The way Ellen David tells it, she never wasn’t an actor. The winner of the 2015 ACTRA Award of Excellence for her lifetime of work, started at four years old, playing film scenes with her father as he made the rounds as a peddler in Montreal.
On Sundays, the family visited relatives and David thought it her role to entertain, make ’em laugh, earn applause.
At Concordia University, she thought she would be an accountant and enrolled in economics.
“I lasted one minute,” she says. She grabbed her books, walked out and enrolled in theatre. She never looked back. She went on to do a master’s degree at York University, spent time honing her acting at the Banff Centre and also spent time studying in London and Paris.
She has taken an hour out of her day — which typically includes writing and reading scripts, directing, producing, taking acting classes and auditioning — to meet for a cup of tea at a café on Sherbrooke Street West, not far from her home.
Ellen David has acted alongside some of the best in the business, including Dustin Hoffman, above, in Barney’s Version.But even at the table she is almost always in motion, gesturing, making faces, digging for paper, remembering anecdotes, parts, co-stars, theatres, directors, lines, plays, films, TV shows. Her memory faultless, her energy boundless, her look intense, all bolstered by an impressive ability to laugh at herself.
David is a force.
Says Howard Rosenstein, a Montreal actor, “Making a living as an actor in Montreal is an oxymoron.” But there David is, “getting by,” as she puts it, with fingers and toes in every medium — TV, film and theatre, and doing it all — writing, directing, acting, producing and, like all her colleagues, loving it and hating it, thinking every other minute she’ll quit, though she walks around with a bracelet engraved with TBIYTC — The Best is Yet to Come.”
“It’s like being a miner,” she says, keeping a straight face — “Don’t you hate when people laugh at their own jokes? … Sometimes you strike gold and sometimes the canary dies.”
Ellen David and Saoirse Ronan in the film Brooklyn.If you’re a hockey fan, you can compare David to P.K. Subban or former great Wayne Gretzky, known as the first on the ice, last off.
David’s first on set, last off, her copy of the script curled and dog-eared, rolled and annotated.
“We did Mambo Italiano 200 times,” referring to a hit play she starred in. “I read the script every day.”
Adds Rosenstein: “Ellen David … works with such a superlative effort and attention to detail, (and) puts in the time required on her own to let the seeds of her imagination sprout into full blown layers, textures and flavours, which leave the work resonating for some time to come after the final bows. She’s a gift to us.”
Her credits are too long to list here. Some of her favourites were playing with Dustin Hoffman in the film Barney’s Version; starring in the CBC series 18 to Life; the film Surviving My Mother, for which she won an ACTRA award for Outstanding Female Performance, directing The Book of Bob at the Centaur Theatre; producing, directing and performing in Love Loss and What I Wore, also at the Centaur. And coming up, among many a project, is a short science fiction film, a sequel to Goons, a hockey movie, and a recurring role in a new CBC series This Life, premièring Oct. 5.
“As she moves into directing more, her ambitious visual sense comes into play and she brings her wealth of experience in TV and film to the table, as well.”
David’s immersion in the role is her process, endlessly mining the script for her character, how to bring it all out so the audience comes along for the ride. To her, she says, it’s a craft. There is no magic method to which she subscribes.
“I learned a lot by working with (writer and director) David Mamet,” she says. “The character always wants something. You are the character. What do I want? It’s nuts and bolts.”
Maybe nuts and bolts with a little help from Al Pacino, an actor she reveres but has never played with.
“I assign a seat to Al Pacino in the house every night. I perform in the theatre, so I can bring my A-game,” she says. “Feeling that he is there would provoke me to give my best truthful performance. My standards would have to be set very high.”
When sharing a stage with Rosenstein, he’d ask before the show, “Is Al here tonight?”
And if you catch David in the theatre, with her uncanny ability to switch emotions on a dime, you’d have to believe Al is indeed there every night.