With Gordon Pinsent
Gordon Pinsent’s name has been on Canadian lips since the mid-'60s when he starred on television as Quentin Durgens, the mythical, moral MP. A dozen subsequent years of acting, writing and directing have kept this versatile, creative man in view. At 47, Pinsent seems to have even more energy and magnetism than he did as The Rowdyman, his 1972 movie. He created, wrote and starred in A Gift to Last, the recent CBC series that has powered its way into the international marketplace. He is now, characteristically, wrestling with a new three-pronged project for stage, screen and print centring on the theme, “Is there life after ambition?” Pinsent loves Newfoundland, the province of his birth, and though he lives in Toronto, he returns often to refuel the qualities and values he cherishes. No longer the rowdy young man of his past, he has developed into a serious, private, disciplined writer “tainted with nationalism.” He was interviewed for Maclean's by free-lance writer Marcia Douglas.
Maclean’s: What are you trying to tell us in your writing?
Pinsent: A review of my work would parallel steps in my own life. I am constantly aware of certain kinds of guilt. I seem to have contributed to a certain amount of sadness in my mother’s life. I thought it was being worldly to get out, move around, learn—quickly. I thought, “Yes, get it all done now, you don’t have to return to anything too important, no reason to go back, other than to see family.” I discovered since I’ve begun to write that the root is where I wanted to go again. I want to remind myself of a way of life, and possibly reexamine things that I tripped over along the way.
Maclean’s: Rollo May, in The Courage to Create, says a work of art is the material result of one’s attempt to make oneself feel more comfortable, to get into balance with one’s feelings.
Pinsent: I wish he hadn’t said that. I would have said it. I want to feel that comfort, of cleaning the slate, of coming to an understanding. It’s a strange thing, thinking there is still time to make contact, to go back to mend the nets. But you can’t mend the nets if they’re not there. Life does go on and people do go.
Maclean’s: Do Newfie jokes bother you? Pinsent: If people know me, how can they believe in Newfie jokes? The jokes are not as strong today as they were, but they’ll go on as long as we have problems in our part of the country. It’s a way of striking out. It’s
Newfie jokes are not a silly game; in their heart of hearts the speakers do mean it
been called a silly game, but it’s not. In their heart of hearts, the speakers mean it; they may not know they mean it. Maclean’s: How important is the Canadian search for identity?
Pinsent: Part of the confusion in this country in search of an identity is the confusion of the individual. He can’t put a name to what he does, immediately. I’ve done some painting and I know that in search of a focus I can make an awful mess of that canvas. An amazing number of people are at the end of a dream. They don’t care about it anymore.
Pinsent: They know that life is going to go on under whatever regime, under whatever system, to the ends of their days. This is not wartime, in which patriotic fever takes over and says, “OK, let’s bundle together here.” There’s no bundling. Interdependence is lost in this country. Maclean’s: Are you working on anything new?
Pinsent: I’m writing something now that is not as family oriented as A Gift to Last. I want it off my chest, out of my head. It won’t make money; it’s not an obvious viable commercial property, but I’ve got to get it done. Not only that, but I think it’s the first thing I’ve come upon that can be all three—novel, stage play and screenplay. Maclean’s: How do you find the time? Pinsent: I don’t, and that’s the frustrating thing. John Hirsch, who’s a dear friend of mine, says, “You’ve got to get away, go to Greece, put a log on the fire and write one
thing only. Stop this silly hosting of award shows and all this other garbage ...” They do say Cancers can do 10 things at once. I certainly want to do two things at once: I’m doing that now, fairly successfully. Maclean’s: How do you write?
Pinsent: I used to write very heavy on the narrative and into dialogue and so on. I have fairly recently learned to cut back on a lot of that and go straight for plot. If the line doesn’t work for any medium—stage, television, film—nothing else is going to work.
Maclean’s: Do you discipline yourself to a certain amount of time every day?
Pinsent: Six or eight hours a day, if I can do it. I can write mornings or evenings, but mornings are better. I like to be working on more than one thing. If one isn’t working it’s awful, because I stop working in the middle and say there’s no point going on with it. I hate that; I’m afraid to stop for a minute because I might find a larger excuse and stop altogether.
Maclean’s: Who is it you are writing for? Pinsent: Myself, really. If I don’t please myself, then I’m selling myself down the drain. They won’t get what’s real, and they won’t get the complete picture. The only kind of communication I’m interested in at the moment is reaching people. That could be part of tomorrow’s answers, who knows? Success in this country is like a train; the train comes, it leaves, the sound leaves with it. Suddenly there’s silence. Waiting for the next train. Those gaps we create very well in this country. We’ve got to close the gaps.
Maclean’s: What trends do you see in television?
Pinsent: From now on, things are going to get tough, from Parliament to the man in the street. We may not have the luxury anymore to produce things that pertain only to Canada. We should be concerned with programs, ideas, concepts, that are far more international than they have been. Maclean’s: Has the CBC lived up to its mandate?
Pinsent: No, I don’t think so. Not according to the government. As far as the mandate is concerned, I think the government is going to need it now more than ever. It will use it as an instrument, saying, “Come on, folks, we need all that extra money, we need to cut budgets here and there in order to get government word-of-mouth going, and you’re going to start doing what you’re told.” I think there will be trouble in the years to come. As a matter of fact, the next step that people are rumoring is that the CBC says, “The hell with it,” and hands all responsibility over to private enterprise. That means: “All you critics of the system, come on! You say you have the money, the know-how to produce; let’s see it happen." Then we will be in a position to choose what is good and what is not good; by Canadians for Canada. Then the artists would come out of the woodwork. Everyone would have a voice, not just those who are fashionable. Poor CBC, and I say poor
CBC because I’ve always boosted the corporation. I know the limitations. The best will still come up through the cracks. Maclean’s: Is that how the character of a country defines itself? Through the artist? Pinsent: Exactly. And CBC will only take on the role of judge and jury of whatever they want to be judge and jury of. Maclean’s: Censors?
Pinsent: No. The ton of talent that's out
Before I did ‘Durgens’
I never realized how separate Parliament is from the people
there now will not have to vie for favor with the CBC but will go to every independent. every prospect.
Maclean’s: Both you and your wife, Charmion King, are in the business. Is that hard on your marriage?
Pinsent: It’s fine. She’s a mature person. We never did go through that period where she was the young actress saying, “Well, I still haven’t started” or “I need this and that.” She’s accepted everything as it’s happened because she has a very good understanding of the heart of the business. She knows why it's possible to have ups and downs about it.
Maclean’s: Your daughter wants to be an actress?
Pinsent: Yes, and I was very strongly against it. Usual type of reasons . . . there are a lot of things to do, don’t make up your mind too quickly because the grip will be so great you won’t be able to root yourself again. That's what’s wrong with this business. It happens to you too soon; it gets a
grip on you before you have a chance to see, to have a good time, to enjoy other aspects of life. I’m afraid of it, that’s all. Maclean’s: How old were you when you started?
Pinsent: This happens to be a bone of contention with me. She keeps asking me the same thing, but she doesn't want to hear me comparing. We’re talking about two different generations, two different worlds. Still she’ll ask, “Well, what about you?” Maclean’s: Why and how do you write? Pinsent: I write because I’ve run out of coloring books... I started in California, at a large table I made for myself. I felt the need to write because I began to lose my sense of humor there as far as the system was concerned. I felt myself being burned out as a performer. I wanted to protect myself in a business that suddenly seemed precarious, and thought I’d better start coming up with something else. I had to work at it a great deal. I can write character, I can write dialogue. I still have a way to go to becoming an all-around writer. Maclean’s: Do you find it hard to edit yourself?
Pinsent: Yes, as I think it should be. What I love about writing is that the writer has a secret. I’ve got the secret. The actor never has a secret; he has a talent, he has the mechanism to perform. The beauty of writing is that secret. I find that same peak in my writing as I did going for the person in the 10th row—getting his applause. I love it.
Maclean’s: Is that why you write?
Pinsent: Yes, yes. It’s a fine sensation. To say something and touch them at the same time. To write secretly and privately, but also to be an extrovert in the sense that you are reaching out for people.
Maclean’s: The way you portrayed Quentin Durgens, MP, you brought a new level of interpretation to the viewer—not of regionalism but a broader sense—a universal political character. How did the role affect you personally?
Pinsent: Going in, there was an innocence that I was almost afraid to speak about. Of Canadian politics I knew very little. I was never as caught up as I am now. It did something to me in that sense. I would go to Ottawa to do research for the character, and I’d sit in the gallery and watch a good number of things happen. I was there during a couple of crises. In that sense it was profitable—colorful and very meaningful. I never had appreciated the fact that Parliament was as separate as it is from the people in this country.
Maclean’s: Did Quentin Durgens help to bridge that gap?
Pinsent: It has closed the gulf for me personally. I would like to think that, for the few short years it was on TV. it closed the gulf for the man in the street as well. Maclean’s: Why did you stop?
Pinsent: Two reasons. The CBC had been in the habit of not continuing series that work. Also. I was tired. Producers and writers can go forever with an idea if the
material is fresh, but the actor must keep it alive using another form of energy. I felt I had to vary my career. There is only so much time.
Maclean’s: What views do you hold now on Canadian politics?
Pinsent: My belief now is that we're doing a kind of fence-sitting. Politics is a great frustration. John Roberts, the secretary of state, is superb at grasping the problems; he knows what we're doing. However. I’m not at all surprised that he can’t make the wheels go faster. We can't dictate in politics how fast those wheels will go. But it’s important in the cultural sense to keep looking for the hook that will make something work. We must be like a prism, taking in all angles; then suddenly we may get the insight needed, the hook, the new angle.
Maclean’s: You have said you have to thank Newfoundlandfor certain qualities in you. What qualities?
Pinsent: Honesty. And a certain kind of healthy defensiveness in Newfoundlanders that I enjoy watching. Newfoundland has come into its own. It’s unfortunate that it’s come into its own when the rest of the country is in turmoil.
Maclean’s: Could turmoil in any way be beneficial?
Pinsent: No, because as economic wizards will tell you far better than I can, when Quebec separates . . .when Quebec separates, the Maritime provinces will be greatly affected. Newfoundland will reconsider its place in confederation; that will raise questions. I think it will happen. There are those in the country today who say, “Why not? Let’s fold up the tent. Let’s fold up the flag. Let’s have a go. We are an independent country anyway.” I’ve been on open-line shows; people come straight out and very articulately spell out how they have not just lost all hope, but are simply waiting now for the take-over from the States.
Maclean’s: Is that how art serves society, by helping to solidify feelings, to create common bonds?
Pinsent: It should get people ready to say again, because it hasn’t been fashionable, “Here is what it means to me.” It isn’t just, a question of putting a name on “being Canadian.” It’s a question of life-styles. I came back from three weeks in Hungary and I wanted to jump and scream at Canadians, “Please! Have a look!” Hungary was suicide-ridden, it was disaster-ridden, it was depressing. It was unhealthy as far as encouraging any human need to grow, to explore life. We have that here. It upsets me greatly that we might not make it in Canada. We have voted in people who are there to keep Canadian confidence up. Yet, if they fail at their job, it won’t be anything new. So, why are we being so blasé and so naïve as to think they’ll help us up on the hill or that “somebody will come along” and solve the whole thing for us? It ain’t necessarily so.
Maclean’s: What are your dreams?
Pinsent: I have the wildest, silliest, most ingenuous dreams of unity for this country. fraught with patriotism. I am out of my mind for a solution more than I ever would have known; much more than anyone knowing me would have expected. They also perhaps don’t suspect me of being tainted with nationalism; I am. To me it is as glorious as living. It’s that gift of life you talked about. I’m not about to
When Quebec goes I think Newfoundland will reconsider its place in confederation
spend the rest of my life searching for and adapting to a new sort of life. Without what we have known as a country, there’d be just a temporary, unsatisfactory alternative. To be very fair to Quebec, we are late. We are late, English Canada. A hundred years ago the problem existed here. We are late.
Maclean’s: Too late?
Pinsent: James Baldwin said to me at a dinner party in Los Angeles: “You will never pay back. You are dead.” It scared me. and I said, or I wanted to say, “Well, the hell with you!” That was my immediate reaction. Isn’t it strange and unfortunate and very, very sad that he should have to feel that? Lévesque is feeling that. His Quebec is feeling that; too late, folks, too late.
Maclean’s: Do you have a philosophy for the country?
Pinsent: Ño, I don’t. “I have a mantra that I’ve forgotten.” From Annie Hall. That line explains an awful lot of what this country is about. Why are we not making it work? Do we not have the expertise? We
must have, otherwise the country has not fulfilled its contract to the people. Americans put a fantastic demand on life; they expect an awful lot, and they get it. Maclean’s: What do Canadians expect? Pinsent: To wake up tomorrow and wait for the answers. When I read a paper, with opinions of how to settle problems in Canada, I’m glad to see those people comment. Comment is fine. But I find commenting very hard on the head. What I’d like is for us to get one good answer. It’s as if some kid down the block had a Meccano set which was far more sophisticated than yours. He’s already got his set together and when you go to his house and you bring your piddly little Meccano set, he won’t tell you how he’s built his. This country has been built already, it is there, it lives, it exists. Do we try to figure theirs out, or simply get into another game entirely? Maclean’s: Do you think our Meccano set is working?
Pinsent: No, I don’t, and that scares me more than anything. Canadians just don’t know the answers. The people who want us to believe they have the answers are waiting for another term, as usual. I think it’s high time that we became the landlords and not the tenants of our own business, our own country. Nobody wants to be tenants forever. We all want a place of our own. I felt in Los Angeles that I was a tenant; here I feel a bit of a landlord. Maclean’s: Where did it go wrong? Pinsent: We thought we simply had to be clever, to keep up in life-style, in international terms. In keeping up, we could have remained ourselves but we didn’t. My God, who are we kidding? Do we suddenly expect to become the biggest country in the world? The most heavily populated? No way. Are we going to be a great power? There isn’t a chance. We are now Canada; that’s all we are. It can’t be a question of longevity, a question of muscle, a question of population. It can be a question of quality, of who we are and what the place is about.
Maclean’s: If someone were to come up with an idea, he could fill the gap.
Pinsent: Absolutely. One of the great leaders today is in the other camp, isn’t he? Lévesque. And he’s fresh . .. even though he’s been around, he’s still fresh. Maclean’s: You’ve been quoted as being concerned about the future of Canadian artists. Does that phrase lose meaning in today’s Canada?
Pinsent: The country has natural resources in its artists. If we don’t recognize that, we are in great trouble, because a country is remembered for its mythology, first and foremost. If anyone takes this country seriously at all, we would be the ones to tell its story. Film has a great responsibility in this. And theatre. England, for example; no matter what economic situation they are in, they always seem to accept the performing arts in the routine, in their way of life. We still have not done that in this country.1^