"John Ralston stars in HBO Canada's 'Living In Your Car.'" – Interview

Every so often an actor comes around that is so talented that you wonder why he hasn’t hit it big like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt. Not that I’m particularly a fan of Cruise’s work, more notably his work off screen, but his on screen stuff lends itself why he’s such a big box office draw. Enter John Ralston. The Canadian actor stars in HBO Canada’s new series, “Living In Your Car,” about an executive who lives in his luxury car after being fired for cooking the books at his company. He recently took time out from his luxury car to talk with Zoiks! Online.

Q – Thanks John for doing this.

A – The pleasure is all mine. I just got out of driving three eleven year olds to a soccer practice across the city during Friday rush hour.

Q – You’re from Canada. How different is acting in Canada as opposed to the United States in terms of production, schedules, auditioning, etc.?

A – Money, money and more money. The “acting” part is the same probably everywhere you go. Production tends to be on a smaller scale here but we make up for it by being tenacious and imaginative about the product we put out. Actors of my generation tend to be very versatile here. We are just as at home doing theatre, radio, TV and film. Canada is in an enviable position of inheriting a great British theatre tradition (at one point virtually all of my peers wanted to do Shakespeare more than anything else), as well as absorbing an influential “method” approach to acting on stage and screen from the United States. A lot of my work lately has been in television and that is filmed faster and faster – everywhere. The HBO Canada show I do now called “Living in Your Car” was very demanding for me. I was in virtually every scene of the thirteen episodes and had a tremendous amount of dialogue every day. I’m not sure if there is another series out there where the lead character simply doesn’t shut up. I relied heavily on drugs for that period.

Q – Have you ever thought about making the move to the states?

A – Anyone living in Toronto, Buffalo or Detroit during March thinks about LA. I will venture down to the land of beautiful people at different points I’m sure, preferably associated with a particular project. David Steinberg (Curb Your Enthusiasm) came back to Canada (he’s from Winnipeg) to produce and direct a number of episodes of “Living in Your Car.” I’m confident we will be in the US shortly, and then you will see me there, bathing suit and sunglasses in tow, yearning for a poolside cabana and smart drinks.

Q – You’ve got a background in theatre as well as TV and film, yet you initially went to school for jazz. Is music still a part of your life?

A – Even before my interest in Jazz, I received a degree in Education in English and Anthropology. After teaching for a year on a First Nations reserve I found myself at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and somehow was accepted into a budding Jazz Studies Program. How I got in is a story in itself. Needless to say I was in no way a musician. I did however, spend two of the most intense years of my life there determined to study jazz music and become a musician. While there I tagged along to an audition for “Godspell,” got one of the leads, won an award and the rest is history. I have a great jazz library and continue to love it, but I essentially have not played a piano or guitar for the most part since 1982. Only in the last year did we get an upright piano for the kids to learn on, and last month I unpacked my acoustic Yamaha (I still had the original can of Fender guitar polish in the case) and enrolled in guitar lessons. It took having kids to give myself the push I needed to finally acknowledge how much I love all music. Did I just get a bit too serious and sentimental there?

Q – What did you originally want to do growing up?

A – I wanted to be David Bowie. I consider myself to be the person who introduced “Space Oddity” to my town. From “Major Tom” I discovered tennis. I fancied myself a young Bjorn Borg. I too played tennis in a country from a northern climate. I pursued a teaching degree and still have my teacher’s license. All through my early days in acting in Toronto I was a substitute teacher in High School. I consider it to be one of the noblest professions. There I go again being too serious.

Q – Your new project, “Living In Your Car” hits home for a lot of people, especially after the downfall of Enron. What type of research did you do to prepare for this role?

A – Basically how to sleep in a $400,000 luxury sedan without cramping up. George Walker, Dani Romain and Joseph Kay are simply the hottest writing team at work in TV today. I say that because everything I needed was on the page. They did much of the work for me. My job was to be a self-centered, obnoxious asshole that you actually find endearing. I’ve been told I am a nice guy, and I’ve been told I “do” assholes well. There you go.

Q – Is this character based off anyone in particular?

A – It’s all from the “canvas” in my head. I’ve acted in George Walker’s “Suburban Motel” plays and have experience with his dialogue. It is very particular in pace and delivery. The stakes are tremendously high for all of his characters. He used to say “the word is action” . . . or was it “action is the word.” Actually I forget what the hell he said now that I think of it. What I do remember is doing eight shows a week and the play ending with me getting my head smashed against a Pepsi machine. George said he always wanted to end a show with a brawl. I relied heavily on drugs for that one too. So much for Shakespeare.

Q - Ever work for a business like this?

A – You mean a business where the pursuit of profit trumps everything else? A business where the books are routinely cooked or altered to fool the authorities and public as to what is actually going on. A business where the real crime is not defrauding your investors or employees out of their jobs or life savings, but actually getting “caught.” No. But I hear a lot of people do – and sleep very well at night.

Q – You’ve also been in bigger, more well known, projects like “La Femme Nikita,” “Highlander: The Raven,” “Earth: Final Conflict,” “Queer as Folk,” and “Mutant X.” How different is it working with big named actors on projects with bigger budgets as opposed to smaller projects?

A – On bigger budget projects I demand my hair be washed in Evian Water. I then ask some lackey on set to buy me the most obscure brand of cigarettes, preferably European – even though I don’t smoke. But just in case. If Diet Coke is offered I ask for regular Coke. If that is available I ask for Coke Zero, caffeine free, classic, all the way down the line. I’m also a lover of Fruit baskets.

Q – One of my favorite heroes growing up was Flash Gordon. You played the bad guy Ming the Merciless. Were you a fan of the comics?

A – Did I mention David Bowie? When I should have been reading comics I was trying to make my hair stand effortlessly on end like Ziggy Stardust. One of my kids is getting into graphic novels right now so I will make up for lost time. Don’t know why the world of comics escaped me. Perhaps because I was never read to as a child. Now you wonder why I rely heavily on drugs.

Q - How did this role come about?

A – A simple audition. Filming had already begun in Vancouver and they couldn’t find their Ming. I put myself on tape in Toronto and didn’t sweat that I was not bald and did not have a foo-man-choo moustache like Max von Sydow in the 1980 classic. Initially I took a lot of grief for that role because I was so different from the image of the original “Mings.” Our very talented writer and producer Peter Hume gave me a lot of confidence and continued to write some wonderful stuff for me. It took a few executions, cutting off one of my concubine’s fingers, and strangling a puppeteer with his own marionette, but I think we delivered a well rounded tyrant, and in the end I believe much of the sci-fi community understood what we were getting at.


Jason Tanamor is the Editor of Zoiks! Online. He is also the author of the novels, "Hello Lesbian!" and "Anonymous." Email Jason at jason@zoiksonline.com.

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