Stephne Halliburn, who plays Sam’s mom on Ces gars-là (a French language buddy comedy that airs on Montreal’s Channel V), is relatively new to the world of acting although it is something she has wanted to get into for most of her life.
She talked to us about that and more, including what it was like to be a non-French speaking actress on a French language show, during our exclusive interview with her. Keep reading to hear her fascinating story!
How long have you been acting?
“That’s really kind of a funny question because I’ve sort of really been doing acting all my life but I’ve only been successful in the last four years. I’ve wanted to act since I was 10-years-0ld when I played Peter Pan and in the school Christmas play. It’s always been in me. But I got married, had kids and became a single mum. I tried off and on over the years to get into it. Unsuccessfully. And then the market took a turn about five years ago and a lot of ethnic work came in and all of a sudden the doors just opened. And it’s been amazing! The first real project that I had was as a victim of Jack the Ripper in a documentary that was aired on the History Channel. That first year I had – in ten months – I had thirteen projects. It was just amazing. I couldn’t believe it. It was like, ‘Ok, I guess there was a reason. I guess God didn’t want me to do it that early in life.’ (laughs) I’m one of these people who does believe there’s a reason things happen. Many times I thought about giving it up, you know, and stuff like that because I needed to get paid and I had three girls that I needed to raise by myself. I’ve had amazing jobs throughout my life and my career but after about five years it would just come back and I’d just feel like there was something else I needed to do. And that happened, like I said, about five years ago and somehow this time it just stuck. And it’s been really great since then.”
How old are your kids now?
“I have three girls. Samantha is forty. Jamie is thirty-eight. And Elizabeth is thirty-four.”
So they’re all out on their own.
“Yes. I have grandchildren and a great-grandson.”
I’m sure you’re enjoying that thoroughly.
“They’re out in Calgary. My two older daughters, Samantha and Jamie, live out in Calgary. That’s where they were born and we came out to Toronto for a little while and then we went back to Calgary. I came back to Toronto but they were much older and stuff like that so they stayed in Calgary. So yeah, they’re loving the whole thing. They’re sitting there watching TV and their mother comes up on the TV (laughs). It’s quite funny.”
Are you more comfortable with French-speaking roles or English-speaking roles?
“I don’t speak French at all. (laughs) How I came about acting in Ces gars-là is completely bewildering still to me. I still don’t understand how I got the role of Sammy’s mum. It’s been amazing since I’ve been playing the part but it was just one of the strangest things. I had to go to audition but I didn’t think I was a good fit for the role because I didn’t speak French, I don’t speak Punjabi (laughs). My East Indian accent isn’t that wonderful…so when I got the call, I was just as shocked as anybody could be that I’d gotten the part. So what they did – I mean, I did have high school French – I was really, really good in French and I’m really quite good with languages so they would just give me, you know, small paragraphs in French. Lines that I could read, rehearse, and practice. And could deliver…”
Without understanding French!
“Exactly! It’s a marvel how that goes. There was only a little bit that we had to do. There’s a certain amount of French content that it has to have, of course. Something like 99.9% (chuckles), so we could get away with speaking a little bit of English and French. And what they did was, they just gave us a little bit of lines but it’s hilarious as heck. They just kept them to a minimum. So that was for the first season. And then for the second season, things got a little bit more relaxed. So we’ve been speaking English in seasons two and three.”
What is it like to be on set filming where everyone is funny, has funny lines, with two comedians as the main characters.
“Unfortunately, for us, we don’t get a lot of the comedy that goes on because it’s all in French. So we miss, I would say 80% of what goes on there. But I’m telling you what we do get is absolutely hilarious. Simon is like, he’s like the funniest person ever. He’s, at times, even funnier than Sammy because Sammy has this dry sense of humor and stuff like that, whereas Simon is really more slapstick and silly kind of thing. But this season, season three, he had some hilarious stuff going on. He was just amazing. Also, all the horrible things happen to him (laughs). Like, in season two – Sammy talked him into going to the salon and he gets all done up like this French…this totally weird French person (chuckles) with kind of a bob-style cut hair and pants above his ankles and a tight, tight shirt, you know, with long sleeves. So he does all that kind of stuff that is really embarrassing to most people. You know, things others might think are too embarrassing to do? He does that. But he gets very intense when he directs. He gets really serious and he’s really into it. But each year goes faster and faster because we’re so used to what our characters are supposed to do and what he expects of us and stuff like that. So it gets easier every season. You know, like we just spend less time filming, we get the shots faster. And Sammy…(chuckles) when he gets into his laughing fits, it’s really, really hard. And he gets quite a few of those. Especially with his TV dad, Ishmael Marvin. Because they have some of the most hilariously funny lines in season three. You’ll just have to see! We were just laughing so much on set this year. Really truly funny stuff. I’m always in amazement because last season when we taped it was like ‘Oh my goodness. That was so hilarious. How would we do any better than this?’ And then we went out and did season three and the stuff that they came up with is just completely amazing. I can’t wait to see season three and see the reactions from people watching and stuff like that. The set is completely relaxed. They are so down to earth. You’re just so comfortable there. You walk around and, you know, the crew, they just treat you like royalty. I remember the first season I was sitting on set and it was getting to be evening and I was sitting there and I could feel a headache coming on and I mentioned to one of the ADs to see if he could get me a couple tylenols, right? He was back within two seconds (chuckles). And you don’t have to ask them. You know, just once we were doing a scene outside and it was a little chilly and so between takes, the girl would run over with blankets and cover us and then be there waiting for when we were ready to roll. She’d take the blankets off and run back and then run back again as soon as they said cut. And the same thing one morning. One morning we had a morning shoot and the sun just was really bright so every time they yelled cut, she was there with an umbrella to shade us. They are just the most amazing crew. I feel like a queen. That’s why I like going there (chuckles). I feel like an absolute queen when I’m on set there. And the accommodations. I truly feel like I’m living like a movie star for a week.”
Definitely a dream come true!
What should we be looking forward to for your character? What should we expect to see her doing this coming season?
“I obviously can’t say a lot about what’s going to happen. But, there’s a situation where the parents end up moving in with Sam. Into his new place that he’s got. So the mother…she just kind of takes over (chuckles).”
As mothers tend to do!
“Yeah, you know. And telling him who he can and cannot see. You know, that kind of thing. But I do…or…I was raised in that kind of culture. Our family wasn’t very typical like that. But I do have that culture behind me so I saw it as I was growing up. Where, you know, the mother was kind of like this character. So it’s really quite an easy character to play. Unfortunately, because of the French content requirement, until or unless I can start speaking fluent French, the character has to remain quite…floral. But she does have some really funny moments this year for sure.”
Are you working on becoming fluent in French?
“Yes. I’m seriously looking at taking it on. Because out of this, out of Ces Gar, Sugar Sammy was doing a commercial for a chicken restaurant and they decided they wanted to use his TV mum. So I got this job, this commercial, just for being his mum, his TV mum. Just being connected to Sugar Sammy opens awesome doors. I also did a Skype recently as an audition with a director, a casting agent in a feature, a low-budget feature that they’re shooting out of Montreal. I guess there’s a big demand in Montreal for Asian or East Indian looking, ethnic-type women that can speak fluent English. As well as French. You know, having French helps, but it’s hard for them to find somebody who speaks English. So that’s one of the reasons, you know, and that’s why I got this interview with this agent. It was an open audition. They were looking for an East Indian mother, like in her 50’s. That spoke English. I just think that it’s so bizarre, right? A fan, actually, of the show sent me the link because she’d come to the fan event that we’d had at the beginning of the year – we had a red carpet type of thing – and she connected with me on Facebook and she sent me this link. So I e-mailed my picture and resume and like within 10 minutes, he got back to me going, ‘Oh wow, thank you for responding so quickly.’ And I went, ‘Oh wow!’ too (laughs). He asked me to do an audition by Skype. Now, one of the problems was that this was a low-budget feature and they weren’t going to have provisions in there for bringing actors out-of-town and stuff like that. So it may have been something that I would have to put out of my pocket and so, I said depending on what the pay scale is – ’cause, you know, it is a union movie – it could still be worth me coming out there. ‘Cause it was a feature, a pretty big feature even though it was quite low-budget. So, I think there’s a market out there for me. And, you know, that’s why I want to get more fluent in French. Absolutely. And then, you know, my other passion is Spanish.”
I’m fluent in Spanish!
“Ohhh. Oh my god! That is my dream. To be fluent in Spanish. I go to a lot of Latin countries on holiday and stuff like that. I’m a zumba instructor. I love Latin music. So I probably speak better Spanish than I do French (laughs). That’s why I actually wanted to learn more Spanish, because I do get a lot of calls for Spanish-looking roles. My grandfather on my mother’s side was Spanish Latino and I’m often asked if I’m Spanish. I’ve been trying to pick up on my Spanish but it’s been kind of hard to do the French and the Spanish. I have to kind of stop and concentrate on one first and then do the other. So that’s why I’m kind of torn.”
I have the hardest time understanding anything French because if I’m looking at it, I can see what it kind of might be but hearing it, it is SO different from Spanish.
“Yeah, exactly. It’s really hard for me to learn the French and still try to pick up on the Spanish. So I kind of have to decide to put the Spanish aside for a bit, learn the French properly so that when I go back to learning Spanish it’s not going to interfere. It’s just really hard to do that the older you get. When you’re young – like I have little nieces that speak English and Spanish or there’s one who can speak English and Punjabi and French and they’re like six and seven-years-old (chuckles). I just go ‘Wow! How do you do that?’ – but I think it’s harder when you get older because it’s such a mindset for you. Language is set in a certain way in your head so you think this is the way it’s supposed to be so it’s hard to see the other languages the way a child sees it. But that is my plan. I truly think that going with French and going into the Montreal market would be very advantageous for me.”
What Spanish-speaking countries have you been to on holiday?
“Mexico and Cuba. Cuba mostly (laughs). I just love going back there all the time. I think I could live forever in Cuba. Absolutely.”
They have fabulous food.
“Yes. To me, where Latin music is playing 24/7 and everybody loves to dance, that’s what you just do if you feel like it, that’s what I just absolutely love. I just love it. I think my zumba soul is just, I really am addicted to them. Because it’s like being in Latin America – like a club in Latin America- at 2 o’clock in the morning. It’s just the best thing ever.”
What are some of the other projects that you’re working on?
“I just did a film with CBC studios. I can’t say anything about it because it’s an expose thing. It’s one of those where we were re-creating scenes and a situation and scenarios. You know, in regard to the story itself. I had more of a principal role. I was playing the spiritual leader of this group. And the reason I’m portraying her – she died of normal, natural causes at an old age and stuff like that, nothing mysterious about her death – but that’s the character that I play. I had to be aged to look like I was about eighty (laughs).”
What was that like for you?
“That was like completely like, ‘Oh my god! This is not what I -‘ They had this ugly, ugly grey wig I had to put on. You know, no makeup. They had to make my eyes look dark. And they had to make the eyebrows…this woman had bushy greyish-brownish eyebrows and no one really cared. She was a spiritual leader and she just wore it like a rug (laughs). Sort of like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta wear clothes today. Well, just throw me something and I’ll put it on.’ You know, one of those women. Physical appearance and material things weren’t important to her. I shouldn’t joke about it, but, you know. She was very plain and very humble and spiritual. So that’s what I just recently did a couple of weeks ago. The other project I did this year was a commercial for London Life, which was filmed outside of Toronto. In Bellevue, that’s where it was. We were out there at some of the wineries shooting. That was one of the funniest things because at the audition we go through everything and at the very end, the director – this was another Skype audition that was in Toronto, at one of the casting studios – and he said, ‘Oh, by the way, do you ride a bike?’ and I said, ‘Well, you know, I rode one something like forty years ago.’ At an audition, you’re not going to say you don’t know how to do something (chuckles). It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, of course, no problem.’ (laughs) Well, so what happened was, they don’t tell us about any of the scenes until we get there, right? So I have no clue what the scene is that I have to do. I just get the call that I’ve got the job and I’m to be on this train out to Bellevue at such and such a time. Here’s the contract, sign it, and that’s it. I had no clue. I’m thinking this scene is gonna be close to what we auditioned for. But when I get there, they’re pulling out these two bikes. And me and my TV husband have to ride down this gravel pathway. I’m like, ‘Oh, you mean like that bike? I haven’t ridden in like forty years? THAT kind of a bike?’ And they were these old, rickety bikes like you had to backpedal to brake. This bike was too – I’m small – so this bike was too big for me so I was really like – I thought I was going to crash and I was going to kill myself. I was so glad that it’s mandatory to have helmets and stuff nowadays. Oh my god. Yeah. It was just hilarious. I’m going, ‘Wow…’. We pulled it off, though. And we had to, like, check as we’re riding down this road. So I had to turn back and say something to my ‘husband’ while we were riding and I was like, ‘Oh my god! Could you make this any more dangerous for me?’ (chuckles) You know? But I had so much fun. It was just hilarious. Then they had me booked to come back a couple of days later again and I thought it would be the same or a similar scene with my husband, my TV husband. But he’d mentioned at the end of the day that he wasn’t coming back so I’m thinking, ‘Oh no! That’s really strange. Why am I coming back if he’s not coming back?’ So I had to find out, just to confirm – no, actually I was going home with one of the assistants, one of the PDs there, and she was the one who had actually booked our train tickets, and she confirmed. She said, ‘No, yeah, you’re coming back to play – ‘ and she had the schedule so she said, ‘You’re playing this person.’ And I went, ‘Oh. Ok. No problem.’ So anyway, I come back and I get on set and they start putting hair and makeup on me and one of the ADs comes in and says, ‘So has anybody told you what’s going on?’ and I told him, ‘No, they haven’t. I have absolutely no clue what this scene is today. None whatsoever.’ And he says, ‘Ok, well, a friend is coming to your home and you’re gonna greet her and say hello to her in sign language.’ (laughs) I just loved that! And he said, ‘You can sign, right?’ and I said, ‘No.’ (laughs) I swear on everything, signing did NOT come up in the audition once. There was never ever a mention of ‘can I sign’ and we were laughing because they knew. They knew nothing had been said like that. So I had to learn how to say, ‘Hello. How are you?’ in sign language. And I had, like, about forty-five minutes. (laughs) Thank goodness they were doing the hair really differently so it took a long time to do my hair. When we did it, we did it fine. The ‘Hello. How are you?’ wasn’t too bad. We managed to pull it off. But I just, I just laugh sometimes at the improv stuff that I have to go through. (laughs) This happened to me in Calgary twice. I was in community theatre there with the Calgary Theatre and in both plays that I did, I was on stage, doing my scenes and the actors who were supposed to come on didn’t come on. (laughs) So I had to improv and carry the scene until they did come on. It was hilarious because it happened in both plays that I did and to me. I was the only one on the stage so I had to, like, continue the scene with nobody there. It was quite hilarious. It was like, ‘Oh my god.’ So I’m kinda used to this improv stuff. I’m just be ready for anything. The other work I’m doing is an episode for, I think it’s called Forbidden. They always change the names of the shows after they’ve been shot. But this is going to be a TV show, a series, where they re-enact major crimes. So I played the sister of the victim in this particular story. And I had to play a little Filipino woman. So I got a video sent to me. The director sent me a video of the actual, the real person that I was playing. It was a little, short, like thirty-second interview that she had done with him. So that was what I had to use to learn how to be a Filipino woman and I thought it would be really hard to do. That was a really tough one to do. But the director said it went well, so I’ll take his word for it. (chuckles)”
You have been busy, busy, busy!
“Yeah, and I think for…actually, I was speaking to one of the actors and she was on set at Ces Gar for one day, playing the mother of this girl that we were trying to get Sammy in an arranged marriage with. So you can imagine how that went. So this actress that was on the show, we flew back together. And she was amazed, because I’m non-union, at how much work I was doing as a non-union, how I even got this job as a non-union. There are so many union actors out there and stuff like that. We sat there and we were chatting and, like, I’m probably one of the busiest – actually, I probably even work more as a non-union actor than some of these union actors. And she was amazed. Because, seriously, I’m auditioning practically every week. And if I miss a week, I’ve probably got a couple of auditions the following week. I’ve been in about six projects so far this year. I got to do a Drake video…which wasn’t so great. (laughs) We won’t go into that one. I’ll just chalk that one up as an experience. It’s just unbelievable. Since the ethnic market became necessary. You know, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl wasn’t working. It wasn’t selling to the Muslim community, to the Punjabi or the Sri Lankans, so…I think what it is, and I’ve talked about it with other people, they ask for a Spanish-looking person. And what I find is that they never use actual Spanish people. They use somebody who’s Spanish-looking and that’s why I’ve been getting these roles because I’m Spanish-looking. I’m not Spanish. I’m Spanish-looking. I’m not East Indian but I look East Indian. For some reason that’s what I notice happens in all of these situations. They don’t cast that kind of person. They cast someone who looks like that kind of person. I’ve been to these auditions and there are all these Spanish people there and I’ve gotten the auditions over the Spanish people. And Filipinos. There was a Filipino woman at this audition and she looked identical to the character, had the accent and everything, yet I got the part. I was like, I don’t know how bad her acting could have been, but, you know, you didn’t have to do much. You know, with those re-enactments it’s just mumbling what you hear a lot of times mixed with a few sentences here and there. Just enough to re-create the scene, right? So it’s not a lot of dialogue that you have to do, but they ask for Spanish-looking people and that’s who they cast. People who just aren’t that ethnic. They just want someone who looks like that. That’s what I’ve noticed is happening in all the auditions I’ve been going to lately.
Have you gotten a chance to ask why it’s like that? Although I guess you may not want them to fix it!
“(laughs) I know that some jobs I have gotten, it’s come down to just two of us and the director has pushed for me because I’ve worked for him before. It was a union commercial I’d done for Canada’s Economic Action Plan. And then the next year another commercial came up and it was the same director and it was down to two people so he pushed for me. When I saw him on set he was like, ‘Oh yeah,’ so that kind of thing also helps. When you leave a set and leave a good reputation behind for being on time, for being pleasant and respectable, that’s the kind of person that they want back on set to work with, right? I can also play a great age range. You know, like from late 30’s and then with makeup I can go as old as you want me to be.”
That is a great range! It gives you a lot of flexibility.
“Yes, exactly. And as I said, it’s that ethnic look and I have the high cheekbones so I’ve even gone to auditions where they’re asking for a Mediterranean look. It’s my personal belief that it’s less offensive to have somebody that looks East Indian than to have somebody that is East Indian. Because a non-East Indian person is going to go, ‘Oh, she’s East Indian’ or ‘She’s Pakistani. Blah, blah, blah.’ Whereas with me it’s like, ‘Oh, well she looks Pakistani but she’s not Pakistani.’ It’s more acceptable to the non-Pakistani. Because I kind of look like them but I don’t. So somehow it’s less offensive. They haven’t put me into that ‘slot.’ And so they think, ‘Oh! She could be Pakistani or she could be Sri Lankan, she could be Indian, she could be Punjabi.’ So they’re kind of like, ‘Oh! She could be one of us.’ So I appeal to a broader range instead of being one ethnic. That’s just my thinking. Kind of. I don’t know. I can’t make sense of it so I have to do something to have it make sense.”
Right! So do you have any news on a premiere date for Ces Gar?
“It’s usually the first week of January. We haven’t gotten anything firm but that was the tentative date out again. I think last year it was like January 8 or 10, something like that.”
And are you looking for there to be another season after that…?
“Oh, I hope so. I really do hope so. It’s a hard thing to do, keep a series up. It’s a lot of writing. I guess it’s really up to Simon and Sammy, if they have the time to – I mean, I would love to do it; I would keep doing it forever! It’s no problem for me! – so it’s really if they’re going to have the time to do it, to do the writing, if there’s going to be continued financing and grants. For me, I would do it in a flash, absolutely no questions asked. You know, they come back every year asking, ‘Are you available during August and September?’ and I say, ‘YES!’ (laughs) ‘Why do you even ask? Of course I am! And if I do have anything planned, trust me! I’ll put it out of the way!’ (laughs). I mean, they fly us out there, pick us up at the airport, drive us to the hotel, drive us to set…I mean, how could you not want to? And the people are great to work with. You know, every year you get closer to them, they get a little more comfortable with us being non-French speaking and stuff like that. So we’re closer this year than we were last year and to get to go back next year I know would just be completely amazing. I would love to do more work out in Montreal because they really do have some amazing projects come out of there. Some really juicy and meaty kind of stuff. I’m not trying to put down the commercials and stuff that film in Toronto, but the stuff in Montreal is like, WHOA. It’s just, like, really down to earth stuff. I really do like the industry out there and I’d seriously consider getting more involved in it if I can. Absolutely.”
Yeah. I mean, usually when you think about the industry in Canada, it’s generally Toronto or Vancouver. You don’t necessarily think too much about Montreal.
“No, not at all. And yet, the more I go there, the more I see in the industry and I just…yeah, it’s just amazing. It’s truly untouched and people just don’t know about what a great industry it is there.”
On that note, stay tuned to Channel V and watch for new episodes of Ces gars-là coming in early 2016.