Culture

Get ready to welcome TV's new Fun Aunt: Kathleen Robertson is Charlie Anders

The star of CBC's new show 'Northern Rescue' on finding success as a writer, and why “we need stories that are beyond middle-aged white dudes”.

The star of CBC's new show 'Northern Rescue' on why “we need stories that are beyond middle-aged white dudes”

(Photography by Steve Wilkie)

Jackie. Clara. Viv. Becky. Ethel. Hilda. Zelda. While some particularly savvy TV watchers may notice the pattern here, for many, that's just a laundry list of women's names with varying levels of quirkiness. That is of course, until you add 'Aunt' in front of each one. Then it quickly becomes a collection of some of television's most seminal female characters. In fact, before The Handmaid's Tale made it so that just hearing that signifier would send shivers throughout our whole bodies, characters whose names were preceded with 'Aunt' were often the ones we'd dream about being friends with IRL — or at least were the most fun to watch on screen.

In Northern Rescue, a new family drama premiering March 1st on CBC Gem, actor Kathleen Robertson brings us a fresh contender seeking to join this pantheon of iconic TV Aunts: Charlie Anders. The series follows a father (John West, played by William Baldwin) and his three children, whose lives are all uprooted when the matriarch of the family — and Charlie's sister — suddenly passes away. After Charlie helps John find a job on the search and rescue team in their hometown of Turtle Island Bay, where she still lives and runs a local café, the family relocates and Charlie instantly becomes a much more integral part of their lives.

"She's kind of all the things that I wish I was," Robertson says of her character. "Scrappy", warm-hearted, and snarkily optimistic, Charlie's the type of person who starts cracking quips the second she senses those around her could use a little catharsis — even when she's suffering, too. "As much as she's mourning the death of her sister and going through this process, she doesn't really have the luxury of being able to present as that," the actor explains. "She's very much a person [who's] like… 'We're going to fix this, we're going to figure it out… Let's make this bad situation maybe just a little bit better.'"

Taylor (Taylor Thorne), Scout (Spencer Macpherson), John (Billy Baldwin) and Aunt Charlie (Kathleen Robertson). (Photography by Ken Woroner)

It's exactly those qualities that leave Charlie somewhere in the middle of the two sides of the established TV Aunt archetype. Not quite a lesson-wielding disciplinarian like Roseanne's Aunt Jackie or Sabrina the Teenage Witch's Zelda, but not exactly an adventure-loving eccentric like Sabrina's other aunt, Hilda, either. Of course, being single and not yet a parent herself, Charlie's able to easily inhabit the role of surrogate mother to the West kids — practically a requirement or the TV Aunt in one of pop culture's favourite (and well-documented) family quandaries: absent mothers. But, just like those who came before her, Charlie isn't defined by her domestic role like many TV Moms are — the TV Aunt seems free to be more than just a stereotype.

If protagonists provide us with the opportunity to live vicariously as high-powered attorneys, life-saving surgeons and moody detectives with superhuman strength, perhaps TV Aunts are so beloved because they allow us to imagine that we have our own cool, fun, Fairy Godmother-type figure, free from all the messiness that dominates our IRL familial relationships. Someone who will guide us gently through the world, teach us bad words before we're supposed to know them and never be able to use 'yeah, well I gave birth to you' to win an argument.

When presented with this, Robertson laughs, "exactly".

"I have two older sisters who are seven and eight years older than me… so there was a really big chunk of my life where I was the Fun Aunt," the Hamilton, Ont. native shares. "It is such a unique, amazing role that you play… you can do all the fun stuff without having to do any of the hard stuff… you can just be the moment of light in their lives."

Aunt Charlie (Kathleen Robertson) with Scout (Spencer Macpherson). (Photography by Ken Woroner)

For Robertson, as an actor, playing Charlie has brought its own moment of light. "[She's] sort of a breath of fresh air," says the actor. "I tend to be offered things that are really dark and really, you know, deeply flawed characters," she adds, calling to mind past roles in shows like Boss, Bates Motel and Murder In The First.

That desire to find a greater diversity in the roles available to her — paired with a tendency to get bored with all the down time she experienced on set as an actor — is part of what led Robertson to writing, something that might have started as a side-hustle, but at which she's had much success. "I've always been the person that writes and throws stuff into drawers and never really lets anyone read anything," Robertson says. "About six or seven years ago I started optioning some books. Then I wrote a pilot script that got chosen through the Humanitas program, was mentored by [legendary TV producer] John Wells… It all just sort of took off. It's been kind of amazing."

Robertson is currently working on two high-profile film adaptations: The Possibilities, which fellow Canadian Jason Reitman is attached to as a director, and Little Bee, with Academy Award-winning actor Julia Roberts attached. It's hard to overlook the common element of both projects; they're both stories centred around women, and both could be said to challenge our notions of what women can be or do — something Robertson says she's seen far too little of in her career as an actor. "Don't even get me started," she laughs. "It used to be shocking when you would read a script and there would be an actual woman, a fully fleshed out female character.  It really comes from — it's obvious now, it's been talked about so much, but there are no female directors. It's like the token woman in a writers room, of course the stories are going to be about men!"

The numbers generally agree with her. According to research from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, only 35% of the speaking roles in 100 highest-grossing Hollywood films of 2018 were held by women (a number which drops to 21% for Black women, 4% for Latinx women and 10% for Asian women). Behind the scenes things are even more bleak. Out of the same group of top 100 films, "women accounted for 16% of directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers"; for the 2017-2018 television season, only 27% of those roles were filled by women.

"We need stories that are beyond middle-aged white dudes," Robertson reiterates, seemingly wrapping a career's-worth of frustration into one neat little sentence. And while one creator, character or endearing archetype certainly isn't enough to get us to 50/50 on or off screen, we're grateful to have Robertson, Charlie and all our favourite TV Aunts out there making the fight a little easier, one light-hearted moment at a time.

Northern Rescue is the first original drama to debut exclusively on the CBC Gem streaming service in Canada. All episodes begin streaming March 1 on CBC Gem.  

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.