Canadian actress Torri Higginson may be best known for playing Dr. Elizabeth Weir for years on the science fiction series Stargate: Atlantis, but this fall she’ll tackle the role of single mother on CBC’s new family drama This Life. The 10-part series premieres Monday, October 5 at 9 p.m. and will see Higginson’s Natalie Lawson receive a terminal cancer diagnosis and spend the first season exploring how this affects her, her three teenage children and her close-knit family.
Higginson recently talked with The TV Junkies about the challenges involved with this new role, including bringing her own take to the well-known role played by Macha Grenon in Nouvelle adresse, the Radio-Canada drama upon which This Life is based. “You can’t try to compete, you have to just go ‘I have to make it my own,'” she told us. Read on below for her full thoughts.
TTVJ: Macha Grenon played Nathalie in Nouvelle adresse and has received a ton of critical acclaim. How do you keep from comparing yourself to what she did in the role and have you seen it since then?
TH: No, and I can’t wait to watch it, but I’m going to have to wait until we’re done. As actors we’re all a deeply insecure people and not only will you worry that it’ll handcuff you with insecurities and go ‘Wow, I’ll never do it that well,’ or ‘Oh my gosh, why didn’t I make that choice?’ but you also worry about falling into mimicry and trying to do what somebody else did.
I’m such a fan of her work and I know she’s a remarkable actress. I really look forward to sitting down and having a glass of wine with her, and I’m really looking forward to watching her work after my Natalie is finished and be able to celebrate what she does.
TTVJ: Unfortunately it seems like everyone has been personally affected by cancer in one way or another. Did you have any personal experiences to draw upon and what type of research did you do for the role?
TH: Well I don’t have any cancer experience in my family or my life which I’m amazed and grateful to say. This show was cast so quickly so I didn’t have a lot of time–there’s a wonderful oncologist here in Montreal, Dr. Champagne, he was wonderful and spent some time with us. I asked him if I could sit in his waiting room and it was very moving.
Everybody’s had their own experience with death or their own illness that made them think of their own mortality or losing somebody you care for. I am human that way, I’ve had some very close experiences with having to look at my own mortality. I felt very grateful for that experience when it happened four years ago, and I feel even more grateful now because I go ‘Wow, I can really use that.’ It’s been resonating very close to the surface for me the last five months.
TTVJ: I’ve found when I tell people to watch the show and then tell them what it’s about, they say “that sounds so depressing! Why would I want to watch that?” How do you respond to viewers who may think it sounds too depressing to watch?
TH: It is a really interesting dialogue that comes up a lot. I believe every religion out there, in its purest form, is to try to get us to live in the moment and to be present. Nobody is able to do that until we are faced with the finiteness of life. Once you absolutely embrace how finite life is for the individual experience, then things get really colourful and beautiful then, things get really big and wonderful. That’s more what the show is about. It is about life.
I also use the example of MASH, I may be showing my age here, but it was set in the Korean War–front lines with people dying, but it was funny. When we’re faced with death and we’re faced with big drama, it’s easier to laugh and connect with each other and laugh at ourselves. I try to have that conversation with people so they hopefully go ‘Yeah, OK maybe I’ll try it.’
TTVJ: There is a good amount of laughs here and you get to do some comedy, particularly with Lauren [Lee Smith who plays Maggie].
TH: Yes, she’s such a delight and her Maggie is so beautiful. I do resonate in this very sad place. We just wrapped last night and you always feel a bittersweetness when you end a show, and I feel that completely, but I am looking forward to not having to resonate in this sad place all the time. So when I do a scene with Maggie or with my kids, it expands my heart and is wonderful and such a relief and lightness.
TTVJ: Was the chemistry amongst the cast there for you all right from the beginning?
TH: I think it was. I knew all of the actors, except for the kids, by reputation and I was so excited to see all of their names. I felt like we all walked in together and everyone was on the same level of feeling really proud and honoured to be on this project. Because of that there was an openess and a mutual respect and humility. It was really beautiful. I’ve worked in television for 20 years now, but this one I feel has something super-moon magical about it. [laughs]
TTVJ: Natalie has a love interest this season played by Shawn Doyle. What can you tell us about his character and the relationship that will develop between those two?
TH: I feel so delighted to work with him. He’s such a strong actor and it’s such a challenging character. It takes a very strong actor to make that guy real and to not make him just a good guy that’s willing to date the girl that’s dying. He really shows up in a really lovely way. It’s that thing of trying to protect each other, and protect themselves, and how deep can you go when there’s an absolute deadline on a relationship? It’s continually complicated, but for Natalie he’s the only person that she can just pretend, for a moment, to be normal with and that’s such a gift to her.
Are you excited to check out This Life? Sound off in the comments below and take another look at the series here:
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.