“It was the idea of connecting with another human being at a deep level,” that attracted John Bourgeois to acting. “I think that is what all artists try to do. We try to penetrate and get through to other people. To feel connected,” says the veteran mainstay of stage and screen.
“I came from a loving but troubled family that experienced the usual catastrophes (drugs, alcohol, adultery, divorce, debt) so there’s wasn’t a lot of support for higher education or culture.”
“That said, when I told them I was going to be an actor they encouraged me to go for it. Both my mother and my father had searing regrets for the roads not taken so they didn’t want me to have the same experience.”
He came across his love of acting quite by accident while studying journalism at Concordia in Montreal.
“It wasn’t until I was in second year university and honestly I needed to do a course where I didn’t need to write a paper,” he says. “So I took an acting course on a Monday night. That was it. I was bitten. I did a scene from Death of a Salesman and it was transformational.
Around the same time he worked as a production assistant on a film called Blood Relatives and for the first time saw how a performance was created.
“I had been around actors in my younger life and I didn’t know what they did until I saw a specific performance. I saw it being created and I went, ‘I see what this person is doing and it is really quite a craft they have going there.’ It wasn’t just showing off.”
That actor was Donald Sutherland. “I was his driver on the movie. Sutherland is a very thoughtful person and his approach to his work was very thoughtful. That changed my view of the craft.”
Despite booking three plays in his final year of university and thinking, ‘How hard can it be to make a living at this?’ he says, “the struggle, at the start, it’s mostly a financial one. There’s always a danger that the hustle will distort your character. That very nearly happened but I was fortunate to meet some very honest and good people along the way who kept me from self-destructing. So yes, I would do it again.
“Being an actor means being a great observer and that’s a great angle from which to experience life. Besides, resistance sharpens the senses and makes us keenly aware of the passing moment. And surely being present and connecting with others is what it’s all about.”
That passion for acting and relating to audiences hasn’t dimmed over the course of 100 plus film, television and stage roles—“You have to wear a lot of different hats in order to make a decent living,” he says—but recently, in addition to co-starring with Whoopi Goldberg in the TV movie A Day Late and Dollar Short, he has discovered a new way to practice his craft.
“I came to teaching relatively late,’ he says of his job as program director of Acting for Film and Television at Humber College. “The biggest revelation to me is that it is as much a craft as any other you can think of. It is a form of performance. You’re standing in front of people, talking. What I have discovered, when you teach you discover stuff about your craft.
“It puts your own relationship to your craft under a magnifying glass and you become fascinated by what it is that frees up creativity in an actor, how you can equip them with the right toolbox to give them that sense of liberation in their work. It is immensely gratifying.”
With a lifetime of experience under his belt he has some great advice for his students.
“Don’t ever wait for the phone to ring,” he says, “That’s a waste of time and energy. Instead act. Anywhere and everywhere. Make your own work. Love the craft and above all protect your talent from the harsh realities of the business. Find ways to practice it. Train with leading practitioners like at Humber. Produce a play. Make a web series. Act. Do. Everything else is gossip.”
In his latest gig Ottawa-born actor John Bourgeois is stepping into some very big shoes. In the dramedy God of Carnage, now playing until December 15 at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto, he’s lawyer Alan Cowan, previously played by Jeff Daniels on Broadway and Christoph Waltz on film.
He’s seen both productions but says neither inspired him. “I’ve been doing this for so long so I don’t find myself as easily influenced as I was when I was a young actor,” he says, his booming voice echoing down the line on a break from rehearsal. “I think young actors are more susceptible to those iconic influences.”
Instead, he drew on personal experience to build the character.
“I’ve known quite a few lawyers who are A type, personality driven, really competitive, hyper focused but sometimes they are a little socially tone deaf and that’s where I picked up Alan.”