It is spring in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., and the usual crowd is idling down Queen Street. Japanese tourists pose for the camera in front of massive rhododendrons, while a busload of blue-rinse Americans files into Greaves jam shop. Apparently unnoticed, a slim young woman in a summer shift makes her way briskly along the sidewalk. Kelli Fox is a leading actor in this theatre town, a two-hour drive south of Toronto. Just half an hour ago, she was delivering a powerful performance in the title role of the Shaw Festival’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. It is quite likely that some of the people she « now passes applauded her enthu2 siastically. But as she enters a restaurant, no one does a double g take or asks for an autograph, g Welcome to the world of Canadi§ an theatre, where first-rate actors 5 ply their trade in relative anonymity, even when they perform at a level that would lead other societies to revere them.
For Canadian performers, stardom tends to come only with success in American film or television. And yet many of the best continue to work at home. Fox, 34, was making guest appearances on U.S. television shows when she decided to return to her first love, the stage. As for the relatively low profile of Canadian theatre actors, she claims to prefer it. “One of my greatest assets as an actor is my anonymity,” she insists, tucking into a plate of meatless lasagna. “When people come into the theatre to see my work, and I tell them I’m Barbara Undershaft of the Salvation Army, they believe me because they don’t know anything else.”
Fox’s anonymity might fade a little if the people sitting at the other tables knew she was the younger sister of Michael J. Fox, the boyishly handsome star of ABC’s Spin City, the now-defunct Family Ties series and the Back to the Future movies. Certainly there is a family resemblance: sister and brother share a look of slightly worried earnestness under high, clear foreheads. But while Michael J. emanates perpetual youthfulness, Kelli has an earthiness that translates into a wonderfully vibrant stage presence. In Major Barbara,
she gives Shaw’s outspoken and conscientious heroine a moral forcefulness that resonates throughout the show. And in the 1996 production of The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge, she turned Pegeen Mike, an Irish peasant, into a winsome combination of head-cracking common sense and girlish charm. Fox has that rare, actorly gift of holding the audience’s attention without seeming to try. ‘When Kelli’s on stage, you want to watch her,” says festival artistic director Christopher Newton, “but it’s not like watching a star with huge charisma who envelopes everybody else. You watch her for her clarity and muscularity—her huge commitment and focus on what she’s doing.”
Fox was born in 1964 on an army base in Chilliwack, B.C., the fifth and last child of Bill Fox, a staff sergeant, and his wife, Phyllis, a payroll clerk. The family moved around the country until they finally settled in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby when Kelli was 7. In junior high school, a friend encouraged her to try out for the school play. At first, Fox refused. TEe problem was that Michael, three years her senior, was already starting to work as an actor. All her life she had looked up to him and often found herself taking up the same activities, like playing the guitar. Now she felt it was time to break the pattern: “I told my
Mend, ‘Acting’s Michael’s thing. I’m not interested.’ ”
But Fox couldn’t stay away from the audition. When she won the lead role in the play, an original work written by a teacher, she made one of those discoveries that determines the course of a life. The actor, who is blessed with a powerful voice, now roughened by smoking, recalls speaking the play’s first lines on opening night: “I felt the words resonate in my face, and go out over the crowd and bounce off the back wall and come back to me, and I thought, Wow, this is it.’ ”
A couple of dedicated high-school drama teachers strengthened her skills and commitment. And there was always her brother, just out ahead of her, showing the way: ‘When Michael was 16, he bought himself a car with
his earnings from acting, so I always thought it was possible to make a living at it.” After two years of studying theatre at Vancouver’s Langara College, Fox was ready to launch her career. Her parents, she says, were supportive, though her father advised her to learn how to type “just in case.” She did, and over the next few years she worked as an office temp while performing in Mnge festivals and picking up minor roles in major stage productions. At one point, she played a fairy and drove a forklift (“two inches from the edge of the stage”) in an avant-garde production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Vancouver Playhouse.
Meanwhile, Michael had gone off to Los Angeles where, by the mid-1980s, his movie and TV career had taken off. His sister began to get a lot of screen work, too, appearing in U.S. series being filmed in Vancouver, such as 21 Jump Street and, a few years later, The X-Files. But her success was dogged by an underlying sense that she didn’t deserve it: “I couldn’t figure out why I was getting all this work. Every time I watched myself on TV, I was mortified. My nose was too big, I looked fat, and I didn’t believe a thing I was saying.”
Fox also began to notice that, increasingly, she was being typecast. “They kept putting me in the nurturer niche,” she recalls with a hint of sarcasm. “I was doing a lot of nurses and mothers—anybody who was kind and generous and giving.” She was earning a good living with her screen work, and a move to Los Angeles might have seemed the next logical step. But in 1988, she visited the Shaw Festival and was swept away by the quality of the productions. From that moment on she became determined to act at the Shaw.
For five years, Fox auditioned for Newton during his annual casting trips to Vancouver, and for five years she was turned down. Meanwhile, her TV career occasionally offered up something interesting. In a shortlived U.S. series called Round
Table, she got to play an eccenMc fashion photographer from Manchester, England. But the L.A. studio decided an American audience would not be able to understand the Manchester accent she had used. So they dubbed in a Cockney accent provided by another actor. “They took away my voice,” she says, her hazel eyes flashing. “It just doesn’t get any more central to what you’re doing. Your voice is your work.” She refused to take any more jobs from that studio, and when her agent objected, she replaced him.
The crisis marked a turning point for Fox. She realized she was tired of the lack of control a screen actor has over the final product. “When you do film, it goes into the can, and it’s in the director’s and editor’s hands,” she says. “But on stage, your whole performance is yours.” She also became determined to escape the typecasting that had nearly engulfed both her and her brother: “I’d noticed that after he did Alex in Family Ties, they kept asking him to do the same kind of thing over and over again. It was incredibly frustrating for him.” In 1994, Fox and her husband, theatre production manager Tim O’Gorman, moved to Ontario, hoping to forge parallel stage careers in the part of the country where theatrical activity is most concentrated. Then— ironically—a few months after their arrival, Fox got a call offering her a role in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at The Vancouver Playhouse. The theatre had also asked Newton to direct. As Newton recalls, soon after rehearsals started he became aware of Fox’s abilities. “I finally saw what I should have seen before—she was superb. I called our office in Niagara-on-the-Lake and said, ‘Hire this lady immediately.’ ”
Fox still glows when she describes the day she got the phone call from Ontario offering her roles in a thriller, Ladies in Retirement, and in Shaw’s The Philanderer. She went to the Vancouver Public Library and looked the plays up. The role in Ladies was small—just what she expected for a Shaw newcomer. But when she began to read The Philanderer, Fox soon realized that in Julia Craven she had been offered a leading part. “I was so beside myself with excitement,” she recalls, taking another puff of her Matinée Extra Mild, “that I had to walk out on Robson Street and smoke.”
Today, Fox, O’Gorman and their cat share a small house in Niagara-on-the-Lake. She would like to have a child, she says, but “not today. Not before I’m well enough established that I can afford to take time off. I don’t know if that time will ever come.” O’Gorman is now technical director at the Festival Theatre, and the two have settled into the Shaw’s seven-month rhythm of rehearsals and performances. (Later in the summer, Fox will play a small part in John Galsworthy’s Joy) Across the hazy blue of Lake Ontario, the towers of Toronto also beckon. Fox has made the beginnings of an off-season career in that city, appearing there last winter in a new work, Oui, by award-winning Canadian playwright Andrew Moodie.
Is she happy with how things have turned out? Fox answers with a purring, slightly theatrical, “Yeah.” There is one small flaw in her contentment, though. Michael has not seen her act on stage since 1989. He was to have flown up from New York last summer with his oldest son to see her in Playboy of the Western World. But his hectic schedule prevented him from coming— as it has again this year. “Maybe next summer,” Fox says. But the moment of wistfulness passes as she stubs out her cigarette and looks off into the ferns and lilacs of the restaurant garden. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.