Faith Susan Alberta Watson, actor (born 6 March 1955 in Toronto, ON; died 21 March 2015 in Toronto). Gemini Award–winning character actor Alberta Watson enjoyed a successful career in film and television that spanned four decades. Renowned for her consistency and reliability, she was perhaps best known for the TV series La Femme Nikita (1997–2001) and 24 (2004–05), but also gave memorable performances in David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey (1994), Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001). She resisted the idea of a star system in Canada, and had a reputation for risk-taking and a high level of professionalism.
Watson began acting at age 15 with the Theater House of God at the Bathurst Street United Church in Toronto. She briefly lived on a communal farm outside the city with other actors before returning to Toronto to act professionally, landing her first role in the CBC TV movie Honour Thy Father (1974).
Her first major credit was in Robert Lantos and Claude Héroux’s In Praise of Older Women (1978). The provocative film was controversial when it premiered at the Toronto Festival of Festivals (now the Toronto International Film Festival), but it earned 10 Canadian Film Award nominations, including one for Watson for Best Supporting Actress.
Watson continued acting with the hit CBC TV series The King of Kensington and such tax shelter films as Stone Cold Dead (1979), Dirty Tricks (1981)and The Soldier (1982). She moved to Los Angeles and landed her first Hollywood role in Michael Mann’s 1983 horror film, The Keep. The Keep received mostly negative reviews, but Watson’s performance led to appearances on such American television series as Hill Street Blues, The Equalizer, Law & Order and a continuing role on the short-lived ABC drama Buck James. Watson later expressed disappointment with her early television work, but these roles inevitably shaped her career, pushing her to pursue strong, complex characters in projects that challenged her.
Watson gambled by playing Susan, the seductive mother in David O. Russell’s incest-tinged first feature, Spanking the Monkey (1994). Several high-profile actresses declined the role, including Susan Sarandon, Faye Dunaway, Jessica Lange and Isabella Rossellini, but Watson relished it, later calling it her best performance and her favourite role.“I took it because it was a heck of a challenge,” she said. “And I'm not a name with an image to protect… It didn't scare me at all. I seized the character and made her something.” The offbeat black comedy proved to be a defining moment in her career. The film won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and drew largely positive reviews. The Washington Post called Watson’s performance “smartly and sensually played,” while the New York Times wrote that she was “perfectly in tune with the film's deadpan, understated manner.”
Watson then appeared in several notable projects, including the early Angelina Jolie vehicle Hackers (1995) and the Golden Globe-nominated, Emmy-winning TV movie Gotti (1996), playing the wife of infamous New York mobster John Gotti. After living in the New York–New Jersey area for eight years, she returned to Canada and starred in Shoemaker (1996), an early production for the Canadian Film Centre’s Feature Film Project, which earned her a Genie Award nomination.
Return to Canada
Watson then played the grieving and lonely mother, Risa Walker, in Atom Egoyan’s critically acclaimed The Sweet Hereafter (1997). Watson shared the National Board of Review award for Best Ensemble and helped bring the film international recognition. Egoyan later recalled Watson as “fun, fearless and ferociously talented.”
Watson came closer to fame with the role of Madeline, the cunning force on the Canadian syndicated spy series La Femme Nikita, adapted from the 1990 Luc Besson film. Fans loved Watson’s icy, yet sympathetic performance as the show drew strong ratings and a loyal weekly audience. Watson starred in four seasons of La Femme Nikita, along with a return appearance in its fifth season, and earned a Gemini nomination for season two. She amassed some devoted fans and engaged with them frequently on fan sites. In her final performance, Watson played Senator Madeline Pierce when La Femme Nikita was rebooted as Nikita in 2010.
In 1998, Watson was diagnosed with lymphoma. She underwent treatment but continued to act prolifically, often wearing wigs to conceal the effects of chemotherapy. She balanced her work in La Femme Nikita with roles in Canadian films including The Life Before This (1999), Desire (2000) and Deeply (2000). She followed La Femme Nikita with a string of notable independent films, including The Art of Woo (2001), John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Thom Fitzgerald’s The Wild Dogs (2002) and Jeremy Podeswa’s TV movie, After the Harvest (2001), which brought her another Gemini nomination.
Watson found additional strong TV work playing Detective Denise McGoohan in Chasing Cain (2001) and Chasing Cain: Face (2002). She followed this with The Prince and Me (2004), and recurring roles in such TV series as Show Me Yours (2004) and Ken Finkleman’s The Newsroom (2004).
Watson re-teamed with La Femme Nikita co-creator Joel Surnow for season four of his hit action-drama 24. (Surnow was such a fan that he not only hired her again, but also named a character in the series, Alberta Green, after her.) Watson played Erin Driscoll, head of the fictional intelligence agency that employs operative Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). Watson developed Driscoll with writers to make her as smart as Bauer, but also flawed and vulnerable.
Watson’s final credits include such Canadian and independent films as Some Things That Stay (2004), Citizen Duane (2006), A Lobster Tale (2006) and Sarah Polley’s Genie-winning Away from Her (2006) opposite Gordon Pinsent, with whom she performed in Chris Landreth’s Genie-nominated animated short The Spine (2009). She also appeared in and The Lookout (2007) with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as well as the TV series Angela’s Eyes (2006), The Border (2008) and Heartland (2010), for which she won a Gemini Award.
Outside acting, Watson championed more production in Canada and more opportunities for Canadian actors. “I have mixed feelings about a star system in Canada,” she once said. “I don’t think I’d ever want to be a star. I like being a working actor… What I would like to see in place of a star system is simply more production. I just want to see actors getting more opportunities.”
For her final film role in the Vancouver-shot Helen (2009), starring Ashley Judd, Variety cited Watson as “underexposed.” It was a fitting description for an actress who forged a career with consistently positive notices in smaller films. She proved that a career built on risks and respect could be more rewarding than mere fame. After a long battle with cancer, Watson died at the age of 60 from complications with the disease.
Best Actress (Exposure), Yorkton Film Festival (1978)
Best Ensemble Cast (The Sweet Hereafter), National Board of Review Awards (1997)
Career So Far Award, Chlotrudis Awards (2008)
Best Performance by an Actress in a Guest Role Dramatic Series (Heartland), Gemini Awards (2011)