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Taking the lead in new CBC drama This Life (CBC-TV)

Taking the lead in new CBC drama This Life
 MONTREAL, QUE.: September 29, 2015 -- Actress Torri Higginson on St. Denis where she was doing an interview for the new CBC drama This Life in Montreal Tuesday September 29, 2015. (John Mahoney / MONTREAL GAZETTE) | Photograph by: John Mahoney , Montreal Gazette

Torri Higginson hasn’t seen Nouvelle adresse.

The day we met last week, the Toronto actress had just finished shooting the night before on the final episode of season one of This Life, the English-language adaptation of Nouvelle adresse which is set to have its première on CBC-TV Monday night. Higginson plays Natalie Lawson, the main character in the drama, a fortysomething lifestyles columnist with a Montreal daily newspaper.

In the very first scene of the series – as happens right at the start of Nouvelle adresse – she’s told by her doctor that the cancer has spread and she likely only has months to live.

Macha Grenon played the original character, called Natalie Lapointe en français, in the hit Radio-Canada series and she recently won the Gémeaux Award as best lead actress in a drama for that extraordinary performance.

But in a chat in a chi-chi tea shop on St. Denis St., Higginson said she decided not to even watch a single episode of the French-language show while preparing for the role.

“It’s always very intimidating, be it if you’re reprising a character or if you are the understudy in a play and you’re taking over another character,” Higginson said. “And especially in this situation because Macha is a remarkable actress and she has brought Nathalie to life in Nouvelle adresse in such a way that people are deeply moved and she did a perfect performance (from) everything I’ve heard. I myself haven’t watched it and I chose not to because we are insecure as actors and it would be very difficult for myself not to (make) a comparison. It would also be very difficult not to fall into possible mimicry and to then second-guess my own instinctive choices. So I look so forward to seeing it … but it has to be far after I’ve finished.”

Higginson certainly impresses in the lead-off episode of This Life, bringing remarkable force to the small screen from the very first scene when she learns the bad news from her doctor. But it’s essential to underline that like Nouvelle adresse, This Life is not just a dark, depressing exploration of a woman facing death. It’s also the story of her family – her three teen kids that she’s raising as a single mom and also her siblings and her parents.

Higginson had originally tried to watch the French version, when she was set to audition for the role, but she was in Los Angeles at the time and wasn’t allowed to access the Radio-Canada series on the web.

“I did watch a trailer, which gave me the sense of the tone of it,” Higginson said. “I don’t speak French and even in this one-and-a-half minute trailer, it made me cry. I was so moved by it, so moved by the performances.”

In a classic Montreal story – our town seems like the kind of place where we always run into the people we’re meant to run into – Higginson and Grenon actually bumped into each other on The Main.

“I just got goosebumps,” said Higginson. “We were walking up St-Laurent. I was walking into Mile End, she was walking away, and I looked up, and it was like at this same moment these two women just caught eyes and it was like – ‘Oh my God!’ And I was just so surprised and moved that she recognized me. But her friend Louise Archambault, who directed half of our episodes this year, (had) taken a photograph of myself and Julia Scarlett Dan, the girl who plays Romy (Natalie’s daughter) and sent that to Macha. I was so moved to meet her. It meant a lot and she’s just remarkable and gracious and warm. It felt like a little gift.”

Grenon was also moved by the encounter.

“We looked at each other out of the corner of our eyes and we recognized each other,” said Grenon, in an interview backstage at the Prix Gémeaux. “And we talked for 20 minutes. So for sure, just for Torri, I’ll be interested to watch it and I’m curious to see what they’ve done with it.”

Until now, Higginson has been best-known for her starring roles in the long-running sci-fi series Stargate Atlantis, in which she played Dr. Elizabeth Weir, and for her role in the CTV series The City. Higginson, who divides her time between Toronto and Los Angeles, has also guest starred in a number of U.S. series, notably NCIS and Criminal Minds.

She’s been here since June filming the ten episodes of the first season of This Life and has loved exploring the city. She was first living in Old Montreal, then Mile End and finally ended up in the Plateau. So unlike most visiting actors, she’s familiar with more than just our city’s movie sets and A-list restaurants. (She was even able to weigh in on the Great Montreal Bagel debate, saying she figures the St-Viateur bagel factory takes the top spot in that neverending argument.)

When she was auditioning for This Life, an actress friend, who was also up for the part, confided that she wasn’t sure she’d be able to go months playing such an emotionally draining role. But just hours after finishing the shoot, Higginson has a very different take on what it was like to play a woman living her last months.

“I sort of noticed half way through the season, my skin got very thin and I was taking everything way too personally,” Higginson said. “I was struggling. And of course, I was having to every day resonate in a place that’s very sad. You have to find a way to balance that. Macha said a wonderful thing. She said – ‘I feel like I’ve just bumped into a fellow soldier from Vietnam.’ Nobody knows how tough it is (to play this role) and it is very tough. But it’s a joyous tough. The other side of it, what you get when you’re facing mortality, is a joy of life. Who else gets the opportunity to meditate on mortality? Hopefully Natalie’s made me a little bit wiser and a little bit more grateful for life. And that’s a pretty beautiful gift. So there are hardships to it but I think the gifts are stronger.”


This Life premières on CBC-TV Monday at 9 p.m.

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