Toronto International Film Festival 2006

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Monkeying Around

The story behind Reg Harkema’s clever new film, Monkey Warfare

Actor Tracy Wright stars in the Reg Harkema film, Monkey Warfare. (Steve Carty/CBC) Actor Tracy Wright stars in the Reg Harkema film, Monkey Warfare. (Steve Carty/CBC)

In the film Monkey Warfare, Tracy Wright plays an aging radical living off the grid in downtown Toronto — someone, in other words, who is trying to be invisible. In real life, Wright, 46, seems like she wouldn’t mind a little invisibility, either. Rushing into the Toronto restaurant with a severe case of bed-head and a shy smile, she is extremely unassuming for someone so familiar. Wright is a hey-it’s-that-gal of Canadian entertainment, having appeared in films like The Five Senses and Childstar, on TV in Twitch City and Liberty Street, and on Toronto stages in between. Still, she is not accustomed to the public eye.

“How am I doing?” she asks mid-interview. “Am I totally boring?”

No, she’s not. In the black comedy Monkey Warfare, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, she is quite thrilling. More uncharacteristically, she is a star. Wright plays Linda, a book-learned revolutionary whose former activism has slowed down to a kind of perpetually stoned bicycle ride through her neighbourhood, searching for junk to sell on eBay. Linda and her longtime partner, Dan (Wright’s real-life common-law husband, Don McKellar), are lovers who have settled into roommate roles until their hermetically sealed universe is pricked by a precocious pot dealer (Nadia Litz), an eager student of the so-called insurgency who develops some different ideas about what’s radical.

“There’s something in Linda I relate to,” says Wright. “I’ve never been hugely politically active, but I relate to a certain dissatisfaction with the world.”

Monkey Warfare director Reginald Harkema worked as an editor on the comedy-drama Childstar, in which Wright had a small role as McKellar’s ex. While cutting the film, Harkema saw something “mind-blowing” in the scenes that this real-life couple shot together, sparking the idea for a film: anarchist couple gets older.

“I did it because it was an interesting idea, and Don and I would have input and get to work together. And also, I don’t get asked to be a lead in something ever,” says Wright with a great, loud laugh that rises and collapses into an Annie Hall-ish head shake that says, Why am I such a dork?

But Wright does get noticed. A few years ago, while attending a film festival in Rotterdam with McKellar, Wright was stopped by American video artist Miranda July in the lobby of a movie theatre. “She said, ‘Weren’t you in [the 1998 film] Last Night?’ I was like, ‘Uh, yeah,’ and she told me she was working on a video performance where one of the characters was based on my character in Last Night. I thought it was hilarious. I was just going to get popcorn!”

July cast Wright in last year’s acclaimed art-house hit Me and You and Everyone We Know as a haughty curator with a lonely, unintentionally hilarious online sex life. And yet, in Canada, Wright remains a third or fourth banana, the small, best thing in a crowd.

“I moved here three years ago from Vancouver, and I was immediately drawn to Tracy,” says Harkema, who on this day illustrates his point by wearing a Monkey Warfare promotional T-shirt that features Wright’s face and the slogan, “I F--- The Man.” “Maybe people in [Toronto] aren’t seeing it because they associate her too much with theatre, or all those film roles as the quirky Goth chick. They don’t see what I saw when I was editing her. I got to see all these choices she gives you, this broad range of possible interpretations.”

Don McKellar and Nadia Litz in Monkey Warfare. (New Real Films)
Don McKellar and Nadia Litz in Monkey Warfare. (New Real Films)

Harkema, Wright and McKellar worked on the Monkey Warfare script together over the course of a few months. Wright watched Harkema and his girlfriend closely, seeing them as inspiration. “Reg is a total garbage hound. You should see his apartment. The Baader-Meinhof books [that appear in the movie] were his, the Vancouver Five stuff — he’s a pack rat. The lifestyle [depicted in the movie] is much more Reg and his girlfriend’s than mine and Don’s.”

The film was shot in downtown Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood in two weeks with $30,000 from Harkema’s line of credit. (“God, I hope it wins a prize at the festival, because I am so in debt,” Harkema says.) The quickly gentrifying area is a universal experience of urban life: working-class neighbourhoods go hipster and then big money comes looking for edginess. It’s something Linda and Dan observe firsthand when their landlord shows up to announce he’s selling their squalid apartment to a yuppie (a cameo by local director Rob Stefaniuk), who looks at their found objects and declares them “revolutionary chic.”

“That’s happening everywhere: politics become fashion,” says Wright. “I live near Parkdale, and I see it. But it’s funny, because so many people have said this feels like a Vancouver film, too. Maybe they’re thinking of the [transitioning] east side. Or maybe it’s all the pot,” she says. “I swear I was smoking in every scene. Finally, I was like, ‘Enough! There has not been this much smoking of pot since Cheech and Chong!’ I’m an ex-smoker and I was starting to like those herbal cigarettes we used. It made me nervous.”

Despite the pot haze, Monkey Warfare actually has the upper-popping, wired energy of a film by Jean-Luc Godard, someone Harkema also referenced in his first feature, A Girl is a Girl. But Harkema is visibly irritated when the question of whether or not, after two features, he’s finished playing with the tenets of French New Wave cinema.

“You know, it’s not a style to me, it’s a completely alternative approach to filmmaking,” he says. “I don't understand why everyone doesn’t put text on the screen, why everyone isn’t doing direct address, why everyone isn’t taking it to the streets. Talk to me about your style. When are you going to be done with that boring, invisible editing thing?”

Assuming he’s addressing an imaginary Steven Spielberg, I move on to the question of what it’s like to direct a couple that’s been together, on and off, for 20 years. “Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie might cause problems, but not Tracy Wright and Don McKellar,” says Harkema. “The only issue was that I tend to fall in love with one of the actresses in my films, and in this case it was Tracy. So it’s funny to walk on set and have weird, lovey-dovey, teenager-type feelings and to have the life partner of one of your closest collaborators there. I’d tell Don about it and he’d just laugh.”

If McKellar doesn’t seem threatened by his friend’s semi-facetious overtures, it may be because the relationship looks pretty solid. Wright and McKellar met in the mid 1980s at the University of Toronto and afterward co-founded an experimental theatre group called the Augusta Company, coupling and uncoupling over the years. They look like opposites. His distinct face, with that one slightly roving eye, means he is recognizable before his characters are; Wright works her anonymity, vanishing into parts. In the past few years, McKellar’s career has bloomed into copious film roles and a Tony nomination for co-writing the Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone. Wright is thoughtful when asked if there has ever been competition between the two, particularly since McKellar has directed her in some of her better-known parts, including Last Night and Childstar, all of which means she risks the dreaded “Mrs. McKellar” title.

“I don’t feel competition so much now,” she says, “but I think it was difficult when Don made the transition from theatre into movies, because maybe it’s a bit different for men than women. There’s more work, maybe it’s a bit less about looks. I felt like I could only go so far in my career.”

Monkey Warfare storms the territory of aging when the older woman is poised to be pushed aside by a younger, sexier version of herself. Then again, Harkema is Wright’s biggest fan, and Monkey Warfare, in more ways than one, ends up flattering Tracy Wright.

“In the long run, it’s good not to be the little starlet, I think,” says Wright. “I get to do more fun things. If I wanted that life, I probably wouldn’t have fired my agent.” She laughs. “It’s true. I’m the only actor I know who doesn’t have an agent. I just wasn’t getting things from the agent, you know? I guess I thought, I can do it on my own, it’s better that way.”

Monkey Warfare screens at TIFF Sept. 10 and Sept. 12.

Katrina Onstad writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window.

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