Mary Walsh and Fred Ewanuick sit beside each other on the hotel room couch. She's the actor/co-writer/director of Young Triffie and he is the film's star. But their rapport suggests another relationship. In a black outfit, including impressively long boots, that contrasts with her auburn hair and tanned skin, Walsh appears the taller, worldly, still-a-little-bit-wild mother to Ewanuick's smaller, thoughtful and sensitive son.
"I relied heavily on Mary for one thing," Ewanuick says about how he gets inside a Newfoundlander's skin—not a layer one simply pulls on. "The most important thing that Mary wanted to make sure I got was the rhythm of the speech," starting with, he says, "it's Newfoundland not Newfoundland."
British Columbia native Ewanuick plays rookie Ranger Hepditch—who grew up a townie in St. John's and studied in Ottawa —of the Newfoundland Constabulary. It's 1947 and Newfoundland stands on the verge of joining Confederation. The body of a young girl, Triffie, washes ashore in an outport community where Ranger Hepditch is already investigating a less serious crime involving sheep. After a few grabs at empty air, he seizes his moment.
The character embodies good intentions and high aspirations cancelled out by softness and severely limited skill. Ewanuick makes Hepditch real and multi-dimensional, deserving of viewers' attention and empathy.
"That's who he is," Walsh says. "He's a human being, a young fella who's trying his best at something he's not very good at. And in the end he gets there, he solves the crime and he really does become a hero."
A comparison with Johnny Depp in Ed Wood, From Hell or Sleepy Hollow stands sturdily here, though Ewanuick laughs it off, saying, "Yeah, we're both quite equal in the looks department."
Still, like Depp, Ewanuick employs tense expressions, nervous demeanour and physical gaffes carefully, thoughtfully, so they flow from the character, rather than becoming outbursts out of the skin of the role as happens in some Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell moments.
There's a moment when Ranger Hepditch eats a rare and unpeeled banana, skin and all, thinking that's how the fruit is eaten and not wanting to expose his lack of knowledge. The sustained scene pivots on Ewanuick's ability to illustrate his character's utter devotion to appearing as though he knows about the wider world. He murmurs and nods satisfactorily as he scarfs the banana in a brilliant scene, perhaps only outdone by Grace Melrose's (Andrea Martin) crazed pillow-fluffing scene. To get the right take and the reactions, Ewanuick ate a total of seven bananas, reports Walsh.
"That's what Fred brings to it. He does all those things—the physical things—and there are a lot of people who can do that but they aren't there with ," Walsh says. "They're a set of tics and so on. But with Fred you sense the heart is really in there. You're with him."
Walsh has stayed with this project since the mid-'80s, when she started collaborating with the playwright Ray Guy who wrote the play Young Triffie's Been Made Away With. Walsh has directed a number of Guy's plays.
Besides getting the film produced, Walsh says the challenge was to find a way to import the play's language and ideas into the film. When she was in Halifax for the Atlantic Film Festival last September, she looked back on the challenge. "Plays are very verbal. And movies are not," she said then. "The place was the protagonist really. And that doesn't really work in movies. So we had to write the Ranger's story."
As Ewanuick points out, the best comedy comes out of those "situations when people are uncomfortable," out of their element. Discomfort for characters and viewers is an integral part of satire as well. "All the people in power seem to be the worst characters," says Walsh. See Andy Jones's role as the maniacal Pastor Pottle, who calls Walsh's character, the gossiping Aunt Millie, an "arse-licker of Satan."
Young Triffie opens April 6.