North of 60 Interview: George Leach

We first met George Leach--in the guise of Teevee's cellmate Matthew Fowler
--in the fourth "North of 60" movie, "Another Country." Now released from
prison, Matthew is back in "Distant Drumming," where he is a centerpiece
of Teevee's initiative for community policing. Whatever happens to Matthew
in the future, there's no doubt that we'll be hearing more from George Leach,
the multitalented young performer who brings this complicated character to life.

From B.C. to Ontario--via Thailand

PW: Where are you from, George?

GL: I come from the Stl'atl'imx Nation, located in Lillooet, in lower British Columbia. I've actually been out in the Ontario region working as an actor, musician, dancer, and visual artist.

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PW: When did you leave B.C.?

GL: About eight years ago.

PW: And what part of Ontario are you living in?

GL: Brantford. About 100 klicks outside of Toronto, near the Hamilton area. I started out in Lillooet working in a lumber mill making 20 bucks an hour or whatever it was. But I just kind of felt at the time it wasn't my thing. I must have been 18 years old.

I woke up one morning, put my notice in to the lumber mill, and just started driving across the country with all of my stuff. Middle of December! I went through three blizzards trying to get to Toronto. Going from a town of 4,000 people to the city of Toronto was a big jump, but as soon as I arrived into Toronto, I got wrapped up right into the theater crowd right off the bat. I met them the first day I was in Toronto.

PW: That was your intention in going to Toronto? To do theater?

GL: Well, I didn't really know at the time. I just knew I wasn't supposed to be at the lumber mill. And I basically just threw myself out there in Toronto to try to put myself into an opportunity place.

PW: Sounds like the age-old story of the kid from the small town wanting to go to the big city.

GL: Yeah, exactly. And I didn't really have any expectations on anything. I was fresh out of high school. I'd just finished the Canada World Youth program, where I spent four months working on a Holstein farm [in Ontario] volunteering with a Thai counterpart, learning Thai as well. And then spent another four months in Thailand working on a durian farm.

PW: On a what farm?

GL: Durian. It's a tropical fruit. It's really big.

PW: So first the Thai kid was over here for a while, and then you went to Thailand?

GL: Yeah, we were stuck together for eight months. It was a very big eye-opener. I'd never been overseas at all, and was from a small town. It was a very cool, eye-opening life experience that really opened my eyes to the world and to options and opportunities. So I came back from there, worked in the mill for eight months, and then said, "There's more that I gotta do out there." And just threw myself out there.

I kinda thought at the time, I'd had my high school years, my elementary years, my life planned out for me, structured and scheduled. So after high school I just wanted to throw myself out there and see what life had to offer, as opposed to me focusing on what I wanted out of life. I just felt at the time, if you focus too much on what you want, and that's all you're going for, you forget to use your peripheral vision of what life has to offer. That was my approach, anyway. So that's kind of why I ended up in Toronto.

I just put myself there, and boom! It just happened. The right people said, "Hey, who are you?" " I'm George from B.C." "What are you doing here?" "Well, I don't know, I'm just here. I wouldn't mind getting into a bit of acting." "Oh, cool, this is where you go--here, here, here, here." It was just like--wham! I was right into it, I was on the stage right away, within a month.

Theater and TV work

PW: What kinds of theater work have you done?

GL: I did some shows with a small theater group called AlterNative. It's a little improv and comedy troupe. And then I found myself in a six-week intensive theater training school at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre. They bring in different actors and singing coaches and voice coaches. We did a production and took it to a theater festival in Copenhagen, Denmark, so that was really neat. It was nice to be able to travel and to be there for theater.

I did a lot of projects at the Factory Theatre in Toronto and the Theatre Passe Muraille . I've done some stuff in London, England, in the West End. I workshopped a musical that was supposed to go. It was "The Last of the Mohicans."

PW: But it didn't make it?

GL: No, it never got picked up. The investors lost money in the stock market, so it was one of those things. So I was going on doing theater gigs, and then I started learning how to audition for television and film. It's a very different technique that I didn't have any experience in. It took me a couple of years even to get the audition process down. I was very much into theater, to digging in and having a good couple months of rehearsals and really ripping the character open. I like that discipline.

PW: Which is very different from the short turnaround times in television.

GL: Yeah, exactly.

PW: Plus, in television, having those close-up cameras, you must have to tone everything down.

GL: Yeah, that was a technique that I started to learn just by watching everybody else. I definitely am always watching fellow seasoned artists, somebody like Dakota House or Tina Keeper or Tom Jackson or Lorne Cardinal. These guys have been pioneers for young aboriginal artists. So I definitely learned a lot from my training and just by asking questions of other artists. They're always willing to help, which is really cool. Very nice, tight community.

PW: So a few years ago you started getting some acting jobs in television?

GL: Yep, "Psi Factor" and stuff like that. Smaller bit parts at first. I kinda didn't want to bite off too much at that point. I just wanted to do some parts and really just watch and learn how things work. So then the acting thing was going great. At the same time, I always had the urge to want to do something of my own projects, to work on something that I wanted to say instead of as an actor, it's tough sometimes, you have to wait by the phone. Sometimes you get some roles that are all right, you know, but...

PW: It's other people's work.

GL: That's right, exactly.


PW: At what point did the music and singing come in?

GL: That was always there. I was really nervous of singing, though. I would just sing backup vocals and play guitar. It's kinda weird how they all really worked together. When I did the theater training, it really helped me tap into my root as an artist. To help open myself up, 'cuz I was really shy. I kind of still was a little shy of my music, and then I found myself taking some dance lessons at the Banff Centre of fine arts, with the aboriginal dance program. I did modern dance training and stuff. It's just beautiful to be able to use your body as a dancer! And that definitely helped me be more aware of my body as an actor, and my stage presence as a musician.

So they're all intertwined. And once I started accumulating all these experiences and skills, I started going into my visual arts side, which I have been doing ever since high school.

PW: Painting?

GL: No, I actually was doing pottery. Definitely that was something I really fell in love with because it's introvert work. You didn't have to perform or show off.

PW: A change from being up on stage.

GL: Exactly. So it was a nice kind of a thing where you're out there being an extrovert, and then you pull yourself back into your center with pottery as an introvert.

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PW: Are you still doing any pottery?

GL: No, I don't have time!

PW: Have you been playing guitar for a long time?

GL: Yeah. I started kinda late--16, 17 years old. But it was definitely something that I felt a really strong connection with. It's always been on the back burner, but I was kind of nervous of bringing it out as maybe my income earner, just because I liked it as something personal to me as opposed to something I would start getting paid for, and it's work or a job. So I shied away for a little way.

[Finally,] I made the decision to start working on my album. So I did. I had several theater productions that were offered, and some roles, and I was pretty hurting for financial at the time. But I turned them all down because I felt it was time to put an album out, because that would be a promotional tool and a product for myself to be able to earn an income. And to get my name out there and get that ball rolling.

I feel very lucky and very fortunate, and I never take that for granted, but I didn't have to wait around by the phone for acting roles. I could create my own work in the meantime with my music. And then hopefully be able to pick and choose and guide your career a little bit better because you didn't have the financial stress of just making your living off of acting.

PW: Do you have a permanent band, or do you pick up musicians when you need them?

GL: I've got a few solid players. My bass player, Keith Silver, is from Six Nations, Ontario. A fabulous bass player. He's a core member. And then we have a drummer from Toronto, Cassius Pereira, who drums with Jeff Healey. He comes on the road every once in a while with us. For the most part, it's been pretty solid, doing a lot of festivals. We've been everywhere from New York City to we played the Sundance Film Festival this year.

PW: Your music is blues, isn't it?

GL: Rock and roll, blues...I don't really know! I just kind of put it out there. It's blues-based, but it branches off into folk and into rock, into little bit of everything here and there. Some grunge and stuff. I really just try to make it my own.

PW: Is your music getting to the point now where you're getting a lot of calls for music dates and so you're putting that first now and only taking acting jobs as time permits? Is one of your activities taking precedence over the others?

GL: Yeah, it's been a tough juggling act. I've been fairly lucky enough to be able to balance out the careers. It definitely has taken a lot of my time. Like the music thing just really took off.

PW: But so far you're finding a good balance between music and acting? For example, how much time are you needing to spend on this movie?

GL: I'm here for the whole month, five days a week. So it's been pretty intense, because my music career took off right out of the hop pretty much. I finished the album in ten days. I recorded 15 songs, did all the bass tracks, all the guitar tracks, all the vocals, wrote all the songs, produced the album, did all the artwork, packaged it, marketed it, and then just went out and started pushing my CD and performing. It was really neat how it worked out. About four or five months after the album was released, I actually got to open for Bo Diddley at the Palace here in Calgary.

Matthew Fowler and the Canadian justice system

PW: How did you get involved with "North of 60"?

GL: Actually it was kinda strange, 'cuz I was in Lillooet at home taking a rest with my family, and I got a call from my agent to come audition for the part. They asked for an older person at the time, so I was thinking, well, I'd better not. It was a four-hour drive, $150-day to get to the audition, and I figured I was probably going to be too young to get the role.

PW: How old are you?

GL: Twenty-six.

PW: And what were they saying they wanted?

GL: Thirty to 35-ish. So I didn't think it was going to be something they wanted me for, so I actually turned it down at first. And my agent called me back and said, "It's the same producers as for 'After the Harvest,' and they like your work and they want to see you." I said, "Okay, send me the script." So they sent me the script, Peter Lauterman's script, and I read it, and I was just in love with it! I called my agent back right away and said, "I really want to do this audition." The character just really, really moved me. I believed in the script and I believed in the character. It's definitely a lot stronger when you fall in love with your character right off the bat and you know you want to do the part, and ideas are flying out of your head.

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One of the things that really stuck out in my mind was about a young man being in the prison system at a very young age. Being in and out of juvie and stuff like that. The fastest rate growing in the prison systems of Canada today, I believe, are the First Nations people. It's a very high statistic, and they're getting in there at a very young age. I even have close members of my community that were very young and did some bad things and are in prison for life. I just felt that this role really gave me a chance to get that through to people. I really try to get involved with projects that I really feel connected to, and this was one that just hit me over the head.

PW: Matthew is just about a three-time loser when we first meet him, yet he seems like a decent guy.

GL: Yeah, yeah. For myself, just reading it as George looking at Matthew the character, you really could see him as a human. The thing that I wanted to get into was his human side. These people are as human as anyone else. They're just thrown into situations--or born into situations--that help set up the circumstances. It was something I just wanted to express as an artist.

PW: I had the impression that Matthew was trying to go straight. Not that escaping from jail is the right way to do that!

GL: Yeah, I think he definitely was trying to work toward something a little bit better. You can really feel that he was trying as best as he could to understand his surroundings. But if you've been in and out of jail and confined areas for the bulk of your life, that's kind of what you're used to. That world inside the prison is what you're used to--that lingo and that way of living and stuff.

To come out from that to a huge wide space like Lynx River, that's definitely something overwhelming, and it's very scary. It's interesting to watch him trying to grab onto his surroundings. It doesn't totally make sense to him, but he's also falling back into some of his old ways of doing things. So for myself, it's definitely a cool role and a big character, a big job, and a story that I feel really has to be told.

"Distant Drumming"

PW: So I guess just before "Distant Drumming" starts, Teevee has taken responsibility for Matthew and gotten him paroled to Lynx River.

GL: Yep, yep.

PW: What is Matthew supposed to do up here? You can't just come out of jail and not do anything and expect to stay straight. He has to work.

GL: Community service. Basically what I felt they were trying to do was to get him out of the city and to do some community service work in an aboriginal environment. I guess basically really giving him a chance to feel part of his roots that he might not have gotten in an urban setting.

PW: Give him a sense of community?

GL: Yeah, which again is something very foreign to him, 'cuz he's used to being tough, fighting for everything that he has. So being around nice people might make him feel a little bit uncomfortable, 'cuz he's used to having to be hard. I think that his journey that he goes through in the community is just a wonderful journey--to see someone come from where he comes from and trying to fit into the community. Even myself as an actor, I'm rooting for him, going, "C'mon man, just a little bit more, just a little bit more." It's definitely something interesting to see and to play.

PW: You mentioned, though, that he has those ingrained habits, so I guess he's kind of hustling things and stirring things up.

GL: Yep, definitely. And, you know, [the story] finds him doing a lot of things that he never had a chance to do, like hunting and fishing and stuff like that. Just real down-to-earth community stuff that I think is important, especially to a young native man that has a troubled past. To try to reconnect him back to his roots, to hopefully bring him out of that place where he's been into a healthier environment.

PW: Do any of the older men in Lynx River take him under their wings?

GL: Not really. There's a connection with Teevee, but I think the one he connects to the most is Charlie. It's a really interesting relationship between the two, and it's really cool, because Charlie could be a younger version [of Matthew]. Not as gritty of a past, though.

PW: I hear that Michelle isn't thrilled about Charlie hanging out with Matthew.

GL: Definitely, when you have somebody with this kind of past, a new person from the city coming into a small, small community. I remember growing up in a community like that. Anybody that was coming from the city was cool!

PW: Especially someone who's been in jail.

GL: Yeah, and that's definitely something that's a big thing for Charlie. It's fascinating to get to know this guy, a cool guy, a tough guy. That kind of culture is seen on TV and in some of the music like R&B and hip-hop and rap or whatever. That life is intriguing to some of the young people.

PW: The bad boy.

GL: Yeah, the bad boy kind of image. So yeah, I don't think a lot of people really feel comfortable with him being there. Of course it's going to put the community on edge. Anything that goes wrong, the first person people are going to think of is the oddball in the community, the outsider. I really feel that tension, especially as the story progresses.

PW: It sounds like you're really enjoying the character.

GL: Yeah, definitely. it's a role I think I've been working towards. This is a character that I really felt a connection with, something that I wanted to say as an artist at this point in my career. And it's a great team to work with: the cast, the crew, the production company. Everybody is just really cool to work with, which really helps you spread your wings as an artist.

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Text and photos (c) 2003 Patricia F. Winter.

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Last updated 6/19/09