“If you’re not selling out the house at Stratford, you’re not doing your job”: Paul Gross on aging, Due South and starring as King Lear
After more than two decades, Paul Gross is back at the Stratford Festival, this time playing theatre’s most conflicted retiree. He’s never been more ready
It’s been a while since audiences have seen you on screens. What have you been up to?
I was writing a play when Covid hit. My wife, Martha, and I have a place outside the city. Once we got there, we realized how many of our friends, particularly young people in the industry, were stuck indoors. We ended up building an artists’ retreat on our property, with all these tiny houses for people to live in and work on their scripts.
That’s cool! This is the first I’ve heard about it.
This year has been a bit complicated. I’ve been in Stratford since February, but I think we could build a bunch more.
So you’re a guy who can just pick up a hammer and build a house?
No, but I’m pretty good at following instructions.
You mentioned a play.
Yeah, the idea came to me about four years ago. It was after my mother died and I started writing again. I would just sit down and this story started to emerge, a contemporary narrative echoing the Battle of the Plains of Abraham—big and sprawling—sort of an origin story about the country. But parts of it are quite terrible. It’s funny: with writing, you get to the end and think it’s great, then you read it again and it’s definitely not. But I love the process of writing more than anything.
If you had to choose between writing and acting…
If somebody put a gun to my head, I would choose writing, but I absolutely love acting.
What do you get from acting that you don’t get from writing?
Looseness, freedom, absolute expression. It’s immediate. Writing is much more calculated.
You played Hamlet at Stratford 23 years ago, fresh off Due South. At the time, did you feel like you had made it?
I’ve never focused on fame. I do remember that it was a somewhat depressing thing to do. As Hamlet, you have no friends; nothing ever works out. I did maybe 80 performances over a year. Even after it was done, there was a dark cloud hanging over me. Playing Lear is different, though. Lear is exhilarating.
But also kind of depressing, no?
Well, the play is depressing, but the character is not self-aware. He’s scared and then angry and then sad. By the end, he’s almost burned clean. I’ll feel exhausted but okay. I guess that’s the key difference.
I imagine that being in your 60s also informs the difference.
Of course. I’m 64 now. Like Lear, people now tell me, You’re old! Act old. There’s a brutality to that. I’m very mindful of how different my body feels and how much Stratford has changed too, trying to figure its way out of the pandemic. Do audiences still want to see this stuff? But I love that jitteriness. Nothing makes me happier than getting on stage, unsure of what’s next.
In terms of box office, I believe your Hamlet was second only to Christopher Plummer’s Lear.
If you’re doing one of these plays and you’re not selling out the house, you’re not doing your job. And I think I actually beat Chris. It’s too bad that he’s dead, or we could have had a fight about it. I loved Chris. He was a great, weird, strange man. One of the originals.
How are you ensuring your production’s success?
Honestly, the most important thing is to be good—to make it worthwhile for someone to buy a ticket and drive that hellish road. My job is to bring people into a world that is not their own, to put them through the full existential wringer and then have them leave feeling slightly changed.
Well, that’s on Shakespeare. If I do him and do it authentically, then everyone in the audience will feel it.
What if audiences just aren’t as into Shakespeare as they used to be?
Shakespeare is Shakespeare. There are lots of different kinds of expression, but Shakespeare towers above all of them like a colossus. Rom-coms, sitcoms—that’s all Shakespeare. It’s dangerous, courageous writing that gives you the tools to go to new places. If people ever lost interest in Shakespeare, that would be a harbinger of something terrible.
Was a school-age Paul Gross as emphatically pro-Bard?
I can remember being 12 or 13 when my mother drove me to Stratford to see William Hutt in Lear. I was so mesmerized, and I thought, This is what I want to be part of. At one point during the performance, the head of a prop spear broke and fell into the aisle. I darted down to pick it up. I still have it to this day.
Wow. Maybe someone needs to write a play about your being in this play.
That’s not even the whole story. I got to work with Bill years later, and one day he told me that he was dying of cancer. He asked me not to tell the cast and crew. He actually predicted that I would one day play Lear. I told him I could never do it, to which he replied, Of course you can—just be you.
Lear has been played by Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart—the list goes on. How are you putting your stamp on the character?
I think I have a theatrical energy that’s different from most people. Unique things move me emotionally on stage. What’s great is that, every time we do the play, it’s different. We never try to repeat something that worked the night before. If I’m crying, I’m crying. You go to where the play takes you. It’s you as much as it is Lear.
Plummer was in his 70s when he did Lear. Are you too young?
The first time William Hutt played Lear, he was 30. When Brian Cox did it, he was 40. I think 64 is a good age. It’s retirement age, which is how the play begins.
How do you prepare?
I read the play out loud over and over and over again until I’m yelling it. I have two dogs—these crazy little dogs who think they’re big dogs—and I take them out for walks and run lines with them. Eventually, they became Goneril and Regan, and they even respond to those names now.
Shakespeare is all about the tragic flaw. What’s yours?
I become consumed by my work, to the point where everything else falls by the wayside.
Due South started streaming on Netflix last year. Why do people still love that show so much?
It was extremely funny and well written. And it satisfied this international idea of Canada: a place where you can drink out of the rivers and people are very generous. We’re not creeps. I guess people really like that. And the dog, definitely the dog.
I’ve heard rumours of a reboot.
I can’t really say anything about that.
But, hypothetically, totally theoretically, would you be involved?
People would love to see you back in the Mountie suit.
It’s a miserable thing to wear, but the show has an extraordinarily loyal international group of fans. We’ll see if they show up at Lear.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.