Paul Gross has one of those faces that never changes. It's been 16 years since he got his breakthrough role in the Mountie-in-America television show Due South, but his mug is none the worse for wear. At age 51, he's still taking on the bad guys and charming the ladies in films like Gunless, which opens Friday.
Did Gross, who also played the devil in the cancelled ABC series Eastwick, strike a bargain with Beelzebub to defy the effects of time?
"I have the feeling that one day everything's just going to suddenly fall," laughs the ageless actor.
For now, Gross is back up on his horse with Gunless, playing an American gunfighter on the run in small-town western Canada. Gross's Montana Kid is a proverbial fish out of water among the Canucks, beguiled by a plucky local woman (Sienna Guillory) and perplexed that no one will engage him in a duel.
"I liked the conceit of it a lot," Gross says of the script by writer-director William Phillips. "Just the idea of having an American gunslinger show up in a place where he can't really have a proper gunfight, it seemed funny on the face of it."
Gross adds that, as a childhood fan of westerns, he relished the opportunity to saddle up.
"I've always thought it would be such great fun to do one," he says. "But I never thought there would be the possibility. It's not really a form that's natural to Canada."
If Canadian filmmakers have avoided westerns, it's not for a lack of scenery. Gunless was shot in Osoyoos, BC, on rugged, dusty frontier land that easily passes the genre screen test. Gross says the extreme heat that greeted the first couple of weeks of production made it easy for he and his fellow cast members to get into the western spirit.
The actor believes the genre's under-representation in Canadian film owes primarily to cultural myths.
Canadians "just have always had this conception of ourselves as being settled by law and law-abiding, although that's not particularly true," says Gross. "There was just as much lawlessness in the Canadian west as there was in the United States, but Hollywood invented this myth of the lawless frontier, where matters were settled at the end of a gun."
In Gunless, the impotence of the lead character's gun is played for laughs; just one example of how the film simultaneously employs and subverts the western format. But it's still a western. And a comedy. And a romance. All these "ands" mean that it's intended to appeal to a broad audience.
"I certainly think anyone can go to it," says Gross of Gunless, which has the added commercial appeal of minimal violence, sexual content and foul language. "But it doesn't fit into a genre that's particularly clear.
"It's an oddball film, and as a result I think it might stand a chance of finding its feet somewhere as far as an audience's appetite."
Gross says that, at a time when independent cinema in Canada and around the world faces challenges both artistic and financial, filmmakers should be willing to feed this appetite. To him, the debate about whether Canadian institutions such as Telefilm should support projects with commercial hit potential over smaller art films---or vice versa---is beside the point.
"We just need to be thinking about audiences, instead of thinking about paradigms or thinking about policy," says Gross. "The problem with bureaucratized art, which is what we more or less have, is that you are thinking about policy a lot of the time.
"You can't sell policy."
Gross, who wrote, directed and starred in the 2008 war epic Passchendaele, thinks work by passionate filmmakers has the best chance of selling. Accordingly, he's supporting, as a producer, the hungry Halifax filmmakers behind the grindhouse film Hobo with a Shotgun.
"It's not something that I particularly understand or would gravitate to," Gross says of Hobo (see Haliwood Insider). "But I think it's something worth trying."
Gross wants to do his part for Canadian film, even if it means getting a little blood on his hands.
Fans of the eternally youthful actor's more gentle work might consider that to be a deal with the devil.
They also should consider that it may not be his first.