Kelly McCormack is not an overnight sensation.
Such a thing doesn’t even exist, not really. Not even in this age of instant fame via Instagram. For people like Kelly, it’s about a lifetime of work that gets them to a point where success is suddenly found. The actor, writer, and producer who stars in the third season of the hit sci-fi show Killjoys, is filming a feature film she penned for next year and recently travelled to Taiwan for an opera. A quick internet search has Kelly showing up everywhere, but as she told me over the September long weekend, her wild amount of on-the-go projects lends itself to years of diligent work.
If you were looking for a Cinderella story, this both is and is not it.
Natasha Grodzinski: 2017 has been and continues to be a big year for you. What do you have on the go right now?
Kelly McCormack: From my perspective, I’ve been so busy for so long working on a lots of different projects. You put irons in the fire and it just so happens that 2017 was the year they all exhibited. It’s been a bit hilarious because my acting career, my writing career and my producing career have all coalesced for this one year of bananas. I’m on the show Killjoys which is a huge deal. I went to the audition — it was the first audition of the year, I booked it, and that kind of changed my year, because I was shooting the series from January to May. The TV show I produced for the CBC, The Neddeaus of Duqesne Island came out. We found out we got to moved forward with my feature film Sugar Daddy and I went to Taiwan for this opera. It’s been a little bit absurd, but amazing. I’m a total workaholic — I get stressed out when I have time off to relax. So, it’s been a lot of fun.
NG: Being idle isn’t something you do well?
KM: Oh my god, no. Laughs. I say that so honestly. When I was seven years old, they asked me to do a project on a superpower I wanted. There were lots of powers I wanted, but when I was seven I wrote I didn’t want to have to sleep because I wanted to get more work done. When I was younger one of my uncles told me you sleep for half your life. I was so devastated by that. I don’t do holidays well. The best kind of holiday is how I went to Taiwan for this opera, where I have to perform a bunch but can explore in between. I can deal with moments of high pressure and I feel like that’s when I’m the most myself and the least stressed. You know, I was the girl who rearranged her room every month and had all these decisions about what she was going to do. All of my bucket lists were books. That’s it.
NG: I would say that’s working out well for you now.
KM: Yes, I suppose. I’ve always wanted to be an actor. I started my academic life of writing in university. Producing I just love. I love putting pieces together and making stuff happen. But those were all done in the service of telling more stories and getting busier. In my film Sugar Daddy I play a musician as I also came up through music. I didn’t mean for it to boil over like this but it’s great. Like I said, I don’t do holidays well. I like being able to turn off my phone for a day, but then I think, “Oh god, there’s all these things I should’ve been doing.”
NG: You touched on one of those aspects of storytelling I wanted to talk about, which is starting your own production company.
KM: Well, it kind of came out of nowhere. About three years ago I was supposed to be in this play, but it fell through. I did have this sweet part-time job at Seneca College. You know I always say artists live or die by their part-time jobs. People are always trading advice and secrets.This one was sweet, it was the holy grail of part-time jobs, but I got laid off there and a bunch of things just fell though. I had a super busy summer, then my slate was wiped completely clean. I was so stressed because it wasn’t where I saw things going. Then Ingrid Veninger, a very well-known DIY filmmaker in Canada, was doing this challenge for filmmakers to make a movie for only $1000. I was hanging with my friend Kristian Bruun, we were just talking about it and I thought, okay, screw it, I’ll write a feature film, the two of us will produce it and we’l put our friends in it. It was this really sweaty, insane summer exercise. I wrote it in two weeks, we shot it in two weeks and we produced the whole thing for $1000.
NG: Holy god.
KM: Yeah, it was crazy. The way that we cast it, with a budget like that, the more creatively involved you have to keep people. Everyone thinks you have to call in all these favours — don’t get favours, get people who are so hungry to make something happen. The way we assembled this cast and crew was like this: I asked Kristian, “Who would you not make a movie without?” He said, this person. Then we asked that person the same question and so on. We assembled this ride or die clan of people. Kristian and I didn’t sleep for two weeks, I sublet my apartment to pay the $1000, because even with a low budget like that it’s a lot of money. We produced this film called Play the Film. It’s a comedy, it’s really weird. It’s about these actors who aren’t booking work so they put on this play. Very meta about our lives, you know. It goes horribly wrong and they end up improvisation stage and making the most offensive play every to be put before an audience. It ended up doing really well and went to festivals around the world. It happened that I needed to put a company name on this film. I have this super righteous dog named Floyd and for some reason we call him Floyder. I wanted to immortalize him so I called the company Floyder Films.
Of course as the acting, writing and producing are going well, I’m thinking, what else can I do? I’ve started thinking about how I can grow the company and about better ways to monetize my ability to bring people together who love to tell stories and hopefully bring in some business-minded people, and hopefully, you know, just be a really powerful CEO one day. Laughs.
NG: One step closer to world domination.
KM: Yeah! I can say these things in interviews, like over the phone you know I’m not saying it in a different way, but I’ll see myself on paper saying, “I want to change the world!” I think, “Yeah, I sound really full of myself.” I’m sure lots of men say stuff like that and don’t worry about it.
At the same time, I am an outspoken feminist. I care about the representation issue in the industry. I care about telling stories that represent women and casting and hiring people of colour. The impetus from wanting to be successful with my production company is because I want to invigorate and hire people who may not normally get that opportunity, I want be a change in the industry. I’ve started trying to option books, which is a really fun thing. You get to read your favourite books and stalk the author and publishing company to try and convince them to give you the rights. Doing that is fun. I’m a big sci-fi reader and am always thinking of how I can make this story into a movie.
NG: Science fiction is a really fantastic space for progression.
KM: For sure! And you have all these people watching Star Trek or Star Wars where there are futures where race and gender don’t mean a thing. Mothers are realized to be at the centre of societies. I was finishing Dune over the weekend and mothers who reproduce and populate civilization are gods. There’s this future that we could be heading towards but it’s like, come on people! Sci-fi’s already there! That’s what great bout being on a show like Killjoys. I get scripts for my character and you don’t get the same ick factor as you do reading other scripts, when you’re thinking, “Ugh this is so gendered and so mildly racist.” It’s a wonderful space.
NG: Is that a direction you want your company to go in?
KM: I do talk about this a lot, about making movies without gender pain, without the ideas of the expectations we put on masculinity and femininity. I have a documentary I’m working on, and another series, and they centre around that topic.
NG: In your own writing, you have the film Sugar Daddy, which had a very familiar concept to me, having heard about it at school, but I wanted to talk about writing the stories you want to see.
KM: Well, Sugar Daddy is, first and foremost, about this up-and-coming musician. And she’s trying to make it. She’s broke and has yet to cross that threshold where she’s making money or getting noticed. Even without the sugar daddy, that’s not a story we see often. There are so many movies about artists trying to make it, and they’re all men! There’s this obsession with the male artist and the tortured, struggling musician. We’ve seen so many movies like that.
[Sugar daddies, at the basest definition, are rich men, usually older, who pay younger women to date them.]
She learns to package herself for all these other men in different ways. Then she learns how to package herself for the already sexualized music industry. It’s about the commodity of art and self-worth. It’s about sex as a commodity and generally the sexual politics that every single woman has to negotiate on a daily basis. You know, “Oh, this guy bought me a drink, do I need to talk to him now,” or, “This guy bought me dinner on a date, do I have the sleep with him now?” The things that half the population has to think about on an hourly basis is really what the film is about. It’s told through the eyes of this artist who is then regurgitating it into her music.
When I was in New York and had a million part-time jobs and all my friends were trying to make it on Broadway, a bunch of my friends did this. This was years ago, before it became the cultural phenomenon. My first reaction was disgust, but it took five or six years of being a producer in the industry and going to these parties to see how you don’t really have a choice in being commodified.You have to go through that stuff anyway.
NG: When you’re looking at roles you haven’t written, what are you looking for?
KM: In general, the type of roles that inspire me, whether I get offered them or not, are depictions of women we don’t see a lot. I like playing characters that have endgames, motivations and locations that are not not involved with them falling in love with a man, though I’m not saying I wouldn’t do a romantic comedy. Laughs. Like Zeph, for example, the character I play on Killjoys, she’s a science nerd. That’s her passion, her focus, her drive. In Sugary Daddy, she’s an artist, that’s her drive.
In terms of types of characters, I want to play the most opposite of the one I just played. I would love to have a career where someone calls me a character actor. I don’t really have an interest in defining this “Kelly brand” and delivering this ongoing character of myself. I became an actor because I love pretending to be other people. I’ve had some opportunities to play bizarre characters and I hope when I get to put them together, people don’t recognize me part to part.
NG: One of the weird characters I had to ask you about, and I watched the whole thing last week, is on The Neddeus of Duqesne Island.
KM: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. That show is probably one of the most proud things I’ve been a part of in my life. I produced that series and it’s written by Aaron Schroeder who came to me a couple of years ago with this crazy idea of making a faux NFB documentary. We shot it in the fall, and I also had the opportunity to be in the series as Eloida, the demonic twin. It was so much fun to be in. The whole point of the series was to mimic that ultra-naturalism from the documentaries, so it’s not about what you’re saying, it’s about the action and what you’re doing with your hands in the moment. The director Sam [Zvibleman] was really good at making sure the actors were not performing. I had this badass 70s costume that made the twins looks like the twins from The Shining. We went up into the woods in the fall and made this weird-ass show. The director would have us do the scene over and over again and improvise and by the end of the day, it didn’t feel like we were performing.
But yes, she was weird character. The dialect was weird and the way she stood was weird. She’s another interesting character where her motivation is actually world domination. That is Pinky and the Brain right there. Her interests are simple: she wants to rule the island and kill her brother. And going back to the roles I want to play, I don’t want to recognizable. I don’t want them to say, “Oh that’s Kelly McCormack.” I want them to say, “Who’s that weirdo? Oh, it’s Kelly!” Laughs. “Who’s that weirdo?” Those are the roles I want to play.
NG: If there were to be a brand, that would be it.
NG: So with all the excitement this year, and with everything happening, where do you see these projects going?
KM: Oh my gosh good question. You know, as busy as it is, I have a constant fear that it will just end. As great as all this is, the upkeep is something that will require all of my energy. Killjoys got picked up for two more seasons, which is incredible. I don’t know what the means for me, but I didn’t die at the end of season three, so…
NG: That’s always a good thing in sci-fi. I didn’t die!
KM: Exactly, so who knows? Sugar Daddy is in the works and I have a couple of other TV shows I’m writing and pitching. I’m always upping the bar for myself. My standard and bucket list is growing. In terms of what’s next… I really want to focus on my production company and the types of films I’m developing. Because for me, I always say, I wanted to be an actor when I was seven and having this life of art was a dream. Then it became my life. It suddenly happens where you work hard and don’t have to do any more part-time jobs, you’re just supporting yourself off of your art. To me, that’s making it. That’s it.