By Anita Malhotra
Born in the UK and raised in Canada and Germany, Raoul Bhaneja has forged a thriving and varied career in Canada as a film, TV and theatre actor and as a blues musician fronting the award-winning Toronto band Raoul and the Big Time. At last count he had appeared in more than 75 film and television projects and dozens of plays. Bhaneja has also achieved recognition for his unique solo production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (winner of a Montreal English Critics Circle Award in 2006), in which he performs all 17 roles himself with no sets or costumes.
Anita Malhotra interviewed Bhaneja on Oct. 8, 2013 in the Lounge of Ottawa’s Arc hotel, where he was staying while shooting the CBC miniseries The Best Laid Plans.
AM: What is your earliest memory of being a performer?
RB: I’m the youngest of two, so to get attention I loved performing, and at Christmas time we used to do concerts at our house, little sketches, and dress up in costumes. My brother loved music, so I got into music around the same time I got into acting because I wanted to be like my brother and play guitar and sing. By the time I got into the arts high school in Ottawa, I was doing plays in school, at the Ottawa Little Theatre, with professional companies, and I’d helped start A Company of Fools, which was a Shakespearean street theatre troupe. And since then I’ve done both theatre and music on and off.
AM: How did you get into acting for television?
RB: My first job in TV was Ken Finkleman’s show The Newsroom, playing the brother of another National Theatre School graduate, Pamela Sinha, who’s now got this great show called Crash. I was still at the National Theatre School and you weren’t allowed to do work for outside, but I went to the head of the school at the time, and he said, “OK, you can go.” I was really lucky because that started to open the door. Then I did a walk-on part in Traders, and I then did this other wacky series called Twitch City, with Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar, Daniel MacIvor, Molly Parker and the late Tracy Wright. I’d seen Highway 61 and I’d loved that movie and I thought all these people were so cool.
AM: How did you break into feature film acting?
RB: My first job in film was lead in Extraordinary Visitor, which shot in Newfoundland with Mary Walsh and Andy Jones. It was pretty weird to be the lead guy in your first film, so that slightly distorted my career the rest of the time because I was like, “So, when’s Matt Damon gonna call?” I didn’t quite grasp at that time if you’re going to be a working actor in Canada that in 20 years you can maybe count those experiences on one hand as opposed to being on some kind of Hollywood trajectory.
AM: You’ve worked on the Hollywood films Cold Creek Manor and The Sentinel. What were those experiences like?
RB: A bunch of us were hired on Cold Creek Manor to be the townspeople. It was interesting to see up close how Sharon Stone works, and Dennis Quaid works and Stephen Dorff works. And Juliette Lewis was in it. I’d been in a movie with Juliette Lewis called Picture Claire, and I got to know her a bit on that, so that was kind of fun.
Michael Douglas produced The Sentinel and starred in it, and Clark Johnson, Molly Johnson’s brother, directed it. He hired us to be the secret service guys who work with Michael Douglas. I cornered Michael Douglas a few times and picked his brain. I was like, “Your dad’s Kirk Douglas. You were totally on the inside. Why did you become a producer?” And he said, “Well, I had to produce things I wanted to be in.” I thought, “Wow. He’s a movie star and he’s saying he has to make the things he wants to be in.” And I thought, “I’m on the right track if I’m trying to make the stuff I want to be in – whether it be plays, or movies or TV.”
It feels like everybody I ever met saw The Sentinel because it’s on airplanes, it’s on Pay TV, it’s on DVD, it’s on television, it’s in movie theatres. You can be in something amazing in Canada and 400,000 people will watch it one night, and you can be on something pedestrian in the States and 10 million people will watch it in one night. So that’s made a lot of us focus on trying to work in the States. I’ve gone to network three times on pretty big American pilots. I didn’t get them, but you get close and you go, “I’d better keep going. I almost got that one.” But it’s a very big investment of time, and if you have a family it’s very challenging to move to the States as an actor.
AM: What have some of the highlights of your theatrical acting career been?
RB: I’ve done a lot of shows at the Tarragon in Toronto, and most of those have been really special. The first play I did in Toronto was The Domino Heart. A lot of people saw it and a lot of people remembered me from it. Another highlight was a solo show from Quebec called Bashir Lazhar, which the movie Monsieur Lazhar was based on.
Another show I did at the Tarragon was called Wide Awake Hearts, which was directed by Gina Wilkinson. I got to play a TV and film actor who was kind of a burnt-out womanizer. And that was really fun for me because when you’re an ethnic actor, you’re always having to juggle all those ethnic parts, and that part, in a funny way, was a bit more what I am. And 10 years ago I got the Christopher Plummer International Fellowship Award and I went to Shakespeare’s Globe for a month. That was really a dream come true.
AM: How did your solo version of Hamlet come about?
RB: Like a lot of young actors growing up, I fell in love with the play. I had an incredible English teacher in high school who inspired me and subsequently the director of Hamlet (solo), Robert Ross Parker, as well. I became obsessed with it and I tried to see every production of it I could. Then, as a kid at the National Theatre School, I saw the Quebec theatre artist, Robert Lepage, do a solo version. At the same time I saw a great solo piece, The Fever, written by the American playwright Wallace Shawn and performed by the Toronto theatre actress Clare Coulter. She did this amazing thing where she went on tour to all kinds of unconventional venues. She came to the National Theatre School and did it in a rehearsal hall – no sets, no lights, no costumes, no other actors. She just sat down and said, “Can I start?” And then 50 minutes later our jaws were on the floor. We’d been transported.
So we started to develop this idea of what it would be like if we were able to give the audience an incredibly intimate experience. The most exciting time you can experience Hamlet is the first time, when you don’t know how it’s going to end – that push and pull of the first read. We wanted to try to give people that experience who either knew the play really well, or who didn’t have any experience with Shakespeare and felt they could never understand it. We said, “We’re just going to put the story and the words on showcase, and not make it about the sets and the costumes and even a bunch of other actors.”
AM: What has the audience reaction been to this approach?
RB: The most consistent feedback I’ve heard is that people feel it’s incredibly clear because it is just about the story and the words and that relationship between the performer and the audience. This is what I found when I had the opportunity to work at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
Because the plays were performed in daylight, the audience is always present. They’re never in the dark like in a movie theatre. And when you try to put Shakespeare on in that environment, as performers and directors and designers, you run into some problems because some things don’t seem to work when there’s no audience present. I remember many times in an acting class saying, “Who’s this soliloquy to?” “It’s to myself.” “But why am I speaking out loud?” But when you’re on stage at Shakespeare’s Globe, you turn your head and there are 1,200 people this far away from you. I think of it like the experience at church in that period. The audience is a witness to the action. So we’ve tried to bring those elements into this production.
AM: One of the obvious challenges is to differentiate the characters one from another without costumes, sets, or other visual cues. How did you work that through?
RB: It was a lot to do with how the body is used and the voice, and developing the vocabulary that the audience starts to tune in to. Also, Shakespeare is quite clever. He created his plays with lots of cues, because he had audiences coming in and out of the theatre, so characters often begin a sentence using the character’s name that they’re speaking to. Robert and I also spent a long time when we created the show talking about it in film terminology – cutting from one character to the other. So once we started thinking like a film, you didn’t need to stand over here and then walk across the stage to be the other person and turn around and face them, because all that took too much time and too much energy.
We started working on it in 2000 and now it’s 2013, so I’ve spent 13 years on and off with this play and these characters and this technique and the style, and in relationship with audiences all over the place, so I say, “I never went to university but this my PhD in Shakespeare acting of Hamlet, the play.”
AM: Was there a big challenge in memorizing the 15,000 words in your production?
RB: The joke among actors is that you would play Hamlet or do West Side Story or something, and your aunt would come backstage and go, “Wow, that was amazing. How did you remember all those lines?” But this is the only play I’ve ever done where actors come backstage and go, “Alright, how the f— did you remember all those lines?” It took a long time, but it wasn’t just by trying to learn it by rote. It took a long time because it had to be learned by working on it and understanding it.
AM: Is it a lonely experience doing the play because you don’t have someone to bounce your lines off of?
RB: It’s actually kind of a lonely show to tour because you’re on stage alone, you’re in your hotel alone, and sometimes I’ll be in a part of the country I’ve never been in before. And also when I do this show I have to be a hermit because I can’t get sick – there’s no understudy. It’s very physically demanding, so I really have to live like a monk. I have to be careful what I eat, I have to make sure I sleep. I can’t have too much fun, because so much energy has to go into the performance and the show. And if I’ve done something to myself that distracts me or throws me off the show at all, I can’t forgive myself for it.
AM: Has there been a change in your thinking about Hamlet over time?
RB: I’ve been given a gift that I’ve been able to keep going back to the whole play over and over again all of these years. I was married when I started, but then I had one kid, then two kids, so becoming a parent changed how I thought about the play. When I met the late John Neville about 13 years ago and asked him about the play, he felt very strongly that it was about the disillusionment of youth. At the time I was in my 20s and I didn’t appreciate that, because it was always about the young man’s journey or fight for revenge. And now I’m just right around the corner from 40, and I’ve thought much more since I had kids about this oppressive world that the young people – Laertes, Hamlet, particularly Ophelia – are in. How the grown-ups in their world have really created a terrible environment for them to live in.
AM: You did some interviews as part of the documentary about Hamlet (solo). Tell me about those.
RB: I approached every Canadian actor I could think of who had played the role of Hamlet. I asked everybody the same questions – a bit about the play, a bit about the character, and then a bit about their life at the time they did it. My friend Jeff Stephenson accompanied me on this because I wanted to record these interviews, and then it kind of evolved into a “making of” film. In the documentary, the interviews are just in tiny fragments, but for the real Hamlet-Shakespeare nerds I have this goldmine of these guys talking for an hour on the subject, so I hope maybe the interviews will live on YouTube one day or something like that. I think Jeff really did an amazing job to distill 128 hours into 47 minutes. And the documentary was nominated for a Gemini.
AM: You mentioned that you have been classified as an “ethnic” actor and you have played people of different ethnic backgrounds. Do you find that challenging or does it come naturally to you?
RB: The double-edged sword of it is that the look I have has gotten me all the work I’ve had, so I can’t say it’s bad because I’ve worked on all this stuff. But I can tell you, when it comes to leading roles, the tone of your skin has restricted the amount of leading roles that are available for actors. There’s a real hesitancy to sexualize ethnic men. You will occasionally find it with an African-American male and maybe a Latin male on some American projects. But the vast majority of the characters I play are widows, homosexuals – it’s a pattern that is bizarre for us. My joke is that my friend will say, “I’ve written this TV series, I’ve got this part for you and it’s amazing.” And I say, “OK – is his name Raj? Is he gay or is he struggling with an arranged marriage?” And they say, “How did you know?” Those kinds of limitations come from the fact that there are not enough people in the writers room, there are not enough people producing who are able to say, “It’s not all about that for all of those people.”
And say, for someone of a Middle Eastern background, there’s so much dealing with Muslim extremism, terrorism. If we’re in stories, that’s often the reason why. And that’s hard because that’s what’s giving you the opportunity to get in, and other people can’t get in. But the flip side is that sometimes we’re dealing with cliché, sometimes we’re dealing with stereotype, sometimes it’s just not very interesting.
AM: In addition to your acting, you have also kept up a parallel career in music. How did your band, Raoul and the Big Time, get started?
RB: I’d had a band in high school but I started Raoul and the Big Time because as an actor I was so frustrated not having control over my ability to perform. So I met Darren Gallen at some jams in Toronto and we started the band together in 1998. I’ve played with almost the same guys for 15 years, and we got a chance to do Ottawa Blues Festival and the Vancouver Folk Festival, which was amazing. We got to play with Bettye LaVette. I have a new record coming out next year that’s with a bunch of the guys who back up Mavis Staples. And I got to meet B.B. King and to open for the late Bobby “Blue” Bland.
AM: What are some of the projects you are currently working on?
RB: Right now I’m shooting a miniseries for CBC called The Best Laid Plans, which is based on a Canada Reads and Stephen Leacock Award-winner of the same name by Terry Fallis. It’s a political satire – a bestseller from Canada. I play the advisor to the Canadian prime minister-to-be, who’s played by Mark McKinney from Kids in the Hall. And it stars Jonas Chernick from My Awkward Sexual Adventure, and Eric Peterson, and Jodi Balfour from Bomb Girls.
And then I’m in a film called The Right Kind of Wrong, which was at a TIFF gala last month, and opens on Friday on 130 screens across Canada. That’s with Ryan Kwanten, who’s a young Australian guy from True Blood, Catherine O’Hara, Will Sasso and Sara Canning. I’m also writing for the screen with a friend of mine. I have a small production company. We’ve been developing films and I’m pitching a one-hour drama for Canadian TV that I’m really excited about.
I’m also working on this new show called Life, Death and the Blues, which is an autobiographical, multi-media, theatre-concert hybrid about the blues and me and the world and culture, which I hope to start performing next season. And I have this show, Hamlet (solo). Those two are things are where I’m like, “I should be spending my remaining time on earth alive doing these things, because these are things that are very specific to me.”
Raoul Bhaneja’s show Hamlet (solo) runs November 12-23, 2013 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. For more information about Bhaneja and his work, please visit www.raoulbhaneja.com or his Facebook or Twitter site.