Every successful actor has an essential someone—a voice coach, a drama teacher, a best friend—who was there in the beginning. Here, 14 superstars behind the stars
sarah liss, john semley, courtney shea and radheyan simonpillai
Becoming a screen legend takes more than wishful thinking: aspiring stars need talent, luck, determination—and a dream team of cheerleaders behind the scenes. Below, you’ll find salutes to the motivators: the drama teachers, directors, managers, agents, bosses and besties who were all in from the beginning. They shot audition tapes, paid for pizza, talked to parents, pushed and shoved, convinced and cajoled—they were the early believers who helped catapult some of the city’s best actors into the spotlight. Now, those same actors are returning the favour.
portraits by kayla rocca
“Andrew made us feel like we had all the potential in the world”
Catherine O’Hara on her Second City boss,
AFTER I GRADUATED from Burnhamthorpe Collegiate, in Etobicoke, I told my parents that I wanted to be an actor. They were afraid for me. My dad wanted me to get a job at Canadian Pacific Railway, where he worked. Then, in 1973, Bernie Sahlins brought Second City from Chicago to Toronto and opened up a little theatre on Adelaide Street East. My sister, Mary-Margaret, and I were waitresses there. I got to watch the show every night.
After about a year, Bernie decided to close the theatre. Andrew Alexander, a theatre producer who had seen Second City in Chicago, knew that improv theatre was viable. So he made a deal with Bernie to give Toronto another shot. Andrew reopened Second City, this time on Lombard Street. John Candy hired me for the touring company, then Joe Flaherty made me the understudy for Gilda Radner, God bless her. Eventually I got hired for the cast.
Second City Toronto is about to have its 50th anniversary, and it wouldn’t have had a second anniversary if not for Andrew. I cannot express how beautiful it is to have someone there to guide you when you are starting out. Andrew never came backstage without a smile on his face. He made each of us feel like we had all the potential in the world. He was always laughing—he’s the best laugher.
I was talking to Martin Short recently, and he said he would never have had a career without Andrew, who basically badgered him into doing Second City. Andrew cared about everybody, and he was so encouraging. By keeping the theatre going all those years, he gave us this beautiful, safe space to learn and play. He just let us fly free.
“debbie has a depth of curiosity and wonder that I admire”
–Patrick J. Adams
Patrick J. Adams on his high school drama teacher,
AS A DRAMA TEACHER AT Northern Secondary School, Debbie created a little pocket where students could speak honestly―she was a port in a storm. In my senior year, she picked me to co-direct Cyrano de Bergerac, which was huge. Taking on that responsibility gave my life a shape at a time when it was totally shapeless.
Debbie had softness, tenderness, vulnerability and honesty―and she knew how to support those traits in others. I remember her pulling me aside as she was helping me prep for university auditions. I thought, Oh, she’s gonna tell me how proud she is, but it was the opposite. She was the one person who said, “You need to work harder than you’re working or you’re not gonna get there.” I was scared of running the scenes, of getting rejected. She made me push through that fear.
When I was on Broadway last year, Debbie came. She wanted to know everything about the show, from the logistics of the production to the motivations of each character. She has a depth of curiosity and wonder that I admire. Every time I work with an amazing actor or a scene goes really well or I get nominated for an award―Debbie’s always there. She’s there in everything.
“Dani’s a hustler, and she doesn’t put on airs”
Emily Hampshire on her long-time agent,
Dani De Lio
I MOVED FROM MONTREAL to Toronto on my own when I was 15. I was headstrong and very determined to become an actor, so my parents didn’t have much of a say. I signed with an agency that was based out of a house and ended up living in the basement because I was underage and couldn’t get an apartment. When the owner left for LA, she hired Dani, who inherited an agency and a squatter. Dani says that, the first time we met, I was standoffish because I was testing her; I have no recollection of that, but it does sound like me. After that, we became instantly close. Within a few years, I moved out of the basement—and eventually to LA. I also left Dani because I thought I needed an American agent. The split was so hard, but we remained friends.
Auditioning in LA felt like starting over. In Canada, I knew the casting directors and the readers. I felt seen and selected, even if I didn’t get the part. In LA, I felt like I was just one of a hundred girls in the waiting room. I quickly developed a literal audition allergy: I would break out in full-body hives. I told my US agent that I would be putting myself on tape from now on, and he immediately dropped me, which was fair. After I explained to Dani what had happened, she told me to come back to her. When the audition for Schitt’s Creek came along, I was prepared to put myself on tape, but Dani pushed me to go into the room, saying, “They’re Canadian! They’re nice!” So I did, and that audition changed my life.
Dani is loyal, very loud and so unpretentious, which I love in anyone but especially in an agent. She’s a hustler, and she doesn’t put on airs. She has great taste in projects, but she’s also practical. She doesn’t want me to work on terrible stuff, but she also knows that, if you need work, you need work. With Dani, I can go out into the world and audition and fail and still come home to her. When we started, I felt like we were sisters, equals—now she’s like a mother to me, even though we’re close in age. She’s the mom you need in your 30s and 40s, when you’re like, “No one warned me how much blinds cost!” She believes in me more than I believe in myself.
“John taught me that acting is a conversation”
Malin Åkerman on her first acting teacher, John Boylan
AS A TEEN in Toronto, I worked as a model and did catalogue work as well as commercials. Pretty soon, I was getting calls for small roles in Canadian TV shows. But, once on set in a speaking part, I had no idea what I was doing.
I remember booking a pilot for a TV show—I was playing a ghost. Most of my scenes were shot underwater, in a big tank, so I had just a few lines. All of a sudden, the director decided that he wanted me to do a monologue on my deathbed. The camera was right up against my face, and I was so nervous that I felt like I was going to vomit. I gave a terrible performance. Afterward, I thought, If I’m going ahead with this acting thing, even as a side hustle, I’d better figure out what I’m doing.
My agent recommended that I study on-camera work with John Boylan, an acting teacher who operated out of a small studio in Dovercourt Village. It was exactly what I needed. I’d perform a scene, and John would record it with a camcorder. Then he’d give me some direction, and we’d do it again, after which I’d go home and study the tape. Those classes were so much fun. They gave me a huge boost of confidence, and they helped me learn how to be on camera and act—which is very different from being on camera and modelling.
I can’t say that I’ve had a great rapport with many teachers in my life. With John, it was different. His students felt like they had a friend in him: somebody who really cared, not an authority figure. He understood where we were coming from and was on our level, speaking to us like peers. I was very shy as a teen and so nervous about acting, and he showed me how to be unafraid. He taught me to ask all the questions I needed to ask to be the best version of myself on camera. He taught me that acting is a conversation.
“I watched Dalmar improve, and I wanted to keep up with him”
Raymond Ablack on his best friend,
actor Dalmar Abuzeid
I MET DALMAR on Degrassi: The Next Generation in 2007, when we were both 17. He was cast in the role of Danny Van Zandt, and I played Sav Bhandari. We were on set together a lot, and he was just so funny, so rambunctious, so outrageous. He had me in stitches all the time; my face and stomach would hurt from laughing. Until then, I’d never felt like I was particularly funny, but he’d think of something and I’d tag in and we’d just keep riffing. Being around him was addictive. The team at Degrassi picked up on our chemistry and how close we were becoming, so they wrote us as best friends on the show.
When we graduated from Degrassi in 2011, we moved into a one-bedroom-plus-den in the west end. Every six months, we would rotate who had the bedroom and move our stuff around. Neither of us complained. It was pretty much what you’d expect of a bachelor pad: messy, with a lot of pizza boxes and late-night antics. If you want to be an actor for the long haul, you’ve got to do all kinds of things, so there we were, these former child actors working Joe jobs while trying to navigate the entertainment industry.
Dalmar and I had the same agent and often went out for the same gigs, but we always supported each other. We would shoot self-tape auditions in our apartment: Dalmar would read the character, then flip the camera around so I could read for the same role. He’d beat me for some stuff, and I’d beat him for other stuff. Honestly, his tireless work ethic forced me to do things I didn’t want to do, like take acting classes, attend theatre and go to the gym. I watched his work improve, and I just wanted to keep up with him.
The day-to-day grind of this industry is tough. There’s a great deal of competition, and there can be a lot of jealousy between peers. But, with Dalmar, there’s never been any bad blood between us, only celebratory feelings. I’ve had plenty of great teachers and mentors over the years, but it’s really special to have someone who sees you struggle and succeed and who shows up for you every day. If you’re lucky, you have a peer, someone who’s close to you and who shows you that it can be done. Dalmar was a great example for me, and I hope I was an example for him too.
“Martha fostered a sense of creativity and camaraderie”
Sarah Gadon on her former ballet teacher,
MARTHA HAD JUST opened the Martha Hicks School of Ballet when I began attending at age five. She was operating out of church basements in the area where I grew up, near Avenue and Lawrence. I was a naughty kid and so were my friends―we were naughty, rowdy hams. Martha was always very kind to us, but she had that air, the one that made it clear you weren’t going to fuck with her. She had completed the teacher training program at the National Ballet School, a very pedigreed place. The teachers she went on to hire―who often worked as dancers for the Raptors or in music videos―were tough but also encouraging. It’s through them that I discovered a love for performance.
The dance world, especially ballet, is a very disciplined environment. You finish an exercise at the barre and your teacher says, “Okay, so next time do this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this. Make those corrections.” You’re looking at yourself in the mirror and striving for perfection. You’re understanding your relationship with your body as an aesthetic piece and its relationship to the audience.
From a very young age, dancers are trained to develop self-awareness and an ability to self-critique, and that has served me in my career. It’s not intimidating or confining when you transition into acting and have a director who is really specific, who is intense, who talks to you during takes, who wants you to do things over and over and over again.
Lots of people love to lead by leveraging fear and confusion, but there are successful leaders who employ unconditional positivity. Martha is the latter. Although some of her students excelled, I don’t think Martha’s philosophy was to churn out professional dancers. Instead, her school fostered a sense of creativity and camaraderie among girls, and I got to be a part of that community into my 20s. I am so lucky that, as a young dancer and then as an actor, I was exposed to kind leaders―like Martha and Clark Johnson, who directed me in my first on-screen role, and David Cronenberg, with whom I’ve made three films, and Meredith Hama-Brown, whom I worked with on Seagrass, my new film at TIFF. They chose to make their classrooms and sets positive environments where children and artists can thrive.
“I’m very grateful to be part of Jennifer’s legacy”
Stephan James on filmmaker
WHEN I WAS 17, I was busy auditioning for feature films, but nothing was hitting. I was starting to wonder whether acting was something I should be doing. That’s when I heard about a film co-written by Jennifer Holness and directed by her producing partner and husband, Sudz Sutherland. Word was that Drake had been attached to the role I wanted: a British teen who suddenly finds himself back home in Jamaica. According to my managers and agents, young actors in England were auditioning for the part. There was this aura around the project, like, It’s going to be a big deal for whoever gets this.
The casting took place in a very small space, which didn’t help my nerves. But Jen made sure to give me the time to try things out, and I calmed down. She saw something in me that other people hadn’t. My performance wasn’t perfect on the first go, but Jen was very encouraging and let me have a few runs at it. I felt like I was with somebody who wanted to see me win, whether it was in that room at that moment or in life.
A few days later, I got the call from Jen to say that she was going to cast me in the part. It felt unreal, like a whole new world was opening up to me. She told me that this was going to be the beginning of something very special, not only for this film but for me as an actor. And she was right. That role meant a lot more people became familiar with my work, and it allowed me to establish my footing in the industry.
A couple of years ago, my brother Shamier Anderson and I started the Black Academy to celebrate Black Canadian voices in culture, and Jen is one of our board members. She also co-founded the Black Screen Office, an institution supporting Black voices in film and TV. She’s big on making art that has an impact, and I’m very grateful to be part of her legacy.
“They validated the art of what we were doing”
Mark McKinney on Rivoli co-owners David Stearn (pictured here) and Andre Rosenbaum
IN 1984, Bruce, Dave, Kevin and I had started the Kids in the Hall, but we were flailing around, trying to find our place. There was a Monday comedy night at the Rivoli, which was owned by Andre and David, and we were given the spot. Back then, the Rivoli was mostly a music venue; bar owners tend to like music because that’s what gets people dancing and sweating and buying beer. For a year, we really struggled to find an audience, but David and Andre let us keep trying, and they came to all of our shows. They validated the art of what we were doing.
Still, things were tough, and we were on the verge of breaking up, so we decided to do a “best of” show. (Before that, we’d made a point of never repeating our sketches.) We asked Andre and David, guilelessly, for prime time: instead of our regular Monday night, we asked for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They said yes. That week was the first time we packed the place, and it put the Kids in the Hall on its feet in a serious way. The success of those shows gave us the energy to keep going. Several months later, we caught the attention of Saturday Night Live scouts, and we auditioned for them on the Rivoli stage. That set up a chain of events that would change all of our lives.
I saw Andre a few months ago, and I asked him why he and David had supported us the way they did. They couldn’t have made a dime off us; comedy audiences don’t drink enough. And he said, “We just really liked your stuff, and we wanted to see it on our stage.” There was no logical reason why David and Andre should have given us those prime time slots, but they believed in us. If that’s not beautiful patronage, I don’t know what is.
“Jessie made me feel unafraid to try things and have fun”
Noah Reid on voice director
I WAS NINE YEARS OLD and had done a couple of commercials and a pretty epic stint as Chip in Beauty and the Beast at the Princess of Wales when I met Jessie. She was the voice director at a studio called Nelvana, which did a bunch of animated kids’ shows. What I remember most about her from that first day was her bright-red hair, piercing blue eyes and ebullient nature—a lot like Pippi Longstocking, which happened to be the show I was auditioning for. From the very start, Jessie made me feel unafraid to try things and have fun. She fostered the kind of nurturing environment that kids should have, but rarely get, in the entertainment industry.
I was soon cast as Franklin the Turtle, a role I played for five seasons, two movies and a Scholastic video game. Jessie was my advocate the whole time—maybe too good of one: when you listen to those final few episodes, you can hear my voice cracking.
We recorded the show at Studio 306, at Sherbourne and Bloor, all us kids in a circle behind our microphones. Jessie taught us how to pop out p’s, when to hang back from the mic and when to move in close—techniques that still come up in my work as a musician or when I’m recording audiobooks. Most of all, though, Jessie helped me inhabit a character who was learning some of the same life lessons that I was, about friendship and feelings. Franklin was a vulnerable little turtle, and he’s still very present in who I am today.
Whenever Jessie would show us how something should sound, she’d say, “Like that, but make it yours,” which has become almost a credo for me. In this industry, it’s so easy to get caught up in what you think people want or expect from you, and that can stifle your creative impulses. So, whether I’m auditioning for a new series or covering Tina Turner on Schitt’s Creek, I always ask myself, How can I put my own spin on this? That’s thanks to Jessie.
“from my first day working with lewis, I was hooked”
Shamier Anderson on his former acting coach, Lewis Baumander
AT 18 YEARS OLD, I was like X-Men’s Cyclops (without the goggles), and Lewis Baumander was Professor Xavier. He honed my skills and powers and made them intentional. It’s not an overstatement to say that he is the foundation of my career.
I first met Lewis shortly after I graduated from Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts, in Scarborough. I was moving through the casting process for a TV series, and a cast member mentioned that Lewis could really help me with my audition. I was pretty arrogant at the time, with a chip on my shoulder, stepping into LB Acting Studio and Central Casting in downtown Toronto thinking this mysterious figure doesn’t know what he’s doing.
I had all these ideas about how I wanted to play the audition scenes, and Lewis helped me let go. He’s very gracious and simple in his words; he taught me to relax, breathe, take the attention off myself and put it on my scene partner. He sat me down in a chair and was like, “Okay, run it once.” I ran it once. “Okay, do this and that,” he said. So I did. Then he told me that it was all right and to just go and do that and I would be fine. It was Mr. Miyagi Jedi shit. An hour later, I had my audition, and I booked the job on the spot. That was my first day working with Lewis, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
I couldn’t always afford his classes, but I had ambition, heart and vision, so we found creative ways to make it work. Sometimes I’d be a reader―the person who reads the lines of the other character in a scene―and other times I’d be a fly on the wall. When he could, he’d let me take classes for free. He really believed in me.
To borrow a piloting expression, I put in so much flight time with Lewis that he became part of my DNA. I still call to get his counsel on characters and career choices. And if we have to go back to the basics―back to one plus one equals two―I know I can find him at his studio, ready to go.
His most famous alumnus is definitely Keanu Reeves, whom I shared the screen with in John Wick 4. When we had the film’s Toronto premiere in March, Keanu and I met up with Lewis. It was such a full-circle moment.
“Shaharah is one of the most brilliant writers I know”
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan on her BFF,
playwright Shaharah Gaznabbi
MY BEST FRIEND Shaharah played a big role in catapulting me into show business. We were in our last year of high school in Mississauga and there was an open casting call on Twitter for the lead in a new show created by Mindy Kaling. Tens of thousands of people responded, but I would have never found the casting call myself because I wasn’t on Twitter. I mainly used Instagram, to share pics, jokes and the latest memes. But Shaharah has a writer’s brain, so of course they were on Twitter. They saw the posting and sent it to me.
Here’s the thing: even if I had somehow found the casting call without Shaharah, I don’t know that I would have auditioned by myself. We didn’t really audition thinking we had a chance at landing a role; we did it because it was yet another way to spend time together. Making self-tapes was something for us to do other than playing video games—it was our latest creative collaboration. Shaharah is one of the most brilliant writers I know; a show they co-created called What Can Indian Look Like just premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe. In our high school drama club, Shaharah would write the plays that I would direct. One of them won us a week-long workshop at the Tarragon Theatre. When I have my own production company, I want to work with Shaharah to develop shows and movies.
If you saw us together in high school, you might have thought we hated each other. They would whisper terrible things in my ear and I would yell back something vile. Because I’m loud and they are physically tiny, everyone would think that I was bullying poor baby Shaharah. But, really, we just have an antagonistic vibe—that’s the kind of best friends we are. When I’m feeling down about my latest relationship drama, I remind myself of the amazing friendship that I have with Shaharah. That helps ground me when I’m out and about in Hollywood. I’m meeting cool people, but my ride or die is back home. Four years out of high school, we’re still making self-tapes together—and we’re still talking shit about each other.
PS: Shaharah smells bad.
“Mort was the first person to make me trust my instincts”
Eric McCormack on his high school drama teacher,
I’VE KNOWN I wanted to be an actor since I was five years old. Growing up in Scarborough, I performed in all the plays and skits at school, eventually signing up for Grade 10 drama in 1978. Within a week, my lovely teacher, Lois Kivesto, said to me, “You shouldn’t be here. You should be in Mort’s class.”
Mort Paul, the Grade 11 acting teacher, was a legend at Sir John A. MacDonald—imagine a really physically fit Groucho Marx. He took me seriously from the beginning, despite the fact that I was younger than my classmates. He took everything seriously, but his classes were always fun. Rather than indoctrinating us into some stiff definition of theatre, he encouraged imagination and risk. He was the first person to make me trust my instincts. He gave me a lead part in The Visit, a very difficult German play; pushed me to direct Shaw (at 16!); and later cast me as Jesus in Godspell. For the audition, we had to sing a cappella. I didn’t know any musical-theatre songs, so I dove into a screaming rock anthem by Deep Purple. His look said, What the hell was that? but I got the part. It was such a good production that he arranged for us to perform it at Harbourfront that summer.
I always had a strange confidence when it came to being an actor, but it was Mort’s belief in me that solidified it. I didn’t actually know just how big his contribution was until a few years after our first meeting. Despite my parents’ hope that I’d attend university, I had been accepted into the Ryerson Theatre School. When I thanked my folks for being okay with my decision to attend, my mother said, “Thank Mort.” It turns out that they’d approached him during a parent-teacher conference early on and expressed their concern that I was going to pursue this acting thing for real. Mort leaned in with three words: “Don’t stop him.” And they didn’t.
In 2001, I was thrilled to invite Mort and his wife, Ellen, to New York when I made my Broadway debut as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. Witnessing his quiet effusiveness and proud smile was a little like winning a Tony. I talk about him more than he’ll ever know.
“Aiksimar understood how to build an unconventional career”
Lilly Singh on her first manager,
I WAS IN MY early 20s when I met Aiksimar. He was producing events at clubs around Toronto and I was finishing up university. I was trying to figure out how to turn my hobby—making YouTube videos—into a career. My comedy sketches had hundreds of thousands of views, but I didn’t know how to get to the next level. My inbox had started to fill up; it was so full that I was missing opportunities for paid work. That’s when I knew that I needed help. I think Aiksimar was surprised when I asked him to meet me for lunch, but he came, and within a couple of hours he was a manager and I was his first client.
Neither of us knew what it meant to manage a YouTuber in 2010. Did anyone? But Aiksimar did understand what it meant to build an unconventional career out of something that most people think of as fun. Neither of us was exactly fulfilling our Indian parents’ dream, but we saw the potential in what we were doing. Aiksimar had really good instincts. He negotiated my first brand deal (with the Nintendo game Just Dance), helped me launch my first line of merch and co-organized a trip to Mumbai for YouTube FanFest 2016, which remains one of the best moments of my life. We got to meet Shah Rukh Khan, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, on that trip, and we were even invited to his house. It was an incredibly surreal experience. The whole thing felt like a dream, and it wouldn’t have happened without Aiksimar.
Eventually, it made sense for me to start working with a larger team, but we’ve stayed in touch. There is nothing like the time when you are coming up. Aiksimar was the person by my side through all of that—my first manager turned mentor and dear friend.
“mum was more of an advocate than a pushy stage parent”
Megan Follows on her mother, actor Dawn Greenhalgh
WHEN I WAS younger and having a tough time―a role I didn’t get or a heartbreak―my mum would say, “Don’t let the fuckers get you down.” She spent part of her childhood in an internment camp in China during the Second World War, so she has seen her share of real tragedy. That’s where she fell in love with acting and put on some of her first performances. Her imagination was a refuge.
When I started acting, she wasn’t one of those overly pushy stage moms; the word I would choose is advocate. This was the 1980s―we didn’t have the child labour laws that exist today. I often worked very long days, and people had tempers and didn’t care what was appropriate for children. She was my shield: either because she was by my side or because the people on set knew my parents and didn’t want to be on the wrong side of them.
As a kid, I would watch my mum on stage, and she was an example of what it looked like to do the thing you love. Even though she was a founding member of several theatre companies and had been part of Stratford’s first season, I don’t recall her giving me a lot of acting advice directly. It was more that she had a deep understanding of what it takes to deliver a performance, the degree of focus and concentration required. She ran interference for me, clearing space so I could follow my own instincts and, in the case of Anne Shirley, create this layered, complicated character.
We shot Anne of Green Gables in Toronto, and after filming, the other teenagers in the cast would hang out, but I was never allowed to join them―I had pages of dialogue to work on, plus I had to be on set at 5:30 a.m. I didn’t necessarily appreciate it at the time, but now I see how my mum allowed me to do my best.
When I was finished with the Anne movies and trying to figure out what to do next, she was once again my role model. English Canada doesn’t have a star system, and even playing an iconic role doesn’t automatically give you professional leverage. My mum wasn’t a movie star―she was a working actor, and she taught me how to keep at it. She also encouraged me to start directing so that I could have more career opportunities. Recently, I directed her in an indie feature, which felt like a full-circle moment. Mum’s almost 90, so she’s not working much anymore―but she made an exception for me.