Previously known for his work on Dark Matter, Being Human, Beaver Falls, Saw 3D and The Boy She Met Online as well as honorable mentions Teen Lust (TIFF ’15) and Patch Town (CFF Best Picture ’15), Canadian actor, writer, martial artist/acrobat and musician Jon Cor attributes his recent successes – specifically the release of his upcoming novel, In Heat, and his portrayal of Hodge Starkweather on Freefrom’s mega-hit Shadowhunters series – to his respect and appreciation for experimental failure and, therefore, personal growth. Our interest piqued, Talk Nerdy With Us decided to invite Jon to chat. Here’s what he had to say:
*Warning: This interview may contain spoilers if you haven’t read Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones.
I know that you went to school for acting, but how long before that did you know acting was something you wanted to do?
To be honest, for lack of a better descriptor, I kind of ‘stumbled’ into it… Mom was still young when I was born – sixteen, seventeen maybe – and as a result we had to move a few times during my childhood and adolescence. School to school, coast to coast, here in Canada, for totally erroneous non-reasons, like, just for showing up, I was either instantaneously accepted or instantaneously bullied. Fast-forward. I’m in a high school play of some kind. Sketch comedy, most likely, something I’ve always excelled at. Upon taking the stage, I’m sure that I was terrified, that rather than feeling confident – which is rehearsed and familiar and kind of boring to me – I had no choice but to exercise bravery, but to go, “I don’t know what’s about to happen, I do not feel comfortable… but here goes nuttin’!” (laughs) To my surprise, the audience applauded enthusiastically. They stood up. They liked me. So. Was I being creative and self-expressive… or had I simply found a defense mechanism, a means to protect myself and others, to avoid having to scrap day in and day out just to get an education? Because I’d been scholastically institutionalized in some way from nursery school to pre-kindergarten and onwards, I decided to take a year off prior to the pursuit of a post-secondary education following high school, not knowing that my collegiate experience would serve as a second puberty if you will, as a venue to get to know oneself, to fail in tandem and by direct proxy, to learn to grow and succeed. I was still formative. My cousin actually discovered the programme, let me know about it… and long-story short? I enrolled on a whim, had a lot of ups and downs, wrote my own irreverent yet pointed piece for an end-of-the-year showcase, left with an agent and booked my first audition for a major film franchise. It was a fortunate tour for sure, as I’ve been acting ever since, falling more and more in love with the craft as I grind to deepen and expand my own.
You said something about feeling formative in college. Do you think you are now?
Ayuuup! (laughs) I once wrote a lyric that went, “Looking into your eyes / We’re both pupils.” Y’know. Mutual students, mutual teachers. We’re all in this life and death thing together, like it or not, and I just don’t believe in absolutes. Especially those that pertain to something as malleable or evolutionarily-equipped and growth-oriented as the human organism. We don’t tend to change on a fundamental level beyond a certain individually-timed developmental stage, at least not often or significantly. But mannn, man oh man, do we grow… if only we give ourselves the chance, the permission.
What passion came first? Was it writing, music, acting or martial arts?
Writing. At the start of my career in film and television, I was tasked with ‘paying my dues’ by playing my ‘type,’ which, apparently, meant that I’d have to portray a lot of jocks before I’d be in the position to turn those jobs down, to get things moving in a more interesting, challenging and creatively meaningful direction. It was genuine character acting for me… and yet utterly unfulfilling. I didn’t identify with them, with these characters I’d avoided in life and still prefer to avoid. (laughs) Why would I want to walk around, pretending to disrespect women and children for a few cheap laughs, over and over again? For the money? Not worth it. (laughs again) Not that I have a problem with athletes and organized sports! I don’t. What I mean is, not unlike acting, at first, martial arts and gymnastics became essential to my survival – sometimes physically, always psychologically. The basketball team, the drama club… neither place felt whole or multifaceted enough for me. Whereas on paper? I still refuse to cater to the audience at the expense of the show. I write it like I want to read it. There is no compromise. No direction, no obligation. So far, I’ve managed to remain one-hundred and ten percent free as a novelist/essayist/poet/etc.
Do you remember the first thing you wrote, or the first sentence you wrote, or what it was about?
Oooh, the first sentence! Wow. …No. Writing is something I’ve always felt compelled to do. It’s not hypergraphia, but, it’s close. (laughs) As far as I know I’ve been tinkering with letters since I was a kid, although it’s not as if I wasn’t hamming in front of a camera, emulating Jackie Chan movies and singing in the shower, too. Still, back to the point, I moved from an obsession and a knack for visual art to an obsession and a knack for words. I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning. Scribbling thoughts and impressions, coming up with hook-y phrasing and poetic images… I had no end game in mind. Yet before I knew it, at nineteen years-old, I had what looked like a book.
When are you planning to release it?
Any minute now, actually. I’d like to introduce it alongside my appearance as Hodge Starkweather on Freeform’s Shadowhunters. I’m keeping the price low low low but will have the infrastructure in place to donate a set major percentage of sales to charity. Likely SickKids. Cancer’s touched my life and family rather enormously – sarcoma, namely – and I’ve always had a tremendous affinity for women and children, so. How can I use my work, my book to make a difference? I think the aforementioned is a sound start. My plan is and was, from the beginning, to find a way to professionally reconcile my writing, acting, martial arts/acrobatics and music so that when finally, really able, I could start to give back in a way that would accrue momentum, that would lead from one random or premeditated act of kindness to the next. …No time like the present, right?
Do you want to continue writing books, or have you thought about film or TV or anything to incorporate all your loves?
Of course! In Heat’s my first. It’s raw. It’s impassioned. It could be a mess. (laughs) I’m eager to apply all that I’ve learned from its execution in my next piece, just as I like to think I do and have in, say, the lit journal arena. That said, I’ve adapted a few of my short stories for the screen, but I’ve not actively pursued writing for film and television beyond these nascent stages just yet. For example, I hadn’t tricked – that is, I hadn’t performed any martial arts-infused flips, twists or kicks – in what. …Five years? More? Given the aesthetic of the project and only a week or two to prepare for my first day on set, I realized that bringing Hodge to life might also serve as an ulterior means to bring myself back to life, to motivate myself to grow stronger, faster and smarter than ever before. So? I did. I went from acting full-time… to acting *and* tricking full-time. Now? I’m acting, tricking *and* writing full-time. Soon? I’ll be making music on the regular, too. Process is process. It’s all the same if you don’t operate as some self-sabotaging, results-fixated, excuse-making victim. Did I have an all-encompassing plan? Yes. Is this it, exactly? Hell no. (laughs) You have to prioritize, to reinvent according the curveballs the Universe throws at you over the years be they holy or un-. I never go, “What do you do?” unless I’ve already sussed out that your head is cool and your heart is true. I don’t believe death and taxes are the two most powerful and potentially deregulating forces of nature on Earth. If anything? That title belongs to love and gravity. I trick, I throw myself upside down because to defy gravity is to defy God. It’s not an insult or a proper act of rebellion. It just feels a little naughty, you know what I mean? And so, so liberating.
You played on the basketball team in high school. Were you on the gymnastics team too, or was that not through school?
(grins) Nah. We were living in Timmins, Ontario at the time, which holds a Guinness World Record for its sheer per capita land mass or something like that. There’s what. Little over forty-thousand people there now? Forty-five? I digress. Point is, it’s up in the Great White North. We had no cultural centers there, no real opportunities in the humanities or the sciences. You made babies or you mined zinc for Duracell. (laughs) That’s about it. Lots of mines and sinkholes. Questionable water supply. Killer sense of humor, though. Old World-hard people.
So did you know Joel Labelle prior to Shadowhunters because of you guys both doing martial arts and that type of work, or no?
No! I met Joel through the show, actually. I think he mistook me for Jordan Hudyma, said some nice things that got back to me, and thennnn I approached him as though I’d already earned his seal of approval. (laughs) I love, love, looove Joel Labelle. It’s… *sighs* Fine. I’ll say it. It’s a f**king bromance. (laughs again) There’s a Polaroid – yes, a Polaroid – of Joel and I laughing hysterically on my fridge. The gymnastics club I frequent however, functions as a kind of Mecca for stunt actors. I’ve run into most if not all of the Shadow’doubles there at least once.
Did you know anybody? Did you meet anyone prior to Shadowhunters, or was it all a new cast and crew to you?
I’d worked with a few members of the stunt team on Syfy’s Dark Matter – Hubert Boorder I’d like to say is such a class act, so experienced, knowledgeable, generous and focused – but otherwise, no, I don’t think I knew any of them. Not well, at any rate.
Tell me about your audition process for Shadowhunters.
Two words: Funny. Story. (grins and blushes a bit) I had three auditions that day. As much as I’m loathe to use clichés, in this business, “When it rains, it pours.” You’ve got to embrace the unpredictability of a supernova. One minute? You’re doing what feels like absolutely nothing. The next? You’re called to explode with fervor, with a concentrated, almost violent abundance of energy to elevate yourself from the position of the starving artist to that of a working actor, a tradesman. We had this joke in college that as an aspiring actor, particularly those of us that started late or didn’t have, say, the advantage of our mothers taking us to commercial auditions at the tender age of six in Los Angeles, “You either become an alcoholic or you learn to play the ukulele.” Like so, it’s no shock to me that actors are ostensibly multitalented. We have to engage in personal development, otherwise we risk the inverse. If you’re not moving forwards, if you’re too lazy and afraid to rock the boat, you’re probably sinking or moving backwards. That, I think, is fair to say of the mechanics of any relationship, be it professional, personal or romantic. …An-y-way! I had a callback for Thandi Newton’s show, it was the second of the three. I prefer to be off book at an audition, everything memorized and prepared, albeit still open to spontaneity and direction and so on and so forth in the room, which takes time. The first audition scheduled that day was for a project called Shadowhunters. I found out about it very last-minute, likely the night before. Knowing nothing nothing nothing about Hodge, Valentine and the Circle, I asked myself, “How can I do all three of these auditions justice without sacrificing one for the other? How can I optimize what little time I have?” What I realized is that folks will walk into these auditions playing lawyers and pirates and astronauts… but that angle’s hardly relevant. There’s no such thing. No single police officer has anything necessarily in common with the other save their badges. I looked at the sides, the scene I was given to play and thought, “OK. What’s happening, here?” It doesn’t matter if the scene you’re preparing takes place in court, at sea or somewhere in space. Is it love and loss? Is it this, is it that? What, ultimately, does your character, does Hodge, have to say? Why is he here? So. I played it on a very human level, I think, but because of the callback… I had to break some of the rules. I wasn’t supposed to show up with a beard or any facial hair whatsoever. But I did because I had to keep it for the callback. Furthermore our casting director up here in Toronto, the incomparable Stephanie Gorin, went, “OK. That was a fabulous read. But… what are you wearing? And, like, why? You should be flattering your physique here!” to which I replied, “…That’s, uh. That’s what I’m trying to do. ‘…Tried’ to do? Fail?” (laughs) They had me change. Or cinch my shirt back, something like that, I don’t recall. What I do recall is that I felt silly, even though I’m usually the first to laugh at myself. We did the scene again, I was told the work was excellent, and then happily hurried on to the next.
Can you play the ukulele?
You didn’t know about TMI prior to auditioning, but then once you got the role, what was that like? What happened?
To be honest, I Kurt Cobain’ed for a few days. I was so overwhelmed by the attention I was getting via social media… To elaborate, I was encouraged to sign up for an Instagram account and did, something I was completely unfamiliar with prior to. Freeform then asked me if I might consider filming myself going, “Hey, guys! I’m very excited and very honored to be so warmly welcomed into the Shadow Family – ” yadda, yadda, but I was sooo sincere, sooo grateful to be a part of something sooo beloved and pre-extant, that I, I couldn’t do it. (laughs) After two days of failed attempts I proudly showed what I thought was a pointed, genuine and succinct take to my girlfriend. She watched it and went, “Um. That’s… Yeah. Don’t send that. Wayyy too intense.” (shakes head) In short, I’d … taken some pretty serious knocks in my mid- to late-twenties. Deaths. Losses. Obstacles. Complications. Etc. All of the sudden, this benchmark job comes by! It’s light. It’s dark. It’s sexy. It’s sweet. It’s rough. It’s soft. I love it! …I think I felt very intimidated and very blessed simultaneously. A role like this comes with a lot of responsibility. Like, even though Narnia’s Narnia, before the films or the play or whatever its many incarnations include now, every voice, every wardrobe’s interior, every hair on Aslan’s muscular frame is yours for you, know what I mean?
Cool. (smiles) I’ve always admired people like Bill Watterson for his refusal to commercialize his comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes, by selling the intellectual property to a major studio because he felt like he’d be taking these wonderful characters away from all of us. What does Calvin sound like? Who is Bill to tell us? Who am I to tell you? When I booked the Shadowhunters part, I started reading and researching. Feverishly. I started a dialogue with the fan base online, with our showrunner, our producers, it goes on and on and on. I started training with Allen Keng, formerly of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team. Blah, blah, blah. At some point that intimidation rolled over to unreserved excitement.
Now have you read the books? Or seen the movie?
Yes ma’am! Purchased and watched the Blu-Ray the day I was cast. Really enjoyed it.
And how far in the books are you?
Book three. Finished the first two in a matter of days. Everybody was like, “You know you don’t have to read ‘em that fast, right? We’re doing a book a season, here,” or whatever the plan was at that point in time. Still. As far as I was concerned, I needed to learn as much as I could about the Shadow World and its canon. Soon, via the books, I learned that Hodge would be out of the picture for a while only to reappear later on. That in mind, I thought, “OK. I can slow down a bit. Instead of reading a hundred pages today, why not focus on the actual Shadowhunters scene that I have to execute on set tomorrow?” It was an immersive process for all of us, I believe. Steve Lucescu, our badass stunt coordinator, even gave me a homemade pair of sparring chakrams to take home. I play with them often and’ve been working them into an assortment of kali and escrima stick patterns. …I see Hodge fighting like a blender. Or a razor-sequined whirling dervish.
Did you add anything to the character that wasn’t originally scripted?
You tell me. (grins) Every actor has what’s known as an essence, a human reduction. Ten people can play King Lear, same lines, same costume, same voice, raised in the same socioeconomic fashion, whatever, whatever, but something’s going to be different, and will resonate more or less with different people for different reasons. What you’re getting on screen via Freeform and Netflix is a composite. How does Ed Decter, our virtuoso showrunner, see Hodge? How do McG and his fellow producers see Hodge? What about Cassandra Clare? What about our writers? Or Freeform itself? The director of each episode? And what about me, and my vision? …It’s a collage, a collaborative effort.
In what ways are you similar and different to Hodge?
I drink a lot of tea. My favorite sports are combative or gymnastic. I know what it means to feel loss, regret, anger, sadness and isolation. I know what it means to feel like nobody and nothing is going to look after you if you don’t, won’t and can’t learn to do so on your own. Like Hodge, I like reading more than watching, building more than breaking and animals more than people. Like Hodge, I spend a lot of time alone. Deliberately. …How are we different? That’s not a question I’ve had to ask myself. He’s very dichromatic. As am I. (shrugs) Is he a Scorpio, too? Feels like it.
Have they shown you any of the episodes?
Yes and no. At the premiere, this incredibly memorable, fantastical event held at McG’s residence, I was able to glean most of the pilot, which was playing on scrims, walls, televisions, you name it! But no, other than what I’ve seen in ADR, being a Canadian, based out of Toronto, I’m a bit out of the loop from time to time.
So you guys had a premiere party?
What? No. Of course not. (smiles) We did, yeah. There were mermaids and everything. It was dope.
Did you take anything home from set after filming wrapped? Like Hodge’s tea cup?
Ha! Not the teacup, no, I’ve got plenty of those. But I did take home the experience. It was a lot of fun, involving the fans in the decision via Twitter… I pulled the idea out of a single line, something about Hodge’s “ – favorite blue chipped mug,” stuck with me. It seemed like a humanizing idiosyncrasy and the kind of nod that could validate or betray our attention to detail. There’s always somebody watching that can’t waaait to snort and go, “No, no, no. That’s not New York. That flora and fauna is indigenous to X biome.” Luckily people don’t snort. Pigs do. But you get the point. After a wardrobe fitting in which my suit was, like, a suit-suit, I went to Ed Decter, our showrunner, rambling about Hodge’s affinity for tweed. (shakes his head whimsically) Lo and behold, as ever, Ed Decter listened. He championed my insight. He got it approved. …He rocks! Even so, I don’t know if the fans will notice and appreciate that sort of thing in the long run. They might just go, “Why is this a**hole blond?” (laughs) Look. I offered to dye my hair. Didn’t happen. Got your damn mug in there though, didn’t I.
Do you have a favorite rune?
Love and Bravery are my favorite words in any language. So. Fearless, I guess? …Yeah. Sure. Final answer.
Since you were in Hodge’s head, and had to humanize him/rationalize his actions, do you see him as a villain? How do you identify him?
I don’t see him as a villain, not at all. How one-dimensional and boring would that be? (laughs) Look. If I run into a snarling bear, I’m sure I’ll experience some manifestation and level of fear… but I’m not going to stop spending my time in the woods for potential fear of potentially snarling bears. Now, make no mistake, I’m not claiming to be fearless. Far from it! All I’m doing is establishing the context necessary to explain that if I were to have a deepest, darkest fear, then, it would be being misrepresented and misunderstood. It breaks my heart when, like, two authentically good people, two rights innocently making a wrong, a couple, lets the love they’ve been sharing for so long, just… overturn. Love? Fear? These are polar by definition but spectral in nature. There’s a lot in between, you know? And there’s no such thing as a state of real indifference as long as you’re corporeally confined to your own consciousness. So. What’s the difference? You’re impassioned, critically affected by one and other. Why misrepresent each other in ways that can adversely affect everything from families to careers to lifetimes? Just to preserve a self-image, a backwards vision of integrity? I think it’s very cowardly. I think it’s self-serving and weak. I also think Hodge feels very misrepresented and very misunderstood more often than not. He is not a coward. He is not self-serving and weak. Not innately. He feels great allegiance for the Clave from an ideological perspective but he’s aged enough and experienced enough to recognize that any manmade organization has the propensity for naked corruption. Like some of the kids he’s trained, tutored and inarguably loves as his own, Hodge has faith, too. Unlike them? It isn’t blind. He knows that he’s been unfairly and almost exclusively punished for the Uprising. He knows that the Lightwoods were surreptitiously pardoned due to their political affiliations. To question Mom and Dad, God, the Universe… that scares people, I think, and I don’t think that scares Hodge. I think NOT doing that scares Hodge! It’s his curiosity, his sense of loneliness and regret, his desire to transcend his ever-changing station in the Shakespearean sense that puts him at odds with the powers that be, that condemns him to the life of a repentant self-effacing servant at the Institute. However, by the same token, when it comes to the Circle, I think it’s easier for him to feel seduced by the freedom it stands for than most… and yet, again, it didn’t take long for him to see through the deceit at hand. He’s polar, the yin to his own yang and vice-a-versa, all at once. Those qualities, those attributed to the Scorpio in the Zodiac, allow one to consider the same subject from vacillating and variegated angles. It’s both a blessing and a curse. He just… he keeps getting shat on, from all sides. And if you kick even the planet’s sweetest, smallest dog… (pauses for effect) I’m not claiming that Hodge is innocent. He isn’t. I just think his morality is authentically really deep, really interesting and really The Walking Dead. He’s the kind of person who keeps finding himself in I-only-have-two-choices-and-neither-one-is-anything-less-than-tragic-and-necessary scenarios.
Did you do all your own stunts on set? Or did you have a stunt double?
I did all of my own, save one, single move, because I had to be in two places at once, performing some high-octane choreography with second unit as well as an emotionally-charged scene, just across the street, with main unit. I realized that it’d’ve been selfish to insist that everyone wait for me to do the stunt myself when a capable, willing expert is standing by, ready to step in to help us tell the story, to expedite filming, to keep me safe, to best realize the character. After all, how many minds and bodies did it take to make a Ninja Turtle? Any one of them took an entire team that included everyone from animatronics specialists to voice and stunt actors. It was also after midnight, raining and virtually pitch black out, in a concrete skate park. If I was to incur an injury, the production would suffer both a financial and a chronological blow, I was told. So. When they put it that way, I gracefully acquiesced. (laughs) It’s hard, though. You watch a trained professional do it and do it well but you still think to yourself, “No, no, no. Put me in coach, put me in!”
What can you tease about Hodge’s storyline?
Hodge came to me with a wonderfully complicated arc. He is not static, he is not to be considered in passing. We’ll see some slow yet compelling shifts. If anything, I wanted his every move to feel unpredictable. I want nothing more than for the audience to love him at his worst and to hate him at his best. Conflict is catharsis and catharsis is, well. …Isn’t that what the theatre, the ontogeny of the brothel itself is predicated on?
Did you have to act differently on-set with the cast in order to get into character?
No. For all of my faults and flaws, I’m most enamored by the type of actor that can violently mourn the loss of his kid sister, cut, crack a few jokes, eat some carrots, action, start to suffer again. Know what I mean? Still. The stronger the rapport off set, the stronger it is on set. We trained together. We ate and drank together. We bonded.
Did filming for Shadowhunters and Dark Matter overlap?
Sure did! I’d love to say more about the latter as well. Alas… (holds mouth shut)
As Jon, and if Shadowhunters were real, would you join The Circle?
I’m going to say no because, to me, the Uprising was a kind of hate crime or genocide. Valentine’s blanket issue with the Downworlders feels a lot like a metaphor for militant racism or stereotyping. Thus: F**k. That.
Tell me a little about your musical background and your band Here Be Lions. Are you guys –
– actively performing?
Good question. We’ve been out of touch, lately. Long-story short. Life happens, y’know? You have to let people go through what they need to go through, on their own time, sans judgment, sans punishment. I’ve got another project in development, mind you. We met yesterday, incidentally! And couldn’t be more excited about it.
Did you take vocal lessons?
Believe it or not, yes. (laughs) My preferred singing voice is kind of theatrical though. I can only compare it to what Mike Pitt does in Pagoda, and even then it’s not the same. I did musicals in high school. I was the jerk who got to be Charlie Brown in Charlie Brown, Scrooge in Scrooge and Jesus in Godspell. For the latter we rehearsed for eight months… Eight months! (facepalms) Laurie-Ann Neal was genius, though. She knew we needed the time. She knew we’d thank her after the fact.
You’re very versatile, so what is something that you’ve tried that you’re just horrible at?
Um. Finding my way home? (laughs) No, really. My sense of direction is as elusive as the unicorn. But probably everything. I mean, nobody’s really good at anything, are they? Something comes naturally to you or it doesn’t and either way, you put the time in, or you don’t. That’s that. ‘Ten-thousand hours.’
Since our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us. What makes you a nerd or what do you nerd out about?
Are you kidding?! I’d like Fallout 4 to give me my life back. (laughs) I have an angelic rune tattoo. I read and read and read. I’m old fashioned that way. I have a deep-seated, personal affinity for the Batman, pirates, poorly-dubbed kung fu movies. …Needless to say, the list goes on and on.
Favorite art movement?
Ball & Biscuit by the White Stripes. They’re my Nirvana.
Favorite TV show?
History’s Vikings. Or Jeopardy!
Jesus’ Son, starring Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Jack Black and Denis Leary to name a few plus one.
Shadowhunters airs Tuesdays at 9pm/8c on Freeform and Wednesdays on Netflix.