TELEVISION/SPECIAL REPORT

Springtime talent and summer stardom

Brian D. Johnson February 1 1988
TELEVISION/SPECIAL REPORT

Springtime talent and summer stardom

Brian D. Johnson February 1 1988

Springtime talent and summer stardom

One is a classically trained actress who lives in Toronto, speaks with a soft English accent and has proven her versatility with a career that has taken her from the Shakespearean stage to daytime TV soap opera. The other is a sleek young model with the flavor of French Canada in her voice, the promise of stardom in her eyes and no previous acting experience. They are Domini Blythe and Guylaine St. Onge, mother and daughter in CTV’s primetime drama series Mount Royal.

The two women are a study in contrasts. British-born Blythe is the product of an erudite theatrical family. St. Onge is the daughter of a Montreal Toyota dealer. Blythe, who is old enough to refuse to disclose her age (about 40), comes to television from an illustrious stage career, which has

spanned Canada’s Stratford Festival and London’s Royal Shakespeare Company. St. Onge, 22, has spent five years working as an international fashion model. Now, as Mount Royal’s Stefanie Valeur, she is suddenly portraying one in a major TV drama.

Cue: At the end of a long shooting day on the Mount Royal set in Montreal, Blythe and St. Onge are filming a scene together in Stefanie’s loft. Sitting on the bed, they are locked in a heartto-heart talk about the delicate issue of Stefanie’s pregnancy. “I could be a good mother,” says Stefanie. “I could give a baby more than most girls.” Then she begins to cry and sinks into her mother’s arms. “Cut!” calls the director. “Right away, another take! Right away! Keep this emotion!” But the irrepressible St. Onge is already up and chatting

with the crew. The director leaps from behind the camera onto the set and pleads with her not to break her concentration. St. Onge dutifully retreats to her position. Her second take is as good as the first—again she weeps convincingly on cue. “Guylaine, that was great,” says the director, and St. Onge bounces off the set with a broad smile on her face.

She has little acting experience, but St. Onge has been confiding in cameras from age 15, when she first began modelling. A gamine-like presence, she has exaggerated features that transcend conventional beauty—dark Latin eyes under strong brows, high cheekbones and a finely tapered chin, a nose that is almost aquiline and a generous mouth that verges on being too large for the delicate angles of her face. It is a model’s face, built for expression the way that a dancer’s body is built for movement. And with a switch of hairstyle or costume, St. Onge can effect a chameleon change in personality.

Fox: Last December she arrived at the Gemini Awards in Toronto with her dark hair sculpted into a lavish swirl and her body sheathed in a pink suede gown with a huge collar of matching fox fur. It was from her Mount Royal wardrobe, a $5,000 design by France’s Diamant Noir. The same week, she sat down for a Maclean’s interview wearing a big-shouldered cream jacket, blue jeans, a man’s shirt and a paisley tie—her own clothes. Stiffening into a mannequin caricature of an executive, St. Onge recalled that before becoming a model she planned to become a businesswoman. “I was all ready to wear a suit and be a boss in a boardroom,” she said laughing, popping out her lapels with her thumbs. “I still wouldn’t mind doing that.”

Like her Stefanie character, St. Onge started out as a dancer, beginning classes at 6. Then, at 14, she auditioned as a dancer for a fashion show, launching her modelling career. After graduating from high school she chose to model full time, rejecting her parents’ advice that she continue her

schooling. St. Onge opted for a more exotic education on fashion runways from Montreal to Tokyo. And she won the Mount Royal role last year after a series of gruelling auditions.

Bright: St. Onge describes herself as far less impulsive than the woman she plays in Mount Royal, who has an affair with a French cabinet minister in one episode and an animal-rights terrorist in another. “I think of Stefanie as a lot of bright colors and me as pastels,” she said. With apartments in

both Toronto and Montreal, St. Onge lives with a steady boyfriend—Toronto actor David Nerman, another former model who now costars in television’s TNT. She says that she “desperately” wants to have a baby but realizes that her career means she will have to wait.

With Mount Royal, St. Onge has landed a star-making role and a chance to prove her talent. Her most obvious asset is glamor, but she is clearly uncomfortable with the stereotype of the empty-headed starlet. “I don’t think I was ever the type of frigid model who just played with her looks and didn’t have anything to give,” she said. “There are so many pretty girls out there that I have to believe there was another reason for me to be here.”

Before landing the Mount Royal role she had acted in a few TV commercials, but she has never had any formal dramatic training. In casting her, produc-

er Robert Lantos took a risk—which seems to have paid off. Said Mario Azzapardi, who has directed her in four episodes: “I don’t think I have ever seen a person start from total inexperience and acquire the art as easily as she has. Her eagerness was a great asset.” Once, during a rehearsal, Azzapardi asked Blythe to give St. Onge guidance on how to play a scene. Blythe tactfully refused. Recalled Azzapardi: “She said, ‘It wouldn’t be right for me to give her my interpreta-

tion of how she should do it.’ ”

Domini Blythe has enough experience not to flaunt it. The day she played the pregnancy scene with St. Onge, she was physically exhausted— the result of commuting between Mount Royal and a French TV series, Formule 1, which she was shooting in Paris. But fatigue did not seem to have dulled her hazel-eyed charm or her skill. As cosmopolitan as her character on Mount Royal, Blythe managed to take on two TV roles in different languages and on separate continents at the same time. In just one week at Christmastime, she flew from Montreal to Paris, back to Montreal, and then to London to visit her parents.

Accent: A genuine trouper, Blythe first made her name as a stage actress in England. And although she has lived in Canada since 1972, she has stubbornly retained her British accent.

“When I try to do a Canadian accent,” she said, “I have no idea who I am.” Blythe added that during her Mount Royal audition, Lantos asked her to do a mid-Atlantic accent. But she refused. Instead, he changed the script to make her character English-educated.

Born in Liverpool and trained at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, Blythe acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company—but she also appeared in a B-grade horror film, Vampire Circus, and performed in London’s nude stage revue Oh! Calcutta\, where she met Canadian actor Richard Monette. They moved to Canada together in 1972, but have since separated after six years together. Blythe became a star on the stages of Ontario’s Stratford and Shaw festivals during the late 1970s, in roles ranging from Desdemona in Othello to Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest. Recalled former Stratford artistic director Robin Phillips: “Her performances are very sincere and uncluttered.” And after watching the Mount Royal pilot Phillips said, “It was the first time I had seen that compelling quietness of hers on film as I had seen it onstage.” Phillips added that she was the opposite of baked Alaska: “hot inside and cold outside—and there’s something quite sexy in that.”

Soap: While Blythe developed her talent in classical theatre, she resisted the move from stage to screen. “Part of me,” she said, “had swallowed the myth that a stage actor doesn’t translate well into film and television.” But in 1985 she finally took her first television job—a regular role on the longestrunning soap opera in the history of daytime TV, Search for Tomorrow. She played what she calls “a Joan Collins character” for 18 months until the soap was cancelled in December, 1986. The daily routine of shooting a soap taught her to be comfortable in front of the camera. But the transition from the stage was difficult at first. “I had this terrible desire to turn away from the camera,” she said. “Then I began to relax, to feel the camera was not out to get me. Now, I feel the camera is like a third or fourth person on the set—someone I can share things with.” Both Blythe and St. Onge flourish in front of the camera. St. Onge has the look, the youth—and possibly the talent—to become a star. Domini Blythe is beyond the age at which stars are born, but she has earned the right to act like one. However, in Mount Royal's makebelieve aristocracy, both the neophyte and the seasoned actress can share in a fantasy world of wealth and glamor beyond their own wildest dreams.

-BRIAN D. JOHNSON

PAMELA YOUNG