By Jennifer Hartley
For some people, Canadian acting giant Colm Feore is best known for his brilliant interpretations of Glenn Gould or his award-winning portrayal of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Others know him for his work on shows like 24, House of Cards, The Borgias or The Umbrella Academy. His filmography is long and diverse, with over 140 movie and television credits. He has done superhero films (Spider Man, Thor), musicals (Chicago) and sci-fi thrillers such as The Chronicles of Riddick with Dame Judi Dench. Then there is Bon Cop, Bad Cop, his post-apocalyptic Western trilogy Six Reasons Why, Six Days to Die, Six Guns for Hire, his thriller Anon and his award-winning performance in Sugar Daddy. And, of course, there is The Red Violin.
To fans of live theatre, he is the extraordinary Shakespearean thespian who has graced the stages at the Stratford Festival for over 17 seasons. And if Audible, the audiobook platform, is your cup of tea, he is there, too. “I read Prime Minister Trudeau’s book for them in both official languages,” says Colm. Yes, he is completely bilingual.
No wonder he has honorary doctorates, numerous acting awards and he’s an Officer of the Order of Canada. At the 2019 Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, he was honoured with the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award, Canada’s highest honour in the performing arts. In short, he’s a national treasure.
When he is not bringing characters to life, he is reading about them. “Let me shift the camera,” he says. (We are Zooming.) Behind him are stacks of books from floor to ceiling. “I read all kinds of different things. I just finished Anthony Sher’s book about King Lear, The Year of the Mad King.” He also chooses books by other actors, hoping to glean nuggets of wisdom. “But mostly I read history and work that is going to supplement the acting.” However, he also mentions the latest book by oncologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human.
Fittingly, it was a book he read in Grade 12, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, that inspired Colm to explore performing. “Many of the lines kept coming back to me and I thought they would be great to say out loud.”
The interest in acting started even earlier, though. “There is an enormous amount of storytelling and music that comes with an Irish heritage,” he explains. “We were Irish Catholics with a big dinner table and lots of kids. Everybody strained for attention, which essentially translated as being entertaining. That was the beginning for me. Then I went to school and got into the theatre and realized I could be officially entertaining.”
He auditioned for the National Theatre School in Montreal and was selected. “I’ve been working at acting ever since.”
His passion for it is palpable. “Each day, I remain open to the possibilities of how I can bring something different to the characters I play.” King Lear has been one of his favourites. “It is so difficult to do; it requires every ounce of your passion, intelligence and physical stamina. But the most important part is that it is not really about my experience; it is about yours. I want you to have that absolute visceral experience of Shakespeare’s intention … but also the emotional impact of it. [In King Lear] you start with a person you loathe at the beginning but are weeping for in the last scene. And that happens in a mere three hours. That is Shakespeare’s genius. Learning to yield and be able to serve that is something I am privileged and proud of having accomplished.”
His copy of Richard III has a notebook attached and it’s held together with elastics, having been consulted so often. “The sinewy strength of Shakespeare’s writing needs to be highlighted for the audience and I continuously search for new ways to do that.”
His love for Shakespeare influences every part of his acting. “I have been so blessed and lucky to have been helped along the way—doing everything I have done and the wide variety of things—but it is always based on the foundation of my relationship with Shakespeare and the classics, and in particularly here in Stratford.”
Stratford has been home for over 40 years and, despite the international acclaim, Colm Feore is both modest and gracious. “I have been essentially created by everyone who has had an input and a hand in moulding and shaping me. I would not be where I am without someone having said, ‘Oh no. I played that in ’62; don’t do that! Do this instead.’ That kind of thing. I was very blessed with help from Stratford and the National Arts Centre and people at the National Theatre School. Frankly, the learning continues. I’m still trying to figure this out.”
He talks with reverence about acting colleagues, with friends’ names like those of the late Christopher Plummer, Sir Kenneth Branagh and Sir Mark Rylance rolling off his tongue. He also admits he’s shy: “My choice of career is a wild overcompensation for that.”
Describing himself as generous, obsessive and intense, he adds, “Well, I’m hoping that generous is one of them,” joking the descriptors should probably be in “the opposite order,” starting with intense. As for that intensity? “You know it’s mellowed over the years, I hope, and as yet still evolving. I’m still under construction.”
His priorities are solid: “My wife, children and my grandchild: They are what matters. You know, the rest of it is just stuff.” He and his wife Donna have three children, ages 34, 28, 26, and he says they and his four-month-old granddaughter are his biggest accomplishments. “The answer by which I certainly judge that question is a long view of one’s life. How did they turn out? Are they nice people? Are they decent souls? Fun to be with? Are they kind and generous? The answer is yes.”
When he is not in front of the camera, this actor is behind one. “Over by that pile of books are a dozen cameras,” he points out. By yet another pile of those books, there’s a collection of knives. Colm Feore loves to sharpen knives. “I do! Put your knife in the mailbox and leave me your number. I’ll bring it back to you. I do it when I’m learning my lines.”
He also enjoys cooking, noting this hobby has made him aware of food insecurity. “I am investigating how I might help. It troubles me terribly. We have so much and yet so many don’t have enough.
That generous spirit thrives. “I have an interest in giving back something, sharing insights I have acquired over the years,” he explains. Not surprisingly, this involves supporting Canadian film. He sits on the board of Reel Canada, an organization that brings Canadian cinema to high schools, seniors and remote areas both at home and abroad. “It is about getting Canadian stories out there.”
He is also developing a relationship with Theatre Museum Canada. “We have an enormous amount of history that I think now, particularly after COVID, warrants investigation and preservation.”
There’s no talk of slowing down. In the short term, since his wife Donna, an acclaimed musical director and choreographer, is taking on projects in the United States in 2023, he says he plans to follow her. “I want to take time to take care of her, to cook for her.”
And while there are not many Shakespearean characters he hasn’t played, Mark Antony, Henry V and Prospero in The Tempest are three of them. Here’s hoping they’re next.