Gross, PaulSo, have you ever been arrested?"
It seems as good a place as any to begin an interview with Paul Gross, the actor who plays the impeccably polite and upright Mountie in CTV's Due South. He sits on a bar stool in the kitchen of his Toronto home smoking Winstons and sipping coffee, a little bleary after a night of too much wine - not the kind of behavior that his alter ego, RCMP Const. Benton Fraser, would get up to. But this morning, Gross is out of uniform and out of character, barefoot in a T-shirt and jeans. Some stubble darkens his chin, a dusting of grit on the smooth, square-jawed features.
"Arrested? Yeah, for drunk driving," he says, fielding the question without a flicker of hesitation. It was the mid-1980s in Stratford, Ont. Gross was playing darts over drinks with an actor friend, Benedict Campbell. "I was worried the car was going to get towed," recalls Gross, "so I put it in this church parking lot. I was trying to park it, but while I was trying, I thought I'd just spin a 180 in the gravel. And then they appeared out of nowhere, all these guys with flashlights - 'You're under arrest.' That was a year's suspension. It's very effective legislation."
Drunk parking. It is, come to think of it, a Benton Fraser kind of crime. And although Gross likes to make it clear that, in real life, he is no Benton Fraser, there is enough Mountie in him to appreciate the beauty of an effective bit of law enforcement. Gross may lack Fraser's punctilious reserve, but he does elicit the same sort of adjectives: charming, witty, smart, honest, articulate, athletic, generous, dedicated and drop-dead handsome - in other words, like Fraser, he seems infuriatingly perfect.
At 38, Paul Gross is the Renaissance dude of Canadian television. This year, Due South enters its third season as the country's most popular homegrown TV drama, averaging 1.5 million viewers per episode on CTV (Sundays at 7 p.m.). And for the first time, Gross is not just the star but the boss as well. He has streamlined the production and cast a new sidekick, the smouldering Callum Keith Rennie, to replace the nonchalant David Marciano. Now, as actor, executive producer and head writer, Gross earns combined fees estimated at between $2 million and $3 million for the season, making him the highest-paid performer in the history of Canadian television. "I hate to say this because he's got enough going for him already," says Robert Lantos, chairman and CEO of Alliance Communications, the company behind Due South. "But he's turned out to be a first-class producer. This show was always problematic. There were budget overruns. It was behind schedule. There was always panic on the set. Since Paul has been running the show, I don't hear anything. It's completely calm and smooth. It's even below budget. It's astonishing."
As if that were not enough, Gross is an award-winning playwright. He composes songs, and sings with remarkable assurance for someone who does not make a living at it - he has just released his first CD, Two Houses, a country album recorded with fellow actor David Keeley. He can ride a horse and play guitar. He is an expert skier. His friends report, with palpable envy, that he can party into the night without visible damage, rise at dawn the next day, knock off The Globe and Mail crossword puzzle in 10 minutes while being driven to the set, then work for 18 hours without losing his sense of humor or flubbing his lines. And somehow, despite his punishing schedule, he has managed to hold together a nine-year marriage to stage actress Martha Burns, and be a father to their two children, Hannah, 7, and Jack, 3. Dudley Do-Right, eat your heart out.
Gross, an army brat who was born in Calgary and schooled in England, Germany, Canada and Washington, just seems to have a talent for whatever he puts his hand to. "He's not just smart for a good-looking television star," says Toronto writer Paul Quarrington, who has scripted some Due South episodes and wrote the 1994 movie Whale Music, in which Gross appeared. "He's just really, really smart. Plus, he's very honest. He's one of those guys who will say things that people are thinking but wouldn't have the gumption to say out loud. When we were doing Whale Music, he managed to get us kicked out of perhaps the sleaziest bar in Vancouver, just by his forthrightness. It had something to do with dissing a local sports franchise. He's a bit of a cowboy, but an intellectual cowboy." Adds Quarrington: "It's not that he misbehaves in any standard way. He doesn't go out womanizing or doing heroin or anything."
In fact, a sense of innate virtue seems a big part of Gross's appeal. Then there is the Hunk Factor, which cuts both ways. "It's something that's dogged me all my life," he sighs. "There's an assumption that if you're pretty you can't be smart." And in a film culture of Atom Egoyans and David Cronenbergs, where the weird is a more valued currency than the heroic, Gross sometimes feels out of place as a classic leading man.
Egoyan, in fact, considered Gross for his movie The Sweet Hereafter, for the role of the simmering father, Billy Ansell, but hesitated because of his looks. "Paul is a very fine actor, and I was really close to casting him," says Egoyan, who cast Bruce Greenwood instead. "The problem is that he is really good-looking. Paul is very pretty; Bruce looked rougher." Gross, who views his own image with sanguine detachment, is under no illusions. "I'm not going to get to play Ratso Rizzo," he says. "But Canadian film and television does not celebrate beauty. In Canada, you can't be serious if you're also attractive. My face is more organized for the American system somehow."
But Gross has also had his frustrations with Hollywood. He keeps getting asked to play male bimbos in U.S. movies-of-the-week that he considers an insult to his intelligence. He winces at the mention of his one starring role in a Hollywood feature, the cheesy Aspen Extreme (1993), in which he was cast as a babe-magnet ski instructor. And he auditioned for a role opposite Jack Nicholson in the upcoming comedy As Good as It Gets, only to be told by director Jim Brooks that he was "too fine-featured" for the part.
Still, what Gross has accomplished with Due South cannot be underestimated. He has created a complex character who is heroic, campy, sensitive and utterly uncynical. That is all the more remarkable considering that the show, concocted in a 1992 meeting between Lantos and then-CBS president Jeff Sagansky, was born as an act of co-production opportunism: a Crocodile Dundee comedy-adventure about a Mountie from the Canadian North who ends up working with the Chicago police. Shot in Toronto, Due South became the first Canadian series to crack American prime time. It is now seen in some 60 countries. It is a top 10 hit in both Germany and Britain, and has a large following of hard-core fans who swap Due South trivia on the Internet. As the Mountie peacekeeper, Gross has turned a rusty Canuck cliché into a sublimely ironic international icon.
Neither a sitcom nor a TV police drama, Due South corresponds to no existing TV formula. Swinging unpredictably between farce and drama, it is urban fable with a surreal edge, and can be wildly uneven. "CBS had no idea where to slot it or how to sell it," says Gross. Buoyed by a fiercely loyal fan base, the show weathered a roller-coaster ride of network cancellations and renewals. Then, after last season, the U.S. network pulled the plug once and for all, and Due South was presumed dead. But Lantos marshalled support from CTV, the BBC and other foreign broadcasters to resurrect it for a third season.
Now, the show's success hinges substantially on Gross. He does the hiring, approves all major decisions, puts the final polish on all scripts, and writes about half a dozen episodes himself. On the set, meanwhile, he commands loyalty. "Paul's very poised," says Gordon Pinsent, who plays the ghost of Fraser's Mountie father. "He's not pushy. And he's very respectful of other actors." Gross is also the self-appointed life of the party. "He's on all the time," says one crew member. "He's constantly kibitzing and doing stand-up routines and pratfalls. He's like a kid - he has to be the centre of attention. But he's very well liked; it's a giant love-in."
And a laugh-in. Gross's quirky sense of humor is all over the show. An episode last season called "All the Queen's Horses," which Gross wrote, featured a flatulent Leslie Nielsen (Naked Gun) in a deliriously absurd sequence involving a trainload of singing Mounties from the Musical Ride. Gross says he cast Nielsen over lunch after a chance encounter on the street in Manhattan: "I said, 'OK, the Musical Ride is on a train and they're all gassed by terrorists except for you, and I see you going to the bathroom so I crawl underneath the train and we have a conversation through the hole in the toilet. And he says, 'I'm sold.' "
Gross brings a sense of physical as well as comic bravado to the show, performing a number of his own stunts - he did a fight scene without a safety harness on top of the moving train in "All the Queen's Horses." And he displays a giddy sense of adventure as a writer-producer. This season, his pride and joy is a two-part episode titled "Mountie on the Bounty," which airs next February. Costing $4.2 million, it features a naval battle filmed in the middle of Lake Ontario between a freighter and a squad of Mounties on a three-masted frigate - the very same one used by Marlon Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty.
Even on a normal day, commanding a TV series that costs an average of $1.5 million an episode and employs a crew of 200 is like a military operation. In fact, Rennie's nickname for his co-star is "Tank Commander." And Gross's interest in things military runs deep: his dream is to make an epic movie that he has written based on the unsubstantiated story of a Canadian soldier being crucified on a barn door in France during the First World War.
Gross, the older of two brothers, grew up with the military. There are snapshots of him as a small child sitting on the barrel of a tank in Germany. His father, Bob Gross, was a career soldier, a colonel with a Canadian tank regiment. (Now retired, he lives in southern Alberta with Paul's mother, Renie, who is now completing a book about dinosaurs and the Badlands. They have a spread with a few horses at the edge of Dinosaur Provincial Park.) During his itinerant childhood, Paul spent three years in Germany. "One of my favorite pastimes," he recalls, "was to sneak into the German army base through this hole in the fence and find old gas masks and spent shells. Or go into the cemetery with a screwdriver and take the iron crosses off the graves. That was fun."
In Paul's early teens, the family moved to Washington, where a drama teacher inspired him to become an actor. "We did huge plays," he recalls, "Canterbury Tales and Faustus." And at 14, he acted in his first commercial, a public-service ad about shoplifting. Yet another move took Gross to Toronto, where he finished high school at Earl Haig Secondary School. There, faced with a drama program offering such chestnuts as My Fair Lady, he looked elsewhere for excitement. "I spent my time downtown playing pinball or pool," he says. "I did the requisite amount of delinquency. I was in this little group and we'd break and enter houses. But I never stole anything. I would look at their record collections and see what kinds of books they had on the shelves."
Meanwhile, Gross continued acting in commercials, paying his way to study drama at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he began writing for the stage. His model was the black-humored angst of American playwright Sam Shepard. "That's how I started writing," he says. "I fell in love with Shepard's stuff." Shortly after completing his studies, he saw his first two works produced. Mounted in Edmonton, The Deer and the Antelope Play - about a fractured family at a Prairie gas station - won the 1982 Alberta Cultural Playwriting Award. But a review of the play, in an Edmonton paper, is forever seared into his brain. "The headline said, 'Gross is an insult to theatre,' " he recalls. "It took me months to recover."
But the critics loved his second play, The Dead of Winter, a gothic drama set on Christmas Eve in a farmhouse in the Alberta Badlands. Featuring actress Jackie Burroughs, it enjoyed a sellout run at the Toronto Free Theatre. Its director, Guy Sprung, says the writing was rich with "big, powerful images, none of this kitchen-sink shit. It had poetry in it; it had ideas; it had huge emotions and colors." Taking Gross under his wing, Sprung went on to direct him in several plays, including an athletic production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in Toronto's High Park. Gross was a rock-star Romeo with shoulder-length hair who would swing from tree branches and shinny up vines. "As you could imagine, he had lots of young groupies coming to see him," says Sprung, "After the 'Is it a lark? Is it a nightingale?' scene, he would jump from the wall onto a horse and ride off into the park - with much swooning from the teenage girls."
The new golden boy of Canadian theatre, Gross also served as playwright in residence at the Stratford Festival. There, he wrote his third play, Sprung Rhythm, a psychodrama about a megalomaniacal doctor that included a grisly re-enactment of open-heart surgery. The experience left its author dissatisfied. Though it was well-received at Ottawa's National Arts Centre in 1984, a revamped Toronto production two years later, retitled Buchanan, was less successful. Meanwhile, Gross's fourth play, Thunder, Perfect Mind, an overwrought science-fiction musical extravaganza staged at Toronto's planetarium, was "a mess," admits Gross. "It made me realize how difficult it is to get up plays of any size in this country. And the doctor play was so badly reviewed, I just thought, 'I can't take it any more.' There's no money. It takes three years to write one of these things. And you just get beat up."
Gross found an exit in TV and film. And he now holds the unlikely status of having scripted the only two Atom Egoyan films that the director has not written himself, both CBC dramas: In This Corner, about an Irish boxer mixed up in terrorism, and Gross Misconduct, about the death of hockey player Brian Spencer. He was disappointed with the spin that Egoyan put on his scripts, especially the strangely caricatural Gross Misconduct. "It was an odd pairing," concedes Egoyan. "We have really different sensibilities. But I hugely admired him. He really was our Sam Shepard, writing these magic realist, very cool riffs on this mythic Alberta."
With his writing career on hold, Gross concentrated on acting, which proved no less frustrating. He starred as a First World War veteran in the mammoth CBC mini-series Chasing Rainbows (1988), and the chaotic 18-month shoot, he recalls, "was like a prison sentence." But it fuelled the actor's fascination with trench warfare, and led to his Dora Award-winning stage role as another First World War soldier in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme at Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre.
In the early 1990s, Gross starred in two offbeat Canadian movies - as a terrorized salesman in Cold Comfort, and as a Maritime mayor in Buried on Sunday. Then Hollywood came calling with the regrettable Aspen Extreme. He tried to turn it down. "I said, 'It's a terrible script, it's stupid.' But Sandy Bresler, who was Jack Nicholson's agent, got on the phone and said, 'What the f--- is wrong with you? You came down here, you want to star in studio pictures, it's a studio picture. Jack Nicholson did 27 crappy pictures before Easy Rider.' "
But actors today are not allowed so many false starts. And Aspen Extreme offers up what is perhaps the most nightmarish metaphor for Gross's career. He plays an aspiring writer who gets rejected by Esquire and ends up as a Powder magazine cover boy, a star ski instructor with a drooling clientele of wealthy women. The ski school boss tells him that he has to "have a certain look - part of the job is fulfilling the fantasy." Gross is actually very impressive in Aspen Extreme. With his flashing white smile and easy charm, he comes across as a more natural Tom Cruise. But in the cutting room, Disney destroyed whatever integrity, and continuity, the movie had, says Gross. "They gutted it until it corresponded to Disney's original ad campaign: that Aspen is money, tits and skiing."
Aspen Extreme never took off at the box office, and Gross's first shot at Hollywood stardom was squandered. Since then, his U.S. offers have been limited to uninspired TV movies and mini-series - most recently he starred in a CBS remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which he prefers to call 20,000 Scenes Down the Drain.
But without some setbacks, Gross would not have been available for the Due South pilot in the summer of 1993. The show's Canadian creator, Paul Haggis (thirtysomething, Michael Hayes), remembers their first meeting: "He walked into the room and I knew he was the character. It was his entire demeanor, the combination of an honest face and a bent, perverse sense of humor."
As the deadpan Mountie, Gross came to personify Due South. But his American co-star, David Marciano, signed on under the assumption that he was joining a buddy cop show, not playing a sidekick in a Mountie show. This season, says Marciano, Alliance offered to hire him back with a 40-per-cent pay cut, which he took as a none-too-subtle suggestion that he was not wanted. Gross stayed clear of the negotiations, and Marciano - who is making two guest appearances this season - insists he bears no grudge against him, although he now coolly refers to Paul, his former partner, as "Mr. Gross." Alliance also sacked the dog that played Benton Fraser's deaf husky, Diefenbaker. Haggis had given the lucrative dog-handling contract to his father, but the animal was so notoriously slow and unskilled that on the set it had earned the nickname "O.T.," for overtime. The new Diefenbaker is reportedly smarter, faster and cheaper.
Monday morning. After a three-week holiday, the Due South crew is back at work. The show's offices and studios are scattered through the brick confines of a bleak factory space in midtown Toronto. Hundreds of blue barrels of toxic waste are stacked beside the parking lot where Gross's Winnebago is parked. The trailer, which has a double bed in the back, serves as a roomy second home. A laptop sits on the desk, containing the script now being shot, which has yet to be finished. Gross takes a couple of mineral waters out of the fridge. "It was hard to sit down with Martha and say Lantos wants to do another year of this," he says, thinking back to the day he broke the news to his wife. "It means pretty much that I'm gone for a year. On occasion, it's been very difficult."
Because Martha Burns is an actor herself - she met Gross in 1983, when she was cast as an Indian princess in Walsh, a play in which he starred as a Mountie - she also has to contend with a measure of professional envy. "I'm thrilled for him as long as he's happy," she says. "It's like seeing someone discover another side of himself - that he's good with people and a good manager. But it's been three years of resenting not having him around." Then, laughing, she recalls: "I remember the first year he was doing Due South. I saw this big hard-cover novel in his kit bag, and said, 'When do you have the time to read this?' The idea of someone sitting in a trailer reading a newly published hard-cover during the day - that's what you resent." She adds, "This year, I know he doesn't have time to read."
Burns stresses, however, that Gross is a good father and a caring husband, and she seems unfazed by the incessant drone of female adoration that surrounds him. But then Gross himself appears to have a healthy perspective on his glamor-boy image. His friend Benedict Campbell went on a camping trip with him a few years ago. With them were Campbell's brother Tom and nephew Liam. "We were sitting very late one night," Campbell recalls, "and this '60s Chrysler comes rumbling past, and all these faces peered out of the windows at us. It was eerie. It felt like Deliverance. Suddenly, the doors opened, and all these teenagers poured out of it. Paul had been spotted in the store, and these kids had tracked him down - at 1 in the morning. He very graciously signed autographs and had pictures taken with all the girls. Liam, who has dreams of being a baseball star, thought this was just fantastic. And he asked Paul how it felt to have all these people adoring him. Paul just gave this off-the-cuff explanation that it wasn't him these people were coming to seek - it was this image they see on television."
A response worthy of Benton Fraser. But, once again, Gross is no Benton Fraser. He swears, smokes, drinks, has strong opinions. He even gambles. One weekend, he chartered a small plane and flew to Atlantic City with two stunt guys and Campbell. "We checked in, pretended to have something to eat, then stood at a craps table for 12 hours," says Gross. "They give you free drinks and pump oxygen into the room, so you make incredibly stupid bets. By the end of the night, I was $2,000 down." Gross spent the next day dutifully earning it back. "I was terribly hungover. I dragged myself to some table and threw the dice without looking, and they just went straight across and hit a guy on the forehead. But by the end of the day, I'd broken even."
There is a knock on the trailer door. Due South is waiting for Benton Fraser. The set is dressed as a small-town sheriff's office in Michigan, festooned with antlers, gift-shop doodads and a stuffed fish. The scene calls for a tricky continuous shot, which begins with Diefenbaker jumping up and grabbing a Kleenex box off the desk to take to a weeping prisoner. The dog nails it on the first take. But the actors and crew need more time to get it perfect. By then, Diefenbaker has lost interest. There are many more takes, and the dog misses the Kleenex each time. Finally, Gross loses his patience and decides to use the first take. He can do that now. He's the boss.
Maclean's October 13, 1997