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Up Close and Personal with the Extraordinary Mackenzie Gray

Mackenzie Gray as Lawrence Durrell, in Strip Search

Last week I had the great pleasure of talking with one of Canada's most colorful and talented artists, Mackenzie Gray.


WD: So Mackenzie, can you tell us a little bit about yourself.


MG: all right, I'm an actor, a director, a writer, a producer, a musician, a composer, but mainly I'm an actor. I do all those other things because I can and because I like to. I started acting in high school. I didn't take theatre arts, instead I formed my own company because I wanted to do it my own way. I left school in 1976 and went right to England to study drama because I felt that was where I should go.

I was given some great help to become an actor, when I was a teenager, from two great people; Christopher Plummer and Sir John Gielgud. My dad was friends with Gielgud, and my uncle was the founder of the director's guild of Canada, had been in the theatre through the 40s, and knew Chris Plummer.

Christopher Plummer was doing Cyrano de Bergerac and I went to see it. I had a letter of introduction and he took me back stage at the end of the show and made all these other people wait. I had a poster of him as the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo and I wanted to get him to sign it. He was really generous, lovely and fun.

He looked at me and said “So I understand you want to become an actor. From the letter I've been given it says you're very serious about it. Tell me this...” and he looked me right in the eye and said, “do you need to be an actor?” I said, “I don't know if I need to be an actor, but that's all I want to do” and he said, “Well that's a start. Because it's a calling, a profession, and it's a life...”

and he'd committed to all of those things earnestly and fully, “...and if it's a hobby you like to do once in a while because it's fun, go into community theatre and have another life and don't crowd a very tight space unless you're serious about it and really want to do it. You'll find that out over time, but if you want to do it and you're serious about it you've got to commit wholeheartedly to the highs and the lows and you'll have to do many other things, other jobs to support yourself. There's no point doing it unless you need to do it and it's in your blood, in your veins and you can't really live without doing it. Are you prepared to make that commitment?” and I said, “I think I am.” and he said, “I look forward to sharing a stage with you some day.” He shook my hand and he held my hand really tightly and said, “you're going to do very well.”

He was quite terrifying, because I was only 14 or 15. I asked him to sign the poster and so he signed it for me, wished me luck, and off I went. That changed my life. The fact that he looked at me with these intense eyes and dared me and challenged me to become an actor and be serious about it. I was hell bent for leather, I was all over it, and I told my parents, who were very excited for me.

I kept that poster and still have it. I framed it and it's up on my wall. It reminds me of a huge kick start to becoming an actor.

A few years later when I was 18 John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson came to Toronto to do Harold Pinter's No Man's Land. My dad knew Gielgud and wrote me a letter of introduction and so I got taken back stage. I was stunned by the play. I'd never seen Pinter on stage before. It's weird and it's odd and it's challenging.

Ralph came out and was very theatrical and signed my book. He couldn't get the pen to work because he was used to fountain pens. He said, “this is a wonderful pen but it's no good.”

And he'd ask for another pen but nobody wanted to give them their pens because he kept throwing them away.

John came out and he asked me which picture I wanted him to sign and I said Hamlet.

He said, “So I hear you're going to go to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)” and I told him I was doing my audition in a couple of months. He asked me if I'd picked my thesis yet and I told him I'd picked my Shakespeare but not my contemporary pieces yet. He said, “You should do a piece from this play. It won't be done. It hasn't been done. It's just been published.” He said hang on a second went away and came back with his copy of the play and gave it to me. I still have it.

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