Gerrard. It’s very boring. I use my leaf blower about twice a week.
It sounds like you’re a star who really is “just like us.”
I’m a real homebody. I pretty much always want to be reading on my porch or watching movies.
Without giving anything away, the movie sort of ends where it begins, with this frustrated genius who is chasing excellence for the sake of excellence. Did you relate to that aspect of the character?
I don’t know about excellence, but I do think of myself as being someone who tends to care deeply, maybe too much, about whatever it is I’m trying to create. I also know what it is to have people not understand why you do what you do—like why you don’t just move somewhere warm and make easier money. In BlackBerry, the merry band of engineers from the early days are sort of a stand-in for the Toronto indie film scene that Matt Johnson came up in.
So you’ve felt the pressure to move to the US for your career?
The whole time. And what’s messed up is that the pressure is from Canadians. It’s not like all of the Americans are just clamouring to get a kid from Ottawa down there. It’s us, and we will take ownership only after the fact. If people pay attention to me in Canada, it’s because I did things in the states, and I wish that wasn’t the case. There hasn’t been a year in my career where I haven’t worked on something in Canada, but that’s not where my currency comes from. I hate that I’ve always been treated kinder by LA and New York than by Toronto and Vancouver. I’ll show up to work on an American film set shooting in Canada, and I get treated better because I have a Montreal area code on my phone. It’s a real bummer.
How can we change that?
Without getting super morbid, I think there’s a generation that needs to dissipate. There are some outdated preconceived notions we have about ourselves that don’t serve us.
Does it bug you that a lot of people think of you as the goofy stoner from your earlier work?
I don’t really care one way or the other because I still get to do what I do. I’ve been lucky enough to be in a bunch of movies. I’ve also co-written a bunch of movies, I’ve directed, I have a book and I’m part-owner of Chapterhouse, the Toronto comic book publisher.
You forgot about your weed podcast.
You’ve been a very public cannabis advocate. How has life changed since legalization?
Immeasurably for the better. When weed was illegal, I wished that they would charge me double and tax the fuck out of me. I just wanted to buy it in a store and get a receipt. That was the only time in my life when I would do illegal shit. I pay my taxes on time; I don’t cut the queue. I guess no one forced me to smoke pot, but because I wanted to, I was forced into criminality. Now I can buy it in broad daylight next to a grandad, which is how it always should have been.
Are you into things like gummies and cannabis drinks, or do you still prefer to smoke joints?
I enjoy rolling joints and the odd bong rip. I’m pretty old fashioned, but I do like that they have these CBD products for my dog.
People are calling BlackBerry “the Canadian version of The Social Network,” a movie that was a massive commercial and critical success. Given everything we’ve talked about, I’m curious whether that pleases or irks you.
Both. It’s cool because if you google the production budget on The Social Network, it’s like 10 times what ours was, and I promise they shot for twice as long. But, at the same time, why does it have to be “the Canadian” anything? It can just be a good Canadian flick.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.