Many male actors get stuck playing a variation of the same role over and over again. Those options frequently range from the dependable best friend and the jock, to the action hero and the funny slacker or the jerk. Ryan Kennedy has managed to avoid that pitfall. The Canadian native broke into the business as “Med Student” in More Than Meets the Eye: The Joan Brock Story. Since then, he’s racked up 45 other credits including guest shots on Blade: The Series, Smallville, Flashpoint, V, Caprica, Mistresses, and Motive. He’s enjoyed recurring roles on Defiance, Hellcats, and Whistler.
In addition, Kennedy has appeared in such feature and TV films as The Unauthorized Melrose Place Story, The Invisible, Super Hybrid and Nearlyweds. Now, he’s adding an epic Western drama to his resume as a regular on Tin Star.
Created by acclaimed screenwriter Rowan Joffe, the TV series stars Tim Roth as Jim Worth, an ex-Metropolitan police detective who relocates to the Rocky Mountains with his family. When his small town gets overrun by migrant workers, things get messy. Kennedy plays Nick McGillen, a local constable who shares an intense working relationship with Worth.
Kennedy recently spoke with The GATE about the ambitious Tin Star, portraying a superhero on Smallville, his Canadian Screen Award nomination, and the importance of not being pigeon-holed.
What did you take away from your first feature film, The Invisible?
Ryan Kennedy: I remember taking away that the hours are really, really long in this business. I remember just sitting around and falling asleep in my trailer for a very long time before they called me to work. I had to get used to that. I like being busy, so that was an adjustment. But really, I had such a great experience on The Invisible. It was my first big thing. It was also my first audition for the casting directors of that film (Coreen Mayrs & Heike Brandstatter), who are some of the biggest in Canada. That movie sparked an incredible relationship with them. They really made the ball roll for me as an actor.
The Invisible also created a huge snowball effect for my career. David Goyer was our director. After The Invisible, he called and asked me if I’d like to do Blade: The Series. I was a big fan of the movies and said, “Of course.” I remember, at the time, he told me that he had just handed in his first draft to the studio for what would become The Dark Knight. I was a huge Batman fan so it was fun to geek out over that. I have so many good memories from it. We shot out in the woods in Vancouver, in the winter, in the rain and the cold, and in puddles of water. It was freezing and the several layers of thermals we wore could only do so much. It was grueling at times, and it was a huge learning experience. I got to learn from actors, who were much more experienced than I was, as it was the beginning of my career. It really sparked something in me, so it’s a special one.
Your role as Doc Holliday in Hannah’s Law landed you a Canadian Screen Award Nomination. What do you feel made that performance stand out?
Kennedy: I think it was my passion for it. When I was a teenager, Tombstone was one of my favourite movies. Val Kilmer was incredible as Doc Holliday. As a teenager, it was definitely my favorite performance to watch. I would quote it a lot. I was just enthralled by Val. He was so funny and interesting and dark. When I got a call to audition for Hannah’s Law, I took a look at the material and saw that I was auditioning to play Doc Holliday. I had just lost a part that I was really close to, and one I really wanted, so I was in a funk about it. I called my manager and whined, “They are going to end up giving this to an A-list actor. Forget it.” In the end, I was talked into reading for it by her and a couple of friends. I had a bunch of facial hair at the time. I shaved it off into a moustache. I got the look down. I slicked my hair, put on some old clothes, worked on the classic Savannah dialect and decided to go for it in the taping.
As soon as I started working on it, I thought, “Shoot. I forgot how much I loved this character.” As it turned out, they did have offers out to some A-List names, but as I was told later by the powers that be, my tape immediately changed their minds. I was really intent on doing it right, and doing it well, because I, as a fan, would be so distressed watching a movie with the character of Doc Holliday in it and watch someone blow it. I was committed. It was the most character-driven part that I had ever played. And it really lit a fire for me. I realized that those character-driven parts were the ones I really wanted to go after in the future of my career. I know that when those doors open, new levels of my work will appear that we haven’t seen yet. That’s what stood out for me.
You are currently in Calgary filming the ambitious TV series, Tin Star. What grabbed you about the premise?
Kennedy: When they sent me the script, I read it and was absolutely hooked. It is so well-written, interesting and addictive. Tin Star is written and created by Rowan Joffe, who is from the feature world. He has a terrific Hollywood lineage as well. His dad is Roland Joffe, who directed The Mission and The Killing Fields, which had something like 4,000 Oscar nominations between the two of them. He wrote The American for George Clooney and 28 Weeks Later and has directed some very interesting films.
So when I read it, it didn’t feel like what you see on TV over and over again these days. It felt new and fresh and in the vein of the great stuff we’re seeing out of HBO, Netflix, Amazon, etc. It was dark and gritty, which is my style. It had these flashes of black comedy which surprised me. I was drawn in by the crazy plot twists and the characters. In auditioning for it, it just felt really good. There’s a lot of material out there, that, as an actor you have to read for or work on that you don’t believe in to pay the bills. This was something I believed in and something I wanted.
Introduce us to your character and where he fits into the grand scheme of things?
Kennedy: The show stars Tim Roth, who plays an ex-cop from the UK, and who comes to Canada to start a new life with his family. He basically settles down in Nowheresville, Canada, where it’s beautiful, serene and not much happens. It’s a fresh start. He becomes the Chief of Police in this small town. There are three cops – himself and two constables, including myself.
Constable Nick McGillen, who I play, is a small town boy, born and bred. His world gets turned upside down when Tim Roth’s character crash lands in his home-town. That tranquil lake, if you will, is disrupted by a giant disturbed boulder named Jim Worth (Tim Roth’s character) who catapults himself into it. Without giving much away, there’s a certain amount of tension between Nick and Jim that is both funny, intense and disturbing, which makes for a really interesting dynamic in the show.
Can you talk about working with Tim Roth and in what ways did he up your game?
Kennedy: Tim Roth definitely ups your game. What’s great about him is he’s very generous as an actor. He has great ideas, likes to play and checks in with you a lot to make sure you’re happy with what’s happening in the scene.
What’s interested about working with Tim is that a scene never, ever goes the way that you think it’s going to go. What he brings to it is something you hadn’t imagined it being, yet, or it just simply becomes about something else. It keeps you on your toes. There’s a certain amount of, “Okay, this is going be the tone of this scene now. This is how it’s going to go.”‘
As an actor you come to realize that a scene you’ve prepared at home is always going to be a little different than you imagined when you start blocking it on set. However, when shooting with Tim, it never goes the way you expected at all. You have to adapt. It’s an interesting, fun and intense exercise as an actor.
What new skills did you learn for this show, or were there any old ones you fell back on?
Kennedy: I’ve had to revert back to the Canadianisms I grew up with. For the first time in a decade, I’m actually playing a Canadian character. I lost my Canadian accent about 10 years ago being in this American industry and I’ve had to bring some of it back. I’ve been trying to make sure it doesn’t sound comically Canadian and was surprised to find that it’s actually harder for me to bring the accent back from what I grew up with, as opposed as doing unnatural dialects in other shows. I speak and it sounds like I’m doing something wrong [laughs]. I had to train myself very intensely when I got in this industry to eliminate my Canadianisms. Now it’s hard to get them back.
What did filming on location in Calgary add to this production?
Kennedy: When they were looking for locations for Tin Star, Rowan wanted to find a place that fit his vision. He didn’t know what that would be yet. He went everywhere. What he was seeing was a lot of beauty in Canada, but a lot of stuff he was familiar with seeing on TV. When he came to Calgary, he was blown away by it. He loved the ability to be close to a big city, the Prairies, and right on the border of the Rocky Mountains at the same time. He found himself surrounded by beautiful and diverse options and felt nothing was going to beat Calgary as the Tin Star location. We are shooting in stunning locations. We shoot in a gorgeous home the extremely talented crew built on the Elbow River. We shoot in the Mountains. There is a lot of beauty in this show that is contrasted by the darkness in the story. This is just one part of the formula that is going to make for an incredible series.
Besides Tin Star, you recently guest-starred on Motive and Mistresses, where you bounced between playing the good guy and the asshole. What’s fun about portraying the bad boy?
Kennedy: The bad boy is always more fun to play. All the bad thoughts that we have in our minds that we have to suppress to remain decent human beings… playing the bad guys sort of acts as a healthy outlet for that [laughs]. And playing the bad guy always gives more opportunity to mess with the other actors. And that’s fun. I feel an extra spark in playing those kinds of roles. You have license to be a dick and no one will be upset at you for it. I’ve played a lot of ne’er do wells in my time. I tend to find it’s oddly more freeing.
On the flip side, Smallville fans still remember you as Cosmic Boy. What excited you about embodying a superhero?
Kennedy: Everything. I was a huge Superman/Batman fan when I was a kid. I loved anything superhero. For Halloween, I was always Superman. My mom would make me Superman birthday cakes. I was a fan of Lois & Clark when I was a kid, too, and I ended up playing Dean Cain’s son in the earlier stages of my career. It sort of felt like it might be the closest I’d get to working on a Superhero show.
I remember when Smallville first started airing, I was thrilled to see another Superman outlet. I used to watch the show before I ever got in the industry, so when I became an actor and moved to Vancouver, where Smallville was filmed, I always thought, “I’d kill to work on the show.” I just wanted to be a part of it somehow. I had auditioned for it several times over the years and never heard anything back. I was certainly convinced that I’d never be on the show. Then one day those wonderful casting ladies from The Invisible called to say, “We’re really interested in Ryan for this one role, but we can’t talk about it.” They gave me fake lines and character names for the audition. I thought, “If they are giving me fake sides, this is a more interesting role than, you know, lumberjack #2 who meets Clark in the woods in some random scene and is surprised by Clark’s ability to chop down a tree in one swipe.” They ended up calling and saying, “You got the part. We still can’t tell you anything. That’s about it.”
I had gone to a friend of mine who is an avid Superman fan. I said, “Here are the fake sides they gave me. Are there any clues in here as to what this could be?” He knew immediately. “This is the Legion. This is Cosmic Boy. Oh my God. You’re going to play Cosmic Boy.” So I started researching The Legion. Smallville production finally brought me to set for a wardrobe fitting. They started putting together a costume with my measurements and when I watched them putting these spherical badges on the chest, I realized, “That’s a Cosmic Boy thing. He was right.” They finally released the script to me which confirmed it all, but not too long before we started shooting, because they were keeping everything under wraps. It was truly a thrill to play a superhero. I wish we could have done more with The Legion. As far as I was told, the producers always hoped to. It was so much fun. That was definitely a dream come true for me.
Are the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes still on your radar?
Kennedy: Always. That stuff is always interesting to me because it holds a special place in my heart. I grew up with that stuff. I now have God-kids who are just as obsessed with superheroes as I was. When I go to see them, I bring them action figures and pretend I’m only playing with them because the kids want me to [laughs]. Marvel and DC will always hold an interest for me in my work.
You career has run the gamut with horror, science fiction, dramas, romantic comedies and westerns. How does it feel to have worked in all those genres and not be pigeon-holed?
Kennedy: I love changing it up. I love never going to the same office and doing the same work on a daily basis. That’s why I enjoy this job so much. It’s never the same. So, the idea of being stuck in a genre as an actor is a recurring nightmare. It is wonderful to be seen in different lights, to make different impressions and to affect different groups of people in different ways. That’s what this job should be all about.