Interview with actor Ryan RobbinsJanuary 8, 2017
With almost twenty years of experience in the acting business, Ryan Robbins has been part of many interesting and high profile projects in both television and movies, including Battlestar Galactica, Continuum, Falling Skies and Arrow. Recently, we had the chance to sit down with Ryan and talk to him about his love of acting, life in the entertainment industry and his new role as a Mennonite pastor on the CBC television show Pure.
So was acting something you always wanted to do or did you kind of fall into it, like a happy accident?
Ryan: The short answer is yes. Since I was twelve years old, I vividly remember the moment on the playground in elementary school, and all the kids were talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up, you know a fireman, astronaut, police officer and I thought, I want to be all of those things, that’s all I could think of. It was right there that I had this bizarre epiphany that well, if I was an actor I could be all those things, so that was really the seed. When I was in high school it an amazing arts program, there was visual arts where we could write, produce edit and direct our own projects, there was a great theater and pure art program. They had a secondary theater program which they called Company Two and would only take twelve students a year and treat that group like a professional theater troupe, sort of like a super achievers of actors. My teacher was a man named Drew Kemp and he changed my life, he changed everything for me, made things clear for me as an actor. We were doing a scene with an actor friend and we would make a joke out of everything, every dramatic scene we’d turn into a joke because we’d like to get the laughs and he just got so furious and fed up he got in the scene and he did the scene with me and we battled, just fought and fought, I was sweating, my shirt was ripped, I was in tears, the audience was in tears but we stuck to the dialogue that whole battle and it felt amazing, like the greatest high I had ever felt and that was the moment that I knew I wanted this, this was what I wanted to do. It took me a hell of a long time to do it, I certainly ended up doing a lot of things on my way here but I’m glad I made it.
After you made this decision that this was what you wanted to do, how hard was it to break into the business?
Ryan: It was a challenge, man. I grew up on Vancouver Island and I didn’t know anybody in the industry, I didn’t know how to get into the industry and I had a bit of tumultuous childhood so I got out early. A bunch of friends and myself were going to go to Australia together straight out of high school, I graduated when I was seventeen, and everybody bailed on me. I had just had a traumatic experience in my life and I thought, I’ve got to go, I’ve got to get out so I went by myself and I ended up in a circus in Australia. I toured as a circus performer for a year in Australia and then I had to come back to Victoria to get my wisdom teeth removed. I took a trip to Vancouver to see a friend of mine who had just started doing stunt work and he said you should do stunt work, it would be a great way to break into acting. He is now one of the greatest stunt coordinators that we have in our country, his name is Kimani Ray Smith, and so then I started stunts for a while. It’s not by the way, a great way to break into acting. It’s very competitive, very challenging and those men and women are exceptional at what they do and I have a huge love and appreciation for my stunt brothers and sisters but I wanted to be an actor. So then I ended up in a band, I was touring with my band and then after years of touring with the band, I had such stage fright I created a character for myself to play, and then a filmmaker by the name of Christine Carson was a fan of my band, and she put me in a movie with another musician named Todd Kerns, who was in a band called Age of Electric at the time and we did a movie together and then that’s how I got my first agent and it all went from there.
You have a new show on CBC called Pure. Can you tell me a bit about the story behind the show and the character that you play?
Ryan: Yeah, I play a character named Noah Funk, a newly ordained if you will, Mennonite pastor in his community. He discovers that there are drugs being brought into his community and he doesn’t want that so he finds a way to get rid of them and the proper people to be put in jail, which is unusual because you usually don’t involve the outsiders. He just wants his life, his simple life and the big boss finds out and comes to town and says right, you’re going to be the new drug boss or I’ll kill you and your family. So he gets it in his mind that if he does this he can infiltrate the mob and destroy them from within but he’s obviously under-prepared and ill equipped, having led a simple Mennonite life. There’s something beautiful about his resolve and his sincerity, his faith in God, that God will help him do this, one way or another God will make sure I’m doing the right thing and it’s not so simple.
What was your reaction when you read the script?
Ryan: I think like anybody when you hear about it you go, this can’t possibly be a real thing so I started the research right away and sure enough, as you know watching the first episode, we’re fictional characters in a fictional Mennonite colony in a fictional town. We certainly are very careful, we don’t want to give any kind of impression that this is how all Mennonites are and when you watch the show it’s very clear that this is not the case, it’s a small group and Mennonites don’t want this and try to get rid of this. So I read the script and did the research and said I’ve got to play this character, the writing and scripts were so good and there’s something about the level of conviction that this man has but he’s so stoic and still and pious but he keeps everything inside and believes through God everything will work out. He is forced to take actions that he might not have otherwise taken and there are no spoilers in saying things spiral out of control for our Noah.
So what kind of research did you do for this role?
Ryan: It’s challenging because most Mennonite communities, based on the sort of horse and buggy colony if you will, are not very accessible so we did have a Mennonite advisor early on and then throughout the shoot who was such a valuable asset to us, she was amazing. I watched documentaries, read a lot of literature and Dylan Taylor, who plays Joey on the show, he did manage to spend a few days on a farm around a Mennonite community, watched some Mennonite baseball games and he was able to get some actual Mennonite literature which he shared with all of us, that was very helpful. Michael Amo, our creator, comes from a Mennonite family, his grandparents were Russian Mennonites, so we definitely had the tools there but yeah, the rest was just doing the research. Obviously we have to take a few liberties because we’re a TV show that needs to be compelling and entertaining, but we did work very, very hard to stay as true as we possibly could to the Mennonites overall because there are so many colonies, sects, communities so they can vary. The other thing I had to learn, like everybody does, is the difference between the Mennonites and the Amish because the first thing that everybody thinks is that they’re the same which they are not. Learning all the history, where everybody came from, it was fascinating and then getting to experience the simple life, that off the grid kind of simplicity, was very romantic and attractive, it was a blast.
What do you think will hook an audience, after watching the first episode of Pure, to come back and watch more episodes?
Ryan: Well first of all the stakes are very high, and that is always fun to watch, when there is immediate concern for the characters. I think the characters are very watchable, very likeable and this cast is arguably the greatest ensemble cast I’ve ever worked with, they are so talented. There are characters that are going to steal the hearts of the audience, I can think of one in particular, the character of my brother Able played by Gord Rand, I predict he’s going to be a fan favorite, he’s such a great actor and when you have such the ‘bad guy’ being played by Peter Outerbridge, that’s just a no brainer, that man is incredible. I feel like if you give it a shot, watch that first episode, you’ll be hooked, I think a lot of times you watch a first episode and say ok, I’ll watch another episode but I feel with our show when you watch the first episode and you’re like, I’m in, it hooks you almost immediately. The first thing you see is well, it gets heavy right off the top and we were speaking of this earlier, again giving kudos to the CBC for taking a show like this on, this certainly isn’t your standard CBC program and they’ve been incredible, so supportive, so encouraging, big fans of the show and I believe people will be pleasantly surprised.
You’ve done a lot of work in the sci-fi genre. Is that something you pursued or do you basically go where the work takes you?
Ryan: This is going to sound incredibly cliché but I go where the story is. I’m very driven by my emotions, how I feel when I read something, a lot of times a character will just pop for me. I have done a lot of sci-fi, I’m a West Coast actor and so just by nature yeah, I’m very proud of that community and that genre. That’s such a fun genre and the sci-fi community and fan base are so wonderful and loyal and supportive, you really couldn’t ask for a better fan base. Also, that is a very intelligent fan base and they like good storytelling, you look at Battlestar Galactica for example, that was culturally and politically very relevant at the time, it just happened to be set in space but it was such a poignant show. I was such a fan of that show and so proud to be a part of it, it was very bold and it was as successful as it was because they know how smart their audience is and I think a show like Pure is a no brainer for a smart audience to come on board, it’s just good storytelling and that’s what draws me in. I pride myself on being, for lack of a better word, a character actor and I was shooting a television series called Sanctuary and I was playing a werewolf and on my hiatus I was playing Charles Manson in a movie, so I like to shake it up, I like to scare myself and get outside of the box and put the work in and this show was some the hardest and most satisfying work I’ve ever done.
Canadian television on the whole seems to have improved over the years, not just the sci-fi genre which has exploded in Canada, but the overall product. How has the world of television in Canada changed since you started in the business?
Ryan: Honestly, I think we’ve finally found our confidence, I really believe that. You know, no one is going to do this for us and our Canadian networks are starting to go you’re right, let’s put some effort in. We’re coming in right on the heels of the CRTC change, the eight points to six, which is honestly a tough pill to swallow for all of us and our show is a Canadian casting crew, we have one American cast member who is playing an American, and that’s Rosie Perez, who is awesome. What a wonderful woman, I can’t say enough good things about Rosie. Not only that, but they cast this with a bunch of relative unknowns but Ken Girotti our director, Michael Amo our creator and the powers that be just wanted the right cast. The characters were written so well, were so well crafted, they just wanted to get the characters right and I think they nailed it, I really think they did and I hope our show can help propel Canada internationally as it should. I like to use the show Luther on BBC as an example. The BBC is great, it’s got these great ‘BBC’ shows, but then you have a show like Luther which is not a very BBC like show and it’s incredible, it’s really an amazing show and now you’ve got BBC America and it’s a contender with some great television. AMC, they would just show old movies, like Turner Movie Classics, it was that type of thing and then suddenly you have all these breakout type of hits like Breaking Bad, and HBO years ago with The Sopranos, you see these networks taking risks and getting rewarded so much for that risk. I don’t want to be arrogant about our show but my hope is CBC will be rewarded for the risk they’re taking, taking on our show. I would love our show to be successful in all markets and I think it’s possible, it’s possible.
You mentioned Breaking Bad and I think Pure has a lot of similarities, not just in terms of the drug aspect but in taking what sounds like a simple concept and branching it out in many different directions and thus really grabbing the viewers’ attention.
Ryan: You kind of hit it bang on there. Definitely throughout the season you’ll see the branches start to grow, as it should because it started literally at this core root of faith based simple family, this is who we are, what we do, how it is, we don’t do change, we’re not prideful people, none of that and then you just watch it, a slow motion mushroom cloud explosion that slowly starts to get out of control and you get to see characters try to reel it back in, it’s great TV. I don’t like watching myself on television but I love watching this show, seeing what I see on this show. I love going in for ADR and looping dialogue so I can see what other people are doing. I loved getting scripts, not for what my character was doing but for what everyone else was doing. I’d love to do it again and again and I hope we get the chance to continue to do this show for several seasons.
I want to thank Ryan Robbins for taking the time to talk with us
Pure debuts on CBC Monday, January 9th 2017 for a six episode run